By Peter Robert Edwin Viereck
The term "Conservatism," although it has had different implications in varying historical and geographical contexts, is best reserved to denote a preference for institutions and practices that have evolved historically and that are thus manifestations of continuity and stability. Political thought, from its beginnings, contains many strains that can be retrospectively labelled Conservative, but it was not until the late Eighteenth Century that Conservatism began to develop as a political attitude and movement, reacting against the French Revolution of 1789.
The noun seems to have been first used after 1815 by French Bourbon restorationists such as François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand. It was used to describe the British Tory Party in 1830 by John Wilson Croker, the editor of The Quarterly Review; and John C. Calhoun, a formulator of the Conservative defense of minority rights against majority dictatorship in the United States, also used the term in the 1830s. The generally acknowledged originator of modern, articulated Conservatism (although he never employed the term) was the British parliamentarian and political writer Edmund Burke in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Pro-parliamentarian opponents of the French Revolution, such as Burke, believed that the violent, untraditional, and uprooting methods of the Revolution outweighed and corrupted its liberating ideals. More authoritarian opponents, such as the polemicist and diplomat Joseph de Maistre, also rejected the ideals themselves. The general revulsion against the course of events in France provided Conservatives with an opportunity for restoring the pre-Revolutionary traditions, and a sudden flowering of more than one brand of Conservative philosophy followed.
Whether intentionally or unconsciously, whether literally or metaphorically, for example, Conservatives tend to assume in politics the Christian doctrine of man's innate original sin, and herein lies a key distinction between Conservatives and Liberals. Men are not born naturally free or good (Conservatives assume) but are naturally prone to anarchy, evil, and mutual destruction. What the Eighteenth-Century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau denounced as the “chains” that hinder man's “natural goodness,” are, for Burkeans, the props that make man good. These “chains” (society's traditional restrictions on the ego) fit man into a rooted, durable framework, without which ethical behaviour and responsible use of liberty are impossible.
The Conservative temperament may be, but need not be, identical with Conservative politics or Rightwing economics; it may sometimes accompany Leftwing politics or economics. Regardless of a Conservative's politics or economics, however, it can be said that two characteristics of the Conservative temperament are: (1) a distrust of human nature, of rootlessness, of untested innovations; and (2) a corresponding trust in unbroken historical continuity and in traditional frameworks within which human affairs may be conducted. Such a framework may be religious or cultural or may be given no abstract or institutional expression at all. In relation to the latter aspect, many authorities on Conservatism — a minority in France and a majority in England — consider Conservatism an inarticulate state of mind and not at all an ideology. Liberalism argues; Conservatism simply is. When Conservatism becomes ideologized, logical and self-conscious, then it resembles the Liberal rationalism that it opposes. According to this British approach, logical deductive reasoning is too doctrinaire, too 18th century. Whereas the Liberal and rationalist mind consciously articulates abstract blueprints, the Conservative mind unconsciously incarnates concrete traditions. And, because Conservatism embodies rather than argues, its best insights are almost never developed into sustained theoretical works equal to those of Liberalism and radicalism.
Conservatism is often associated with some traditional and established form of religion. After 1789, the appeal of religion redoubled for those craving security in an age of chaos. The Roman Catholic Church, because its roots are in the monarchic Middle Ages, has appealed to more Conservatives than any other religion. Himself a Church of England Protestant, Burke praised Catholicism as “the most effectual barrier” against radicalism. But Conservatism has had no dearth of Protestant and strongly anticlerical adherents also.
Conservatives typically view society as a single organism and condemn as “rationalist blueprints” the attempts of progressives to plan society in advance from pure reason instead of letting it evolve naturally and unconsciously, flowering from the deep roots of tradition. They dismiss a Liberal society as “atomistic,” meaning composed of disrupted elements held together merely mechanically. A society, they argue, has to be rendered whole by religion, idealism, shared historical experiences, commitment to its long-standing political institutions, and by the emotions of reverence, cooperation, and loyalty; a society, they believe, can, to the contrary, be rendered atomistic by materialism, class war, excessive laissez-faire economics, greedy profiteering, overanalytical intellectuality, subversion of shared institutions, insistence on rights above duties, and by the emotions of skepticism and cynicism. Except for the German Romantic school, Conservatives do not carry their conceptions of the organic wholeness of society to the extreme at which the individual becomes nothing, society everything, for they recognize that, at that extreme, one no longer has Conservatism, but has totalitarian statism.
Edmund Burke did more than any other thinker to turn the intellectual tide from a rationalist contempt for the past to a traditionalist reverence for it. An Irishman, he loved England, including its established Anglican Church and its nobility, with an outsider's passion. In 1765 he became private secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, the head of the less Liberal wing of the Whig Party. Against the untraditional tyranny of George III, Burke defended the American Revolution of 1776, which he viewed as being in defense of traditional liberties, but attacked the radical French Revolution of 1789 as tyranny by mobs and deracinated theorizers. At a time (1790) when the French Revolution still seemed a bloodless utopia, he predicted its later phase of terror and dictatorship, not by any lucky blind guess, but by an analysis of its devaluation of tradition and inherited values.
Indeed, the core of Burke's thought and of Conservatism is fear of rootlessness. Rousseau's Social Contract of 1762 had favoured a contract merely among the living, to arrange government for their mutual benefit. Burke, instead, argued:
Burke's veneration of the past may be contrasted with the rationalist hostility of Karl Marx, the most influential social critic of modern times: “The legacy of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.” But, for Burke the contract is with “the future” as well as with the past, and he thus urges improvement, as long as it is evolutionary: “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”
Burke was defending not Conservatism in the abstract but, rather, one concrete instance of it, the unwritten British Constitution. His arguments, however, were not always consistent. Sometimes he justified the Constitution by “natural rights”; more often by “prescriptive right.” Natural rights meant a universal code external to any given constitution; prescriptive right, a local code authoritative (prescriptive) by virtue of its age and its links with the past, which are prima facie evidence of its value. Sometimes he argued that natural rights preceded the Constitution and gave it “latent wisdom.” But, when arguing against French rationalists, who would justify their own revolutionary constitution by natural rights, he argued instead, and more typically:
Burke shocked his century by his brutal frankness in defending “illusions” and “prejudices” as socially necessary. In doing so, however, he was, in fact, being not so much a cynic as one of the few old-fashioned Christians among 18th-century intellectuals. He was an old-fashioned Christian in the sense of believing man innately depraved, innately steeped in original sin, and incapable of bettering himself by his feeble reason. So defined, man could be tamed only by following an ethically trained elite and by education in “prejudices,” such as family, religion, and aristocracy. He called landed aristocrats “the great oaks” and “proper chieftains,” provided they tempered their rule by a spirit of timely reform from above and remained within the constitutional framework. He defended the Church of England for its political as well as its religious function, “To keep moral, civil, and political bonds, together binding human understanding.”
Coleridge and Wordsworth
After Burke, the English poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth were significant figures in the formulation and expression of Conservative sentiment. They began, however, as utopian Liberals supporting the French Revolution. Wordsworth spoke for a whole generation of European intellectuals with his famous salute to the new dawn in France: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” Disillusionment followed, and Coleridge and Wordsworth reacted against Liberalism and rationalism and turned to traditional monarchy and the Church of England.
In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge jointly published their book of poems, Lyrical Ballads, marking the revolt of the human heart against abstract 18th-century rationalists and thereby helping to create a new philosophical climate. Conservatism was permanently influenced by Coleridge's prose works: Lay Sermons, 1816-1817; Biographia Literaria, 1817; Philosophical Lectures, 1818–19; Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character, on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion, 1825; and his various Letters and Specimens of Table Talk. His public lectures exercised an indirect influence by molding the minds of university students who later became national leaders.
According to Coleridge, society divided its functions among different “class orders.” Each class had its valuable function, but this did not necessarily include the right to vote and rule. That right was best left to an ethically trained aristocracy, functioning within the strict lawful limits of Parliament. All classes, Coleridge argued, must cooperate harmoniously within the organic unity of the Constitution. His greatest influence on practical politics was through his disciple Benjamin Disraeli, later to be Conservative Prime Minister, and his disciple's disciple, Sir Winston Churchill. Coleridge, considered businessmen often subversive, not Conservative; they allegedly gnawed at the foundations of Christian monarchy by substituting a newfangled, un-Christian religion known as economic profit. Thus Coleridge, defining “shopkeepers” as “the least patriotic and the least Conservative” class, fought against the Whig Reform Bill of 1832, which made “hucksters” the dominant voting group.
Joseph de Maistre and Latin Conservatism
It would convey an unbalanced picture of Conservatism to present only the moderate and British brand founded by Burke and to omit the more extreme and Latin brand founded by Joseph de Maistre (died 1821). Whereas Burkean Conservatism is evolutionary, the Conservatism of de Maistre is counter-revolutionary. Both favour tradition against the innovations of 1789, but their traditions differ: the former fights against 1789 for the sake of traditional liberties, the latter for the sake of traditional authority. The former is not authoritarian, but constitutionalist — and often parliamentary — whereas the latter, in its stress on the authority of some traditional elite, is often justifiably called not Conservative but reactionary. To call it totalitarian, however, would be to go much too far, for its authority does not try to be “total,” in the sense of taking over the total personality, the total culture, but is restricted to politics — and sometimes also religion. The distinction between the authoritarian and the totalitarian separates even the most reactionary Conservative from the totalitarian Nazis and Communists.
After the breakdown of the French Revolution, de Maistre became the most influential philosophical spokesman for the ancien régime. Against the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity,” he seemed almost personally to embody the slogan “throne and altar.” His program consisted of a restoration of hereditary monarchy, but a more religious and less frivolous monarchy than before. He was an international refugee after the French, during the Revolution, invaded his native Savoy — then a French-speaking province of the Italian-speaking monarchy of Piedmont-Sardinia. He became for 14 years Sardinian ambassador to Russia, where his restorationist faith was strengthened by the example of the absolute monarchy still functioning there.
Both restorationist and evolutionary Conservatives defended monarchy as a social cement needed to hold society together, to keep it “organic,” not “atomistic.” But, while the de Maistre school (key source of Conservative thought in Spain and Italy as well as France) defends monarchy as absolute, the evolutionary British school defends it merely as being “pragmatic”; that is, useful. De Maistre and many continental monarchists carried their belief in the monarchy to the extreme of demanding “love” even for an “unjust” ruler, earthly or heavenly:
This chain of authoritarian reasoning reached its climax in a logical, if inhuman, paradox: “The more terrible God appears to us . . . the more our prayers must become ardent. . . .” Cruel as these arguments sound, the motive of the personally mild de Maistre was humane: revolts against cruel authority would inflict even crueler sufferings on mankind. He drew from the French Revolution the lesson that submission to traditional authority, though admittedly a bitter pill, was Europe's cure for a still more bitter chaos.
De Maistre's politics was a theological drama in which “order” (his key concept) was angelic, “chaos” diabolic, and “revolution” original sin. Seduced by the glittering Social Contract of Rousseau, giddy and inexperienced nations might lust after democracy or a plebeian Bonapartist dictatorship. But they would come to a perfectly dreadful end, which would serve them right for provoking the wages of sin: “Because she [Europe] is guilty, she suffers” (1810). From suffering, Maistre argued, Europe would learn that the purest order is a fatherly Christian monarchy. Even kings must avoid rocking the boat of order with Liberal “innovations”: Europe must “suspect” the word “reform.” In Du Pape (1817; Concerning the Pope), he analyzed “order” further: its hierarchical pyramid logically required one supreme apex. That apex must be no earthly monarch, of which there were so many, but the union of earthly and spiritual power in the papacy.
The vast extent of the instability following the French Revolution surprised even its supporters, and the problem of how to restabilize society emerged as one of some practical importance. According to de Maistre's Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (left unfinished 1821; Evening Conversations in St. Petersburg), the solution was more faith and more police. That combination he summed up in his own frank formula: “the pope and the executioner.” The pope was the positive bulwark of order: he gave faith. The executioner was the negative bulwark: he suppressed disorder. Himself an intellectual, de Maistre indicted intellectuals as “rebellious” and “insolent” fomenters of disorder.
De Maistre, this very secular exalter of clericalism, resembled not the Church Fathers, but the very rationalists he attacked. He arrived at his glorification of unreason and of divine authority not by mystic intuition — not even by unthinking acceptance of traditional authority — but by using his own mind independently, rationally, and with steps of deductive logic. Though de Maistre would never have admitted it, he might be characterized as the last abstract rationalist of the whole Voltairean Age of Reason. Even more than the rationalist Voltaire and as much as the rationalist Jacobins, Maistre believed in pure and absolute ideas, although his idea was absolute authority rather than absolute reason. In de Maistre the destructive deductive logic of the 18th century was carried so far that it destroyed even itself — pure reason committing suicide for the sake of pure order.
This division of Conservatism into Burke and de Maistre wings does not mean both were equal in importance or influence. No work of de Maistre or any other anti-Jacobin has approached the influence of Burke's classic essay. Burke, above all, was the first to formulate the rebuttal to the French Revolution; his arguments were borrowed, sometimes word for word, by all later Conservatives, including the restorationists. De Maistre's rigid hierarchical Conservatism is dying out, whereas Burke's more flexible brand is stronger than ever, permeating all parties of the West, emphatically including Democratic Socialists with their increasing stress, in Great Britain and Germany, on what a Fabian Socialist has called, in good Burkean language, “the inevitability of gradualness.”
French Conservatism after de Maistre presents a diversified range of views, from the thought of Charles Maurras, the Far-Right editor of L'Action Française who seemed more Fascist than Conservative and became a Nazi collaborator, to the anti-authoritarian Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America (1835-1840) and the most Burkean French critic of the Revolution and of plebiscitarian mass democracy. To some extent, however, Tocqueville, an evolutionary parliamentarian, can also be regarded as a Liberal thinker. In between Maurras and Tocqueville come the great anti-Jacobin Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine; the philosophical novelist Maurice Barrès, more a nationalist than anything else but Conservative in his stress on organic roots; and Louis-François Veuillot, the editor after 1843 of the newspaper L'Univers Réligieux and a clerical restorationist who ably readapted de Maistre to the industrial modern world. An influential Rightwing extremist, less clerical and more statist than Maistre and Veuillot, was Louis-Jacques-Maurice de Bonald, the apologist for Napoleon's empire and then for the Bourbon Restoration.
Metternich and the Concert of Europe
The problems posed by the widespread social unrest of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods and their aftermath, and the insecurity of governments in the face of demands for constitutions and Liberal reforms, provoked a reaction of more immediate and far-reaching consequence than the writings of Conservative theorists. During the period 1815-1848, Prince Metternich, a major influence in Austria and in Europe generally, devoted his energies to erecting an anti-revolutionary chain of international alliances throughout Europe in order to protect the multinational empire that he administered.
Metternich viewed the Liberal revolutions of the 1820s and 1830s in Italy, Spain, and Germany as being unhistorical and unrealistic. Liberals were trying to transplant from England free institutions, which had no historic roots on the Continent. He retorted with Burkean arguments about the need for old roots and orderly organic development. Hence, his sarcastic comments on the Liberal revolutions in Naples and elsewhere:
Though his repressive Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 infringed inexcusably on basic liberties, his attitude was not always so negative. Just before his fall in 1848, he was at last winning acceptance from the archdukes of his sincere, thoughtful, and practical plan (postponed too long by the reactionary emperor Francis I) to convoke delegates from all the provincial estates to a representative body in Vienna.
Metternich was a dominating figure at the Congress of Vienna, the international peace conference of 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars. The Vienna peace was based on certain Conservative principles shared by the Austrian delegate Metternich, the British delegate Robert Castlereagh, the French delegate Talleyrand, and the formerly Liberal Russian Tsar Alexander I. These principles were Conservatism, in reaction against Revolutionary France; Traditionalism, in reaction against 25 years of rapid change; Legitimism (the principle of hereditary monarchy as the only lawful rule); and Restoration (the principle of restoring the kings ousted after 1789).
The European great powers also aimed at the enforcement of peace by subsequent conferences between kings, and those subsequent conferences gave rise to a period of international cooperation known as the Concert of Europe. As Liberal democrats correctly pointed out, the weakness of that first successful attempt at a “United Nations” was its narrowly aristocratic base. But it did achieve the positive function — and important precedent — of peacefully arbitrating several disputes. The debit of the Conservative Concert of Europe was its bigoted suppression of democratic social progress.
Goethe's Spiritual Conservatism
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was Germany's greatest dramatist, poet, and personality. In his youthful “storm and stress” period of the 1770s, Goethe went through a phase of revolt and of nationalism. In his old age, however, he became Germany's greatest cultural influence for classical balance and for antinationalist cosmopolitanism, influencing many outside Germany, including, in England, Coleridge. In 1815, Goethe and Metternich both took pride in being “good Europeans,” not German nationalists. After a friendly personal conversation with Metternich, Goethe wrote that Metternich “inspires with the assurance that reason, reconciliation, and human understanding will lead us out of present chaos.” Later, in 1830, Goethe urged a mature synthesis between a Conservative framework and Liberal goals:
His rhymed credo, Nature and Art (1802), expressed his Conservative and classic stress on voluntary submission to law: “Only in self-restriction does the master reveal himself. And only law can give us liberty.” His political drama, Die Natürliche Tochter (1803; The Natural Daughter), reflected his hostility to the French Revolution, radicalism, and mass movements. Much quoted by classicists, such as the United States' Irving Babbitt, was Goethe's definition: “The classical I call the healthy and the romantic the diseased.” Yet his Faust drama (Part I published in 1808; Part II, im 1832) retained the Liberal-minded stress of his younger days on constant change, “constant striving,” as salvation. His most unique achievement consisted of his being, so to speak, self-invented. By sheer strength of character, he remolded his naturally revolutionary and romantic temperament into what the world accepted as a Conservative and classicist temperament.
Perhaps Germany's most mature Conservative thought came from her great historians. Friedrich Karl von Savigny (died 1861) and Leopold von Ranke (died 1886) were outstanding as pupils of Burke in their reverence for history as organic growth. Savigny stressed that custom, operating over centuries, creates its own framework. On custom, Savigny founded an entire science of historical jurisprudence, denying the abstract, Liberal “rights of man.” Similarly, Ranke saw every society in terms of its own unique evolution. He opposed the universal generalizations of the 18th-century Enlightenment; every people, he wrote, “is related directly to God” in its own concrete way.
Tsarist and Dostoyevskyan Conservatism
Whereas Western Conservatism arose from reactions to the French Revolution, Russian Tsarist Conservatism had different and older origins. The practice of the absolute Tatar khans and the theory of Byzantine Caesarism combined to produce an un-Western elephantiasis of autocracy. Nevertheless, two anti-Liberal traditionalists of Russia made such an impact on the West — the first by politics, the second by art — that their mention is indispensable: Konstantin Pobedonostsev and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The former was the tutor and chief ideologist of two tsars (Alexander III and, until the Revolution of 1905, Nicholas II). His book Reflections of a Russian Statesman (1898) denounced free press, trial by jury, parliamentary government, secular education, skepticism toward the divine mission of tsars, and, above all, intellectuals.
Dostoyevsky's disillusionment with his youthful radicalism resembled Coleridge's in its psychological as well as literary consequences. Both turned to an organic, religious, and monarchic society, to which they paid more homage via literature than via politics. Dostoyevsky attacked Socialism, Liberalism, materialism, and atheism. He preached Greek Orthodox Tsarism, Slavic traditionalism, and the redemption of mankind by “Holy Russia.” His novel, The Possessed (1871–1872), pictured the idealistic ends of Socialists as corrupted by their terroristic means, and he boasted somewhat fawningly to Alexander III about the book's effectiveness against radicals. His novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), contrasted a dry Western rationalism with a more deeply moving Russian mysticism. To the end, he retained from his young Socialist days his characteristic compassion for what he called “the insulted and injured,” only now he expressed this in the more spiritual creed of Christian love. What influences many modern readers so compellingly is not his political, but his cultural Conservatism, exalting vision beyond external material progress.
The American Revolution owed many of its ideals to Burke's interpretation of the British heritage of 1688, the heritage of mature self-government. Burke favoured the Revolution as defending the traditional rights of freeborn Englishmen against newfangled royal usurpations . In that sense, one might describe it not as the Revolution but as the “Conservation” of 1776.
In The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764), the American spokesman James Otis typically argued that the demand for no taxation without representation was an old British tradition. America, he said, was conserving “the British Constitution, the most free one on earth.” “We claim nothing,” added George Mason of Virginia, “but the liberty and privileges of Englishmen.” Almost all other revolutions, colonial or otherwise, have been radical in the sense of demanding new or increased liberties and a new order. In contrast, the American demand of July 6, 1775 (Declaration of the Causes & Necessity of Taking Up Arms), was for conserving old liberties and the old order: “in defence of the freedom that is our birth right and which we ever enjoyed until the late violation of it.” Such words promulgated no democracy, no abstract “Rights of Man”; rather, they promulgated what Burke called “prescriptive right. . . . considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance.” Despite important exceptions, which should not be minimized, it was not until the election of the more truly “revolutionary” Andrew Jackson (1828) that the democratic doctrines of the pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, gained solid roots in the United States, dividing the nation between Conservative and Progressive traditions. Paine was the man whom the Burkean, John Adams (U.S. President 1797-1801), came to loathe most — for eternally sloganizing about apriorist utopias. A leading historian, Daniel Boorstin, has observed in The Genius of American Politics (1953):
The spirit of the United States was partly molded by two masterpieces of Burkean Conservatism, both published in 1787–1788: The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, by John Adams. The achievements attributed by historians to the Federalist papers exceed those of any other series of newspaper articles in history, for they helped forge national unity during a separatist crisis. In the context of Shays's Rebellion of 1786 against the judiciary, they saved government by law from government by mob and established minority rights against majority dictatorship. They based American liberty on the Burkean principle of historical roots, prescriptive right, and judicial precedent instead of on vague grand rhetoric about democratic utopias and the masses. Similar in thought and richer in historical background was the Defense by Adams, one of the most penetrating analyses of self-government ever written.
The United States Constitution was drawn up in Philadelphia by the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787. The objectives of many Liberal democrats were: easy amendment; facilities for mass pressure and rapid change; unchecked popular sovereignty; universal manhood suffrage; a single parliamentary body; and the basing of liberty on a long list of universal a priori abstractions, such as Burke later criticized in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But in the U.S. Constitution of 1787 the Federalists foiled each of these objectives. They made amendments slow and difficult, greatly reduced the number of voters by property restrictions, created a Congress of two parliamentary bodies, and based liberty primarily, though not entirely, on the concrete, inherited precedents of British tradition. Except for the House of Representatives (a sop to democrats), the main cogs of government -- the President, the Senate, the Justices of the Supreme Court — were not to be chosen directly by the people, but, respectively, by the Electoral College, State Legislatures, and appointment, and not until 1913 did a federal constitutional amendment eliminate this intentionally undemocratic election of Senators. The judicial branch (Supreme Court) continues to be a nonelective, virtually nonremovable elite not responsible to democratic majorities, a judicial body whose members are subject to involuntary removal only by the very difficult, cumbersome, and nondemocratic process of impeachment, trial, and conviction. Yet, the Supreme Court can veto as unconstitutional measures passed by democratic majorities in the two elective, removable branches of Congress.
The American Founding Fathers adopted a Conservative constitution in reaction against contemporary mob excesses and against the democratic and utopian rhetoric of the earlier Declaration of Independence (drawn up mainly by Thomas Jefferson), with its grand abstractions about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, the U.S. Constitution was the Burkean, not the reactionary brand of Conservatism. Thus it defeated not only the Liberal objectives but also the more extreme Conservative ones, including a hereditary, titled aristocracy and Hamilton's notion of a president chosen for life possessing the power of absolute veto over national legislation.
The United States' only consistently Conservative party was the Federalist Party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was perhaps too much the reckless commercial adventurer to be classified under Conservative or any other principles, but Adams remains the closest New World equivalent to Burke. After the death of the Federalist Party in the early 1800s, two mutually hostile kinds of political Conservatism emerged: that of the urban New England Brahmins and that of the Southern semi-feudal landowners. The latter received their most persuasive defense in John C. Calhoun's famous A Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, the closest New World equivalent to de Maistre. This more extreme, very regional Calhoun Conservatism is still influential in much of the American South, typically cutting across Democratic Party-Republican party lines, and is still alien to New England Conservatism.
Modern U.S. political parties, being pragmatic alliances of economic interests, ethnic groups and geographic patronage seekers rather than being unions based on agreement regarding matters of doctrine, cannot realistically be classified under “isms.” It is nearer to reality to look for Conservatism, instead, in the indirect diffusion — cutting across all party lines — of the above described restraining principles of the U.S. Constitution.
The responses of Conservatives to this predicament have naturally varied considerably in differing political contexts; an account of some of these responses is given below. An analysis of the role of Conservatism in contemporary politics, however, cannot be confined merely to an account of the programs of political parties identified with the Conservative cause, for Conservatism makes its influence felt in a variety of ways less direct than through expression in party platforms. Conservatism in the Twentieth Century has, in fact, been a pervasive force in the political life of those parliamentary democracies in which rationalist politics has seemed to hold sway, as well, of course, as in less liberal political climates.
Non-Political Manifestations of Conservatism
Conservative influences operate indirectly (i.e., other than via the programs of political parties) largely by virtue of the fact that, while man is undeniably a persistent innovator, there is also much in the human temperament that is naturally or instinctively Conservative. Among such Conservative traits are the tendency to fear and avoid sudden change and the tendency to act according to habit. While these are traits of the individual, they may find collective expression in, for example, resistance to imposed political change and in a whole cluster of value preferences that contribute to the formation and stability of a particular culture. The tendency for value preferences to find expression in cultural forms and political institutions (the socalled pragmatism of the British, for example, in their unwritten Constitution) constitutes a profound Conservative influence in political life over and above any explicit articulation of particular Conservative interests that may be undertaken by a political party, for it gives rise to practices and institutions that are products of a long process of social and political evolution and are closely related to other culture-related factors, such as religion and property relationships. The existence of such cultural restraints on political innovation constitutes in all societies a fundamental Conservative bias, the implications of which have been aphoristically expressed by an English commentator, F.J.C. Hearnshaw: “It is commonly sufficient for practical purposes if Conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit.” Mere inertia, however, has rarely sufficed to protect Conservative values in an age dominated by rationalist dogma and by social change related to continuous technological developments. The Conservative reaction, however, is best analyzed in specific political contexts. Historians, it may be noted, cannot safely agree on there being more than four great political parties of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries deserving of the name: the Conservative Party of England, the Christian Democrats of Italy and of Germany, and the Liberal Democrats of Japan.
Conservatism in Great Britain
In England, Disraeli's successor, Lord Salisbury, was Prime Minister in 1885, from 1886 to 1892, and from 1895 to 1902. Arthur Balfour succeeded him and was Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. This longest era of Conservative rule, from 1885 to 1002, was characterized by imperialism, high tariffs, and the gradual erosion of the Conservative Party's working-class vote, which Disraeli had so far-sightedly nurtured by extending the franchise to the workers in 1867. The Party had thereby broadened its original class basis (landed aristocracy and established Church) to outflank from below and above the new commercial class and its Liberal Party. It may be said that Conservatism in Great Britain since Disraeli's time has veered between a passive and largely resigned acceptance of changes introduced by its Liberal Party and, later, Labour Party opponents and a more positive Conservatism, the aim of which has been to foster a social environment in which the individual is encouraged to advance his own interests without undue hindrance from, or reliance on, the state — a policy descended from the Liberal individualism of the Nineteenth Century, associated particularly with the Liberal Party. This positive Conservatism of Liberal individualism tinged with a strong sense of social conscience was given its earliest formulation by Disraeli, who combined a desire to mitigate harsh conditions suffered by the working class under conditions of unrestrained capitalism with a belief in the value of existing institutions such as the Monarchy, the Church, and the class system. Disraeli's foreign policy, which emphasized the need for Britain to act constructively as a “moderating and mediatorial” power and to maintain its interest in its empire, also reflected the view that Conservatism must be a force shaping events, rather than merely reacting to them. These three elements — the improvement of material conditions by both encouragement of individual initiative and timely reform of abuses, emphasis on the value of traditional institutions, and belief in the need for an active foreign policy — have been recurring themes of British Conservatism in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Later Conservative thinkers have elaborated on the value of divergency of personality and attitudes, the role of property as an expression of individuality, and the central role of the family in providing a stable environment in which the individual may develop.
In its less positive periods (as, for example, during the interwar period), Conservatism in Britain has been identified with the defense of class privileges and of the status quo, an unconstructive opposition to Socialism, and, during the 1930s, a deal-making commercialist approach to the rising Nazi menace. Faced, however, with the introduction of a mixed economy and the vast extension of state welfare services by the Labour Party after 1945, the Conservatives, when returned to power in 1951, reversed very few of their Socialist predecessors' innovations, emphasizing instead their claim to be more able to administer the welfare state efficiently and to some extent outbidding their opponents, especially in areas of social policy related to their fundamental beliefs — the encouragement of a heavy program of house building being an example. The Conservative resurgence that resulted in the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979 inspired a more activist, if not doctrinaire, spirit, particularly in the fields of economic and fiscal policy (including, for example, the “privatization” of a number of industries nationalized under Labour governments).
Conservatism in Western Europe
It is of significance that the British Conservative Party has been the more ardent of the two major British parties in championing British membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), reflecting an internationalism voiced by Sir Winston Churchill when, in 1940, he appealed for a Franco-British union and, in 1946, for a European union. Originally conceived as a means by which the economies in the European countries might be integrated — so that war between them would be impossible — the nascent community assumed significance during and after the Cold War as a means of strengthening Western Europe against the threat of external Communist aggression and internal subversion. Together with the military North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance, it thus assumed a role as a bulwark of parliamentary democracy and capitalism.
In the arena of party politics, Conservatism in Western Europe is generally represented by two or more parties, ranging from the Liberal centre to the moderate and extreme right. Three types of parties may be discerned: agrarian parties (particularly in Scandinavia), Christian Democratic parties, and Conservative parties linked strongly with big business interests and sometimes with a markedly nationalistic outlook. Such categories are very general and are not mutually exclusive.
Among parties of the right, the Christian Democratic tradition has the longest continuity, the predecessors of contemporary parties having emerged during the first half of the Nineteenth Century to represent supporters of the Church and the Monarchy against Liberal elements. Especially after World War I, business interests became a third important element.
The clerical interest is strongest in the Democrazia Cristiana (DC; the Christian Democrat Party) of Italy, which has dominated the Italian government since 1945. Through this party, Catholicism has set limits on policy concerning such Church-related matters as divorce and contraception. In regard to other social questions, however, the Christian Democratic Party in Italy has never presented a coherent policy, largely because it comprises little more than an alliance of disparate and often conflicting interest groups.
In Germany, a country divided between Catholics and Protestants, the Church plays a far less significant role in the main Conservative party, the Christlich-Demokratische Union (CDU; the Christian Democratic Union). After 1950, following debate within the Party over economic and social questions, advocacy of a free-enterprise economy coupled with a strong commitment to maintain and improve social insurance and other welfare provisions became established policy. The Conservative temper of the political climate in Germany since the beginning of economic recovery may be judged from the fact that, since the early 1950s the main opposition party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD; the Social Democrats), has progressively eliminated the Socialist content of its program, a party congress at Bad Godesberg (1959), in fact. going so far as to champion the profit motive.
France provides an exception to the general pattern of the representation of moderate Conservative opinion by a Christian Democratic party; the closest equivalent has been the Catholic, rightwing Mouvement Républicain Populaire (Popular Republican Movement), which by the late 1960s had become little more than a political club. Instead, a large proportion of Conservatives in France has supported Gaullist groups such as the Union pour la Défense de la République (Union for the Defense of the Republic). Gaullist Conservatism has been markedly nationalistic, involving assumptions concerning French leadership of a united Europe and emphasizing tradition, order, and the regeneration of France. Gaullists espouse divergent views on domestic social issues, however, as do non-Gaullist groups such as the Centre National des Indepéndants et Paysans. The number of Conservative groups, their lack of stability, and their tendency to be identified with local issues defy simple categorization. Conservatism in France, however, as in Italy and Germany, has been the dominant political force since World War II.
Conservatism in Europe is thus revealed as a dominating political influence in the major states, finding expression in parties of very different character. These parties represent traditional bourgeois values and oppose unnecessary state involvement in economic affairs and any radical attempts at income redistribution. They are also characterized by an absence of ideology and often of even a well-articulated political philosophy, but this tends to be of little consequence in terms of their influence, since they give political expression to the Conservatism of temperament mentioned above as an important underlying bias in political conflict, as well as to persistent culture-related values that are of great importance in terms of continuity and stability.
The relationship between Conservatism as an underlying bias related to psychological factors and cultural values and Conservatism as an articulated political credo is illustrated by the history of party politics in Japan since its opening to Western influence in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The political and social changes that took place following the Meiji Restoration (1868) were of major proportions, involving the abolition of feudal institutions and the introduction of such Western political ideas as constitutional government. But despite institutional innovations and the dislocations resulting from rapid industrialization, traditional loyalties and attitudes proved to be more important factors in shaping political developments.
Except for the period of intervention by the militarists during the 1930s and 1940s, Japan has been ruled by Conservatives since the beginning of party politics in the 1880s. The Conservative parties (the two most important of which merged to form the Liberal-Democratic Party in 1955) have been dominated by personalities rather than by ideology and dogma; and personal loyalties to leaders of groups within the party (factions) rather than commitment to policy have determined the allegiance of Conservative members of the Diet. As one American scholar, Nathaniel B. Thayer, has described it, the factions
The Liberal-Democratic Party is intimately linked with big business interests, and its policies are guided primarily by the objective of fostering a stable environment for the development of Japan's free-enterprise economy; to this end, the party functions as a broker of conflicting business interests. Policy toward other Asian countries, national defense, and internal security are other Conservative preoccupations.
Conservatism in the United States of America
It may be argued that the United States has no nationwide Conservative or Liberal parties but instead only two fluctuating, all-inclusive coalitions. Both the Democratic Party and Republican Party coalitions have included interest groups labelled Conservative — for example, racial segregationists among Southern Democrats, such Republican offshoots as the local New York Conservative Party, and religious fundamentalists of both parties. On a journalistic level, the word Conservative has been used loosely for a segment of the Republican party associated with the late Senator Barry Morris Goldwater and former President Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Modern American Conservatism has been highly influential in the literary and religious realm in such masterpieces of Conservative outlook as Irving Babbitt's Democracy and Leadership (1924) and the aristocratic traditionalism of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner. Indeed, such figures as the novelist Herman Melville and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, usually independent of each other and eschewing Conservative labels, have performed the nation's spiritual arithmetic, calculating the spiritual price of material progress and of a robotizing technology. Unconsciously Conservative in this sense, even when under radical slogans, is the impulse among young people in the 1970s and after to conserve ecology and environment against what Melville called “the impieties of progress.” These unconscious young conservers sublimate the old class-based elitism into a new value-based elitism, open to all, thereby rescuing quality (the cultural as well as physical ecology) from the parvenu plutocrats of quantity (mass culture and robot technology).
The impact of the horrors allowed at Auschwitz has purged — in effect conservatized — many modern Liberals out of their most unconservative axiom: the Rousseauist doctrine of the “natural goodness” of man and the masses. For many, the real battle for the future now seems to be an alliance of such chastened Liberals with Conservatives in jointly defending their shared constitutional and ethical framework against extremist destroyers from a mirror-image Right and Left.
It is arguable that Conservatism, whether its influence operates through political parties or through psychological, cultural and institutional factors, is a far more persuasive influence in constitutional democratic societies than the rate of social and economic change and the welter of rationalist dogma would suggest. That it is often lacking in articulation and that, as critics of Conservatism point out, there is a comparative lack of persuasive presentations of the Conservative cause compared with the abundant literature of rationalist politics is, in part, a consequence of its underlying strength and, in part. a result of a certain coyness among the best Conservative thinkers deriving from the fear that a Conservatism that needs to present itself in the same terms as the doctrines it opposes is no longer Conservatism or is a Conservatism in retreat. In the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries, however, many would say that it may be argued that the predilection of governments to extend their role in social life is so strong as to necessitate a more articulate, even aggressive, Conservatism. One particularly important task of Conservatives will be to emphasize that the social sciences, particularly anthropology and psychology, so long enlisted in the cause of social engineering and Liberal utopianism, also reveal much about the role of tradition, custom, and evolution in the survival of societies.
Peter Robert Edwin Viereck, scholar, writer, poet snd Conservative political theorist and historian, authored Conservatism,
Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Ideology, The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans: Reflections on
the Distinction between Conforming and Conserving, and numerous other books.