What Is Conservatism?
[Author’s note: This is a condensed and simplified adaptation of an essay on conservatism I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Political Thought, edited by Gregory Claeys, and published by CQ Press (2013).]
Conservatism is a group of political and social ideologies that promote traditional social and political institutions, gradualism in political action, and opposition to radical political and social movements.
As an identifiable international intellectual and political movement, conservatism originated in opposition to the French Revolution, and was heavily influenced in its early years by Edmund Burke’s essay Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in 1790.1 After the revolution, conservatism spread throughout much of western Europe, and was influential in the ideologies of leading diplomats and intellectuals of the nineteenth century, including Klemens von Metternich, Joseph de Maistre, and Juan Donoso Cortés.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, conservatism was characterized by a preference for political rule by the established elites and aristocrats and opposed to rule by the middle classes or working classes. By the twentieth century, conservatism began to lose its particular attachment to the established aristocracy, but continued to promote rule by natural, untitled elites. In all historical periods, philosophical conservatives have expressed opposition to mass democracy movements, fearing that democracy leads to dictatorship.
The specific policies and political programs favored by conservatives have varied significantly among differing societies, and have changed over time depending on the nature of traditional institutions in each society. The traditional status of capitalism or monarchy or Catholicism, for example, greatly influences the nature of the society that the conservative seeks to preserve.
Today, conservatism is associated with numerous center-right and right-wing political parties throughout Europe and in Anglophone countries including the United States, Canada, and Australia. The degree to which ideological conservatism influences the political programs of such parties is a matter of dispute, however, as modern political parties and movements associated with conservatism often embrace ideological components in conflict with traditional conservatism, such as liberal economics and mass democracy.
Reaction against Revolutions in Europe
The French Revolution and the subsequent destruction of church and royal power in France, followed by the Reign of Terror, was a source of widespread dismay among aristocrats and elites in both Europe and the United States. Even before the Terror, Burke responded to the early stages of the revolution with his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which condemned the revolution on the grounds that it uprooted most traditional French institutions and was based on excessively theoretical assertions. Burke had earlier supported the American Revolution on the grounds that the Americans were seeking to preserve traditional rights and an established way of life against interference from the British crown. In Burke’s view, the French Revolution, unlike the moderate American Revolution, was radical and rootless.
The de-Christianization of France during the revolution, coupled with the destruction of the established aristocratic ruling class, alarmed other intellectuals among the aristocracy throughout Europe in the following decades.
Joseph de Maistre, an aristocrat of Piedmont-Sardinia, called for the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following the war and embodied the conservative creed of “throne and altar” which Maistre considered essential to maintaining a just and lasting society. Unlike Burke, who promoted individual liberties and decentralization of political power coupled with religious freedom, Maistre was dogmatic in his support of monarchy and traditional religious institutions, going so far as to declare that citizens must respect and even love a despotic ruler. According to Maistre, when faced with a severe and suspicious prince:
There is no better course than resignation and respect, I would even say love, for since we start with the supposition that the master exists and that we must serve him absolutely, is it not better to serve him, whatever his nature, with love than without it?
Later European theorists, such as Juan Donoso Cortés, who supported constitutional monarchy against the liberals and socialists of Spain, were influenced by Maistre either directly or indirectly.
Klemens von Metternich, who in later decades would, perhaps unfairly, become a symbol of right-wing reaction for the European left during the nineteenth century, rejected the more authoritarian and reactionary strains of conservatism found among the disciples of Maistre, and embraced a doctrine of stability through peace and economic progress, and a less authoritarian version of the “throne and altar” doctrine. Metternich, who referred to himself as a “conservative socialist,” urged the formation of a limited parliamentary system in Austria and recommended increases in local self-government, provided that such reforms did not lead to revolutionary changes.
The liberal and socialist revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century continued to spur conservatives toward political action and philosophical argumentation against the perceived excesses of democracy, capitalism, and the revolutions which were spreading across Europe.
The Syllabus of Errors, a papal document published by Pope Pius IX in 1864, represented a significant international victory for the hard-line conservatism of Maistre and Cortés, and to a lesser extent the less authoritarian conservatism of the Metternich school. The document condemned liberalism, socialism, communism, and some forms of rationalism, and denied that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile
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