As with many political terms, the word “Conservatism” is anything but self-explaining. A common definition is to take the word quite literally. It is then a political ideology that advocates the “conservation” of the actual political, social, and/or economic system. Minor changes are probably inevitable in any situation. But Conservatism in this sense is opposed to major changes. That contrasts with a view that sees change as the main point, often understood as progress along some course from primitive to advanced.
The problem with this definition is that it is disconnected from the content and runs against the self-image of actual parties and writers who view themselves as Conservatives:
In Tsarist Russia, Conservatives would have been those who defended the autocratic regime. After the Revolution of 1917 and the consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, the Communists would have to be called the Conservatives. In 1932, Conservatives would be those who wanted to preserve the Weimar Republic, eg. the Social Democrats, while Conservatives in the party political sense (mostly the DNVP) were in the opposition and wanted to do away with the “system.” A few years later, the Nazis would be the Conservatives, while previous party Conservatives might either join or oppose them. You could make this list as long as you want.
The classification is not useless because it can help with keeping track of different political directions at a certain point in time and for a certain society. It also captures a fundamental opposition to drastic changes. However, it lacks constancy. When the reference point changes, so do also the classifications. In addition, there is no obvious unifying principle across societies and times. Conservatism can be almost anything apart from ideologies that are into some “permanent revolution” or no fixed order at all. And many parties and writers that have called themselves “Conservatives” would not deserve the term, while others would fall under it that would never have viewed themselves as such.
The concept of Conservatism in this sense can hence lead to many confusions instead of helping to clear them up. Assertions may be silly if the term is not even applied with consistency, sometimes per the definition, then for particular parties who called themselves Conservatives. This can lead to shallow claims. It is, for example, not uncommon that someone points out that Conservatives were opposed to the Nazis who wanted dramatic change. And that’s why these two direction have nothing in common, or were even complete opposites.
Party Conservatives in Weimar Germany (the DNVP) were not Conservatives in the above sense because they advocated a return to a monarchical order that was actually not the order of Imperial Germany as it had existed, but a certain idealization of what it should have been. On the level of their program, party Conservatives were quite close to the Nazis. And the DNVP was not the strongest opponent, but the enabler of Hitler’s rise to power. I have written about one aspect of this overlap between the ideologies in my article “Were the Nazis “Socialists?”.” But there is more to it that I will explore in further posts.
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There is a different definition of Conservatism that I have learned from Jan Narveson in his “The Libertarian Idea.” I don’t think that it originated with him, but I have not tried to track down where it comes from. In my words, the idea is that Conservatives assume that there is one correct way of life and order, or as Narveson calls it: a conception of the “good life.” A political, social and/or economic system should preserve it if the lifestyle already prevails at a certain time. In this case, the definition coincides with the one above. But if the actual political order does not lead to the “good life,” then Conservatives would want to make it mandatory, ie. they would work for change, not conservation.
The anti-thesis to Conservatism are ideologies that do not advocate a mandatory lifestyle, and can accomodate many. They do not have an ultimate goal for society. There is an open process how it develops. Most Social Democrats, liberals of various strands, or libertarians are then the other side of Conservatism. However, also some strands in Anglo-Saxon countries that call themselves “Conservatives” fall somewhere in between. They pursue a certain vision of the “good life,” but are still willing to grant open outcomes to some extent.
There are still problems also with this definition. For example, it does not preclude huge disagreements about the correct lifestyle. The exact content is hence not determined, only some broad features. But then to capture what different political ideologies have in common, a term cannot be too stringent.
There can also be another objection: Political directions that are the anti-thesis of Conservatism in this sense do not necessarily advocate an open outcome in every sense. A liberal democracy might be viewed as de rigueur, or a certain economic system as opposed to others. However, this is more on a meta-level. There is Conservatism for a framework of rules, but not for the outcomes and how they play out in a society. In principle, it is understood that there will always be many that are quite distinct, while Conservatism in the current sense views one lifestyle as mandatory.
Despite these problems, the current definition of Conservatism is much more useful than the first, which is only in reference to a specific situation. It captures a similarity that can be found across different Conservatisms: a similar worldview, similar arguments, and so forth. The advantage is also that continuity of the terminology in time is usually not a problem unless a political ideology undergoes fundamental changes, which is a different matter. also comparisons between different Conservatisms across societies now turn around essential similarities, and are not dependent on accidental reference points, or a very general aversion against drastic change.
The definition is still very broad, and there can be huge disagreements here: The visions of a Salafist that the correct lifestyle should be what it was supposed to have been at the time of the prophet, of an adherent of Hindutva about that of a supposed original Hinduism, of a defender of the “ancien régime” before the French Revolution, or also of the proponent of a “natural” order in keeping with biology as with the Nazis, etc. will certainly not coincide.
My point here, though, is only that this definition of the term “Conservatism” is useful for talking about similarities, not that there is an equivalence in every way, especially not regarding moral judgments.
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Associated with the various Conservative ideologies in this sense is a Conservative worldview. If it is not clear what I mean by that, please refer to my post “Worldviews, Narratives, and Ideologies.” In short, what I call a worldview is this:
It is a set of assumptions about the world on an intuitive level: What is the case, who are the actors, how do different parts fit together, how have they developed over time, and so forth. Since this is on an intuitive level, the factual assertions are intertwined with emotions, moral and sometimes even aesthetic judgments. Unlike with rational thought, conclusions within a worldview are fast and automatic, mostly out of reach for focused reflection. They appear as immediately self-evident.
One component of a Conservative worldview is that there are eternal principles that transcend mortal human beings. In earlier versions, these were tied to religious beliefs or traditions that had apparently existed forever. In more modern versions, they could also be viewed as “scientific,” eg. the idea of a natural “struggle for existence” or assumptions about how humans originally lived and organized into tribes.
In as much as the eternal principles are religious, there is no further need for many Conservatives to provide a further justification. However, Conservatisms in societies that have gone through some kind of Enlightenment tend to supply also rational arguments for their ideology. A common one is that the correct lifestyle is in tune with human nature in some sense. Another argument is the claim that it is the precondition for the existence of order at all, the survival of a nation, or a functioning society.
The underlying assumption of these arguments seems to be that only a specific lifestyle can achieve these outcomes. In keeping with this view, other conceptions are rejected as “unnatural,” in contradiction with morals, especially religously founded morals, or as leading to the dissolution of society, decay, weakness, barbarism, instability, or chaos.
The opposition of “order versus chaos” often features centrally in Conservative thinking. Arnold Kling in his “The Three Languages of Politics” takes the opposition of “civilization versus barbarism” as fundamental. However, I would say that this is more of a special case of “order versus chaos,” only more popular in an American context.
The Conservative worldview is intertwined with moral judgments in as much as the envisioned order is interpreted as good, God-given, or natural, and its opposite as bad, ungodly, or unnatural. That may flow from religious views, but also from instrumental considerations, eg. that a society or state needs it to withstand challenges from without, or that only in this way people can be happy although this is more or less a consequentialist or even utilitarian argument congenial to the Enlightenment, while Conservatives often trace their pedigree to some critique of it.
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A logical problem for any Conservatism in this sense is that the appeal to eternal principles that have to be so because some supernatural being wanted them this way, or because they are necessary like a natural law, should lead to the conclusion that things are anyway so. It would be like a political theory that turns around the law of gravity or the fact that human beings regularly have a head. It could not be otherwise, and hence Conservatism would be pointless.
But then Conservatives usually assume at the same time that the eternal or natural order can and does often not work out. This is also in tension with claims that is is particularly stable and organic. In view of the historical development of Conservatism, this view is understandable. It became only necessary as a political program once a fundamental challenge to some order had arisen.
To fix the problem that what is supposed to be eternal and at the same time precarious, Conservative worldviews often resort to certain explanations.
A popular one is that humans are actually not all by themselves inclined to live the “good life.” This idea is often tied to a pessimistic view that humans are weak and easily tempted to mischief. Still a certain contradiction remains: What is eternal, natural, and so forth, is actually viewed as an unlikely outcome that could slip away at any time. Deviations from the correct lifestyle then appear as threats that go far beyond their direct effects. They are a slippery slope to chaos. There is a deep underlying anxiety here that what is supposed to be stable is actually quite unstable. This leads to a tendency to view force and pressure as the means to keep the lifestyle intact. Humans if left alone would not choose the “good life” and wreak havoc.
Another way to explain why the eternal order is actually not eternal and is viewed as an unlikely outcome is that some people or groups work against it. They mislead others or even work as a conspiracy that leads to an “unnatural” or “immoral” outcome. In this view, one of the main objectives is to edge those enemies out.
My explanation for a Conservative worldview is certainly incomplete and wanting. It is also very broad and may be off for many Conservatisms. Still, I think it captures major elements that are similar, though not identical across Conservative ideologies.
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Whether you go along with my further specification via an associated worldview or stick with the definition that Conservatism is any political ideology that posits some mandatory lifestyle, which would afford more leeway, there can be very different types of Conservatism also in the following dimension:
Unlike for the definition that Conservatism is only about conserving the given political, social, and economic order, it is not necessary so that the actual situation is already what Conservatives want. There can be basically three different cases:
(1) The ideal order is the one that currently exists.
(2) The ideal order existed before, but no longer. Yet it seems within reach, and it is possible to imagine a rather direct return to it.
(3) The ideal order either existed in some mythical past that is out of reach. Or it has never existed and should be established according to eternal principles in the future.
Let me flesh this out a little, also with different terms and some examples:
(1) Actual Conservatism
The current order is already the ideal order. If it were not challenged, Conservatism would be pointless. Otherwise, the main purpose is to fend off major change and preserve the correct lifestyle. That would be the Conservatism, for example, in Germany before the Revolution of 1848, or in Tsarist Russia that had not yet gone through a revolution.
In much earlier times, there were also people who were effectively Conservatives, eg. the supporters of a certain royal house and its system. However, without a fundamental challenge, Conservatism was not a political program. That only became relevant with the Enlightenment and the revolutions from the 18th century on. Despite its self-image as in direct connection with eternity, Conservatism is only somewhat more than two centuries old.
(2) Reactionary Conservatism
The ideal order has slipped away in the recent past. It seems still within reach, and so Conservatives advocate a return to the “ancien régime.” That would be the Conservatism in Germany during the Revolution of 1848. After its suppression, in the “Reaktionszeit” (time of Reaction) from 1849 to 1858, society was mostly liberal, the Conservative program was hence one of forcing it back to an earlier time. The Conservatives of the time were somewhere between Reactionary and Actual Conservatives.
A similar description also applies for the Conservatives in Imperial Germany. On the one hand, their program was about the preservation of the actual state. But they were also dissatisfied that liberal reforms had gone too far in their view and should hence be turned back. Conservatives in Weimar Germany with a somewhat mythical Empire in mind, as if the Conservative program had been perfectly successful, again fit the bill of Reactionary Conservatives.
Other examples would be the Whites during the Russian Civil War or French Conservatives that tried to restore the Bourbon monarchy, the Legimists, before the defeat of Napoléon, but also Bonapartists afterwards who wanted the Empire back.
(3) Revolutionary Conservatism
Here the reference point is not always entirely clear. It can be a mythical state in the past or one that should be established anew in the future according to eternal principles. Examples here would be Conservatisms that arose from a certain ethnic nationalism later in the 19th century, especially in countries where there had not been a national state for a long time or ever.
A similar type of Conservatism would be the “völkisch” movement in Imperial Germany from the late 19th century on that was dissatisfied with the existing order, but also not interested in returning to the times before 1848. It played a larger role in the Weimar Republic and was often opposed to the Reactionary Conservatism of the DNVP.
The Nazis would be an extreme example of this direction although in the narrow meaning of the 19th century they were not “völkisch,” only swept up the term as their own. A “völkisch” ideology in the original sense would turn around the German “Volk” as a linguistic and cultural entity, ie. including Austrians, while the Nazis had “race” as their reference point.
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Different Conservatisms can develop from one to another: In power they would start out as Actual Conservatives. Shortly out of power, they would become Reactionary Conservatives, and later and still out of power: Revolutionary Conservatives. However, many Revolutionary Conservatisms could also spring from the intellectual ground without any such evolution. Once in power, Reactionary and Revolutionary Conservatives can turn into Actual Conservatives, at least once they view their mission as complete.
With a variety of visions of the correct lifestyle, there can also be different Conservatisms at the same time: Bonapartist Actual Conservatives under Napoléon and Reactionary Conservative Legitimists. After the Revolution of 1830, there were even three directions: Legitimists, who did not accept the outcome, Orléanists, who did and were Actual Conservatives, as well as Bonapartists. The latter became Actual Conservatives under the Second Empire. And all of them were Reactionary Conservatives from the Third Republic after 1870 on.
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I don’t think that this is a perfect classification, and many cases may be intermediate, especially when there is a transition of one type to another. Still, I think this terminology can help clear up confusions why the political programs of Conservatives can develop over time and undergo major changes. Without denying important differences, it is still possible to view them as part of a general political direction and bring their interconnections into relief.
Of course, this is only a very broad approach that lacks the detail that is warranted. I will develop these ideas in further posts. This is only a first step and an attempt to introduce an adequate terminology that can capture what is common for different types of Conservatisms, but also what is not.