Skip to main content

The Contradictions of Conservatism

  • James Alexander

This article is a study of the contradictions of conservatism. It shows that most modern writers since Oakeshott have defined conservatism in an abstract manner. Here I argue that their definition, although not wrong, is an incomplete definition which is only coherent because it is incomplete. It is only the first stage in understanding conservatism, which has to be understood also as a negation of rival ideologies and, further, as a political position which points to a tradition or truth outside itself and which can, in service of this tradition or truth, be radical. Since it is part of the standard definition of conservatism that it cannot be radical, this means conservatism, taken as a whole, contradicts itself.

Hide All

James Alexander is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University. Contact email:

Hide All
Alexander, J. (2012), ‘Three Rival Views of Tradition (Arendt, Oakeshott, MacIntyre)’, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 6: 2144.
Arendt, H. (1990), On Revolution (London: Penguin).
Arendt, H. (2006), ‘Truth and Politics’, in H. Arendt, Between Past and Future (London: Penguin): 253259.
Auerbach, M.M. (1959), The Conservative Illusion (New York: Columbia University Press).
Buber, M. (1967), Kingship of God, trans. Richard Scheimann (New York: Harper and Row).
Burke, E. (1999), Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund) (first published 1790).
Cecil, H. (1912), Conservatism (London: Williams and Norgate).
Chesterton, G.K. (2001), ‘The New Jerusalem’, in G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton. Vol. 20 (San Francisco: St Ignatius Press) (essay first published 1920).
Clark, J.C.D. (1988), ‘On Moving the Middle Ground: The Significance of Jacobitism in Historical Studies’, in E. Cruikshanks and J. Black (eds), The Jacobite Challenge (Edinburgh: John Donald): 177188.
Clark, J.C.D. (2000), English Society, 1660–1832: Religion, Ideology and Politics During the Ancien Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Collingwood, R.G. (1933), An Essay on Philosophical Method (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Cowling, M. (1978), ‘The Present Position’, in M. Cowling (ed.), Conservative Essays (London: Cassell): 124.
Cowling, M. (1980), Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Cowling, M. (2001), Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Vol. 3: Accommodations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Dorey, P. (2010), British Conservatism: The Politics and Philosophy of Inequality (London: I.B. Tauris).
Eliot, T.S. (1963), Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley (London: Faber and Faber).
Foucault, M. (1980), ‘Two Lectures’, in C. Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon): 78108.
Freeden, M. (1996), Ideologies and Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Gray, J.Willetts, D. (1997), Is Conservatism Dead? (London: Profile).
Green, E.H.H. (2002), Ideologies of Conservatism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Harbour, W.R. (1982), The Foundations of Conservative Thought: An Anglo-American Perspective (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press).
Hayek, F.A. (1960), ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’, in F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul): 397411.
Heywood, A. (2003), Political Ideologies: An Introduction, 3rd edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
Honderich, T. (1991), Conservatism (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Huntington, S. (1957), ‘Conservatism as an Ideology’, American Political Science Review, 51: 454473.
Kedourie, E. (1984), ‘Conservatism and the Conservative Party’, in E. Kedourie, The Crossman Confessions and Other Essays (London: Mansell): 3746 (essay first published 1970 in Solon, 1: 44–9).
Kirk, R. (1954), The Conservative Mind (London: Faber and Faber).
Kymlicka, W. (1990), Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Leavis, F.R. (1948), The Great Tradition (London: Chatto and Windus).
Lewis, C.S. (1967), Studies in Words, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
McTaggart, J.M.E. (1908), The Relation of Time and Eternity (Berkeley: Berkeley University Press).
Mannheim, K. (1986), Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. D. Kettler, V. Meja and N. Stehr (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).
Nisbet, R. (1986), Conservatism: Dream and Reality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Oakeshott, M. (1991), ‘On Being Conservative’, in M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty): 407437 (essay first published 1956).
Oakeshott, M. (2008), ‘Review of Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1954)’, in L. O'Sullivan (ed.), The Vocabulary of a Modern European State (Exeter: Imprint Academic): 8184.
O'Hara, K. (2011), Conservatism (London: Reaktion).
O'Sullivan, N. (1976), Conservatism (London: J.M. Dent).
Pieper, J. (1958), ‘The Concept of Tradition’, Review of Politics, 20: 465491.
Quinton, A. (1978), The Politics of Imperfection (London: Faber and Faber).
Scruton, R. (1984), The Meaning of Conservatism, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan).
Seeley, J.R. (1896), Introduction to Political Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Shils, E. (1981), Tradition (New York: Faber and Faber).
Stewart, R. (1978), The Foundation of the Conservative Party, 1830–1867 (London: Longman).
Stove, D. (2003), ‘Why you Should be Conservative’, in A. Irvine (ed.), On Enlightenment (London: Transaction Publishers): 171178 (essay first published 1988).
Thomas, G. (2000), Introduction to Political Philosophy (London: Duckworth).
Utley, T.E. (1989), A Tory Seer: The Selected Journalism of T.E. Utley, ed. C. Moore and S. Heffer (London: Hamish Hamilton).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Government and Opposition
  • ISSN: 0017-257X
  • EISSN: 1477-7053
  • URL: /core/journals/government-and-opposition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed