Conservatism invented in 1953:NYT

by John Q on August 2, 2006

The term “conservative” gets bandied about a lot these days, and readers may wonder where it comes from. Jason DeParle in the NYT has the answer. It was invented by one Russell Kirk in 1953. DeParle’s opening para (“lede” in US newsspeak) introduces us to

Russell Kirk, the celebrated writer who a half-century ago gave the conservative movement its name

and elaborates later on

Kirk, who died in 1994, wrote 32 books, the most famous being “The Conservative Mind,” which was published in 1953. It championed 150 years of conservative thought, and offered “conservative” as a unifying label for the right’s disparate camps.

I must say, it’s a great term, offering a neat contrast with “progressive”. Surprising nobody came up with it earlier, really.



Ben 08.02.06 at 3:16 am

You mean, apart from the fact that Britain has had a conservative party since the mid 19th century?

“Invented” is perhaps the wrong word for the US example. “Applied” is much better and even then, it’s not much of a stretch. Post-war, Churchill much admired and all that.

The name “conservative” was first suggested in 1830 by John Wilson Croker for the then Tory party, apparently.


Harald Korneliussen 08.02.06 at 3:43 am

I never really liked the term progressive. Underlying it is the marxist assumption that history moves in a predetermined line, and people are either working against the march of history or aiding it.


chris y 08.02.06 at 4:00 am

I never really liked the term progressive. Underlying it is the marxist assumption that history moves in a predetermined line, and people are either working against the march of history or aiding it.

I’d have thought it was more Whiggish than marxist. But the main problem with the term progressive is that its definition depends on your subjective concept of progress. A revolution is a revolution, whether you’re in favour of it or not. Conservative has historically meant in politics much what it means in the vernacular (although the present crowd in the States are undermining this). But your progress and my progress can be two entirely different things, so a progressive political movement may only appear progressive to its adherents.


Belle Waring 08.02.06 at 5:08 am

ben, ben, ben.


nick s 08.02.06 at 5:11 am

1953? Ten years before sexual intercourse, then.


Jasper Milvain 08.02.06 at 5:21 am

Between coronation chicken and the birth of ITV
Which was rather late for me.

Or something. 1953 was probably about on time for Larkin, thinking about it.


Tim Worstall 08.02.06 at 5:48 am

” George Canning first used the term ‘Conservative’ in the 1820s and it was suggested as a title for the party by John Wilson Croker in the 1830s, and was later officially adopted under the aegis of Sir Robert Peel.”

But yes, I do get it. This is a Brad Delong “Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps” moment.


snuh 08.02.06 at 5:58 am

nonsense upon stilts?


rea 08.02.06 at 6:06 am

Benjamin Disraeli is spinning in his grave . . .


me 08.02.06 at 6:32 am

Guess the NYT reporter never read Emerson.


chris y 08.02.06 at 6:59 am

Ralph or John?


Ginger Yellow 08.02.06 at 7:00 am

You wouldn’t trust the NYT to report accurately about the US government, so why on earth would you expect it to report accurately about etymology? That’s what the OED is for:

The word was first used in this sense by J. Wilson Croker in an article published on 1 Jan. 1830; and almost immediately largely took the place of the term Tory (originally reproachful), which had been in use for nearly 150 years. (Measures tending to preserve cherished political conditions had before this been sometimes spoken of as conservatory.) Preference for ‘Conservative’ sometimes implied disavowal of the reactionary tendencies which had sometimes been associated with earlier Toryism, and espousal of the new phase introduced by Sir R. Peel; and the name was not at first received with favour by all Tories, any more than it was admitted to be properly descriptive by their political opponents. Hence many early references ridicule the word.


JK 08.02.06 at 8:22 am

Could be that this is actually worth further comment. From the original article note the peculiar use of the term “old”:

“Young people with old books is a common sight on the conservative circuit, and perhaps a growing one. … Along with Kirk, they include such canonical names from the 40’s and 50’s as Friedrich A. Hayek, Frank S. Meyer, Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr.”

Unless the reporter is trying to mess with us, or is an idiot who’s got the wrong end of the stick, it sounds like the conservative summer schools really are promoting this the key formative period.

So is this a case of conservatives disowning their tradition? Or, put the other way, why are they putting so much emphasis on the post-WWII period?


derek 08.02.06 at 8:55 am

Since when did young American conservatives (those who read books at all) not read Hayek, Meyer, Friedman, and Buckley? At no time since those authors were first published, I suggest.

That reporter is making no sense at all. I suspect he was in danger of missing a deadline, and met it via the old lazy reporter trick of “pick a phenomenon that isn’t news, and write it up as if it is.” It’s what gave us such gems of reportage as the 1980s “Young people are getting married! Isn’t that amazing!” stories.


Henry 08.02.06 at 8:55 am

In fairness, DeParle is a very good journalist and writer (his book on the effects of welfare is excellent). I imagine that this is poor phrasing, not a truth claim about the origins of conservatism.


Bill Gardner 08.02.06 at 9:21 am

In support of Henry @15: We may need a better press corps, but Jason DeParle is not the problem. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare is a great book.


Jim Henley 08.02.06 at 10:19 am

It needs to be pointed out that, per his biography, Larkin actually got a LOT of trim.


Vance Maverick 08.02.06 at 10:30 am

Reading that sentence literally, I think the claim is that Kirk was the one to baptize this particular movement with the two-word phrase “conservative movement”. That other parties, tendencies, etc. were called conservative before doesn’t bear on this.

(DeParle might also be implying by linguification that Kirk was the one who noticed the movement.)


josh 08.02.06 at 1:39 pm

I agree with vance maverick that it’s possible that DeParle was trying to claim that the ‘name’ in question is ‘conservative movement’, rather than conservatism (it’s also possible that he meant to use ‘gave … its name’ figuratively to mean ‘won it recognition’). Another possibility — suggested later in the article — is that Kirk was the one who gathered various diverse right-wing factions together under the umbrella-name of ‘conservatism’, and so helped to create ‘the conservative movement’ by giving it a name (not that he invented the name itself). In any case, it’s poor phrasing (which may be due to an editor, rather than DeParle himself).
But then why entertain such possibilities, when one can snark at DeParle’s expense instead?
Also, isn’t this just as worthy of comment?:
‘Every political movement has its texts. But James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, argues that the conservative focus on core thinkers has no exact parallel among liberals.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not interested in ideas,” Professor Ceaser said. “It means their approach to politics doesn’t rest on theory in the same way.”
Liberalism’s main tenets formed earlier, he said, in the Progressives’ expansion of government, and are conveyed as assumptions rather than matters requiring theoretical debate.’
Surely the good prof. has encountered Rawlsians?


Geoff R 08.03.06 at 1:06 am

It is clear that DeParle was referring to the ‘conservative movement’, and this is what requires analysis and explanation (as in McGirr’s book on Orange County). This ‘movement’ seems distinctively American. It seems to me that conservatives view their ‘texts’ in an oddly cultish way, reference to them is a badge of identity. It is like how the revolutionary left groups view their classic texts.


nick s 08.06.06 at 3:47 am

It seems to me that conservatives view their ‘texts’ in an oddly cultish way, reference to them is a badge of identity.

And this ties in with Jonah Goldberg, of all people, insisting that Americans liberals have no similar canon. That said, such a sense of textual tradition is very easily flung out of the window.

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