Is Conservatism Ideological?

russell kirk
Russell Kirk

May 7, 2022

I have written on this topic before but mainly in passing while focusing on other things. That’s not going to change here, but it might serve us well in the political conversation to have a summary of my answer to this question.

The short answer is no: At best, conservatism is anti-ideological, or a negation of ideology, as Russell Kirk put it. At worst? I don’t know, maybe it can be considered ideological, but only when we refuse to actually think about it.

Here I explained ideology as

coming from the Greek idea to mean “form, pattern” and logos, meaning “word, reason and plan”— so, “discourse.” It is through this discourse that we interpret the world and formulate a worldview. 

Politics changes across time, and so has conservatism. While Kirk outlines his principles of conservatism, he describes these principles as a way of being, maxims that we generally agree on, but not some doctrine to coerce ourselves to abide.

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.

Perhaps this is why conservatism has been on the losing side of history. When defending or pursuing ideology, there are contradictions that might have to be made and moral principles that might have to be conceded, in an attempt to save ideological face. An example: the January 6th riot was wrong. The BLM “summer of love” riots were also wrong. We can assess their impacts and causes separately. And perhaps this is why the ideology of the left prevails; because, unlike them, conservatives are generally unwilling to (for fear of hypocrisy) allow morality to cede to their political ends.

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As I write here,

“Because conservatism is relative and reactionary, in that it asserts a respect for pre-established conventions against the assertion of the desire to upend them, there is no ideational uniformity, institutional or cultural hegemony that demands conformity to a structural body of authority. Conservatism is instantaneously anachronistic: the moment it utters a vision, it renders itself obsolete, an orphan against the revolutionary, a deer in the headlight of change.”

In effect, conservatism attempts to negate ideology, to react to it. It acknowledges, to paraphrase Kirk, that permanence is more important than the belief that history is inevitably marching onward toward progression. In fact, we are so susceptible to degradation that we must be prudent in our steps, especially when dealing with those who want to revolutionize (and upend) our world because of some preconceived utopia that exists in the works of their heroes. To the conservative, utopia does not exist, liberty and (pure) equality are incompatible, and we will never tame the vicissitudes of human nature. We have only the 20th century to look to on the atrocities committed when we try to tame either history or nature.


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