Conservatism is Not an Ideology

Russell Kirk deserves special attention on the topic of ideologies. In his twenty-nine books on politics, history, constitutional law, literature, social criticism, economics, and fiction, the legacy of the French Revolution and the loosening of the ideologues upon the world haunted him at a profound level. Tellingly, Kirk’s most important influence was Edmund Burke, the originator of conservatism in the post-medieval world and the most articulate spokesman against the French Revolution. Following the careful scholarship of Raymond Aron, Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, and Gerhart Niemeyer as well as the social criticism of Eliot, Kirk argued that one could define ideologies through three of its “vices.”

First, ideologies are political and secularized religions. They take with them the symbols and energy of religions, but they focus almost exclusively on the material and on man rather than on the spiritual and on the Judeo-Christian God.

Second, by polarizing political and social thought, ideologies render the virtue of prudence impossible. False absolutes dominate, nuance withers, and compromise—the essence of prudence—becomes impossible. As man naturally desires something greater than himself, ideology assumes the dogma of established religions.[1]

And, third, being puritans, the ideologues quickly attack ideologues representing other ideologies and especially the deviants from their own ranks.[2]

Usually, Kirk contended, the half-educated (or even “quarter-educated,” as Kirk sometimes called them) and the bored in the West were the most susceptible to the lure of ideologies.[3] But, as modernity, and now post-modernity, continue to make inroads, ravenously mocking and devouring history, tradition, and religion, more and more persons become prey for the seductiveness of false absolutes and easy answers. They crave something greater than themselves, but have missed the opportunity to embrace true religion and right reason. They latch onto the first thing that presents itself as truth. When one adopted “truth” conflicts with the adopted “truth” of another, modern and post-modern man either falls into a bizarre subjectivism, as with Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, claiming each man can proclaim his own truth, or, as in the case in the Middle East, he sends teenage girls, strapped with bomb on their backs, onto public buses or into market places. The sane, educated man finds neither option appealing or acceptable.

Unfortunately, as American history has demonstrated over the past half century or more, ideologies do not politely contain themselves within revolutionary tyrannies; they have slowly infected all of the West, especially in its literature and politics.

Some Americans during the twentieth-century have embraced democratic egalitarianism as a somewhat benign (though not innocent, Kirk warned) ideology. Others, especially those on the political right, or so they believe, have embraced a form of consumerism as an ideology. And, to the horror of Kirk, some on the right have even claimed conservatism as an ideology. In Kirk’s mind, conservatism is the antithesis of ideology, for it upholds tradition, religion, and history.

Regardless, one thing is certain. Twenty-first century man has forgotten the western tradition of attempting to balance the universals and the particulars. As Cicero wrote:

True law is right reason in agreement with Nature. . . . it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect upon the wicked. It is a sin to try and alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal a part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one rule, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.[4]

With this, Kirk certainly agreed.

This article appears courtesy of The Imaginative Conservative
[1] St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (RSV; 1:18-24; 2:15)
[2] Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 5-6.
[3] Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 7.
[4] Cicero, On the Republic.

Bradley Birzer


Bradley Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History and Director of the American Studies Program at Hillsdale College, Michigan. He is the author of several books including Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth. Birzer is Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Center for the American Idea in Houston, as well as being a board member of Ave Maria University's Sapientia Press. He is also co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative website.

  • Excellent article.  Thank you Crisis Magazine for remaining faithful to God and using Right Reason to do so.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Cicero was quite wrong.

    As Pascal observed, “Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country.  They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce [la plaisanterie] is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law   Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions.”

    He perceived that, since the Fall, “without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours” and that “Man without faith cannot know the true good, nor justice.” 

    • theorist

       And yet it is true that people w/o faith (the theological virtue and not just common faith) do have natural virtue. And virtue is intentional so they had to have known what they were doing was good.  That contradicts Pascal and I think it is also a Church canon that heathens can have natural virtue.

  • JimT

    This article has given me much to think about.  Is the definition of an ideology as a secular religion a common definition?  Must an ideology always conflict with religion?  What is the difference between and ideology and a world view?  Must an ideology always subsume prudence?
    I had considered an ideology to consist of a set of values, a means of ordering them and/or making a choice which should take priority in a particular situation, and a set of principles for dealing with the world.  I had thought it could naturally be built on a theology.  Just as religion gives us general principles for dealing with God and His creation, depending on prudence to  handle the particulars, I imagined that an ideology was a further set of values and principles that would not necessarily conflict with religion, and also be the basis for an exercise of prudence.  I did not see a conflict of ideology with conservatism, tradition, history.  As with anything in this world, an ideology can be taken too far.  Its principles can be practiced after losing sight of the values on which they are based.  Ideas that challenge the ideology  can be dismissed without reflection.  Compromise that does not conflict with spiritual absolutes can be rejected without evaluating its benefits.
    This article is timely for me, as I am currently reading the Tyranny of Cliches, in which the author propounds that * liberals * claim to have no ideology.   I plan to read the referenced  The Politics of Prudence by Russell Kirk.  I will also be taking a look at The Imaginative Conservative website.

  • The difference between conservatism and every ideology, including those that go by the name of conservatism, is precisely an aversion to what Burke scorned as “arithmetical” and (misusing a good word) “metaphysical”.  A true conservative resists the reduction of human life to any set of abstract notions, particularly abstract notions dreamed up by political philosophers and demagogues.  The true conservative says, “You tell me you don’t know why that fence is there, and that’s why you want to remove it.  I tell you that I’ll let you remove it only after you figure out why it is there” (paraphrasing Chesterton).  The true conservative understands that all human projects are flawed, and that the battle between good and evil runs through every human heart.  So the conservative understands, or should understand, that we will not be “saved” by a universal franchise or by free trade or by an “educated” populace or any other nostrum…

  • ChrisPineo

    Conservatism I feel is a principle not an ideal, therefore it is more tangible than an ideology. I think the easiest way to see the difference between a stated ideal and a stated principle is how many words the statement takes. A principle can be stated in a full sentence, a complete thought. “I work to make people free to live good and upright lives,” is a principle. An ideal can be stated with only one word, an abstract phrase. “Freedom,” is an ideal. The single word has no bearing on what people should or should not do, and is less tangible in terms of complete thought. To use freedom as a guidepost responsibly one should contextualize it, rather than simply venerate it.