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Conservatism invented in 1953:NYT

August 2nd, 2006

The term “conservative” gets bandied about a lot these days, and readers may wonder where it comes from. Jason DeParle in the NYT has the answer. It was invented by one Russell Kirk in 1953. DeParle’s opening para (“lede” in US newsspeak) introduces us to

Russell Kirk, the celebrated writer who a half-century ago gave the conservative movement its name

and elaborates later on

Kirk, who died in 1994, wrote 32 books, the most famous being “The Conservative Mind,� which was published in 1953. It championed 150 years of conservative thought, and offered “conservative� as a unifying label for the right’s disparate camps.

I must say, it’s a great term, offering a neat contrast with “progressive”. Surprising nobody came up with it earlier, really.

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  1. August 2nd, 2006 at 18:25 | #1

    Who said that conservatives were not inventive?

  2. Mike Hart
    August 2nd, 2006 at 18:48 | #2

    John Ray in his book ‘Conservatism as Heresy- an Australian Reader’ (ANZ Book Company Sydney 1974) gave credit to Edmund Burke in 1790 (Reflections on the Revolution in France) for the concept of conservatism. This work still to my knowledge one of the few authoritative texts on the subject of ‘Conservatism’. The notional concept of ‘conservatism’ was also examined extensively by Lipset (1960) and Eysenk (1971 & 1972) et al. I think I prefer Rays’ discourse on the subject to DeParle’s.

  3. August 2nd, 2006 at 18:57 | #3

    3 thoughts immediately crossed my mind:
    1 Does this mean the British Conservative Party is a creation of the 1950s?
    2 Did John Howard read said book in 1953 or thereabouts?
    3 If answer to # 2 is yes has he read anything since?

  4. August 2nd, 2006 at 19:03 | #4

    By the way, I think that “The Conservative and Unionist Party” of Great Britain might be interested to know that, when Sir Robert Peel added in the “Conservative” bit to the title in the 1840s that he was plagarising a person not even born yet instead of George Canning in about 1820.
    I think that progressive was invented as a term in opposition to conservative, not the other way around.

  5. August 2nd, 2006 at 19:43 | #5

    I’ve sometimes decribed myself as “conservative”. The problem is that some of the things I want to conserve – like Medicare, Austudy, Newstart and other facets of Australia’s Social Democratic tradition – would be anaethama to most self-styled “conservatives” in America.

    I guess that I can call myself “conservative” because I find myself agreeing or at least sympathetic to most of Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”.

    The only one I disagree with is number 1:

    First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

    On that matter, I’m more a Marxist… or to be exact, an Engelist – one of the “Conditions of the Working Classes in England” persuasion. Moral orders tend to go by the wayside if you are suffering in some industrial slum in Manchester. Or a shanty town in Lagos or Bangkok.

    I can’t help but notice that Kirk quotes Plato thus:

    This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.

    But missed the irony that Plato lived in a society where slavery was widespread – a practice I find immoral.

  6. Terje
    August 2nd, 2006 at 20:37 | #6

    I hate what the Americans have done to the term “liberal”.

  7. pre-dawn leftist
    August 2nd, 2006 at 20:38 | #7

    Down and Out – to quote a line from the film “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”:

    “Morals are a choice and he’ll make his choice when he’s good and ready”.

    The trouble with “conservatives” (particularly of the religious variety) is they seem to want to make our choices for us. I find THAT immoral.

  8. August 2nd, 2006 at 20:43 | #8

    I must say, it’s a great term, offering a neat contrast with “progressive�. Surprising nobody came up with it earlier, really.

    Pr Q is no doubt joking, expecially as he appears to enjoy being both progressive (supporter of economic growth) and conservative (supporter fo political stability) – tendencies which are not in necessary contradiction.

    Political concepts are a quagmire of linguistic perversion.

    The antonym for progressive is regressive, not conservative.
    The antonym for conservative is constructive, not progressive.

    Political ideologist enjoy muddying the conceptual waters. It helps them to get away with murder whilst still claiming to have the best of intentions.

  9. Spiros
    August 2nd, 2006 at 20:44 | #9

    According to Wikipedia, ” South Carolina Democrat John C. Calhoun introduced the word “conservative” into U.S. politics in the 1830s. “

  10. August 2nd, 2006 at 21:16 | #10

    The trouble with “conservatives� (particularly of the religious variety) is they seem to want to make our choices for us. I find THAT immoral.

    As do I. Sometimes, I wish the conservative parties would have a monopoly on the wowsers, so I know who to vote against. The problem is that some Labor figures (I’m thinking of you, Beazley!) are quite happy to jump on the bandwagon. Now that’s depressing.

  11. Talisker
    August 2nd, 2006 at 21:28 | #11

    Another reason for not believing the NYT.

  12. melanie
    August 2nd, 2006 at 21:37 | #12

    Who’s complaining about the NYT? We know there’s only one country in the world. They’re obviously referring to the American usage. And South Carolina in the 1830s doesn’t count because they lost the civil war.

  13. Terje
    August 2nd, 2006 at 21:48 | #13

    Pre-dawn leftist,

    If you are really a leftist then your claim that the conservatives are immoral for wanting to make choices for other people is pretty damn rich. The left are pretty serious offender when it comes to dictating choices.


  14. Simon
    August 3rd, 2006 at 05:16 | #14

    Pr Q writes:

    “I must say, [conservative]’s a great term, offering a neat contrast with “progressiveâ€?. Surprising nobody came up with it earlier, really.”

    And Andrew Reynolds responds:

    “I think that progressive was invented as a term in opposition to conservative, not the other way around.”

    But I would suggest the “conservative” side of politics in Canada and Australia were the most creative in their use of language when during the 1940s they relabelled their right-of-centre parties “The Progressive Conservatives” and “The Liberals” respectively.

  15. August 3rd, 2006 at 06:29 | #15

    Interesting definition of variety in Kirk’s principles. Apparently variety is a belief in long standing institutions and in the appropriateness of inequality.

  16. gordon
    August 3rd, 2006 at 09:10 | #16

    I remember explaining to a young family member who was confused about why “conservatives” were always “reforming” things, that the word has two meanings. Since then, we have been careful to distinguish between “dictionary conservatives” who are cautious and sceptical about change and “political conservatives” who are in fact howling radicals. We generally refer to the latter as “right-wingers” or “neocons” to avoid confusion.

  17. still working it out
    August 3rd, 2006 at 10:07 | #17

    between “dictionary conservativesâ€? who are cautious and sceptical about change and “political conservativesâ€? who are in fact howling radicals. We generally refer to the latter as “right-wingersâ€? or “neoconsâ€? to avoid confusion.”

    I have an enormous amount of respect for “dictonary conservatives” and very little respect for “political conservatives”.

    It is a real shame that the label conservative has been taken over by the “political conservatives”. It makes it hard to hear the true conservative contribution to the debate.

  18. Andrew
    August 3rd, 2006 at 13:04 | #18

    Predawn says…

    “The trouble with “conservativesâ€? (particularly of the religious variety) is they seem to want to make our choices for us. I find THAT immoral.”

    Well I sort of agree with the the religious part of that….. all religions seem to think their choice is the only correct one.

    BUT… I would probably chartacterise myself as a conservative and the main reason why is that I think the right side of politics is far more ‘pro-choice’ than the left. That’s my biggest gripe with the left – the lack of individualism. Unionism being a prime example.

    I think this whole debate highlights the problem with labels. ‘Conservative’ is a label for the collective group of people with ‘right wing’ views…. but that’s a pretty diverse bunch! In fact, I think conservative is probably a pretty poor label – as PQ points out it has connotations of holding back progress. In my view – that’s almost completely oppositie to the truth…. it’s the very left wing (think extremists like Bob Brown) who want to ‘conserve’ us back to the stone age…..

  19. August 3rd, 2006 at 15:15 | #19

    I think the wikipedia entry on conservatism is a reasonable one. The point it makes is that it is possible to be a left conservative as well. Our good host has, in the past, made it clear that he regards himself as a Burkean conservative – that is he believes that any changes should be gradual and well thought out before they are made – not that there should be no changes at all.
    Many do confuse (as Russell Kirk / the NYT did) “big C” Conservatism where changes are generally opposed, the “little c” conservatism where changes as evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
    There is also another thread in “conservative” thought – the libertarian conservatives (if that is the right term) who believe that changes should not be forced on society by anyone, typically a government, but that changes should happen ‘naturally’, almost without noticing.

  20. still working it out
    August 3rd, 2006 at 15:34 | #20

    I am curious how libertarians fit into the label conservative. It seems hard to argue that the libertarian ideal is not a radical change from where we are today.

  21. August 3rd, 2006 at 16:44 | #21

    If you see the change as gradual and incremental you are in the Burkean conservative camp, whether you see the end outcome to be a radical change from now or only a slight change. Burkean conservatism is a discussion of the process, not the outcome. While he is a (self described) social democrat, our good host has also stated in the past that sees himself as a conservative of this type.

  22. August 3rd, 2006 at 21:25 | #22

    Actually, the antonym of conservative is radical, not constructive. There is nothing unconstructive about conservatism, properly understood as maintaining what is worth maintaining and only making changes in support of underlying, unchanged values. It has been suggested that the earliest description of conservatism goes back to the Civil war, long before the term conservative itself; Viscount Falkland once remarked that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

    The difficulty with all this is that when faced with major flux, either from without or from the successes of domestic radicals, the specific policies of conservatives can no longer be aimed at specific maintenance but only at reinstating the conditions for organic and spontaneous development – like a gardener faced with a garden left to perish, he must do much remedial work.

  23. melanie
    August 3rd, 2006 at 23:02 | #23

    Ha ha! PML your gardener is not a conservative, but a conservationist! In my Pol Sci I class (long ago!) I was taught that a conservative favours preservation of the status quo. Today, this would make most social democrats conservative since they want to stop the change proceeding in the direction that it is proceeding (I excuse Tony Blair from this category).

  24. August 4th, 2006 at 02:26 | #24

    Ah, but, the Social Democrats do want to restart changes in their direction – not merely halt changes they dislike. They aren’t conservative (small c) at all.

  25. gordon
    August 4th, 2006 at 13:38 | #25

    But, P.M.Lawrence, if I want to retain a mixed economy, a role for trade unions in a regulated industrial relations regime, a substantial import-substituting Australian industrial base and a role for Government regulation in many fields (all of which were part of the post-WWII Australian society), and if I am suspicious about the net gains from privatisation, globalisation, labour market reform and the retreat of the State, doesn’t that make me a dictionary conservative?

  26. August 4th, 2006 at 19:26 | #26

    Gordon, if is not the operative word – “if all” is unstated. Those who want just that, and are happy enough with that, can indeed be described as conservative. However, those who want that sort of thing as an instalment, with ever more to follow, are no conservatives.

  27. August 4th, 2006 at 23:34 | #27

    P.M.Lawrence Says: August 3rd, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    the antonym of conservative is radical, not constructive. There is nothing unconstructive about conservatism, properly understood as maintaining what is worth maintaining and only making changes in support of underlying, unchanged values.

    I dont want to get into a definitional war as these tend to be futile and frustrating. My definitions are attempting to come to grips with the phenomenon of social change ie some kind of theory of historical process.

    Life is a process by which identity is preserved amidst the flux of change. Change is inevitable but not always desirable eg birth is a good change, death is a bad one.

    Conservatives prefer no change because they are fearful of loss. Constructivists prefer to change things as they are eager to gain.

    A radical is a certain kind of extreme constructivist – one who believes in root and branch revolutionary change. But there are plenty of moderate constructivists eg minimal republicans.

    Obviously some kind of balance has to be struck between aversion and attraction to change. Conservatives lean towards the aversion to change because they believe communal identity protects peoples from becoming feral. Constructives lean towards attraction to change because they believe individual autonomy promotes self-realization.

  28. August 4th, 2006 at 23:54 | #28

    I should add that conservatism is not necessarily “right wing” although it is often associated with such. Right wingers necessarily support high-status individuals and groups. Conservatives only contingently lend their support to such.

    It is definitely true that conservatives tend to wind up supporting capitalist militarist or religionist Alpha males who rise to the top of the pecking order. But this is beause conservatives believe that an institutionalised pecking order conserves social order by constructively constraining Alpha males.

    Hence conservatives support the instutional, rather than the individual, aspects of social stratification.

  29. August 5th, 2006 at 01:06 | #29

    JS, you are perpetuating some common misunderstandings that are embedded in what you state. Even the idea that a “minimal republican” is somehow not proposing radical change is one of these.

    But the major, indeed typical, mistaken view of these things is that somehow conservatives are “afraid” of change. Not at all – merely not desirous of change in itself, and only readily accepting changes that have established themselves by passing the test of time.

    This is not at all the Sir Humphrey catch-22 of “nothing can ever be done for the first time”. It’s much more like a mountain climber who will not release a support until a new one is in place – which means, able to hold weight. Go back to the Viscount Falkland quotation to see it very succinctly.

    For a conservative, the essential point is homeostasis, not rigidity. Tactical change is acceptable, but only if tactically necessary. After all, unless something is actually wrong, there is no destination to aim for. The pity is, ideological approaches from others have polarised conservatives (who have no true “-ism”) into reacting as an antithetical ideology. And if ever they forget why they are there in the first place, they become what they fear. This is all too easy when the valued things have been ringbarked and they are forced into sustained tactical change.

    But there is nothing there about fear of loss through change. That formulation falsely suggests that they are afraid more than they are keen for the destination of change (which may be ever-receding). In fact, they (we) simply do not want the goods on offer at all and do not want to be messed about. It is not that they (we) fear too much to pay the price of something worth having – we simply don’t want it at all.

    Seriously, don’t you see how self-refuting such things as “minimal republican = non-radical” are? It’s not the only example, Whitlam’s era was full of such things.

  30. gordon
    August 5th, 2006 at 10:21 | #30

    I basically agree with P.M.Lawrence, except on two points (which may only be about how he has expressed himself).

    First, “there is nothing there about fear of loss through change”. When you “don’t want the goods on offer at all”, any price asked for these goods is too high. This is the same thing as saying that the dictionary conservative thinks that the losses will outweigh the gains.

    Second, “only readily accepting changes that have established themselves by passing the test of time.” A moment’s thought will show that this formulation paints the dictionary conservative as a knee-jerk nay-sayer, but one who may come around to a change after a while. This is perhaps not what P.M.Lawrence meant, particularly as he also says “Tactical change is acceptable…” A better formulation might be: “prepared to be persuaded of the need for incremental changes each of which has a good justification, but resisting major changes in institutions or constitutions the ultimate outcomes of which are unforeseeable”.

  31. Mike Hart
    August 5th, 2006 at 18:10 | #31

    You guys should really read Rays’ book. He makes a fascinating case for the most conservative dudes on the planet being those of working class origins and socialist to boot. Dated but still relevant, enjoy.

  32. August 6th, 2006 at 04:03 | #32

    Change is inevitable, both pervasive and perpetual. This is a fact of evolution.

    There is no final correct balance between conservatism (aversion to change) and constructivism (attraction to change). It just depends on the state of knowledge in particular times and places.

    Due to the indubitable fact that it is easier to break things than make things conservatives are rightly skeptical of change. The greater the scope and faster the speed of change the worse its potential for messing things up.

    THerefore conservatives should oppose large scale rapid change to general social arrangements eg revolutions, civil wars, world wars. The fact that they dont always do this is a flaw in conservatives, not conservatism.

  33. Terje
    August 6th, 2006 at 14:37 | #33

    Surely it is not so simple to say one person is conservative and another progressive. I suspect that for most people they will be conservative on some issues and progressive on others. More telling in a political sense is the means that a person prefers for holding back or moving forward.

    For instance on an issue like abortion I have with time become more conservative, not wishing to see it promoted as some time of insignificant event (akin to flushing the toilet). However I don’t believe that the legal system should be used as a means to prevent early term abortions. On an issue like homosexual marriage I think that existing laws give special status to hetrosexual relationships and the law should be used to enable progress towards legal fairness.

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