Conservatism invented in 1953:NYT

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.

33 thoughts on “Conservatism invented in 1953:NYT

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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”.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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