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3.2: Conservatism

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  • That being noted, how did elites understand their own role in society? How did they justify the power of kings and nobles over the majority of the population? This was not just about wealth, after all, since there were many non-noble merchants who were as rich, or richer, than many nobles. Nor was it viable for most nobles to claim that their rights were logically derived from their mastery of warfare, since only a small percentage of noblemen served in royal armies (and those that did were not necessarily very good officers!) Instead, European elites at the time explained their own social role in terms of peace, tradition, and stability. Their ideology came to be called conservatism: the idea that what had worked for centuries was inherently better at keeping the peace both within and between kingdoms than were the forces unleashed by the Revolution.

    Conservatism held that the old traditions of rule were the best and most desirable principles of government, having proven themselves relatively stable and successful over the course of 1,000 years of European history. It was totally opposed to the idea of universal legal equality, let alone of suffrage (i.e. voting rights), and it basically amounted to an attempt to maintain a legal political hierarchy to go along with the existing social and economic hierarchy of European society.

    The fundamental argument of conservatism was that the French Revolution and Napoleon had already proved that too much change and innovation in politics was inherently destructive. According to conservatives, the French Revolution had started out, in its moderate phase, by arguing for the primacy of the common people, but it quickly and inevitably spun out of control. During the Terror, the king and queen were beheaded, French society was riven with bloody conflict, tens of thousands were guillotined, and the revolutionary government launched a blasphemous crusade against the church. Napoleon's takeover - itself a symptom of the anarchy unleashed by the Revolution - led to almost twenty years of war and turmoil across the map of Europe. These events proved to conservatives that while careful reform might be acceptable, rapid change was not.

    Illustration of French revolutionaries with severed heads on the ends of spears.
    Figure 3.2.1: Images like the above (from the French Revolution) were used by conservatives to illustrate the violence and bloodshed they claimed were an intrinsic part of revolutionary change.

    Many conservatives believed that human nature is basically bad, evil, and depraved. The clearest statement of this idea in the early nineteenth century came from Joseph de Maistre, a conservative French nobleman. De Maistre argued that human beings are not enlightened, not least because (as a staunch Catholic), he believed that all human souls are tainted by original sin. Left unchecked, humans with too much freedom would always indulge in depravity. Only the allied forces of a strong monarchy, a strong nobility, and a strong church could hold that inherent evil in check. It is worth noting that De Maistre wrote outside of France itself during the revolutionary period, first in the small Italian kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (he was a noble in both France and Piedmont) and then in Russia. His message resonated strongly with the arch-conservative Russian Tsar Alexander I in particular.

    A more pragmatic conservative take was exemplified by a British lord, Edmund Burke. He argued that, given the complexity and fragility of the social fabric, only the force of tradition could prevent political chaos. As the French Revolution had demonstrated, gradual reforms had the effect of unleashing a tidal wave of pent-up anger and, more to the point, foolish decisions by people who had no experience of making political decisions. In his famous pamphlet Reflections On The Revolution in France, he wrote "It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic." To Burke, the common people were a mob of uneducated, inexperienced would-be political decision-makers, the last people you wanted running a country. Instead, it was far wiser to keep things in the basic form that had survived for centuries, with minor accommodations as needed.

    Burke was an eminently practical, pragmatic political critic. De Maistre’s ideas may have harkened back to the social and political thought of past centuries, but Burke was a very grounded and realistic thinker. He simply believed that “the masses” were the last people one wanted running a government, because they were an uneducated, uncultivated, uncivilized rabble. Meanwhile, the European nobility had been raised for centuries to rule and had developed both cultural traditions and systems of education and training to form leaders. It was a given that not all of them were very good at it, but according to Burke there was simply no comparison between the class of nobles and the class of the mob – to let the latter rule was to invite disaster. And, of course, conservatives had all of their suspicions confirmed during the Terror, when the whole social order of France was turned upside down in the name of a perfect society (Burke himself was particularly aggrieved by the execution of the French queen Marie Antoinette, whom he saw as a perfectly innocent victim).

    Conservatism at its best was a coherent critique of the violence, warfare, and instability that had accompanied the Revolution and Napoleonic wars. In practice, however, conservatism all too often degenerated into the stubborn defense of corrupt, incompetent, or oppressive regimes. In turn, despite the practical impossibility of doing so in most cases, there were real attempts on the part of many conservative regimes after the defeat of Napoleon to completely turn back the clock, to try to sweep the reforms of the revolutionary era under the collective rug.

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