Back when I was young, almost no one wanted to be a conservative. I am exaggerating somewhat, but to most people in the 1960s and 1970s, to be a conservative really meant someone who manages decline. The future, it was said then, belonged to socialists and progressive liberals. Conservatives, so it seemed, were those who wanted to travel in the same direction, only more slowly.
Then a great conservative revival occurred, the political expression of which were leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Their conservatism was rooted in tradition, national identity, as well as political and economic liberty, but it was at the same time also active and dynamic in addressing the challenges from the left. It was not only about preserving but also about restoring. This active conservatism fought against state ownership and management of the means of production, and by restoring the principle of private ownership it transformed for the better the economies and the societies of the West, and then of the whole world. This active conservatism also fought against Soviet hegemony, by upholding the value of national and democratic self-government, eventually bringing down communism in Europe.
However, as we say in Israel, ‘failure is an orphan, but success has many fathers’—so from the 1990s onwards, the term ‘conservative’ became quite popular. Suddenly various social liberals and anti-democratic authoritarians and even racists, who in the past had derided the very term, began to covet the mantle of conservatism.
These new-model conservatives are everything and its opposite, to the point that the term risks losing its meaning. Just to give an example, in various European countries like the United Kingdom (2013) and Germany (2017), homosexual marriages were legalized by conservative-led governments, while at the same time Vladimir Putin’s oppressive authoritarian regime in Russia also often describes itself as ‘conservative’.1
I will argue that none of these new models are conservative at all, because they do not follow any consistent conservative principle. In order to do so, it is necessary to be clear about which ideas and values are conservative, and which are not.
Most people today have been educated to believe that conservatism (as well as nationalism) was born out of the French Revolution, or rather in resistance to it.2 As such, conservatism is supposed to be in the main about prudence and moderation, against the ideological and radical character of revolutionaries. Even putting aside the fact that liberals and socialists too can be prudent and moderate (many are), the main problem with this understanding of conservatism is that it regards it as reactive and devoid of independent qualities.
‘Some new-model “conservatives” are attempting to redefine the term to mean a kind of moderate liberalism’
Such a view is absolutely rejected by the most prominent conservatives who opposed the French Revolution, like Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and many others, who argued they were defending clear ideas and values that long preceded the Revolution. So, either we accept that these conservatives were deceiving and deluded, or we should try to follow their argument.3
This point becomes clear when we consider that the opposition of conservatives to the Revolution was not in the main about policies that were too imprudent or hasty, but rather about its rotten core, which made it objectionable in its entirety.
Some readers will undoubtedly resist the idea that nothing good came of the French Revolution, because for some time it has been drummed into so many heads that things like rights and democracy had their source in the Revolution. But consider Edmund Burke’s repeated warnings, that even seemingly good ideas coming out of the French events were poisoned at the source—radical ideas long rejected by the British, which were ‘by a double fraud, export to you in illicit bottoms as raw commodities of British growth, though wholly alien to our soil, in order afterwards to smuggle them back again into this country, manufactured after the newest Paris fashion of an improved liberty’.4 Thus, he regarded revolutionary freedom as inherently wild and destructive, nothing like the traditional moderate and ordered liberty found in Britain and among those he called the ‘English in America’.
Burke and Hamilton held that values like political liberties, property rights, and representative government did not at all originate in the principles of the French Revolution, but in those of an earlier tradition. Burke argued that these earlier origins could be found not only in Britain and the US, but in France and in other European countries as well. For him, what was necessary to secure beneficial government was the will and effort to recover and restore one’s own traditions, instead of following the false lights of revolutionary Paris. It is impossible to describe here these different traditions across European countries, so I will focus here on the English one.
The notion of representative government and of traditional rights emerged in several European countries, and became established roughly between 1300 and 1600. In England it enjoyed exceptional continuity and stability, because of the emergence of Parliament as a permanent institution of government. The connection between representation and rights was established, first and foremost, because the English Parliament began and long remained the supreme English court of law, entrusting the protection of rights to a court composed of representatives of the whole nation.
This development was possible because of the English tradition of law. According to this tradition, English laws had no beginning in some specific legislative act, but rather developed historically as common practices that became custom. Such assertions could already be found in Anglo-Saxon collections of laws as early as the ninth and tenth centuries. After 1066, William the Conqueror pledged to respect the traditional old laws of the English, and so did his son Henry I in his 1100 coronation charter. The same is true of the Magna Carta of 1215, as well as its numerous later reissues up to 1300, after which time it was regularly reconfirmed in Parliament up to the fifteenth century. In all these cases, the principle was always the same, as traditional laws were reaffirmed and restored.
This vision of English law meant that it was always regarded as a national law, that is, a law that did not result from the will of the king or of some school or council, but rather from the traditions common to the whole nation. As such it was a law that both made the nation and was made by the nation. The result was that from the outset, it was widely accepted that such laws could be amended only by common consent of the whole nation, as represented in Parliament.
This understanding of their political tradition meant that in periods of political turmoil, the English solution to crisis was always a reassertion of traditional national laws. Thus, in 1628, after several rounds of political clashes between king and Parliament, the King-in-Parliament issued the ‘Petition of Right’, drafted by John Selden and Sir Edward Coke, which explicitly reaffirmed the Magna Carta and other old laws; and in 1660, after the turmoil of the Civil War and the Interregnum, there was a formal restoration of the traditional constitution and law. Similarly, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 was declared by Parliament to be a restoration of the old constitutional order, after King James II had attempted to overturn it. The ‘Revolution’ at that time was understood in its original meaning, as the completion of a full circle—things returning to their original position, as in a revolver. In all of these cases, the common point was the reassertion of traditional national laws, safeguarding historical rights.5
Now, there were certainly attempts to argue differently. English radicals defended the regicide, and the short-lived and tumultuous English Commonwealth of the 1650s, which was effectively controlled by the Army. Later on, in the 1670s and 1680s there were several radical attempts to overturn the Restoration political settlement, and John Locke, who was part of these radical circles, tried to argue in his Second Treatise of Government that 1689 was an expression of the same radical ideals. However, at that time, no one of importance adopted this interpretation, and indeed for the succeeding century, the mainstream Whig ruling group adhered to the political tradition that stressed the continuity of the national constitution.6
However, when the French Revolution erupted, Burke found that alarming numbers of his countrymen who had imbibed Lockean theoretical musings, were justifying their support for the French Revolution by claiming (correctly) that its ideals were essentially those of Locke. Burke therefore published several important texts against this interpretation of the French events, culminating in his 1791 An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, an attempt to wean his fellow Whigs from their new fascination with the Revolution, by reminding them of the old constitutional principles.
Soon a break occurred between two groups: the constitutionalist ‘Old Whigs’, including Burke, who rejected the revolution and regarded themselves as the heirs to the tradition of Selden and Coke, effectively the foundation for what would be the Conservative Party; while the ‘New Whigs’ who supported revolutionary principles based on the ideas of Locke, founded the political formation that would eventually become the Liberal Party.
Today we can see, within those who term themselves conservatives, a similar development. Some new-model ‘conservatives’ are attempting to redefine the term to mean a kind of moderate liberalism or simply a prudential aversion to change with nothing of value behind it. It is incumbent upon those who reject such views to uphold traditional conservative principles.
Like every political philosophy, conservatism is based on an idea of human knowledge—about what we can know, and how we can know it.
One idea of human knowledge, called rational individualism, holds that every individual knows things, first and foremost based on rational thought. Having achieved rational thought, this individual does not really need to rely on the assistance of prior experience or history, or of others, to know and understand the world. This is the basis for political liberalism.
Another idea of human knowledge is based on the senses, arguing that we learn and understand things by way of our sensory perceptions of the world. Accordingly, as we perceive the material world around us through our senses, our ideas are born and shaped out of this mode of perception. This is the basis for materialistic political ideologies.7
Conservatism is based on a different idea of human knowledge, one that I will call here traditionalism. That is, it holds that we learn to know things mainly through traditions that are handed down to us. One such tradition is language, which we learn from our elders as we grow, and which shapes to no small degree our way of thinking. In this view, our reason and our senses have a role, but they are guided by the traditions we inherit. For example, we all know that we can find enticing some smell that another culture finds disgusting. Evidently, what we make of our sense of smell is guided by our culture. The same is true for ideas, so that the notion of having men kill themselves for our entertainment in the gladiatorial arena, which ancient Romans found alluring, we find disgusting, because of our biblical moral inheritance.
‘Conservatives are those who uphold tradition and the nation and the values of the Bible’
We must not mistake tradition for immobility. All the traditions we receive from our elders are tested with time, and many stand that test, while some found lacking gradually disappear, and other new ones are adopted. This way of gradual change through time, within an inherited national tradition, is called historical empiricism. This constancy through change is often illustrated (including by Selden and Burke) by the image of the old house, to which various additions are made through the centuries, but which still remains functioning as the home of the same family for many generations.8
However, for all its importance, traditionalism alone is not yet political conservatism. Two additional elements are necessary: the first is national identity, the second is a set of values that stands outside of the tradition. Both elements are needed, because they perform an essential stabilizing function upon the tradition.
National identity gives tradition solidity, the necessary ‘weight’ to stand on its own, without being easily swept away by outside forces. Every tradition exists within a complex balance of influences, as it often imports elements from the outside, just as it exports others. In order for a tradition to endure and thrive without being overwhelmed, there must be a degree of continuity in its common cultural and historical elements, some things that define the common identity and are worth holding on to, even in the face of severe outside pressures. Language is one such example, and indeed a common language is a crucial component of national identity, in the way that local dialects of a city and region, or the shared administrative language of an empire, are not. It is for this reason that a tradition upheld by only a city or a region can and is far more easily swept away in the face of political upheavals than a national one. Thus, the destruction of Carthage by the Roman Empire was the end of the Carthaginians, in a way that the destruction of Jerusalem certainly was not for the Jewish nation. Indeed, all empires attempt to weaken the traditions of subjugated peoples, but find national traditions the hardest to vanquish. So, for example, under Ottoman rule in Europe the Christian denominations came under oppression, and while in some areas like Albania and Bosnia they declined or even collapsed, those which resisted and even thrived were the ones most intimately intertwined with a national identity, such as in Greece, Serbia, and Hungary.9
The last conservative element I will address here is a set of moral values that stand outside of the tradition, giving it a fixed point of reference. Without such an independent fixed point, a tradition is in danger of becoming simply self-referential, losing sight of moral values as well as any capability to correct course. Without a clear moral compass, even in great civilizations such as ancient Greece and Rome as well as China and India, there never arose any serious moral objection to slavery. The values of the Bible were necessary to gradually make slavery odious and eventually to extinguish it, first in Europe and later on around the world. The same is true for political rights. In a slow process that began in the Middle Ages, in several Christian and Jewish communities of the thirteenth century (such the notions of English common law courts, and the legal rulings of the German-Jewish sage Maharam of Rothenburg),10 based on biblical ideas of moral equality and choice, the idea of a common political duty emerged. From common political duties rose the connected notions of traditional political rights and participation. As was the case in England and elsewhere, these ideas of political rights and participation trickled down, first from the nobility and the wealthy to all independent men, then to all adult men and finally also to adult women. It might very well be the case that the notion of representative government and political rights is the necessary result of biblical values combining with national identity within a tradition, but in any event, these were their actual upshots in history.
Thus, imagining that ideas of representative government and voting rights were born in the French Revolution is completely misguided. Long before the Revolution, representative government based on longstanding traditions of political rights and participation was firmly established in Britain and in the US. In both countries, political rights and participation continued to gradually expand, even while they were repeatedly snuffed out elsewhere by regimes that regarded themselves as the heirs to the Revolution, from the Napoleonic empires to the Soviet Union.
These then, I propose, are the three crucial elements of political conservatism: traditionalism, nation, and biblical values.11 They are crucial because of their essential independence of political power, so that the latter cannot completely extend its rule over them. In truth, all governments are wary of such principles that are independent of their power. But some are more wary than others. Authoritarian regimes expend great effort in subduing these principles of conservatism, hoping to destroy or at least neutralize them, because they are rightly seen as a threat to power. However, ironically, not only dictators fear these principles, but so do liberals. For these conservative principles, by their very nature, undermine the liberal concept of an individualistic society.
Some radical liberal governments employ the apparatus of the state to suppress particular expressions of conservative values in the public square, such as barring the display of common religious symbols while parades employing indecent imagery are encouraged in the name of liberation. But to date, in most democratic societies, the battle is principally one of ideas, in which liberals aim to undermine the conservative principles of tradition, nation, and biblical values by offering three alternative principles: individual consent, the primacy of the state, and abstract human rights.
At this point, some readers will undoubtedly be wondering what the problem might be with the above three liberal principles, since they sound quite reasonable. However, my point is that the infusion of undeserved positive connotations to each of these three liberal principles is exactly why they are so useful as tools undermining the foundations of conservative values. Let us examine each in turn.
We start with individual consent, the very cornerstone of liberalism. As I mentioned above, the sovereignty of individual consent is predicated on the liberal idea of independent rational knowledge. According to this notion, society is an association of independent individuals who consent to take part in it, but always retain the power to approve or refuse or alter every aspect of it, by the use of their reason. In this sense, liberal society is a perpetual constitutional convention, with no fixed constitution ever produced. Thus, the traditional notions of marriage, education, and sexuality are rejected by liberal thought, simply because they are not the result of individual choice. According to the idea of consent, the right of individuals to determine their partner, gender, and values is only limited if their decisions materially injure another. From this perspective, the traditional values of society are insignificant, or even an obstacle, before the absolute freedom of individuals to define themselves. The examples of where this leads are already before us, in the attempts to uproot traditional marriage or fixed sexual identity. But, it is only the beginning.
An example of where things will go if we do not check them emerged in Germany about fifteen years ago, when a brother and sister from Leipzig objected to the criminalization of their wish to be legally married. They argued in the courts that their ‘right to sexual self-determination had been discriminated against’. Although the German and then the European courts denied the request, these liberal courts could do so only on utilitarian liberal grounds, on the basis of the possible damage to the children of the couple. This of course implies that if there were no children, an incestuous marriage would not be objectionable. This logical implication was indeed followed by the German Ethics Council, a formally established consultative body of the German state, when in 2014 a majority of the council voted to propose decriminalizing consensual incest between adults.12 Obviously, if this liberal outlook is not opposed with a principled objection, the day is not far when Germany and other countries will not only accept incestuous couples in fact, but will give them formal approbation by legalizing their marriage—with all the consequences this entails. It is the inevitable result of the liberal ethics of individual consent.
The second liberal principle is giving preference to the state instead of the nation, as the community’s principle of association. At first glance, this principle likewise does not look so problematic. After all, the state really is the arena for our collective political actions, both directly and through the government. However, we must keep in mind that the state is a merely mechanical entity which in itself has no real collective character, no values, and no purpose because these all have to come from some outside guiding principle. In national states, the guiding principle is of course the pre-existing national identity. In liberal states, the guiding principle is the theory of the social contract, by which the state is understood as an association of sovereign individuals, and as a result nation, or religion, or history have no essential role to play other than as ornament.
In a nutshell, states are universal and receive their particular character from their principle of association. When the nation is the principle of association, then the state exists to serve the nation, and it can associate with history and with particular preferences as to culture or education or immigration. But if the state itself is regarded as the principle of association, as the expression of a social contract, then national history cannot have a public role, multiculturalism can replace national culture, and unrestricted immigration from abroad is not a problem—since the social contract concerns only individuals.
However, at present, the populations in most European states still stubbornly adhere to a degree of national identity that does not leave them completely at the mercy of liberal ideas. It is for this reason that so many liberals are rooting, more or less explicitly, for a European super-state that by definition would not be bound by any ties of national identity. Similarly, liberals in the US are hard at work denying that Americans are a nation, or indeed ever were.
We arrive now at the third liberal principle, the concept of abstract human rights—either originating from nature or from rational inquiry. Once more, this concept seems to present no problem at first glance, for what can be bad about human rights? Indeed, it is sometimes even claimed that there is a conservative tradition of natural rights. Such claims, however, fail to acknowledge that the bare term ‘nature’ appeals to an authority that is opposite to the notion of tradition, and therefore, as thinkers from Selden to Burke have observed, any worthwhile appeal to nature must be mediated by tradition. The problem is, of course, that abstract rights, regardless of their purported basis in nature or reason, are essentially undefined, as well as being highly unstable, and for this very reason, are unsuited to support any conservative principles. Exactly because of this fluidity, they are the perfect tool for those who wish to replace the solidity of biblical values.
Why would one wish to replace biblical values? First and foremost, because biblical values are independent of our will and our consent. We might interpret them, we might even reject them, but we cannot change them. This solidity is abhorrent to those who want values to be subjected only to individual consent. The simple fact is that abstract ‘universal rights’, when they are not mediated through a tradition, are neither self-evident nor universal, but rather mere liberal constructs, in constant flux, dependent on fashions and invention.
For example, two centuries ago, the universal human rights discovered by the French Revolution did not include the political or civil equality of women. Then, about a century ago, it was suddenly discovered that universal human rights also included women, who were then found to be entitled to equal political participation, civil status, and even their own Olympic sporting events. Now it seems all that was absolutely wrong, since newly discovered rights require that biological males be allowed to compete in women’s sports, and to demand to be sent to women’s prison, and why not, even to be elected or appointed to positions that were specifically assigned for women’s quotas. Plainly, if something as unstable as our unsupported reason and will is the only criterion for rights, we cannot hope these will ever achieve stability.13
I have chosen to expand here on the challenges to conservative principles coming from the liberal side. Although there certainly are also challenges to conservatism coming from authoritarians and racists, such odious views are most easily recognized and rejected by conservatives in the tradition of Burke or Hamilton. However, when we come to liberal ideas disguised as conservative, the task of uncovering and answering them is more complex. For one, there are many institutions, such as democratic government, the market economy, and freedom of speech, that are approved by liberals and conservatives, even though they justify them on different grounds. But the main challenge remains the repeated attempts to create a confusion between conservative and liberal ideas.
For this very reason, unless we are willing to let the term conservative lose its effectiveness and indeed its meaning, we must reject the confusion and obfuscation of principles, and address directly the differences between them, so that we can define and defend conservative principles.
It is remarkable that several years before the French Revolution, Edmund Burke already suspected where a certain radical way of thinking was going. In a famous speech of 1782 against a proposed radical political reform, he delivered a warning about the results of jettisoning established traditions in favour of our fleeting choices that went beyond the particular constitutional issue then at hand: ‘I know there is an order that keeps things fast in their place; it is made to us, and we are made to it.’ He then proposed that if we cannot keep to this order, ‘Why not ask [for] another wife, other children, another body, another mind?’14
It is high time we recognized that many of those who now call themselves conservatives are not so. It is unrealistic for us to expect them to simply abandon the term. After all, they are using it exactly because of the defects of their own ideologies that have few takers, when properly termed as liberal or authoritarian.
But we can and we should be more rigorous on our part in the way we use the term conservative. We should make it clear that it cannot apply to someone who follows the false idols of extreme individualism, the supremacy of the state, and invented rights. Rather, conservatives are those who uphold tradition, the nation, and the values of the Bible. If we take care to uphold those principles clearly and consistently, it will become increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, for those who advocate other principles, to present themselves as conservatives.
1 At the plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2021, Putin repeatedly employed the term ‘konservatizm’ to define his outlook. However, he qualified the term by adding to it various qualifiers like ‘reasonable conservatism’, ‘healthy conservatism’, ‘moderate conservatism’—clearly implying that there exist versions of conservatism which would not serve Russia. See Timothy Colton, ‘What Does Putin’s Conservatism Seek to Conserve?’, in Analysis section of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University site (January 2022), https://daviscenter.fas.harvard.edu/insights/what-does-putins-conservatism-seek-conserve.
2 See for example Yuval Levin, The Great Debate (Basic Books, 2014), and Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative (Basic Books, 2015).
For the claim that the French Revolution had a defining role in the rise of modern nationalism, see for example David Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680–1800 (Harvard, 2003).
3 Burke’s claim that he is defending a long established political tradition, rather than inventing a new one, is most evident in his ‘An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs’ (1791), a defence of the views of the 1688 constitutional Whigs, whom he regards as his political predecessors.
As for Hamilton, his opinion that the British constitution was ‘the best in the world’, and should be as much as possible the model for the American constitution was so notorious among his opponents that it brought about repeated accusations of being ‘monarchist’—to the extent that he had to write articles to clear himself of the accusation. See for example his piece in the New-York Evening Post of 24 February 1802, https://founders.archives.gov/ documents/Hamilton/01-25-02-0295.
4 Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in Peter Stanlis, ed., Edmund Burke: Essential Works and Speeches (Transactions, 2007), 524.
5 I treated this tradition at length in my essay (written with Yoram Hazony) ‘What Is Conservatism’, in American Affairs (Summer 2017).
6 As established by Mark Goldie’s The Reception of Locke’s Politics (Routledge, 1999), Locke’s political vision was of little public import during his life and for most of the eighteenth century. Locke himself knew this and in the final months before his death in 1704, he carefully revised for republication both his Two Treatises of Government and its French version, Du gouvernement civil of 1691, hoping that they would have a more significant posthumous impact. See S. J. Savonius-Wroth, ‘Corruption and Regeneration in the Political Imagination of John Locke’, in Champion et al., eds, Politics, Religion and Ideas in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Britain (Cambridge, 2019).
7 I have reviewed and discussed extensively the main modern approaches to human knowledge and their political significance in my book John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge, 2017), chapters 2 and 3.
8 See for example, ‘The old building stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then indeed it may come down upon our heads, all together, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the fall thereof’, in Burke, Observations on a Late State of the Nation (1769).
9 An excellent overview of these aspects of nationalism is Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018).
10 See for example, in J. I. Lifshitz, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and the Foundation of Jewish Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
11 It might be the case that in some cultures, such as India or Muslim countries, independent moral systems other than the Bible might supply a fixed moral compass for a viable political conservatism, but that possibility is yet to be tested.
12 See ‘A Majority in the Ethics Council Recommends a Revision to Section 173 of the German Criminal Code Regarding Consensual Incest between Siblings’, Press Release 08/2014 of the Deutscher Ethikrat, https://www.ethikrat.org/en/press-releases/ press-releases/2014/a-majority-in-the-ethics-council-recommends-a-revision-to-section-173-of-the-german-criminal-code-regarding-consensual-incest-between-siblings/?cookieLevel=not-set.
13 See for example the ACLU statement about the rights of trans athletes to compete in women’s sports (30 April 2020), https://www.aclu.org/news/lgbtq-rights/four-myths-about-trans-athletes-debunked.
Also see the report about a male to female transgender inmate, suing the state of Minnesota demanding to be transferred to a women’s prison, https://www.npr.org/2022/10/04/1126801351/trans-rights-transgender-inmates.
14 Edmund Burke, ‘Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament’, in Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition, Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), Vol. 4.