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Conservatism as an Ideology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

Samuel P. Huntington
Harvard University


Does conservative political thought have a place in America today? The answer to this question depends upon the general nature of conservatism as an ideology: its distinguishing characteristics, its substance, and the conditions under which it arises. By ideology I mean a system of ideas concerned with the distribution of political and social values and acquiesced in by a significant social group. Interpretations of the role and relevance of conservative thought on the contemporary scene vary greatly. Underlying the debate, however, are three broad and conflicting conceptions of the nature of conservatism as an ideology. This essay deals with the relative merits of these concepts.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1957

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1 This essay deals only with conservative theory. It is not concerned with conservative instincts, attitudes, political parties, or governmental policies. For contrasting views on the meaning of ideology, see Mannheim, Karl, Ideology and Utopia (New York, 1949), pp. 49 ff.Google Scholar and Friedrich, Carl J. and Zbigniew, K. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge, 1956), pp. 71 ff.Google Scholar

2 Mannheim, Karl, “Conservative Thought,” Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology, ed. Kecskemeti, Paul (New York, 1953), pp. 9899Google Scholar. For contemporary use of the aristocratic definition with respect to the “New Conservatism,” see Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., “The New Conservatism in America: A Liberal Comment,” Confluence, Vol. 2, pp. 6171 (December, 1953)Google Scholar, and The New Conservatism: Politics of Nostalgia,” Reporter, Vol. 12, pp. 912 (June 16, 1955)Google Scholar; Crick, Bernard, “The Strange Quest for an American Conservatism,” Review of Politics, Vol. 17, pp. 361–63 (July, 1955)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lewis, Gordon K., “The Metaphysics of Conservatism,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 6, pp. 731–32 (December, 1953)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Kirk, Russell, A Program for Conservatives (Chicago, 1954), pp. 22, 3839Google Scholar; Viereck, Peter, Conservatism Revisited (New York, 1949), p. 9Google Scholar.

4 See Rossiter, Clinton, Conservatism in America (New York, 1955), p. 9Google Scholar; Wilson, Francis G., “A Theory of Conservatism,” this Review, Vol. 35, pp. 3940 (February, 1941)Google Scholar; English, Raymond, “Conservatism: The Forbidden Faith,” American Scholar, Vol. 21, pp. 399401 (October, 1952)Google Scholar; Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., “Conservative vs. Liberal—A Debate,” New York Times Magazine, March 4, 1956, pp. 11 ff.Google Scholar

5 See Kirk, op. cit., p. 37, and compare Schlesinger's summary of conservative concepts Confluence, Vol. 2, pp. 6465Google Scholar, with Kirk's, summary, The Conservative Mind (Chicago, 1953), pp. 310Google Scholar. See also below, note 27.

6 Hence any theory of natural law as a set of transcendent and universal moral principles is inherently nonconservative. Mannheim, consequently, is quite right in identifying opposition to natural law as a distinguishing characteristic of conservatism, op. cit., pp. 116–19. On Burke's denial of natural law, see Cobban, Alfred, Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century (London, 1929), pp. 40 ff.Google Scholar, 75, and Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago, 1953), pp. 13–14 and 318–19Google Scholar, who makes the point that Burke differed from previous thinkers precisely in that he did not judge the British constitution by a standard transcending it. The efforts of contemporary publicists such as Russell Kirk to appear conservative and yet at the same time to espouse a universal natural law are manifestly inconsistent.

7 Since conservatism is the ideological justification of established social and political institutions, a conservative defense of sheer chaos or of a society in a continuing state of rapid revolutionary change would be impossible except for an individual so nimble, so cunning, so strong as to be confident of his talent for flourishing as an outlaw. This raises the question as to the chances of conservatism in a modern totalitarian state. If totalitarian society is, as Franz Neumann described Nazi Germany, “a non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy,” a conservative defense of such a society is impossible. On the other hand, if a totalitarian regime under attack did articulate a theory characterized by a number of conservative elements, this in itself would be supporting evidence that it had “settled down” and was no longer in a state of permanent revolution. The answer to this general question obviously depends upon the nature of totalitarianism rather than on the nature of conservatism. See Friedrich, Carl J. (ed.), Totalitarianism (Cambridge, 1954)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Arendt, Hannah, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Review of Politics, Vol. 15, pp. 303–27 (July, 1953)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Neumann, Franz, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (New York, 1942)Google Scholar; Brzezinski, Zbigniew K., “Totalitarianism and Rationality,” this Review, Vol. 50, p. 751 (Sept., 1956)Google Scholar.

8 Op. cit., p. 115.

9 See Bonald's famous comment: “Quand Dieu a voulu punir la France, il a fait retirer les Bourbons.” “Pensées sur Divers Sujets,” Oeuvres (Paris, 1817), Vol. 6, 172Google Scholar. Also: de Maistre, Joseph, “Considerations sur la France,” Oeuvres (Bruxelles, 1838), Vol. 7Google Scholar, Ch. 1, 2; and Strauss's discussion of Burke, op. cit., pp. 317–19.

10 “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Works (Boston, 1865), Vol. 3, p. 352Google Scholar (hereafter cited as Works).

11 See e.g., Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” Works, Vol. 1, pp. 436, 440–41, 469, 472–74, 491–93, 508Google Scholar.

12 For Burke's views on aristocracy, see ibid., Vol. 1, p. 458; “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” ibid., Vol. 4, pp. 174–75; “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” ibid., Vol. 3, p. 297; “Speech on the Second Reading of a Bill for the Repeal of the Marriage Act,” The Works of Edmund Burke (London, World's Classics), Vol. 3, p. 385Google Scholar; MacCunn, John, The Political Philosophy of Burke (London, 1913), pp. 157–60, 173 ff.Google Scholar, 258–68. On Burke's difficulties with the aristocracy, see Morley, John Viscount, Burke (London, 1923), pp. 198208Google Scholar.

13 Namier, L. B., England in the Age of the American Revolution (London, 1930), pp. 15, 38, 40Google Scholar: “Trade was not despised in eighteenth-century England—it was acknowledged to be the great concern of the nation ….” See also Lecky, W. E. H., A History of England in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1878), Vol. 1, p. 433Google Scholar: “In very few periods in English political history was the commercial element more conspicuous in administration …. The questions which excited most interest were chiefly financial and commercial ones.” And Hammond, J. L. and Hammond, Barbara, The Rise of Modern Industry (New York, 1926), pp. 6465Google Scholar: “In eighteenth-century England, industry seemed the most important thing in the world. All classes put industrial expansion high among the objects of public policy ….” On the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England and the prestige of commerce and industry, see also: Cunningham, W., The Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 1908), p. 494Google Scholar; Selley, W. T., England in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1934), pp. 218–19Google Scholar; Bowden, Witt, The Rise of the Great Manufacturers in England, 1760–1790 (Allentown, 1919)Google Scholar, passim.

14 Cavendish Debates, Vol. 1, p. 476Google Scholar, quoted in Murray, Robert H., Edmund Burke: A Biography (Oxford, 1931), p. 192Google Scholar (italics added).

15 Annual Register, 1776, Vol. 19, p. 241Google Scholar.

16 Bisset, Robert, The Life of Edmund Burke, 2 vote. 2d ed. (London, 1800), Vol. 2, p. 429Google Scholar.

17 Quoted in Morley, , Burke, pp. 190–91, 245Google Scholar, and Sabine, George H., A History of Political Theory (New York, 1950, rev. ed)., p. 616Google Scholar.

18 Some conservative elements persisted in the Vindiciae, but they were obscured by the appeal to the social contract and natural law. Cf. Figgis, J. N., From Gerson to Grotius (Cambridge, 1916), pp. 174–79Google Scholar and Sabine, , A History of Political Theory, pp. 375–77Google Scholar.

19 See Nevinson, Charles (ed.), Latter Writings of Bishop Hooper (Cambridge, 1852)Google Scholar, esp. “Annotations on Romans XIII,” pp. 93–116; Janelle, Pierre (ed.), Obedience in Church and State: Three Political Tracts by Stephen Gardiner (Cambridge, 1930)Google Scholar; Walter, Henry (ed.), Doctrinal Treatises by William Tyndale (Cambridge, 1848), esp. pp. 173 ff.Google Scholar, 195–97, 240 ff.; Morris, Christopher, Political Thought in England, Tyndale to Hooker (London, 1953), pp. 15, 17, 57, 6877Google Scholar. One hundred years later Bramhall duplicated those arguments in his controversies with Hobbes. See Bramhall, John, Works (Oxford, 1844), Vol. 3Google Scholar, “A Fair Warning to take Heed of the Scotch Discipline,” and “The Serpent-Salve, or, the Observator's Grounds Discussed,” esp. pp. 236, 241, 272, 298, 309, 318; Bowie, John, Hobbes and His Critics (New York, 1952), pp. 114 ff.Google Scholar; Eliot, T. S., For Lancelot Andrewes (Garden City, 1929), pp. 2746Google Scholar.

20 For typical conservative expressions in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, see: Pref., i, 2, iii, 7, iv, 4, vi, 5–6; I, v, 1, x, 4; IV, i, e, iv, 2, xii, 2, xiv, 1–2; V, vii, 3, lxxi, 4; VII, i, 1–2; VIII, ii, 2, 17. On Hooker's conservatism generally, see Wolin, Sheldon, “Richard Hooker and English Conservatism,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. VI, pp. 2847 (March, 1953)Google Scholar. On the nature of the Puritan challenge and the origins of Hooker's work, see Sisson, C. J., The Judicious Marriage of Mr. Hooker and the Birth of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Cambridge, 1940)Google Scholar, passim, and Davies, E. T., The Political Ideas of Richard Hooker (London, 1946)Google Scholar, Ch. 1, 2.

21 See Aris, Reinhold, History of Political Thought in Germany (London, 1936), pp. 54–58, 256Google Scholar. Brandes and Rehberg wrote their conservative works before reading Burke. Möser was closer to feudalism, but even he, as Mannheim points out, “Conservative Thought,” pp. 144–45, had little use for the nobility, and was primarily concerned with the preservation of the medieval social system as a whole.

22 Murray, Joseph C., “The Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre,” Review of Politics, Vol. 11, p. 86 (January, 1949)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Micaud, Charles A., The French Right and Nazi Germany, 1933–1939 (Durham, 1943), pp. 115Google Scholar.

23 For the change in southern thinking about 1830, see Dodd, William E., The Cotton Kingdom (New Haven, 1921), pp. 48 ff.Google Scholar, and Lloyd, Arthur Y., The Slavery Controversy (Chapel Hill, 1939), pp. 119 ff.Google Scholar

24 Hartz, Louis, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York, 1955), p. 146Google Scholar.

25 Ibid., pp. 147 ff.

26 The significance of positional ideologies has been obscured by the assumption, deriving from Mannheim's sociology of knowledge, that every ideology has a “carrier” in the form of a specific social group or class. The argument here is that ideologies may also have “carriers” in the form of recurring patterns of relations among groups.

27 Hearnshaw, F. J. C., Conservatism in England (London, 1933), pp. 22 ff.Google Scholar; Kirk, , Conservative Mind, pp. 78Google Scholar; Rossiter, , Conservatism in America, pp. 6162Google Scholar; Mannheim, , “Conservative Thought,” p. 114Google Scholar; Cecil, Lord Hugh, Conservatism (London, 1937), p. 48Google Scholar; Shanahan, William O., “The Social Outlook of Prussian Conservatism,” Review of Politics, Vol. 15, pp. 222–25 (April, 1953)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; White, R. J. (ed.), The Conservative Tradition (London, 1950), pp. 110Google Scholar.

28 “Conservative Thought,” p. 120.

29 Murray, , Review of Politics, Vol. 11, p. 86Google Scholar; Leavelle, Arnaud B. and Cook, Thomas I., “George Fitzhugh and the Theory of American Conservatism,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 7, pp. 146–47 (May, 1945)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Its lack of both an intellectual tradition and a substantive ideal account for another peculiar aspect of conservatism: the extent to which it has been ignored by political scientists writing on political theory. In the political theory textbooks conservatism rarely, if ever, appears, and when it does it is treated, on the whole, in a very skimpy manner. Similarly, there are no decent histories of conservative thought. The reason for this lies partly in the nature of conservatism and partly in the training of political scientists. The latter learn to analyze historical schools of thoughts, to trace the development of ideas, to identify the influence of one man on another, and to search out the ideological schisms and doctrinal divergencies in a school of thought. They are also taught to dissect the substantive ideals of ideologies in terms of their inherent logic and consistency, the theories of man and nature which they reflect, and the group interests which they rationalize and project. Lacking an intellectual tradition and a substantive ideal, conservatism does not lend itself to fruitful analysis along these lines. Not knowing what questions to ask about conservatism or how to evaluate its significance, political scientists have tended to ignore it.

31 Conservative Mind, pp. 10, 428, and Program for Conservatives, passim. It is essential to distinguish between those such as Kirk who criticize the institutions and the theory of modern liberal democracy and those such as Reinhold Niebuhr who limit their critique to the theory of liberalism while praising the inherent wisdom of its institutions.

32 But see Kariel's, Henry S. reinterpretation of him, “The Limits of Social Science: Henry Adams' Quest for Order,” in this Review, Vol. 50, p. 1074 (December, 1956)Google Scholar.

33 Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process (Baltimore, 1955), pp. 57Google Scholar.

34 A good example is the common experience of the American in Europe who extols the United States as the land of freedom, equality, and democracy, and then is asked: “What about the Negro in the South?” In reply, the American inevitably stresses the magnitude of the social problems involved, the inevitability of gradualness, the impossibility of altering habits overnight by legislative fiat, and the tensions caused by too rapid social change. In short, he drops the liberal language of equality and freedom and turns to primarily conservative concepts and arguments.