Conservatism as an Ideology

Samuel P. Huntington, "Conservatism as an Ideology" American Political Science Review, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1957), pp. 454-473.


Most writers agree, and it is assumed here, that Burke is properly called a conservative. The question, consequently, is: can Burke best be understood as the spokesman for the feudal aristocratic order, the expounder of values and ideals universally valid, or as the defender of established institutions? The aristocratic definition fails to explain Burke because: (1) the English society Burke defended was neither primarily feudal nor exclusively aristocratic; (2) Burke was concerned with the defense of other established societies, notably in India and America; and (3) insofar as Burke had views on the desirable organization of society, he was a liberal, a Whig, and a free trader. The autonomous concept similarly does not offer a complete explanation of Burke because: (1) Burke’s political writings and speeches were all directed to immediate problems and needs; (2) he rejected the desirability and the possibility of a moral or political philosophy of universal applicability; and (3) the principal elements of his political thought are relevant chiefly to the limited purpose of justifying established institutions. …

Apparently desiring the security of identification with an intellectual movement, the New Conservatives scurry through America’s past, resurrecting political and intellectual figures long since forgotten. Few enterprises could be more futile or irrelevant. In The Conservative Mind, for instance, Russell Kirk defines a conservative as one who stands by established institutions. Yet in his efforts to find a conservative tradition in America, Kirk classifies as conservative: James Russell Lowell, who was “frightened” by what he saw about him; Brooks Adams, who was “disgusted with American society”; Henry Adams, who has become the classic symbol of frustrated alienation;32 Irving Babbitt, who fled from America to Buddhism; and Santayana, who fled from America to his Roman cloister. All these men were malcontents, and in many respects they were much more fundamentally malcontent than Debs, Henry George, de Leon, and LaFollette, whom presumably Kirk would never dream of classifying as conservatives. The New Conservatives’ search for forebears merely reflects their own uncertainty of purpose, role, and identity. They seek to conserve an intellectual tradition which does not exist rather than institutions which do exist. Were they true conservatives, immediately engaged in the defense of an institution or society against a real and imminent threat, they would have little interest in establishing a conservative pedigree.