The historical meaning of political conservatism

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Athwart 2"A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!' " — William F. Buckley, Jr.

In the context of my article on this subject,[1] I have been asked if there is also a classical versus modern conservatism paradigm similar to the classical versus modern liberalism, and was invited to write an article about the subject.

In response, let’s say that in such a context, there is no such classification of classical versus modern conservatism, as there is with liberalism; although there are various alleged forms of conservatism that, like liberalism, varies somewhat from country to country and can be defined and characterized in general terms. Conservatism is the political philosophy that seeks to preserve traditional social and religious institutions of Western culture and civilization deemed desirable, if not sacrosanct, and Athwartseeking to maintain stability, law, and order, while at the same time limiting the power of government, as to preserve the natural rights — i.e., life, liberty and property — of the individual, as to allow him freely to pursue happiness without impinging on the rights or property of others.

I have written two articles that expound on this topic from a historic and philosophic perspective.[2,3] Thus defined, the affinity of classical liberalism to modern conservatism becomes clearly obvious and indisputable.[1]

Today, the two most fashionable brands of conservatism are paleoconservatism (or Paleocon), which in its essence is mainstream conservatism perhaps with a streak of reaction associated with a nostalgic yearning to return to a better past; and a newer brand of semi-conservatism, a curious historical offshoot of Trotskyism (international socialism), coined neoconservatism. Discussions about these terms appear in the political science literature. Wikipedia has lengthy articles on conservatism and liberalism that unfortunately are too long and tendentious, tending to obscure and confuse rather than clarify and elucidate. My personal observations, though, come not only from having actually lived in a country that underwent political and social transformation due to revolution, in which, incidentally, my own family participated, and living under communism; but also from years of study on the subject since the time I was 13 years old,[4] studies that continue to this day.

Neoconservatism (or Neocon) is more of an academic than a popular grassroots movement. As mentioned, it stemmed from the left side of the political spectrum,[5,6,7] originally opposed to the discarded "socialism in one country" concept of Stalinism,[8] led but not exclusively so by influential Jewish-American intellectuals, many of the them former members of the Trotskyite movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which transformed itself into anti-Soviet liberalism during the 1950s through the 1970s. The movement flourished in the 1980s with the infusion of the so-called "Reagan Democrats" into the GOP and became a force within the Republican Party at the time of the administrations of George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and George W. Bush (2001-2009). The main emphasis since the 1990s has been the projection of American power to foster social democracy abroad, especially in the Middle East, and to staunchly support the war against Islamic terrorism and ISIS. On the domestic front, Neocons have supported the status quo of the social welfare system and the use of government to institute socioeconomic policies that could be construed as creeping, if not overt, socialism.

One of the most influential political magazines of the Neoconservative movement is The Weekly Standard founded by Irving Kristol (1920-2009), also one of the founders of the Neocon movement along with Norman Podhoretz (1930-), his wife Midge Decter (1927-), and their son John Podhoretz. Bill Kristol, son of the founder, now edits the magazine. Some of the Neocons became in the end philosophical paleoconservatives like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Dick Cheney, and John Bolton; others like Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz have continued their ambivalent, dual message, accepting some form of utilitarian social welfare at home and promoting the spread of social democracy abroad and staunchly defending the state of Israel and the war on terror. Wikipedia has informative articles on Neoconservatism and some of the personalities mentioned in this commentary.

It should be restated Paleoconservatism and Neoconservatism remain on the academic sidelines to the mainstream modern conservatism espoused by conservative Republicans in the United States[6]. The movement espoused by conservative Republicans was kindled in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, kept alive by House Republicans during the 1990s, and reignited once again most notably with Sarah Palin and the election of a slate of young GOP conservatives (inspired by the Tea Party movement) to the House and Senate. They include such political dynamos as Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Marco Rubio (R- FL). These Tea Party conservatives carry the torch of undiluted conservatism opposing the liberal Democratic policies of the Obama administration.

It should be mentioned that in the USSR, as Soviet power consolidated itself in the 20th century, a semantic mirror image took place as the communist nomenklatura became the “conservatives” supporting the collectivist-totalitarian status quo, and the “liberals” became the dissidents supporting democracy and an open society, at least in media parlance. The terms continue to be used as such even in modern Russia but they have little to do with the Anglo-American terms discussed in this article.

The old conservatism of the Enlightenment era that supported mercantilism and the divine rights of kings received successive deathblows with the Glorious Revolution in 1689, the complete victory of the Whig Party with the Hanoverian succession (1714), the French Revolution (1789-1795), the turmoil of World War I (1914-1918), and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Modern conservatism was founded by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), derived from the classical liberalism of the British Whigs, as discussed in my previous article.[1] By the turn of the 20th century, conservatism was not battling the classical liberalism it co-opted but modern liberalism, progressivism, and socialism, which were attempting to control the labor movement both in the U.S and Great Britain.

The end result of modern liberalism, unrestrained by the freedom with responsibility that comes with conservatism, has led to untold mayhem, police state terror, desolation, and destruction as we witnessed in the 20th century in the Soviet Union (the USSR Gulag Archipelago), Nazism in Germany (National Socialism), China (Mao’s Cultural Revolution), Cambodia (Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge), Cuba (firing squads), and the over 100 million hapless victims of international communism![10,11] 


1. Faria MA. The Enlightenment — A triumph of classical not modern liberalism!, September 29, 2015.

2. Faria MA. Religious morality (and secular humanism) in Western civilization as precursors to medical ethics: A historic perspective. Surg Neurol Int 2015;6:105.

3. Faria MA. A defense of Western culture and civilization without apologies., November 16, 2014.

4. Faria MA. Cuba in Revolution — Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). Hacienda Publishing, Macon, GA. Review available from:

5. Faria MA. The Political Spectrum (Part I): The totalitarian left from Communism to Social Democracy., September 28, 2011.

6. Faria MA. The Political Spectrum (Part II) — The Center: A Democracy or a Constitutional Republic?, October 14, 2011.

7. Faria MA. The Political Spectrum (Part III) — The Extreme Right: Anarchism., October 21, 2011.

8. Faria MA. Stalin, Communists, and fatal statistics. The Macon Telegraph, January 8, 2012.

9. Faria MA. Classical Liberalism vs Modern Liberalism (Socialism) — A Primer., May 21, 2012.

10. Rummel RJ. Death by Government. Piscataway, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1994.

11. Courtois S, Werth N, Panne JL, The Black Book of Communism — Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Miguel A. Faria Jr., M.D. is Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International. He is a former Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery and Adjunct Professor of Medical History. Dr. Faria is the author of Cuba in Revolution — Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). He has written numerous articles on the blessings of liberty and the venalities of totalitarianism, collectivism, and communism — all posted at his websites: &

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. The historical meaning of political conservatism. October 4, 2015. Available from:

Copyright ©2015 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.

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This analysis of conservatism is a most pleasant topic. Having been subjected to Obama's socialism via Obamacare, their attack upon religion, attack upon the family, spying upon our emails and phone records, promotion of Islam and denigration of Christianity; it is good to remember from whence we came and what our values exactly are.

I had never thought of the nomenklatura as conservative, but from the standpoint of the USSR, this is of course correct, just as the liberals there supported democracy and freedom. The terms conservative and liberal mean different things entirely in different countries. Neoconservatism sounds like being for a strong defense or foreign policy while being socially liberal. President George H.W. Bush is a good example. Just as the Democrat Party once held conservative representatives like Rep Berry (D-AR) before the extreme leftist Obama/Reid/Pelosi machine forced out conservative Democrats, so too the Republican Party held liberals like N. Rockefeller and Bush senior.

I wonder where the Chamber of Commerce, pro-amnesty for illegal immigrants, fit into the conservative agenda. As far as I can ascertain, their interests are not governed by principal; rather, they are strictly governed by self-interest. They appear neither conservative nor liberal, although their pro-amnesty stance puts them into the liberal camp for entirely different reasons. The Chamber of Commerce wants to "conserve" the illegal workforce for cheap labor, while the Democrats want the votes of illegals or the vote of illegals made legal by their amnesty. (Yes, they will eventually get the right to vote despite the Democrats disingenuous protests to the contrary should the amnesty be granted).

Then there are the fiscal conservatives who desire to balance the budget, restrain spending and taxing, and generally live within ones means. This is what one would call "responsible" and "common sense" when done individually, yet it is deemed racist or "irresponsible" by Democrats when done nationally.

"Sequestration will impact everyone, but it will have a particularly harmful effect on communities of color who were hit first and worst by the great recession, and have yet to significantly feel the effects of the recovery," Rep. Barbara Lee (California). "Federal budget cuts under sequestration would quickly mean cuts to federal, state and local public-sector jobs, which disproportionately employ women and African-Americans," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California).

This is a good article that I would like to see expanded. I remember sitting in a class a few years back and having an instructor state, like the media did so much then, that President Clinton was a conservative. I pointed out to him that while Clinton did compromise fiscally with Republicans on the budget, which could put him in the fiscally conservative camp, he was still socially liberal. Articles like these require us to analyze and define what we stand for — examine our identity while the left's contamination seeps ever closer.
Dr. Faria replies: Hi Koba, the Chamber of Commerce is (or should be) by nature pro-business, pro-commerce, and conservative, but when short term profit is involved, liberal policies may be embraced. Such may be the case in favoring trade with dictators, turning a blind eye to slave labor, funding progressive causes, promoting political correctness to curry favor with progressives, and even providing funds to the enemy who detest businessmen and the "profit motive" that motivates them. As far as pro-immigration policy, you have done a good job explaining the why.

As to "a good article that I would like to see expanded," I think my 3-part article on the political spectrum (of part III, I'm particularly fond) and about socialism in America explain it further. ( See also references # 1, 5-7, and 9 in the article.) Thanks, as always for your animating comment.

And what of socialism and equality?

Socialism is the assumption and maintenance of governmental power preferably by evolution rather than revolution; the seduction of the population by promising something for nothing, using class strife, the politics of envy, and the incitement of the dark side of human nature to justify legal plunder, taking by force from the industrious to give to the idle and dependent (i.e., wealth redistribution). Those receiving then are beholden to (and support) those in power bestowing the largesse. This redistribution of wealth and management of power is carried out by elites, who are above the rest of the people, insisting because they "know better" in protecting the populace even from themselves. Thus eliminating as much as possible the people's freedom to choose. This subservience, leveling, and unnatural "equality" is maintained by the State's monopoly of force, owning or largely controlling via regulation or taxation, the means of production (e.g., factories, mines, commercial enterprises, even small businesses, etc), distribution (transportation, communication, interstate commerce, etc.), or consumption of goods and services (e.g., food, health care, housing, education indoctrination, etc.). But despite the effort socialism always ends in failure as it goes against the nature of man and fails to create the elusive more submissive Socialist New Man requiring no material incentives to work, bereft of creativity, and obeying his masters without a will of his own.
--- Dr. Miguel A. Faria

(See also, Faria MA. Is it socialism or part of the "general welfare" of the nation?, December 4, 2011. Available from:

What about distributive justice and fairness?

Government wealth redistribution is not charity. It is based on obligatory taking (taxation) and not freely given. It is compulsion, and thus deprived of genuine compassion, good faith, and voluntarism. Moreover, taking does not result in giving what belongs to the givers but what belongs to others, so it is not altruism.

Rather than engendering a sense of true philanthropy and humanitarianism, as is the case with volunteering for good works carried out disinterestedly by churches and other benevolent social institutions, it is based on politics, people control and compulsion enforced by the State. ---MAF

And here is what The Philosopher (Aristotle) wrote regarding Private Property, altruism, and Liberality (Generosity):

"Injustice in the sense of distributive justice is a violation of proportions. Distribution should be made in accordance with merit or with the ratio of the contributions which have been made to the fund.—Aristotle (350 B.C.) in Nicomachean Ethics, Book V.

"The Demagogue can not be allowed to distribute the surplus even in a just and fair society, the poor receive more and more help but such help is like water poured into a leaky casket.”—Aristotle (350 B.C.) in Politics, Book VI.

This, however, is not the way in which people would speak who had their wives and children in common; they would say 'all' but not 'each.' In like manner their property would be described as belonging to them, not severally but collectively. There is an obvious fallacy in the term 'all': like some other words, 'both,' 'odd,' 'even,' it is ambiguous, and even in abstract argument becomes a source of logical puzzles. That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill... Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike.— Aristotle (350 B.C.) in Politics, Book II, part iii

"Again, how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured... No one, when men have all things in common, will any longer set an example of liberality or do any liberal action; for liberality consists in imparting to others what is our own.” Aristotle (350 B.C.) in Politics, Book II, part v.

"But that the unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good." Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, part iii.

Early America conservative US Presidents

...Incidentally, William McKinley (1843-1901; 25th Pres. 1897-1901), Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919; 26th Pres. 1901-1907), and Howard Taft (1957-1930; 27th Pres. 1907- 1911) were the fathers of modern conservatism in the Republican Party, conservatism in all its nuances and shades of political ideological philosophy but entailing basically a fusion of old fashion conservatism and eventually old classical liberalism.

Liberalism was transformed by the influence of socialism into the Labor Party in England, while in the rest of Europe liberalism drifted into overt and socialism and social democracy. In the US the Democratic Party embraced modern liberalism and progressivism, which in reality is socialism without acknowledgment!

Interestingly enough, Grover Cleveland (1837-1908; 22th and 24th Pres. 1885-1889 & 1893-1897) was the last truly conservative Democrat! All the rest have been progressives, to the point that presently (2016) we almost had an openly socialist candidate (Bernie); and unless a miracle takes place, we will have a corporativist-socialist President (“ Crooked Hillary”)!