Used by opponents as a fighting term and adopted by right-wing populists, conservatism as a political idea has shaped politics and, above all, political debate since the 18th century. But conservatism is often misunderstood, especially at a time when many reactionaries/revisionists call themselves conservatives. If one takes a look at the three major political ideologies-liberalism, socialism, and conservatism-the latter doctrine is often given a secondary role of an “attitude” rather than the role of an ideology in the usual sense.

Conservatism is often misunderstood, especially at a time when many reactionaries/revisionists call themselves conservatives.

Does the statement that conservatism is an “attitude,” a counter-reaction to current developments, bear any truth? With this definition, often only one aspect of conservatism – namely the preservationist – is scratched superficially. In fact, the original conservatism – shaped by British philosopher Edmund Burke – developed as a backlash against the French Revolution. While proponents of the Revolution aimed for far-reaching social reforms, there was skepticism from the conservative corner. It is often not differentiated that some were against the enlightenment per se and others merely against the radicalism of the French Revolution.

The political mindset of evolutionary thinking

So who can be considered a conservative? In the public perception, conservatives are reduced to the preservationist aspect or to traditionalist values. First of all, it is not a political doctrine that opposes any kind of reform, but very much wants to keep proven structures and reform them if necessary. One could also say that the foundation of action is experience and tradition, which is invoked, or as Abraham Lincoln would say, “Is it not to cling to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”  Instead of radical reform upheavals, priority is given to continuity and stability. It is not revolutions that are to bring about social innovations, but evolutionary development.

It is not revolutions that are to bring about social innovations, but evolutionary development.

Unlike socialism, this is not a dogmatic doctrine that operates according to an ideological manifesto. It is much more – as already mentioned – experience, often coupled with realpolitik and pragmatic traditionalism. This does not make conservatism a secondary ideology, a construction kit that can be filled with content at will.

What constitutes the substantive core of conservatism

If one takes a look at substantive-ideological issues, a basic distinction is made between two main currents of conservatism: Anglo-Saxon and Continental European. Although the above-mentioned idea of continuity and evolution as well as traditionalist values are common to both currents, they differ on the question of the role of the state and the individual. The Anglo-Saxon current prefers a weak state, places the individual at the centre and often has a stronger economic liberal orientation than continental European conservatism. Although the state and concentrated power are sometimes seen as a danger in the Anglo-Saxon approach, national identity plays a formative role. Exemplary for this form is Thatcherism, which was accompanied by the withdrawal of the state, economic liberalism and at the same time a strong national identity. In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the state and the community play a more central role in the continental European tradition.

The forefather of European conservatism is the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, for whom a strong state and a law-and-order policy were characteristic. But this does not mean that in the European tradition the individual is not given priority. It is not so much a matter of opposites, but of different manifestations. For both trends, national identity formation, the individual, property, the idea of performance and responsibility are central elements that vary in intensity depending on the trend and the state. The state, however, is not supposed to play a paternalistic role, but to function as a stabiliser of the community. In political reality, conservative parties are often mixed forms. If one focuses on the role of the individual, property and the concept of performance, parallels to liberalism can be found.

The need for change: reform conservatism

But how does conservatism relate to social and governmental change in our lived reality? One could quote the Conservative British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, who saw the need for political reform, not mere “preservation”. On the contrary, a state can only function if it is not paralysed and if it is able to reform itself. Therefore, it is above all necessary to draw a line here with reactionary thinking, which is designed to preserve the “old order” alone. One could also say: the reactionary is static, the conservative, on the other hand, moves with the time in an evolutionary way, without breaking off abrupt transformations in the process.

The reactionary is static, the conservative, on the other hand, moves with the time in an evolutionary way, without breaking off abrupt transformations in the process.

Last but not least, great reformers who were at the forefront of progress can be found in the ranks of the conservatives: The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who – admittedly – was not a democrat of the first order, not only played a decisive role in the founding of the German nation-state, but also introduced the social insurance system, which to this day still points the way for many welfare states in Europe. This may be seen as a tactical move, as he wanted to reduce the popularity of the socialists and prevent more radical upheavals. Otto von Bismarck was also responsible for the introduction of civil marriage, which was considered progressive at the time. The less democratic, sometimes even authoritarian style of the “Iron Chancellor”, which would not be justifiable from today’s point of view, would have to be considered in the light of the spirit of that time.

The Austrian National Council meeting room under renovation. A symbol of change. Source: Parliamentary Administration / Michael Buchner

Conservatives, together with the Social Democrats, played a pioneering role, especially in the 20th century. The post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer is considered one of the visionaries of European unification policy. During his chancellorship, which is still formative for Germany today, he laid the foundations of German foreign policy with regard to the European Community and was largely responsible for its reconstruction.  Other prime examples are Helmut Kohl, during whose term the reunification of Germany and consequent social changes came about, and the Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, who is considered the father of Austria’s accession to the EU. The list of conservatives who not only shaped the world but were at the forefront of social reforms – such as Abraham Lincoln or the liberal-conservative Winston Churchill – could be continued.

These individual examples are not meant to minimise the historical achievements of individual social democrats such as Helmut Schmidt or Bruno Kreisky – rather, the examples are meant to illustrate what conservatism is not: the rigid culture of preservation and reaction ideology. Above all, undogmatic thinking allows conservatives to shape the future through more pragmatic solutions embedded in their own foundation of values. The disappearance of political class enemies and rigid dichotomous thinking creates the basis for cooperation with different movements.

Why it is worth standing up against misrepresentation of conservatism

Despite the broad foundation of beliefs and values, the conservative central idea is often skewed in the political debate. While right-wing populists call themselves conservative for party-political tactical reasons and thus want to make populism acceptable, individual left-wing groups contribute to them by using conservatism as a fighting term. Yet populists of all kinds who fight against the existing democratic-pluralist order, against “those up there”, and propagate radical ideas of society – albeit nicely packaged – are anything but conservative.  Let us not be taken in by extremists, let us rather preserve the democratic social order and look responsibly into the future in the spirit of reform conservatism.  Conservatism is not without its faults, but it is worth standing up for – especially in times of global challenges, national crises and social upheavals.

Article-Image: Wikipedia Commons / Man77

Konstantin Ghazaryan
Neben seiner Mitwirkung an der Interviewführung und -ausarbeitung, verfasst der Political Science MA-Absolvent vor allem Analysen und Kommentare für die Bereiche der internationalen und europäischen Politik. Die Bereiche Sicherheitspolitik, Allianzen und Diplomatie gehören zu seinen Schwerpunkten.