IP Essay Conservative– Ideology?
Introduction To Politics
Essay Term 2
6. Is Conservatism an Ideology?
Iain Foreman : 0305494
Tutor: Rosalba Icaza
In order to answer this question, firstly I must accept that there are various definitions as to what an ideology actually is1 and then using these definitions, set out to see if conservatism matches any of them and if so, I will be able to draw the conclusion that conservatism is an ideology. For some such as Marx, an ideology could lead to a false consciousness as Heywood (2002)2 cites and explains the German Ideology where “the class which has the means of mental production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”3 For Marx, ideologies are false and they led to people believing in something that is actually incorrect and that ‘truth’ can only be defined through scientific, empirical observation. In this case, ‘truth’ can’t be established through an idea but through observing the world.
Others have put forward other views of ideology. An ideology will lead to people “judging a particular issue through some rigid framework of pre conceived ideas which dictates their understanding”4, as Eagleton (1991) suggests. He then goes on to quote Durkheim (1982) who says the ideologies are the “use of notions to govern the collation of facts rather than deriving notions from them.”5 The quotes from Eagleton and Durkheim suggest that ideologies limit how people interpret an issue or differentiate between right and wrong. They limit the view that one takes when deciding a course of action and so in turn may ‘bias’ the decided outcome due to the fact that the ‘preconceived ideas’ will bar some ideas from consideration.
Following on from having accepted that different interpretations of ideology exist and what they are, it is now important to actually decide what conservatism is before I can come to some sort of conclusion and decide if it meets the definitions of ideology that have been put forward. Thomas Hobbes is recognised as one of the original writers that have been termed ‘conservative.’ He says that man needs authority to keep men in check as without some limit to man’s freedom life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”6 There is a need to respect the authority of a sovereign to prevent war as he writes “without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they (man) are in that condition which is called war.”7 and in the same chapter in Leviathan (ch.13) he talks of a sovereign being able to set rules or laws in order to maintain the peace and that all men must follow these laws. Obviously, for writers and conservatives such as Hobbes, a respect for authority and an acceptance of hierarchy is central to their view of a society that is stable and in peace. As Heywood put it, “duty is the price of privilege”8, and this was the view of ‘One Nation’ conservatives who felt that those who were better off or in a position of authority had an obligation to look after the interests of the less fortunate, especially as by doing so the threat of revolution or social disorder would recede as a result.
As I will now allude to, the conservative outlook on life depends in part on the historical context of that particular situation. As Huntington (1957) says when he cites Mannheim “conservatism is a function of a particular historical and sociological situation.”9 In Hobbes case, he was writing at the time of civil strife in England when the monarchy was overthrown and England became a republic. Like Burke10 who wrote just over a century later, he was saying that revolution was not the way societies should change as any rupture with the natural organic evolution of society could lead to chaos and instability in the future as this change was in a sense ‘un natural’.
This brings me on to my next point about conservatism. As Riff (1987) points out the conservative “tradition has stressed the achievements of the past while allowing for gradual change.”11 As Huntington (1957) also goes on to say “society is the organic product of slow historical growth.”12 What conservatives are trying to say is that the way for a society to progress is not through revolution, but instead any change should be gradual or piecemeal. Implicit in this is an acceptance that if the world has inequalities or a hierarchy then there is probably a good reason for things being as they are and as such there is no real need to try and change them as any revolutionary change, for conservatives at least, is doomed to failure.
However, a couple of events I feel may contradict with this very strict interpretation of conservatism. Firstly there was the Iranian revolution in 1979 where the old order was overthrown and replaced with a fundamentally Islamic state. The second was the rise of the ‘New Right’. These politicians rejected the economic consensus that had arisen out of WW2 and had radical economic views that harked back to classical liberalism yet harked back to Victorian social values also. As these examples hopefully show, conservatives may look at the past through rose tinted spectacles and hope for a return to the ‘good old days’, but what differentiates them from conservatives in the traditional sense was the radical means in which their policies were implemented. In these cases it was through revolution and a rejection of the post war economic consensus respectively.
The political writings of Oakeshott have been classed as conservative. He is perhaps best known as being sceptical of the role rationalism plays in politics and thus by extension, unsure of the validity of some of the claims that liberals have tended to
make. He has argued that experience and pragmatism are the best ways to develop the solution to a problem. In his ‘Rationalism in Politics’13 essay, he talks of two types of knowledge and says that both are as important as the other. For Oakeshott these are technical (of which he is sceptical) and practical knowledge (which he lauds).
Throughout his essay he argues that practical knowledge is the better and more useful of the two as he says the “best knowledge is traditional and it often takes two or three generations to acquire.”14 This implies that experience is a better guide to what should be done as opposed to knowledge and that pragmatism or doing what works is best as opposed to idealistic solutions to problems. This is because experience tells us what can be done as opposed to rationality as Oakeshott implies it only suggests what should be done, regardless of whether it works or not. For conservatives it seems to be a case of ‘better the devil you know’.
However, it should be noted that people may be called conservative and yet still be considered to be of a different ideological orientation. This is because conservatives are understood to resist change of any sort until it absolutely necessary, yet in most regimes of any political persuasion, you could find ‘conservatives’. For example those who attempted a coup against Gorbachev in the summer of 1991 who had considered his reforms as going too far and wanted a return to the communist policies of old could be called conservatives as they opposed changes, namely the signing of a treaty giving communist states a greater degree of independence, even though they were mostly life long communists. This in itself shows the adaptability or as Goodwin (1997) puts it the “chameleon”15 nature of conservatism.
Is conservatism an ideology? This answer will in part depend upon what an ideology is accepted as being and what conservatism actually is and in short, conservatism is only an ideology of sorts. I feel that as conservatism is adaptable and depends in part on the historical context that it has arisen out of then it can’t strictly be an ideology, well certainly not completely in the strictest sense. However, on this front it cannot be completely rejected as an ideology as some say that ideologies are false and solutions can only be reached through empirical observations of the world and adopting what is known to work. In this sense, a conservative ‘ideology’ appears to be one of pragmatism and of tradition, following what has worked previously without much need for modification. As such conservatism is not an ideology but as it has the central ideas that I have just mentioned and these shape the conservative thinking on the world it is an ideology only in a limited sense if we accept the definition of ideology as being one that is “an interrelated set of ideas that in some way guides or inspires political action”16, even though conservatism does not set out an ideal utopia of how society should be, unlike other ideologies.
1.Eagleton, E (1991) Ideology: An Introduction London: Verso, p1
2.Heywood, A (2002) Politics (2nd ed) Palgrave: New York, p42
3.K,Marx (1846  ) The German Ideology, p64 in ibid p42
4. Eagleton, E (1991) Ideology: An Introduction London: Verso, p3
5. Durkheim, E (1982) ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’, London: Free Press, p86 cited in ibid p3
6. T, Hobbes (1660), edited by Tuck,R (1991) Levithian Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p89
7. Ibid, p88
8. Heywood, A (2002) Politics (2nd ed) Palgrave: New York, p49
9. Mannheim “Conservative Thought – Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology” in Kecskemeti, P (1953) London; Routeledge Kegan Paul, pp98–99 cited in Huntington, S.P “Conservatism as an Ideology”, American Political Science Review, (1957) vol 51, p 454
10. Burke, E (1790) Reflections on the French Revolution any edition.
11. Riff, M.A (1987) Dictionary of Modern Political Ideologies Manchester: Manchester University Press, p 67
12. Huntington, S.P “Conservatism as an Ideology”, American Political Science Review, (1957) vol 51, p 456.
13. Oakeshott, M (1962, 1991) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays USA: Liberty Fund.
14. Oakeshott, M (1962, 1991) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays USA: Liberty Fund, p 36.
15. Goodwin, B (1997) Using Political Ideas (4th ed) Wiley: New York, p 166.
16. Heywood, A (2002) Politics (2nd ed) Palgrave: New York, p 43.
Burke, E (1790) Reflections on the French Revolution any edition
Durkheim, E (1982) ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’, London
Eagleton, E (1991) Ideology: An Introduction London: Verso
Goodwin, B (1997) Using Political Ideas (4th ed) Wiley: New York
T, Hobbes (1660), edited by Tuck,R (1991) Levithian Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Heywood, A (2002) Politics (2nd ed) Palgrave: New York
Huntington, S.P “Conservatism as an Ideology”, American Political Science Review, (1957) vol 51
Mannheim “Conservative Thought – Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology” London: Routeledge Kegan Paul
K,Marx (1846 ) The German Ideology
Oakeshott, M (1962, 1991) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays USA: Liberty Fund.
Riff, M.A (1987) Dictionary of Modern Political Ideologies Manchester: Manchester University Press