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Conservatism - Origins Of Conservatism: Britain, France, And Germany, The Challenge Of The Modern, Conservatism: Civil And Cultural

political politics radical desire

Conservatism lends itself to misunderstanding because its political designation is easily confused with popular usage. To be conservative in the sense of preferring the familiar to the unfamiliar is a common form of behavior. Since this attitude toward life is universal, it issues from no necessary political commitment. For any person, even the most bohemian, not to develop a settled habit or a lingering attachment would be almost inconceivable. However, it is possible to conceive of persons having such habits and attachments and yet being radical in his or her politics. That would have been true, for instance, of Adolf Hitler. Equally, to be conservative in the sense of wishing to maintain a position of authority, privilege, reverence, or wealth is another universally recognizable form of behavior that issues from no necessary political commitment. It would be exceptional for someone who has achieved or inherited such powerful status not to want to secure it. This would have been true, for instance, of Joseph Stalin. Both of these popular meanings of conservatism—as shorthand for individual or social characteristics—are inadequate to understanding conservatism in politics. Both of them are primordial in their instincts, general in their applications, and empty of content.

Conservatism in politics, on the other hand, is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, particular in its significance, and as a consequence has a distinctive, if differentiated, character. Conservatism is best understood as a set of propositions about the activity of governing, defined against those radical ideologies with roots in eighteenth-century speculation, like liberalism and socialism, that were to have such a profound effect on world history in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is opposed to grand schemes for the political emancipation or salvation of humankind to which such radical speculation can lead. Conservatism advocates limited ambitions in politics, argues that the aspiration of government should be modest, and emphasizes the value of continuity in the state. Conservatives believe that government can be authoritative only when it is limited, modest, and continuous. If it were possible to identify a distinctive desire uniting all forms of conservatism, it would be the desire to be left alone to enjoy the benefits of a well-ordered society. As the nineteenth-century British prime minister Lord Salisbury (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil) once put it, conservatism is like a policeman: if there were no (radical) criminals to protect against, there would be no need for it. However, conservatives will not be left alone.

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