Conservatism from the French Revolution to the 1990s

By Pekka Suvanto, 1994

There aren’t many histories of conservatism compared to, say, histories of liberalism or of socialism.  This might seem odd given that conservatives are supposedly the ones most interested in their past.  Really, though, we know the reason.  It’s that conservatism is just less important.  Imagine trying to write a history of the 19th or 20th century without mentioning socialism.  It’s impossible.  On the other hand, one could easily write a short history of either century without mentioning conservatives.  After all, imagine that conservative writers and political parties had never existed—how would the world be different?  We would have just gotten to our current point sooner.  The Jacobins’ wildest fantasies—and even things they couldn’t have imagined—have become reality.  Monarchy is gone, sex differences ignored, religion all but eradicated.  The history of conservatism is a story of unmitigated failure.

This book doesn’t quite see it that way.  During the mid-1990s, when this book was published, it was still possible to see conservatism as having both wins and losses.  Tories, Republicans, Gaullists, and Christian Democrats still won elections, but they had adopted largely liberal principles.  Conservatives had surrendered to democracy and decided to make the best of it, they had surrendered to capitalism, and they were in the process of surrendering to secularism and abandoning their defense of Christianity.  On the other hand, the thing conservatives hated most, the ideology of revolution, had been discredited by the fall of communism.  Suvanto doesn’t put it this way, but it sounded like conservatives were set to lose everything they held dear, but to lose it slowly rather than quickly.

This is a short but competent history of conservatism.  The thing I most like about it is its range.  It covers both intellectual and political movements, and it spends equal amounts of time covering England, France, Germany, and the United States.  I am particularly grateful for the material on European continental conservatism; my main complaint about Russell Kirk’s famous history of conservatism is that he excises the French and Germans from the story.  The limitations of this book all stem from its brevity.  The author often attempts to summarize the thought of an important intellectual in a few sentences, and the results are not good.  As a history of ideas, the book is weak.  It does do a good job, given its space requirements, in showing the link between intellectual and political movements.  Like most political moderates, he praises conservatives most for their skillful capitulations.  For example, he points out that conservatives immediately dropped their objections to democracy when it became clear that they (and the socialists) would fare better in elections than classical liberals.  Suvanto is enough of a political philosopher to realize that American conservatism is thoroughly Lockean (i.e. it’s actually a variant of liberalism), but, unlike me, he doesn’t necessarily regard this as a bad thing.

The thing that struck me as I read this book was the futility of it all.  When liberals win a victory, everyone regards it as permanent.  When conservatives win a victory, it’s only a temporary setback for liberalism.  The liberals will try again, and they will succeed the second or the third time.  Every historical contingency seems to work to the advantage of liberalism and the detriment of conservatism.  Both world wars are said to have been disasters for conservatism, in both winning and losing countries, although it’s hard to see what conservative belief was discredited by either war.  The Dreyfus Affair is said to have been a disaster for conservatism.  How can that be, when all of Stalin’s show trials failed to make a dent in the fortunes of leftism?  Why does conservatism seem so fragile that any misstep is ruinous for it?  I wish the author would have discussed this point, but he seems to rather take it for granted.  He often makes statements that imply that resistance to liberalism is unsustainable, that desire for liberal changes will just grow and grow until it becomes irresistible.  Consider some examples:  “The main cause of the Bolshevik Revolution was that Russia had remained an autocratic state for too long.”  How long can one viably be autocratic?  How does human history lead us to believe that autocracy is unsustainable?  “[Jules Ferry] created free and secular compulsory schooling.  The reform was inevitable since, in Germany, the first compulsory education law dated back to the eighteenth century…”  And if Germany jumped off a cliff, would France “inevitably” follow?  Why was this attack on the Catholic school system (and homeschooling) necessary?  Other countries like England and, yes, Germany continued to utilize religious schools.  I agree with the author that liberal reforms have had a sense of inevitability about them for the last two centuries.  The big question that needs to be answered to explain the history of conservatism—a history of defeat—is, “Why is this?”  After all, non-liberal, traditionalist societies have endured for thousands of years.  They can’t be completely unstable.

One Response

  1. Thank you, this was thoroughly enjoyable. And very informative, with a different view of conservatism.

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