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Conservatism is a term used to describe political philosophies that favor tradition and gradual change, where tradition refers to religious, cultural, or nationally defined beliefs and customs. The term is derived from the Latin, com servare, to preserve; "to protect from loss or harm". Since different cultures have different established values, conservatives in different cultures have differing goals. Some conservatives seek to preserve the status quo or to reform society slowly, while others seek to return to the values of an earlier time, the status quo ante.

Conservatism as a political philosophy is difficult to define, encompassing numerous different movements in various countries and time periods; there may sometimes be contradictions between alternative conceptions of conservatism as the ideology of preserving the past, and the contemporary worldwide conception of conservatism as a right-wing political stance. For instance, as one commentator questions, "who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of modern conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher?"[1]

Samuel Francis defined authentic conservatism as “the survival and enhancement of a particular people and its institutionalized cultural expressions.”[2] Roger Scruton calls it “maintenance of the social ecology” and “the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.” Conservatives believe that radical change and unproven beliefs should not be quickly implemented before being tested.

Development of thought

Conservatism has not produced, nor does it tend to produce systematic treatises like Hobbes’ Leviathan or Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Consequently, what it means to be a conservative today is frequently the subject of debate and a topic muddied by association with various (and often opposing) ideologies or political parties. Scholar R.J. White once put it this way:

"To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquefy the atmosphere … The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living."[3]

Although political thought, from its beginnings, contains many strains that can be retrospectively labeled conservative, it was not until the Age of Reason, and in particular the reaction to events surrounding the French Revolution of 1789, that modern Western conservatism began to rise as a distinct movement. Chanakya in India, Cicero in Rome, Confucius in China, and in France, the counterreformation, all spoke out on the importance of political stability and traditional values. But it was not until Edmund Burke’s polemic Reflections on the Revolution in France that conservatism in the Western world, in its current form, gained its most influential statement of views.

Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who argued so forcefully against the French Revolution, also sympathized with some of the aims of the American Revolution. This classical conservative tradition often insists that conservatism has no ideology, in the sense of a utopian program, with some form of master plan. Burke developed his ideas in reaction to the 'enlightened' idea of a society guided by abstract reason. Although he did not use the term, he anticipated the critique of modernism, a term first used at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch religious conservative Abraham Kuyper. Burke was troubled by the Enlightenment, and argued instead for the value of inherited institutions and customs.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Some people, argued Burke, had less reason than others, and thus some people will make worse governments than others if they rely upon reason. To Burke, the proper formulation of government came not from abstractions such as "Reason," but from time-honoured development of the state, piecemeal progress through experience and the continuation of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church.

"We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence."

Burke argued that tradition is a much sounder foundation than 'metaphysical abstractions.' Tradition draws on the wisdom of many generations and the tests of time, while "reason" may be a mask for the preferences of one man, and at best represents only the untested wisdom of one generation. Any existing value or institution has undergone the correcting influence of past experience and ought to be respected. Also, Burke claims that man is unable to understand the many ways in which inherited behaviours influence their thinking, so trying to judge society objectively is futile.

However, conservatives do not reject change. As Burke wrote, "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation." But they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary. An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society, for the sake of some doctrine or theory, runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards. For conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.

Conservatives strongly support the right of property. Carl B. Cone, in Burke and the Nature of Politics,[4] pointed out that this view, expressed as philosophy, also served the interests of the people involved. "As Burke had declared…this law ... encroached upon property rights... . To the eighteenth century Whig, nothing was more sacred than the rights of property, ... the protest could not be entirely frank, and it masked personal interests behind lofty principles. These principles were not hypocritically pronounced, but they did not reveal the financial interests of Rockingham, Burke, and other persons who opposed the East India legislation as members of parliament, as holders of East India stock..."

At the end of the Napoleonic period, the Congress of Vienna marked the beginning of a conservative reaction in Europe against the liberal and nationalist forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Historians Will and Ariel Durant describe the conservative philosophy of the time as "defending the necessity of religion, the wisdom of tradition, the authority of the family, the advantages of legitimate monarchy, and the constant need to maintain political, moral, and economic dikes against the ever-swelling sea of popular ignorance, cupidity, violence, barbarism, and fertility." (Will and Ariel Durant, "The Age of Napoleon", Simon and Schuster, 1975 ISBN 0-671-21988-X ) Vicomte Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald, set forth the principles of French conservatism in Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux (1796): "absolute monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, patriarchal authority in the family, and the moral and religious sovereignty of the popes over all the kings of Christendom." (Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon, Simon and Schuster, 1975, ISBN 0-671-21988-X) Along with Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre was the most influential spokesperson for counter-revolutionary and authoritarian conservatism, with the emphasis on monarchy as a guarantee of order in society. The legitimist movement was the political incarnation of this thought.

Schools of conservatism

Cultural conservatism

Cultural conservatism is a philosophy that supports preservation of the heritage of a nation or culture. The culture in question may be as large as Western culture or Chinese civilization or as small as that of Tibet. Cultural conservatives try to adapt norms handed down from the past. The norms may be romantic, like the anti-metric movement that demands the retention of avoirdupois weights and measures in Britain and opposes their replacement with the metric system. They may be institutional: in the West this has included chivalry and feudalism, as well as capitalism, laicité and the rule of law.

According to the subset called social conservatives, the norms may also be moral. For example, in some cultures practices such as homosexuality are considered wrong. In other cultures women who expose their faces or limbs in public are considered immoral, and conservatives in those cultures often support laws to prohibit such practices. Other conservatives take a more positive approach, supporting good samaritan laws, or laws requiring public charity, if their culture considers these acts moral.

Cultural conservatives often argue that old institutions have adapted to a particular place or culture and therefore ought to persevere. Depending on how universalizing (or skeptical) they are, cultural conservatives may or may not accept cultures that differ from their own. Many conservatives believe in a universal morality, but others allow that moral codes may differ from nation to nation, and only try to support their moral code within their own culture. That is, a cultural conservative may doubt whether the broad ideals of French communities would be equally appropriate in Germany.

Religious conservatism

Religious conservatives seek to preserve the teachings of particular ideologies, sometimes by proclaiming the value of those teachings, at other times seeking to have those teachings given the force of law. Religious conservatism may support, or be supported by, secular customs. In other places or at other times, religious conservatism may find itself at odds with the culture in which the believers reside. In some cultures, there is conflict between two or more different groups of religious conservatives, each strongly asserting both that their view is correct, and that opposing views are wrong.

Conservative governments influenced by religious conservatives may promote broad campaigns for a return to traditional values. Modern examples include the Back to Basics campaign of British Prime Minister, John Major. In the European Union, a conservative campaign sought to constitutionally specify certain conservative values in the proposed European Constitution.

Because many religions preserve a founding text, or at least a set of well-established traditions, the possibility of Radical Religious Conservatism arises. These are radical both in the sense of abolishing the status quo and of a perceived return to the radix or root of a belief. They are ante conservative in their claim to be preserving the belief in its original or pristine form. Radical Religious Conservatism generally sees the status quo as corrupted by abuses, corruption, or heresy. One example of such a movement was the Protestant Reformation.

In Islam, the Salafist movement is often politically and socially radical, and is violently repressed by governments and distrusted by the majority of mainstream Muslims for that reason. Salafism seeks to impose, by force if necessary, its vision of a model Islamic society such as existed at the time of Muhammad's passing from this world and for a short time thereafter. It rejects the later developments of Islamic societies, and can therefore be classified as a radical religious movement.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag Some commentators have questioned whether Thatcher's conservatism (Thatcherism) was consistent with the traditional concept of "conservatism" in the United Kingdom, and saw her views as more consistent with radical classical liberalism; Thatcher herself was described as "a radical in a conservative party"[5], and her ideology has been seen as confronting "established institutions" and the "accepted beliefs of the elite",[5] both concepts incompatible with the traditional conception of "conservatism" as signifying support for the established order and existing social convention.

Australian conservatism

Conservatism in Australia is related to British and American conservatism in many respects, but has a distinct political tradition. Like conservatism in many other nations, Australian conservatism is traditionally composed of diverse groups and interests, which are united more by opposition to certain political developments than by a distinct shared ideology; as one scholar argues, "Australian conservatives are more readily characterised by what they reject than by any shared set of values."[6]

In terms of partisan politics, conservatism has often been defined as opposition to the Australian Labor Party; as such, many different groups have historically been grouped on the "conservative" side of Australian politics, such as "social conservatives...Empire nationalists, organisations supporting rural interests, anti-socialist Catholics, fundamentalist Christians and free-market liberals." In contemporary Australian politics, the Liberal Party of Australia is often seen as the "conservative" party, which can surprise American observers for whom liberalism is seen as opposed to conservatism.

Historically, for the first seventy years after the Federation of Australia, the non-Labor (and hence implicitly "conservative") side of Australian politics was associated with policies of moderate protectionism in trade, and of support for the welfare state, coupled with maintenance of Australia's ties to the British Empire. Many scholars have seen the government of Robert Menzies as exemplifying this trend.[6] However, from the 1980s, free-market economic policies were increasingly associated with conservatism in Australian politics, following the same trend as the United States and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively.


In other parts of Europe, mainstream conservatism is often represented by the Christian Democratic parties. They form the bulk of the European Peoples Party faction in the European Parliament. The origin of these parties is usually in Catholic parties of the late 19th and early 20th century, and Catholic social teaching was their original inspiration. Over the years, conservatism gradually became their main ideological inspiration, and they generally became less Catholic. The German CDU, its Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) are Protestant-Catholic parties.

In the Nordic countries, conservatism has been represented in liberal conservative parties like the Moderate Party in Sweden, Høyre in Norway and the Conservative People's Party in Denmark. Domestically, these parties generally support market-oriented policies, and usually gain support from the business community and white-collar professionals. Internationally they generally support the European Union and a strong defense. Their views on social issues tend to be more liberal than, for example, the U.S. Republican Party. Social conservatism in the Nordic countries are often found in their Christian Democratic parties. In several Nordic countries, right-wing populist parties have gained some support since the 1970s. Their policies have often been focused on tax cuts, reduced immigration, and tougher law and order policies.

Generally, one could claim that European conservatives tend to be more moderate on many social and economic issues, than American conservatives. They tend to be quite friendly to the aims of the welfare state, although concerned about a healthy business environment. However, some groups have been more supportive of a stricter libertarian or laissez-faire agenda, especially under influence from Thatcherism. European conservative groups often see themselves as guardians of prudence, moderation, history and tried experience, as opposed to radicalism and social experiments. Approval of high culture and established political institutions like the monarchy is often found in European conservatism. Mainstream conservative groups are often staunch supporters of the European Union. However, one might also find elements of nationalism in many countries.


In China conservatism is based on the teachings of Kong Fuzi (Confucius). Confucius, who lived in a time of chaos and warring kingdoms, wrote extensively about the importance of the family, of social stability, and of obedience to just authority. His ideas continue to permeate Chinese society. Traditional Chinese conservatism imbued with Confucian thought have been resurgent in recent years, despite more than a half-century of authoritarian Marxist-Leninist rule.

After Mao's death in 1976, three factions wrestled to succeed him: the hardline Maoists, who wanted to continue the revolutionary mobilization; restorationists, who advocated a return to the Soviet model of communism; and reformers, led by Deng Xiaoping, who hoped to reduce the role of ideology in government and overhaul the Chinese economy.

Traditional Chinese values have surged, rather assertively, in spite of the long-standing revolutionary communist regime. Today, the Communist Party of China is run by technocrats, who seek stability and economic progress, while suppressing free speech and religion. The Party is seen by some as the recipient of the Mandate of Heaven, a traditional Chinese idea. The Communist Party is taming itself and no longer consistently advocates Marxist revolutionary theory, adhering instead to a certain ideological flexibility consistent with the dictum of Deng Xiaoping, that is seek truth from facts.

Love of country and national pride has been resurgent as well as traditionalism. Chinese nationalism tends to speak highly of a centralized, powerful Chinese state. The government attempts to win and maintain the loyalty its citizens and of recently departed overseas Chinese. Recent bestseller China Can Say No expresses a sentiment in favor of a uniquely Chinese path that, tellingly, does not have to involve American norms, such as individualism and Western liberalism. Moreover, the tide may still be coming in for Chinese nationalism, as the next generation of Chinese leaders will have grown up in an environment imbued with nationalism.

Since the 1990s, there has been a neoconservative movement in China (not connected with the US neoconservative movement).

See also

Further reading

  • Fascists and conservatives : the radical right and the establishment in twentieth-century Europe / Martin Blinkhorn., 1990
  • Edmund Burke. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. October 1997: ISBN 0-87220-020-5 (paper).
  • Crunden, Robert, The Superfluous Men: Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945, 1999. ISBN 1-882926-30-7
  • Recent conservative political thought : American perspectives / Russell G Fryer., 1979
  • Paul E. Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, 1993. ISBN 0-8057-9749-1
  • The British Right : Conservative and right wing politics in Britain / Neill Nugent., 1977
  • America alone : the neo-conservatives and the global order / Stefan A Halper., 2004
  • Ted Honderich Conservatism
  • Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th Ed., 2001. ISBN 0-89526-171-5
  • Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 1993. ISBN 1-882926-01-3
  • The conservative press in twentieth-century America / Ronald Lora., 1999
  • From the New Deal to the New Right: race and the southern origins of modern conservatism / Joseph E Lowndes., 2008
  • Jerry Z. Muller Conservatism
  • Right-wing women : from conservatives to extremists around the world / P Bacchetta., 2002
  • Unmaking law : the Conservative campaign to roll back the common law / Jay M Feinman., 2004
  • Radicals or conservatives? The contemporary American right / James McEvoy., 1971
  • Robert Nisbet Conservatism: Dream and Reality, 2001. ISBN 0-7658-0862-5
  • James Page, 'Ought the Neo-Cons Be Considered Conservatives? A Philosophical Response'.AQ: Journal of Contemporary Analysis. 75(6):32-33/40. 2003; available on-line at
  • Conservatism in America since 1930 : a reader / Gregory L Schneider., 2003
  • Noel O'Sullivan Conservatism
  • The new racism : conservatives and the ideology of the tribe / Martin Barker., 1982
  • A time for choosing : the rise of modern American conservatism / Jonathan M Schoenwald., 2001
  • Roger Scruton The Meaning of Conservatism
  • Facing fascism : the Conservative party and the European dictators, 1935-1940 / N J Crowson., 1997
  • Alexander Lee and Timothy Stanley The End of Politics: Triangulation, Realignment and the Battle for the Centre Ground (Politico's Publishing, 17 July 2006): ISBN 1-84275-174-3 (hardcover)
  • James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

External links

  1. The Political Compass Home Page
  3. As part of introduction to The Conservative Tradition, ed. R.J. White (London: Nicholas Kaye, 1950)
  4. Carl B. Cone, Burke and the Nature of Politics, University of Kentucky Press, 1957 Template:OCLC
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