Three Conceptions of Conservatism

Some of the best studies I have read on conservatism as a historical phenomenon have come from authors who were not in any conventional sense “conservative.” In this venerable company I would place the illustrious Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, whose essay “Conservatism as an Ideology” (American Political Science Review, 1957) is one of the most insightful, erudite studies on conservative thought from the 1950s. That was a decade in which Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, an Edmund Burke-revival was flourishing, National Review and Modern Age were founded, and the Southern Agrarians were still a significant cultural and artistic force. In the 1950s conservative publishers Regnery Gateway and Arlington House also came on the scene, as a conservative readership exploded.

It was also a decade in which English translations of Hungarian-German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s work became available. Although not a self-identified man of the right, Mannheim in his long essay “Conservative Thought” brilliantly explored the European counterrevolutionary worldview. Much of what Mannheim published about Burke, Louis de Bonald, and other seminal conservative thinkers was reflected in the social theoretical writings of Robert Nisbet, who became an academic star in the same fateful decade. If Huntington explored the conservative phenomenon extensively in his essay, he was writing about what in the 1950s was a hugely popular topic.

Despite patrician lineage, Huntington was a self-described liberal Democrat throughout most of his long life. But that hardly mattered if one reads his essay about conservatism and notices its dispassionate tone. Clinton Rossiter, who published Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion around the same time Huntington produced his essay, was a more left-leaning Democrat; yet Rossiter treated postwar conservatism with respect, if not with the same analytic rigor as Huntington. Needless to say, political and cultural attitudes in the 1950s were light years more conservative than they are right now. Huntington called for “gradualism” in desegregating educational and other public institutions and extolled the conservatism of the Southern planter class, without ceasing to think of himself as a man of the moderate left. Unlike our present era, self-described conservatives then would never dream of tearing down statues of the Founding Fathers or Robert E. Lee, celebrating gay marriage, or affirming various bizarre individualistic lifestyle choices.

Huntington examines his subject by way of “three broad and conflicting conceptions of the nature of conservatism as an ideology.” These are “aristocratic” or tradition-based conservatism, “principles-based” conservatism, and “situational,” or what we might think of as pragmatic or power-based conservatism. Although some might object to his use of “ideology” to characterize these conservative worldviews, Huntington does not mean any more by this usage than a political vision and the strategy for achieving it. He is not applying “ideology” in the sense in which Kirk rejected it, namely, as a total view of reality created to combat a hostile alternative.

Today, it is Huntington’s second concept of conservatism based on principles that is now the most widespread understanding of conservatism. This strain “holds that conservatism is not necessarily connected with the interests of any particular group, nor, indeed, is its appearance dependent upon any specific historical configuration of historical forces,” he wrote.

It is Kirk who is often associated with principles-based conservatism, which he formulated as his case for as an expansion of the tradition-based conservatism established by Burke. Although Kirk saw the emergence of a conservative worldview as a response to the French Revolution, particularly in Edmund Burke’s famed broadside, Reflections on the Revolution in France, he did not want to limit conservatism to a particular historical situation or time period. He and his followers therefore expounded a conservatism that “is relevant and desirable in contemporary America.” This form of conservatism, which draws on enumerated “canons” or principles, may have been what Huntington had in mind when he referred to conservatism as “the preferable political philosophy under any historical circumstances.”

Huntington contrasts principles-based conservatism to Burke’s aristocratic version, which represented “the reaction of the feudal aristocratic-agrarian classes to the French Revolution.” Following Karl Mannheim’s notion of conservatism as the reaction of a displaced former ruling class to a “particular historical and sociological situation,” Huntington regards this aristocratic conservatism as “indissolubly associated with feudalism, status, the ancien régime, landed interests, medievalism, and nobility.” Since such conservatism was “irreconcilably opposed to the middle class, labor commercialism, industrialism, democracy, liberalism, and individualism,” Huntington believed it was doomed to failure in an American society that lacked hereditary classes or an established national church.

Although Huntington recognizes aristocratic conservatism as the long prevalent form of conservatism in Europe, he believes it was foreign to America because of its clash with progressive ideas. Thus, Huntington repeats Louis Hartz’s argument in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) that because the U.S. was founded without a feudal aristocracy and with a liberal political tradition, any American conservatism based on aristocratic principles is a nonstarter.

What Huntington overlooks in his comments on aristocratic conservatism is what Alfred Cobban argued in his book Edmund Burke and the Revolt Against the Eighteenth Century. By the late 18th century, there was a powerful reaction setting in throughout Western Europe against rationalism in politics and the tumultuous effects of the French Revolution. Aristocratic conservatism as espoused by Burke, Samuel Coleridge, and Robert Southey held a high place among Cobban’s subjects, and was a critical influence for what became by the early 19th century the romantic movement. In this cultural and literary reaction to the “Age of Reason,” there was at least implicitly a glorification of the pre-Enlightenment and particularly the medieval past.

Contra Huntington, this aristocratic conservatism was relevant in America because it migrated to other classes, particularly the bourgeoisie. Literature stressing national antiquities and praising nobility and the lost age of chivalry flourished in the 19th-century homes of merchants and urban professionals, both in Europe and America.

Benjamin Disraeli, the scion of an Italian Jewish commercial family, became a leading light in the Tory Young England movement of the 1840s. In Disraeli’s novel Coningsby (1844), the novel’s protagonist is based on George Smythe, a founder of Young England and an aristocrat. The aristocratic hero stands up for “the old England” before industrialization and bourgeois greed came to ruin what had been an agrarian country. The Young England movement, which Disraeli spearheaded with Smythe and the Marquess of Granby, saw the coming together of landed aristocrats with the rising bourgeoisie, who shared their idealization of a past golden age. This fellowship also aimed at preserving tariffs for British grain producers and lending support to the monarchy and England’s national church.

The novels of Sir Walter Scott were steeped in this idealization of England’s lost aristocratic age, read and reread by America’s Southern planter class, as Roland Osterweis shows in Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South (1949). Even the children of frontiersmen were quick to identify themselves with the European gentry after they acquired estates in the antebellum South. Eugene D. Genovese underlines this point in Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) and his other magisterial works on the Southern slave economy and the world that the Southern master class built. Genovese focuses on the honor ethic and noblesse oblige this dominant class tried to personify, as it emulated European aristocratic standards of behavior.

The first families of Virginia, and more generally Southern conservatives, long identified themselves with the Cavaliers, who fought against the English Puritans in defense of King Charles I in the English Civil War. Whether these self-identified American aristocrats are in fact descended from the royalists may matter less than the monarchist legend they preserved, one that was very much alive in the years leading up to the American Civil War.

Moreover, conservatism has links to ideas that originated long before the French Revolution and Burke’s Reflections. Greek-German intellectual historian Panajotis Kondylis in his 1986 magnum opus, Konservativismus (Conservatism) sets out to prove that “aristocratic conservatism” was already taking form in the Middle Ages. Kondylis offers as proof the detailed defenses of aristocratic privilege and decentralized government emerging from late medieval Europe. These defenses of aristocratic rule returned in a modified form during and after the French Revolution; and, according to Kondylis, they acquired an appeal that extended beyond the aristocratic class in which they once incubated.

Arguments against political leveling and in favor of “tradition” penetrated bourgeois circles throughout the 19th century. Contrary to what Huntington suggests, aristocratic conservatism enjoyed a long life as a mutating form of discourse that fitted the need of various ruling classes struggling against upstart adversaries. It also imprinted itself in literary and even cinematic culture well into the 20th century, such as in film adaptations of Anthony Hope’s 1867 courtly adventure novel Prisoner of Zenda and, in Germany, films celebrating the Habsburg empire.

Huntington’s third concept of conservatism is what he calls “situational.” He writes that this

[A]rises out of a distinct but recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ their own conservative ideology defensively. Thus, conservatism is that system of ideas employed to justify any established social order, no matter when it exists, against any fundamental challenge to its nature, no matter from what quarter.

In his elaboration of this third concept, Huntington removes conservatism from any specific historical context and locates it wherever or whenever those holding power are challenged from below. Because it is a conservative strain of thought that is primarily concerned with how an elite defends its own power and privilege, its explicators in the 20th century are the elite theorists inspired by Niccolo Machiavelli, who James Burnham wrote about in his 1943 book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom.

By this standard, it may be necessary to view woke left administrators pushing back against their opposition as defenders of “conservative” interests. Since in this case it is the cultural leftists who are responding to their power being challenged by a populist right, it is the left-wingers here who can be situationally described as “conservative.” Please note that Huntington’s third concept refers to a situation in which any group of defenders of established institutions are resisting those who challenge their control. If that is indeed the case, then it shouldn’t matter what those institutions are advocating or imposing, in order to designate their defenders as conservatives.

Despite the vulnerability to contradiction inherent within Huntington’s third concept, it does make a perfectly valid point that needs to be affirmed. Conservatism develops out of conflict, in which traditional ways of life and traditional loyalties come under attack and need to be defended. Mannheim notes that conservatives felt forced to defend their position only when what seemed “nonproblematic” suddenly fell under assault. Conservatives constructed their ideology in the course of protecting what had once been taken for granted as a permanent social order. Their defense was historically grounded and arose from a traditional ruling class going on the defensive. It had nothing to do with today’s phenomenon of intellectuals putting together lists of preferred values, or college students discovering one day that they would rather vote Republican than Democratic. Conservatism is a position born of struggle, arising at a particular time in a particular civilization.

Aristocratic conservatism does refer to actual conflicts in which recognizable conservatives were united against a shared adversary. That form of conservatism was the template for its 19th-century manifestations and explains why we would consider Burke, who was an impassioned opponent of the French Revolution, a prototypically conservative thinker. Although Burke may have been more than a defender of Huntington’s spurned aristocratic conservatism, he was unmistakably that as well.

All of Huntington’s concepts of conservatism remain relevant for providing a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon under investigation. None of them can stand entirely on its own, however, in fulfilling that task. Moreover, if forced to pick from Huntington’s list what seems furthest from the essence of conservatism, I would choose the type stressing autonomous principles. It may be fruitless to talk about political conservatism unless we can situate it historically. Value talk does not make a conservative movement.

The struggle on behalf of long-hallowed institutions, ideally led by traditional social elites, represents for me the conservative political tradition in its most complete form. Needless to say, we are not speaking here about cultural traditionalists, who may arise even when political conservatism is weak or nonexistent. These traditionalists are preserving a heritage, but it is one that only derivatively reveals a political nature. Pointing this out does not minimize the achievements of cultural conservatives. It only indicates what these worthy humanists and moralists are not.

We may, however, speak about a political right-wing that develops in place of a truer conservatism. That would involve a mass of activists who have mobilized against leftist domination but who would not meet all the requirements for what seems to me a full conservative movement. Unlike the advocates of mere value conservatism, however, a genuine right-wing grasps the existential threat that has called forth serious opposition. And this right-wing would certainly not modify its position to please friends and patrons on the left.

In any case, I am not describing here an ideal conservative movement, which may not be possible in our present historical context. But that does not signify that no organized opposition to the left is possible. Not every age can beget a full conservative movement, but an imperfect resistance against what is considered evil and perverse is better than pretending to resist forces to which one is surrendering by stages.

Finally, Hartz’s notion that the United States never had a real conservative tradition because it never had a feudal aristocracy is open to question. In no way does the absence of such an institutionalized feudal beginning prove this country never had traditional hierarchies that approximated European aristocracies.

Such ruling classes did exist in early America, for example, in the antebellum South, among Dutch landowners in the Hudson Valley, and in New England. One may doubt whether there was much difference between the political views of the High Federalists in New England during the 1790s and their European aristocratic counterparts; both deplored the demonic effects of the French Revolution, often in the same worried terms. Although class structure was not as formalized here as it was in Europe, Hartz may overstate the significance of egalitarianism and individualism as the key American traditions.

A patrician class living along the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Georgia, once definitely exhibited some of the same characteristics as European aristocracy. Digby Baltzell in his classic study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979) minutely examines two once-influential elites in their Northeastern strongholds, one in Boston and the other in Philadelphia. Baltzell leaves us with the impression that this once-established upper class exercised considerable influence in a previous age. In the 18th century, moreover, Eastern patricians held both indentured servants and, in some cases, slaves. Abolitionism and female suffrage, which often went together in early 19th century America, pointed ultimately in a leftist direction by highlighting the demand for greater equality. But neither was a notably strong force at the time that the United States became a constitutional republic.

Hartz’s observation concerning America’s liberal founding does offer a defensible position once it has been adequately qualified. The U.S. became gradually more egalitarian and more individualistic than those places from whence immigrants came. It also offered newcomers far more financial opportunity. But that does not mean the country they moved into did not include conservative communities and at least residual hierarchical structures. This long remained the case, even if the American republic was born of a political revolution.

Although a “conservative rout” took place eventually in the U.S.—if we may cite the original title of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind—conservative and even aristocratic conservative elements once prospered on these shores. Although that situation eventually ended, this hardly confirms Hartz’s picture of our Lockean founding. Forces of change took over, and these would include an expanding frontier society, the ascendancy of an industrial capitalist elite, and in the 20th century, a managerial takeover of government and society that has continued to this day. Countries are internally transformed; and one would be hard-pressed to find much evidence of social or cultural continuity between the America of 1900 and the one we now inhabit.
Hartz at his most unconvincing tries to present the American welfare state as a natural progression of the atomistic individualist government that he ascribes to the American founders. This view is certainly open to question. Although the materialism and individualism that Hartz finds in America’s origins may not please the traditional right, it is different in its nature from the administrative collectivism that followed. The modern welfare state came partly out of a rejection of the “heartless,” plundering capitalism that it was meant to replace or mitigate.

We may note that Hartz’s view of an atomistic early America has not gone unchallenged. Barry Shain’s Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought, which shows the dominance of the Calvinist clergy in early American communal life, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition by George Carey and Willmoore Kendall, and Kirk’s Roots of American Order all exemplify correctives to Hartz’s one-sided thesis about the American founding. Although individualism, consumerism, and geographical restlessness have also been part of the American story, hierarchy, communitarianism, and European cultural and religious traditions were also once integral to this country’s identity.

Finally, those who notice that I’ve moved closer to Kirk’s quest for a genuine American conservatism and further from Hartz’s thesis than I was when I authored my last book on the conservative movement in 2007 (Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right) are not deceiving themselves. Kirk’s exploration of American conservative traditions (please note the plural “traditions” here) continues to deserve our attention even 71 years after Kirk’s publication of The Conservative Mind.

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