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The Authentic Conservative vs. the Reactionary Conservative

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“The reactionary outlook is, consequently, hostile to the commitment to moral equality that authentic conservatives, liberals, and progressives share.”


Russell Kirk famously opined that conservatism is an outlook or disposition before it is a political philosophy. As the late Roger Scruton put it in his 2017 book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, the conservative believes that “good things are easily destroyed, not easily created.” As a consequence, many conservatives react with distrust or outright hostility when the political left demands radical transformations to the status quo. This is true whether these proposals are in the economic sphere (such as demands for the dramatic redistribution of wealth and power) or are more culturally-oriented (such as critiques directed towards the nuclear family or cherished institutions). For those on the Left, this opposition has darker suggestions than Scruton’s noble gratitude for good things. It indicates that conservatives are unwilling to undertake the changes necessary to establish a truly just and fair society—and that they often define themselves politically by reacting against any efforts to challenge hierarchies of oppression and domination. The political theorist and progressive commentator Corey Robin makes this polemical point in his modern classic The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin:

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, and agency the prerogative of the elite. Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality and the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For, in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.”

This conception of conservatism as an inherently reactionary voice speaking for the powerful against the “subordinated classes” would obviously be unappealing to many. In this essay, I wish to discuss the differences between an authentic conservatism grounded in gratitude and a reactionary outlook predicated on disdain for weakness. My argument will be that the two are, in fact, quite different.

Conserving What One Can, Changing What One Must

I believe the feature that distinguishes an authentic conservatism from the reactionary outlook is the principled recognition of the moral equality of all human beings. Here we must be careful: Moral equality does not mean equality of talent, virtue, or material status. What it means is a recognition that each person’s life is intrinsically worthwhile and, consequently, that political institutions must show each of their citizens equal respect. The belief in the moral equality of all has deep roots in many traditions, including Christian thinking where each individual was seen as possessing an inherent dignity as a consequence of being God’s creation and the subject of His agapeic love. It is also foundational to liberal philosophy, as has been observed by the political philosopher Will Kymlicka. Whether one thinks of the Jeffersonian injunction that all men are created equal; or the Kantian imperative to treat each individual as an end in himself; or John Stuart Mill’s insistence that each person is over himself “sovereign,” there are innumerable references to the moral equality of individuals throughout the liberal tradition. Of course, this does not mean that liberal societies applied the principle of moral equality consistently. (This has, indeed, contributed to ongoing crises of legitimacy in liberal states.) It also does not mean the classical liberals thought that moral equality required achieving material equality for all—something contemporary liberal theorists such as John Rawls took issue with. But, despite these controversies, the principle of moral equality has proven sufficiently powerful. To this point, even by the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville was noting its widespread acceptance and dissemination across democratic America.

For Burke, Tocqueville, Scruton, and others, one must recognize that people treat each other as moral equals when they share a form of life together.

An authentic conservatism accepts the moral equality of individuals but insists that liberals and especially progressives err in thinking that the principle is respected primarily due to institutional and philosophical changes. From Burke onwards, conservatives insist that this popular Enlightenment conceit misunderstands human nature, as well as it misapprehends the often affective basis for our attachment to others and the roots of our convictions. For Burke, Tocqueville, Scruton, and others, one must recognize that people treat each other as moral equals when they share a form of life together. This can take a variety of forms, from belonging to the same community, to worshiping together on a Sunday, to engaging in one-on-one forms of commerce. One of the most important characteristics of this way of life is that ordinary people engage in it freely and gladly. This demonstrates its significance. Without a shared form of life, which generates ties of political friendship and love, people become incapable of treating each other as moral equals. They see others as mere means to an end, at best—or potentially threatening strangers who must be outcompeted and overcome, at worst. Oftentimes, these anxieties will lead people to turn to the state with demands that it entrench special powers and entitlements for self-advancement and protection, which can come at the expense of others. The state will then grow into an alien power, which sets itself above everyone as the sole force holding societies together. As a consequence, any respect for moral equality will disappear as the powerful come to dominate, and the weak suffer what they must.

Of course, this does not mean things should not change; a form of life is maintained by living people over generations. It grows and changes as they do. However, hard-won forms of life that provide a sense of meaning and attachment should not be surrendered easily.

The Reactionary Outlook  

“Man is insatiable for power; he is infantile in his desires and, always discontented with what he has, loves only what he has not. People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought to complain of the despotism of man. We are all born despots, from the most absolute monarch in Asia to the infant who smothers a bird with its hand for the pleasure of seeing that there exists in the world a being weaker than itself.”

~Joseph de Maistre

The reactionary outlook is very different in its approach to this more authentic conservatism. It does not regard individuals as moral equals. Also, it sees the human world not as a fragile but beautiful achievement which is to be cherished. Instead, it views the world as increasingly governed by a chaotic decline that only power can stop. For the reactionary, the world is fundamentally a very dangerous place, where disorder and violence are the order of the day. Any societal order that has been established is a consequence not of a shared commitment to a form of life but is a result of certain superior individuals having had the strength and power to master the inferior. Just what constitutes the superior individual differs wildly depending on the reactionary. In early modernity, reactionaries turned to the European aristocracy. Later individuals—such as Arthur de Gobineau—appealed to race, an explanatory principle indicating why the few should rule over the many. More contemporaneously, capitalist reactionaries such as Ayn Rand saw the market not as Adam Smith did—as an imperfect system that, nevertheless, operated to better the wealth of all—but as a means of sorting the real creative producers from the mass of second-handers. Each of these figures has a very different philosophical outlook about who is actually the superior man. However, they are united by a pre-philosophical outlook, which insists that individuals are not equal; have never been equal; and that the more worthy should ascend, while the “inferior”come to accept their place in the cosmic order.

The reactionary outlook is, thus, in this respect hostile to the localism and gratitude that characterize authentic conservatism. Authentic conservatism, after all, has a marked appreciation for the customs, free interactions, and small-scale virtues that comprise forms of life for ordinary people. The reactionary outlook’s attraction is to strength and power, which are ultimately the only forces that can genuinely bring order to the world. This worldview, indeed, holds that “submission” is the first duty of the inferior—and that different mores apply to those who are better. The reactionary outlook is, consequently, hostile to the commitment to moral equality that authentic conservatives, liberals, and progressives share.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

3 thoughts on “The Authentic Conservative vs. the Reactionary Conservative

  1. Although I found this article worth reading and thinking about, that said, I’m still recovering from McManus’s description of Jonathan Haidt and Heterodox Academy as “conservative”; in fact, I might never recover from that.

  2. Corey Robin’s book is hardly a “classic”, the eye-roll worthy title which groups an entirely inconsequential Alaska governor in with Burke is telling enough, since it is clearly chosen with as much intellectual gravitas as Katie Price’s “Being Jordan”

    On what grounds are Scruton etc. being considered ‘authentic’, the implication being that Maistre etc. are ‘inauthentic’. You seem to entirely miss the differing contexts which these ‘conservatives’ existed in. Conservatives who witness state’s fail and the inferiors rise up to begin letting buckets of blood in the street might focus a little more on power and authority than someone whose chief lament is the decline of good architecture.

    In what way is the outlook of individuals such as Maistre ‘pre-philosophic’ when similar sentiments can be found in Plato and a multitude of Greek thinkers? “Moral equality” is slippery wording by design, but it seems to be used to justify treating obviously unequal things equally, i.e. you cannot defend any other notion of equality (since it is refuted by all data we have) and so retreat into a nebulous “moral equality”, claiming this to be grounded in a religion you don’t even profess (Authenticity?). It is also entirely incorrect to claim the ‘reactionary’ is hostile to localism, I’m not even sure where that is being lifted from. Autocratic societies (historically speaking) have had far more localism than democratic-bureaucratic ones.

    But the key point is equality. What are the implications of obvious and undeniable inequalities? This is a black and white question. Does nebulous “moral equality” require us to shut our eyes to all natural inequalities, or are there exceptional cases in which we will recognize some as superior and others as inferior, because if you make one exception, the others come pouring through. It’s been known since time immemorial that every society is gifted with a large number of mediocre, stupid people whose quality of output is intrinsically linked to how they are put to work, and a diminishing scale of quality as you rise out of the mass. What would possess someone to think this isn’t the case? A lack of world experience.

  3. McManus’ assumption that “reactionary” conservatives are oppressors is simply the hoary, old chestnut of Marxist oppressor doctrine that has captivated resentful “useful idiots” for 100 years. He should examine his own peevish, resentful and victimized worldview.

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