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 himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
Continental strains of conservatism, most typified by the works of Maistre, Cortés, Metternich, and Friedrich von Gentz, were significant in European political development, but in the centuries since the French Revolution, Burke’s brand of compromising, nonideological conservatism has proven to be the most influential and widespread form of conservatism. This is especially true in the English-speaking world.
Chief characteristics of conservatism that were general across most schools of conservatism prior to World War II include opposition to mass democracy, support for religious institutions, a preference for rule by aristocrats or a natural elite, and an aversion to theories of government not based on established experience.
Conservatism continued to be an influential ideology among the established elites in Europe through the twentieth century. The Congress of Vienna, chaired by Metternich himself, was followed by nearly a century without any large-scale wars in Europe, which contributed to the stability of the conservative regimes then in place, and enabled them to withstand the many liberal and socialist revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century. The success of secular democratic and socialist regimes following the end of the First World War brought the end to conservative dominance in Europe.
Nationalism and Internationalism
The degree to which nationalism has been associated with conservatism has varied from time to time and from place to place. Initially, conservatism, closely associated with Christianity in most cases, was emphatically internationalist given the nature of Christianity, especially Catholicism.
Burke endorsed mild nationalism as one value among many in his writings, but denied that love of country should eclipse other values. Metternich, as an agent of Austria, a society of mixed ethnicities and religions, was naturally internationalist in his thinking, as was evident in his contributions at the Congress of Vienna. Maistre, as a Catholic monarchist, endorsed international Catholic institutions as essential to the maintenance of a just society. Aristocratic cosmopolitanism was a central component of the thinking of numerous conservatives following the French Revolution.
In what Viereck calls “The Great Reversal” in conservative thought, however, conservative theorists moved from internationalist to nationalist as the nineteenth century progressed, with the preponderance of conservative thought moving toward nationalist theories after 1870 in Europe.2
Originally associated with the middle classes and with groups radically opposed to international states such as Austria, nationalism was later invoked by liberals and socialists in diverse circumstances to bolster support for a variety of mass movements.
Conservatives initially rejected these nationalist movements, but by the second half of the nineteenth century, nationalism was employed by conservative statesmen such as Otto von Bismarck as a means of maintaining the status quo for the princes of Prussia and neighboring states, while the vehement philosophical nationalism of Maurice Barrès in France asserted the existence of a collective national soul that he claimed disallowed conservative support for individualism and internationalism.
By the twentieth century, the nationalism supported by Bismarck and Barrès was used by fascists in efforts to denounce democracy and to support racist assumptions of national superiority. Conservatism fundamentally differs from fascism, however, in that conservatism opposes mass movements and radicalism. Swiss conservative Jakob Burckhardt, for example, predicted that the antiaristocratic mass movements of the late nineteenth century would lead to “terrifying” militaristic authoritarianism, and notably, German Catholic aristocrats such as Bishop Clemens von Galen and Claus von Stauffenberg were central figures within the few resistance movements sustained during Nazi rule in Germany.
Although the excesses of the fascist regimes of the 1940s discredited the untrammeled nationalism of earlier years, conservative political parties internationally have tended to associate themselves with nationalism since 1945. The conservative movement in the United States, for example, has traditionally supported nationalist programs such as anti-immigration measures and an aggressive foreign policy.
In Europe, the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom is associated with Euroscepticism, although the party is divided on the issue.
Nationalist parties in Europe such as the National Front in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands tend to oppose further integration into the European Union on nationalist grounds while supporting immigration restrictions and efforts to reinforce national identity.
Relationship with Liberalism and Capitalism
Although numerous center-right and conservative political parties are associated with support for capitalism in the twenty-first century, conservatives were generally opposed to capitalism and to the philosophy of laissez-faire associated with liberalism during the nineteenth century. An American example is the antebellum proslavery aristocrat George Fitzhugh, a Virginian who compared Southern legal slavery favorably with the asserted horrors of Northern industrial capitalism.
Historian Ralph Raico has noted that classical liberalism was closely associated with the middle classes of the nineteenth century, which were in turn associated with laissez-faire and industrialization. Conservatives in Europe opposed the middle classes as the forces of liberalism and revolution. British conservative Samuel Taylor Coleridge was adamant in his opposition to the middle-class capitalists represented most completely by the Manchester liberals of the mid-nineteenth century. In response to the Reform Act of 1832, which allowed the middle classes to vote in parliamentary elections, Coleridge declared:
You have disfranchised the gentry, and the real patriotism of the nation, you have agitated and exasperated the mob, and thrown the balance of political power into the hands of that class which, in all countries and in all ages, has been, is now, and ever will be, the least patriotic and least conservative of any.”
Conservatives accused middle-class capitalists of valuing economic profit above all else and therefore of degenerating into materialism. Maistre specifically condemned “economists,” by which he meant liberal economists, and Metternich singled out the middle classes as being most susceptible to faulty theories of government. Bismarck opposed what he called the “Manchester money-bags” for their insistence on free trade.3
Contrary to Coleridge’s doctrinaire opposition to capitalists, however, many conservatives by the twentieth century accepted capitalism and the middle classes as acceptable players within public affairs.
Since the Second World War, in Europe and throughout the Anglosphere, capitalism and the middle classes are closely associated with conservatism, with numerous center-right political parties espousing economic liberalism alongside traditionally conservative elements such as support for Christian religious institutions. The United States, lacking an indigenous aristocracy, has historically produced few conservative theorists opposed to the middle classes and capitalism.
In typical Burkean fashion, conservatism, which once regarded industrialization and middle-class political power as revolutionary innovations, eventually adopted these elements as traditional once they had become firmly established in society, and thus were no longer revolutionary, by the early twentieth century.
The conservative embrace of capitalism illustrates Burkean conservatism’s willingness to adopt institutions and ideologies once considered anathema. This openness to aspects of liberalism has not led to reciprocation from all liberals. Laissez-faire liberal Friedrich von Hayek, in his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” accuses conservatives of simply reacting to other ideologies and consequently embracing components of liberalism and socialism for want of any positive ideological program.
Conservatism in the United States
Whether or not conservatism has a tradition native to the United States is a matter of dispute. Because the US lacks any influential ideologies supportive of titled aristocracy or monarchy, and possesses ruling classes that are historically bourgeois and capitalist in nature, many observers of American politics, such as Louis Hartz, have concluded that American ideological traditions are predominantly liberal. The ideology that is known as conservatism in America is therefore a variety of liberalism.
American conservative Russell Kirk, on the other hand, maintains that John Adams and the Federalists of eighteenth-century America were conservatives for a variety of reasons. Specifically, they were suspicious of democracy, and they sought only to preserve English political rights that had been established following the English Civil War.4
The American Revolution, according to Kirk and Viereck, was conservative and was waged to preserve an existing way of life rather than to assert new political rights. Laissez-faire liberal Murray Rothbard disputes this interpretation, however, and asserts that the war itself, the removal of the loyalists after the war, and the subsequent land reforms were all revolutionary in nature.
Later Southern theorists such as George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun, who defended a Southern landed quasi aristocracy as an essential component of American civilization, appear to be more easily and properly identified as conservatives.
The political movement known as the conservative movement in the United States is largely rooted in nineteenth-century liberalism, although elements of traditional conservatism are found within the movement, especially in the thought of Kirk and the “traditional conservatives.”
The pre–World War II conservative movement, however, originated in opposition to the social democracy of the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression, and was characterized by laissez-faire and what is now called libertarianism more than with what was then known in the United States as conservatism. The word “conservative” had been used by left-wing critics of the libertarian opposition groups to characterize them as reactionary and antiliberal.
Only in the 1950s did some of these same opposition groups affirmatively adopt the term “conservative”—to the objection of libertarians. Writing in 1961, Ronald Hamowy denied a connection between American laissez-faire ideologies and conservatism. According to Hamowy and other libertarians of the time, the new European-style conservatism supported by Kirk and other traditionalists was
the conservatism not of the heroic band of libertarians who founded the anti–New Deal Right, but the traditional conservatism that has always been the enemy of true liberalism, the conservatism of Pharonic Egypt, of Medieval Europe, of Metternich and the Tsar, of James II, and the Inquisition; and Louis XVI, of the rack, the thumbscrew, the whip, and the firing squad.5
In spite of these objections, the conservative movement in the United States has been closely associated with laissez-faire ideology since the 1950s. Combining elements of anticommunism, nationalism, laissez-faire, and social traditionalism, the conservative movement in the United States has long been influential within the center-right Republican Party in the United States.
Many observers regard the 1980s as the high point of conservative politics in the West since the Second World War because of the Conservative Party electoral victory in the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States in 1980. As with many conservative political movements of the late twentieth century, the Reagan and Thatcher programs were marked by a mixture of economic liberalism, nationalism, anti-communism, and social traditionalism.
The wide-ranging privatization efforts under Thatcher owe more to liberal laissez-faire ideology than to British conservatism, prompting some observers of Thatcher to label her as radical rather than conservative. Ronald Reagan’s professed economic liberalism also runs counter to the conservative label, but with both Thatcher and Reagan, their pro-Western anti-communism, nationalism, and associations with traditional morality mark their tenures as conservative.
Today, in spite of the views held by most nineteenth-century conservative theorists, conservatism is far more closely associated in the political realm with right-wing populist parties than with Burkean conservatism or aristocratic opposition to mass democracy.
In Europe, the Danish People’s Party, the Party for Freedom in The Netherlands, and the National Front in France are often regarded as both conservative and populist. These right-wing parties tend to oppose immigration, to support traditional morality, and, in some cases, to explicitly support church-state alliances, as with the Danish People’s Party’s support for the Church of Denmark. The hard-line nationalism of many modern right-wing groups and their appeals for mass democratic support, however, separate many right-wing parties of recent decades from historical conservatism and even from contemporary adherents of Burkean-style conservatism.
Widely known theorists and politicians that can be considered historically orthodox in their conservatism have been rare in recent decades, although two Austrian aristocrats bear mentioning. In both cases, liberalism’s strong influence on European conservatism is evident.
The Austrian-born nobleman Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, described himself as a conservative arch-liberal and opposed democratization, mass movements, fascism, and totalitarianism. Kuehnelt-Leddihn is notable for asserting in a variety of scholarly works that had the conservative regimes of Europe survived the First World War, Europe would have avoided the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 40s. At the same time, he accepted numerous tenets of liberalism, including natural rights and the benefits of laissez faire, and was a columnist for publications of the American conservative movement.
Similarly, Otto von Habsburg, at one time the heir to the throne of Austria, was a conservative, a close associate of laissez-faire liberal economist Ludwig von Mises, and a member of the liberal Mont Pelerin Society. An internationalist conservative, opponent of Nazism, and early advocate of European integration, Habsburg was a member of the European Parliament during the 1980s and 1990s, an opponent of communism, and a supporter of what he viewed as traditional European civilization.
- 1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).
- 2. Peter Viereck, Conservative Thinkers (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006).
- 3. Ralph Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012).
- 4. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1985).
- 5. Murray N. Rothbard, The Betrayal of the American Right (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007).