What is conservatism? Judging by the literature, the question is challenging. In ‘Conservatism as an Ideology’ Samuel Huntington (1957) distinguished between aristocratic, autonomous, and situational conceptions of conservatism. To this list should be added dispositional accounts, including the one developed by Michael Oakeshott (1991). In addition to academic studies, writers and publishers for general audiences have produced a genre that Julius Krein (2022) described as ‘conservatism studies’ in the Times Literary Supplement. Rather than clarifying their object of analysis, Krein argued these attempts mostly affirm the coherence and value of conservatism to self-identified conservatives.
Controversy about the meaning of conservatism is a recent phenomenon, though. Before the First World War, it was not particularly difficult to define conservatism—at least in Britain and Western Europe. With differences in emphasis and context, conservatism designated support for a social and political order characterized by features including established or otherwise institutionally privileged churches, constrained franchise, landed property, and military virtue. While they might overlap on certain issues, this set of preferences distinguished conservatism from liberalism, socialism, and, eventually, fascism.
It is not coincidental that the term conservatism was rarely used systematically in American discourse during this period. The adjective was applied to positions on specific issues. But American experience offered little basis for a distinctively conservative regime. The current of Christian republicanism derived from New England Puritanism included some features of European-style conservatism, as did the quasi-aristocracy of Southern planters. Both traditions, however, were more regional than national and ended up exhausted for political if not intellectual purposes by the Civil War.
More recent debates about conservatism, in my view, stem from four developments that coalesced around the middle of the 20th century. The first change was a reconciliation of the political and social elite in most Western countries with industrial and finance capitalism. The waning salience of landed property blurred historical distinctions between conservative and liberal approaches to political economy, while maintaining opposition to socialist demands for public ownership. The second was the acceptance of electoral democracy as the practical basis of government. Whether they liked it or not, conservatives would have to win power through appeals to a mass electorate. The third transformation was the discrediting of militarism as a comprehensive alternative to bourgeois values. The soldier might still be necessary to provide national defense, but could not serve as an ethical ideal for all of society. The fourth was the geopolitical dominance of the USA, where these had been largely settled questions since the Civil War. In order to sustain a bulwark against the socialism they had long feared, traditional European conservatives had to learn to live with, if not necessarily to love, America.
The post-war situation forced a reconsideration. For one thing, scholars of conservatism had to find continuities amid these surprising changes. That included acceptance of positions that had once been anathema to many conservatives. They also needed to accommodate the USA, which generated a self-consciously if idiosyncratically conservative movement in the 1950s. Because that movement went on to shape conservatives in Europe and beyond in its own image, definitional problems tended to ramify as the 20th century continued.
These were difficult tasks that have never been fulfilled in entirely satisfying ways. Edmund Neill’s Conservatism is the latest attempt to meet the challenge. Applying Michael Freeden’s conception of political ideology, Neill argues that conservatism is defined by a set of ‘core concepts’ that generate flexible responses to specific issues and situations. These concepts include commitment to cautious and incremental change, appeal to ‘extra-human’ influences on social and political institutions, opposition to core concepts associated with rival ideologies, particularly those on the Left, and polemical misinterpretation of the concepts in ways that make conservatism more appealing. For Neill, the stability and generality of these concepts explains the protean character of Western conservatism. While they might have justified a post-feudal order in the 19th century, the same concepts could also be used to defend a version of democratic capitalism in the 20th and 21st centuries.
That conception of ideology does not have the connotations of abstraction or falsity that lead some conservatives to reject the term. In addition to Freeden, Neill’s treatment of ideology is reminiscent of Robert Nisbet (2017, p. 37), who defines the ideologies as ‘more or less coherent and persistent bodies of belief and value which have determinative influence upon at least part of their holders’ lives.’ By that standard, there is nothing dismissive or incongruous about applying the term to conservatism.
Neill’s is a plausible and, unusually for scholarship on the topic, sympathetic approach. Over fewer than two hundred small pages, Neill provides useful summaries of leading conservative thinkers and movements in Britain, France, and the USA since the French Revolution, identifying unexpected similarities as well as noting important differences. The short length and broad coverage of the volume will make it particularly useful for undergraduate courses.
It is difficult to treat so much material within such a short space. Although the book purports to bring its narrative up to the present, the concluding section on the ‘Conservative Populism’ associated with Brexit and Donald Trump is brief and perfunctory compared to the discussions of Reagan and Thatcher eras. Scholarly methods and publishing schedules tend to rule out analysis of the most recent events, so Neill is not to be blamed for this omission. Because it has little to say about ‘national conservatism,’ ‘postliberalism,’ and other recent developments, although, Conservatism already feels somewhat dated. Of course, these trends may themselves prove evanescent.
On the conceptual level, Neill’s argument could also be more extensively developed. To begin with, his emphasis on moderation and continuity as a core element of conservatism is at odds with the fact, which he recognizes, that conservatives often supported quite sweeping programs of reform. For some critics, that observation is sufficient to exclude the free marketeers of the post-war era from the ranks of conservatism altogether. It might be possible to acknowledge both the theoretical importance of continuity to conservative theory and conservatives’ deviations in practice by stressing that moderation with regard to social and political change is a core trope of conservative rhetoric rather than a reliable guide to political action. Calls for decisive action to resist the destructive tendencies of the age are present even in Burke, who is often invoked as the patron saint of moderation.
Second, Neill follows Freeden in presenting hierarchy as a subordinate element of conservatism rather than a core concept. I think this conflates two different positions. It is possible to believe in an extra-human source of order and value while rejecting hierarchy. Appeals to God or nature were recurring features of egalitarian movements at least through the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. What is distinctive about conservatism is that such extra-human, immutable standards are understood to justify unequal distributions of power, wealth, and status.
The principle of hierarchy is important because it helps clarify the relationship of so-called classical liberals and libertarians to conservatism. Although they differ from traditional conservatives in some of their premises, such figures can be reasonably described as conservatives when they believe that civic association, market activity, and other voluntary activities reveal inherent differences of ability that are properly reflected in social and political, if not strictly moral, inequalities. That is what distinguishes figures like William Graham Sumner, whom Neill rightly groups with conservatives, from left-libertarians with whom he shares certain conclusions about the function of markets or proper role of the state. It is not just a matter of value coming from an extra-human source; for conservatives that value will tend to be structured in a hierarchical manner.
If the defense of hierarchy is distinctive to conservatism, finally, misrepresentation of opponents’ views seems common to all ideologies. While they perhaps have a tendency to caricature liberals, socialists, and other rivals, conservatives often face reconstructions of their own views that they do not recognize. Despite its insight into the rhetorical flexibility of conservative appeals to continuity, this polemical quality mars recent studies including Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011). Neill’s Conservatism avoids that defect.
Despite some shortcomings inevitable to a brief, introductory text, Conservatism is a valuable addition to an ever-growing literature. Among its advantages is a clear (if sometimes repetitive) style and its commitment to taking conservative ideas seriously. The result is a more coherent account than alternatives that emphasize dispositional factors, yet a more flexible one than those which emphasize specific political theories or contingent historical arrangements. It also avoids the apologetics of ‘conservatism studies.’ Despites the transformations of the 20th century, conservatism did not disappear when so-called liberal democracy supplanted both fascist and traditional alternatives. It will adapt again in the 21st century, as the hegemony of liberalism is challenged by new circumstances.
Huntington, S. (1957) Conservatism as an ideology. American Political Science Review 51(2): 454–473.
Krein, J. “The Poverty of Theory.” Times Literary Supplement. 6 May 2022. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/the-right-matthew-continetti-book-review-julius-krein/
Nisbet, R. (2017) Conservatism: Dream and Reality. Ann Arbor: Routledge.
Oakeshott, M. (1991) “On Being Conservative.” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Liberty Fund.
Robin, C. (2011) The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Goldman, S. Conservatism. Contemp Polit Theory 22 (Suppl 3), 93–96 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-022-00574-5