Basicis of Political History

A distinctive feature of the conservative ideology it it’s underlying view of human beings as ultimately driven by instinct, emotions and unconscious wishes, in contrast to the liberal view of humans as rational beings (Heywood; 22). This is also the view upon human nature taken by one of the forerunners of conservatism, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who emphasized the power of the non-rational and viewed human rationality as simply a means to en end which underlies human instinct and longings. Hobbes also believed that one of the inherent human strivings is power or the will to rule others. According to Hobbes therefore society is in need of a strong government which is able to prevent the misery which would be the result of humans being free to go at each other in the pursuit of power (Ibid; 23). Also Edmund Burke criticized human rationality as a means on which to build society on since human intellect seems relatively imperfect in it’s ability to grasp the totality of the world and make the best decisions. This problem is exalted when social life can be viewed as one of the most complex matters one could try to grasp (Ibid; 22). What both Hobbes’ and Burke´s arguments amount to in the conservative tradition is that, since human rationality cannot be counted on, the best way to structure society is to use what has been known and proven to work, thereby emphasizing the role of tradition and custom (Ibid; 22, 139).
Another important feature of conservatism is found in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville who pointed out potential dangers within liberal though, such as equality of opportunity, social mobility and growing individualism (Ibid; 139). Conservatives have traditionally viewed the human as being an insecure creature seeking rootedness and stability in her world which according this theory only a community can supply them with (Ibid; 33). Individualism is suspicious to conservatives, specifically from a traditional conservative view, since they see society as an organic whole, consisting of a complex network of relationships which maintain the whole (Ibid; 44). Social solidarity and a sense of community are hence viewed as vital building blocks for the proper functioning of society, instances which many fear unrestrained individualism might undermine, creating social atomism and isolated individuals (Ibid; 33).

This fear of social solidarity and community being threatened by individualization also represents a historical mark for conservative though which first emerged in later 18th century and early 19th century as part of socialist thinker’s reaction against the growing change within economics and politics towards the liberal tradition throughout the western world (Ibid; 35, 138). Usually one can distinguish between two parallel developments of conservatism; Whilst continental Europe’s version of conservatism often is viewed as reactionary and reform-rejecting, a more cautious and flexible conservatism developed in the UK and USA which in contrast to the continent accepted natural change or the need for change in order to conserve (Ibid; 138). This split represents the different types of interpretation which the view towards proven and known traditions and customs may have. Three forms can be distinguished here within conservative thought. The first interpretation focuses on continuity and the maintenance of established ways and institutions whilst at the same time eradicating change. Secondly, it may aim towards actively reclaiming the past, which in turn means that change in itself is needed in order to restore what has been lost. Thirdly conservatism may also recognize the need for change as a means of preservation, thereby adopting change in order to conserve, implying a belief in natural change (Ibid; 345). These traditional and conservative views became also philosophically unpopular once the thought of historical progress, championed by Hegel, took root in modern thought (Ibid; 345). This doctrine viewed human history as an ongoing development forward, always advancing towards a higher civilization, viewing change as a good in itself, thereby undermining many of the conservative doctrines (Ibid; 345). Differences within the conservative tradition can also be seen in the differing stances towards political and civic issues. Traditional conservatives have been known to support private property though usually advocating non-ideological and pragmatic attitude towards the relationship between the state and the individual. Conservatism in the USA on the other hand is known to favor limited government. At the same time, welfarism and interventionism which are defining of liberalism and social democracy, can evidently be observed within the conservative tradition in the UK and continental Europe (Ibid; 138).
Putting pressure on the belief in social reform, the new right has emerged as the next step of conservative development from the 1970s onward (Ibid; 138). This outgrowth is usually associated with the combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism. Here economic liberalism refers to classical liberalism, advocating the minimization of state intervention for the sake of enterprise, free markets and individual responsibility (Ibid; 138). Social conservatism, in accordance with traditional conservative thought, emphasizes the perceived breakdown of social stability as a result of all too liberal and permissive values. Often dangers of moral and cultural diversity are being brought up combined with a claim for the strengthening of traditional values, restoration of authority and social discipline (Ibid; 138).

The earliest building blocks of liberalism can be found amongst the sophists in ancient Greece who held the view that human beings are naturally self-interested with competition being an inevitable part of social life (Ibid; 24). In our time the roots of liberalism can be traced back to Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer who gave a biological account of human and social development as a system which is part of a natural cycle, based in the real world of life on earth with natural selection giving power over human and social development to it’s subjects (Ibid; 18). Closely linked to this presupposition is the belief in the human mental ability to shape her life. This focus upon the human mind was historically being championed by philosophers like René Descartes and even Immanuel Kant (Ibid; 21). Liberalism was henceforth to be closely tied to the belief in rationalism, which emphasized liberty for the human individual with their justification to be found in the belief that human beings could use their rationality to take care of themselves and society an idea most famously championed by philosopher John Stuart Mill who furthermore saw humans as a progressive being (Ibid; 21, 22, 30). This view is to be distinguished from those held by Jeremy Bentham whose utilitarian theory saw humans as hedonistic and pleasure seeking beings (Ibid; 24). Another interpretation has been the view of humans as the economic man and utility maximizing, thereby linking liberalism to social contract theories which characterized big parts of 17th century thought (Ibid; 24).
Another key thinker within liberal thought is John Locke who introduced a social-contract theory into liberal theory saying that government in itself should be an agreement of the governed to have a government protect their natural rights, thereby creating a basis for future representational and constitutional government (Ibid; 30, 66).

Liberalism was a result of the breakdown of feudalism in Europe which opened the door for market capitalism and Laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th century would soon form the centerpiece of classical 19th century liberalism which condemned all forms of state intervention. Classic liberalism already then was committed to the greatest possible individual freedom where every individual should be free to pursue his or her individual goals in life. According to liberal theory society is collection of atoms with each atom having to be treated in it’s own right (Ibid; 44). Early liberals championed individualism by claiming the doctrine of natural rights which stated the purpose of society as to protect the inalienable rights of the individual (Ibid; 28). With it’s belief in the individual and her rights liberalism stood as a strong opponent to absolutism and pushed for constitutional and even representative government (Ibid; 29). Classic liberalism was defined by focusing on the individual as self-sufficient, believing in a “minimal state”, thereby keeping economic distribution in accordance with individual’s talent and work. Hence part of classic liberalism was also the belief in a self-regulating market (Ibid; 29).
Over time new forms of liberalism would emerge which became increasingly open to welfare reform and economic management, two instances which became characteristic of the modern 20th century liberalism. Overall modern liberalism can be viewed as having a more pragmatic outlook towards the state. The emergence of social welfare liberalism is part of this outlook which understood that state intervention could be used to safeguard individuals from evils and enlarge their liberty in light of occurrences such as the generation of injustice by capitalism (Ibid; 29). This shift within liberal thought can be traced to a new definition of the word freedom, famously championed by Thomas Hill Green (Ibid; 30). Whilst freedom classically was understood as the absence of constraints, hence the definition of negative freedom, the modern use of the word shifted to positive freedom with the outset to promote personal development and self-realization, ideas which also are inherent within the concept of social democracy (Ibid; 29, 258, 260). This shift also took place within the definition of the individual which is at the heart of liberalism. The classical egoistical individualism now turned into a developmental individualism whose goals liberals were prepared to pursue also if this meant supporting government action which in turn would promote equality of opportunity and protects individuals (Ibid; 31).

Socialism seems to me to be the most abstract ideological doctrine in that it’s different components seem to derive from various fields and traditions, in many cases making it hard to distinguish socialist thinkers from some marxist, conservative or liberal thinkers. However, one basic feature of socialism derives from it’s focus upon nurture, a shift from biological to sociological explanations for understanding society. According to socialist thought social problems are not rooted in nature as such but are in themselves results of a society. This is the stance that both Robert Owen and Karl Marx took, that human nature is plastic and that social environment conditions the behavior of human beings (Ibid; 19). Simone de Beauvoir for instance championed the idea that the difference between men and women are not biologically rooted but reproduced through the social realm (Ibid; 19). Sociology in fact builds upon the assumption that if social condition X is the case then it will create a subject XY. This worldview underpins the dialectic notion within socialist thought with humankind and the material world bouncing of each other (Ibid; 19). Burrus Frederric Skinner can be said to represent the most deterministic view which undermines the idea of free will, promoting the idea of social engineering (Ibid; 19). Another important doctrine within socialist thought is derived from Friedrich Hegel who, though recognizing society being the whole sum of it’s individuals, saw that the individual in fact had a very little role to play in shaping history. Rather it was a world spirit manifested within the human mind which drove the world forward. This view of history was later passed on to Marx who also championed the progressive thought of history and saw revolution by the proletarian class as a natural result of this evolution (Ibid; 22, 59).
With it’s focus on the social realm, human life within the social also became a building block for socialist thought which focused on the social essence of human nature. Similar to the conservative tradition, socialism emerged in the19th century as a reaction against liberalism and it’s individualistic implications which seemed to threaten social stability (Ibid; 35). Observing human life socialists saw that humans live and work collectively and according to Peter Kropotkin this capacity for cooperation could be viewed as the difference between humans and other animals (Ibid; 25). Selfishness, which related to the liberal tradition, was viewed as being merely products of a society which nurtured such a behavior (Ibid; 25). Both conservatives and socialists have often portrayed themselves as anti-individualistic, promoting commitment to the community, strengthening social responsibility and harnessing collective energies (Ibid; 33). Marx actually, by following Hegel’s view on history, was sure that the collective proletariat would through a revolution. On one hand socialist thought traditionally views individualism as a threat to social stability, in the same manner as the conservative tradition, whilst at the same time pointing out that individuals are not totally responsible for the life they lead since they are subjects to social order, hence shifting the argument from the individual to the community (Ibid; 33). Early socialism can also be said to be inspired by platonic doctrines, championing a division of society where few were going to govern for the people, a thought quite similar to conservative reasoning (Ibid; 22).
As in our time egoistical individualism gave way to developmental individualism modern socialists were becoming more and more prepared to support individualistic doctrines reasoning that if humans are naturally sociable beings then individualism, instead of standing for self-interest, could have as it’s goal fraternal cooperation and maybe even communal living, thereby merging individualistic and collectivistic though (Ibid; 31). Today’s modern social democrats acknowledge the importance of the individual role, seeking to balance it against cooperation and altruism which still in accordance with socialist and conservative doctrines, only a sense of community can foster (Ibid; 33).

The foundations and the development of the modern, democratic state
The existence of modern democracy has only been a recent development with classic democracy enduring well into the 19th century (Ibid; 224). Up until the 19th century, democracy was seen as a means to protect individuals against a over mighty government . 17th century social contract theorists saw democracy as a way to check government power, with for instance John Locke holding that the right to vote was tied to natural rights and right to property (Ibid; 229). Others saw political participation as good in itself, as Rousseau and Mill for instance who held political participation as a means through which human beings could achieve freedom and autonomy. Individuals are free only when they obey laws which they themselves have made (Ibid; 229). Up until the 19th century it was the classic model of democracy which dominated democratic theory. Classic democracy started in ancient Greece and was based on direct popular participation in government, direct democracy and popular self-government (Ibid; 221). Part of the explanation of the decline of classical democratic thought is that direct democracy works in small communities, whereas the modern world’s populations, gathered into nation states, not to mention today’s supranational tendencies, consists of everything else than small communities (Ibid; 225). Liberal democracy today is the dominating democratic model in the west and has few resemblances with classic democratic models (Ibid; 226). In modern times the task of governing has been handed to professional responsible for making decisions on behalf of the people (Ibid; 224). This represents the shift from self-government to a system of representative mechanisms, a government for the people, which is the modern understanding of democracy dominated by electoral democracy that developed in industrialized west, often called liberal democracy (Ibid; 221). This is also reflective of Plato who did not hold a general population as being smart enough choose in their own interest, thereby promoting the role of experts (Ibid; 330).
Today’s liberal democracy is often portrayed as being the only really successful form of government this far, or at least the best we’ve found up till today. Support for this form of government is to be found in it’s self-preservative nature which supposedly guarantees continued legitimacy by ensuring that government power is not unchecked or arbitrary but is exercised in accordance with the wishes, preferences and interests of the general public. Social democracy does not make use of rules of power but uses different kinds of constitutions which are to ensure individual liberty and constrained government. Liberal democracies are also so called pluralist democracies where power is spread out across society (Ibid; 227). Liberal democracy also provides basis for popular consent in the form of regular, open and competitive elections with government only rightful as long as it responds to popular pressure (Ibid; 143). This form of democracy is in itself based natural rights theory and utilitarianism. Developmental individualism within this structure is associated with attempts to broaden popular participation because it advances freedom and individual flourishing. This is something made popular by the new left 60s 70s which found classical democracy more and more interesting on the behalf of it’s self-governing structure (Ibid; 222). A further variation of democracy is the deliberative kind which stressed the importance of public debate and discussion in shaping citizens identities and interests and in strengthening their sense o the common good (Ibid; 222).Conservatives have traditionally stressed the division between political and private life. Championing a strong government, political activity is to be kept limited within certain fields and should effectively be aimed at maintaining public order and safeguarding individual rights, at the same time being restricted from regulating public life (Ibid; 56). The conservative view on liberal or modern democracy is that hierarchy is a necessity, if perhaps a necessary evil, for maintaining social stability. This critique has usually been aimed mostly against participatory democracy (Ibid; 232). Upholding the value of tradition and custom, conservatives have also tended to criticize multiculturalism which often is being championed by modern or liberal democratic states (Ibid; 216). Liberals have in modern times had a more positive outlook concerning the state after realizing that capitalism did leave the mass of people to being subject to vagaries of the market. This is where social welfare liberalism emerged and state intervention was being viewed as a means to ensure individual’s liberty. The shift from negative to positive freedom is a doctrine which speaks directly to the foundations of today’s social democracy (Ibid; 29). But also liberals will at times stress a division between political and private life which can be viewed as being essential for individual liberty (Ibid; 57). Since individuals according to liberal theory are self-interested, possessing political power could be corrupting in itself (Ibid; 55). Socialist thought has for a long time held that liberalism and liberal democracy ignores the reality of unequal class power, in the same way as feminists argue that individualism is a construction of a male-dominated society and thereby themselves carrying legitimateness for gender inequality (Ibid; 57). Since socialists for a long time have stressed private life as being a system of injustice and inequality the extension of the state’s responsibilities into the private life and regulating economics is a welcomed instance within modern democracy (Ibid; 58). Communitarians see further the individualism within liberalism as being asocial and acultural, unable in providing a moral basis for social order and collective endeavor (Ibid; 58).


Heywood, Andrew – Political Theory: An introduction, 3ed. – Palgrave 2004


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