Oakeshott’s Empty Conservatism

To learn what conservatism is, one could hardly do better than Michael Oakeshott. Or so I’ve been told.

The trouble is that Oakeshott completely fails to tell us anything that could distinguish conservatives from everyone else. That is, if we didn’t already have some other distinction in mind, and if we didn’t silently substitute that distinction for his own, we would be unable to tell who was a conservative. Oakeshott adds nothing to the effort. In “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott writes:

To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices….

[T]hey centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what is or what may be…

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible,l the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

An earlier version of myself scribbled in the margin: “but so many conservatives seem to despise the present: it’s turning into the future, and this is horrible.”

I do think I was correct, but the bigger problem here is that Oakeshott’s conservatism has no distinguishing content whatsoever. Oakeshott has given us what amounts to a description of everyone: Look at anyone who calls himself a conservative, and what distinguishes him turns out not to be Oakeshott’s definition of conservatism, but something else. Look at anyone who does not call himself a conservative, and he will be found entirely true to Oakeshott’s principles.

Do you put the left shoe on the left foot? Conservative. Eat soup with a spoon and not your fingers? Conservative. Vote in elections? If you live in a democracy, congratulations, you’re a conservative. Do you read this sentence in English, rather than performing numerology upon it to interpret its meaning? Conservative, yet again. Sleep in the nighttime? Conservative.

If you’re not Salvador Dali’s surrealist waiter, who brings a diner a flaming phone book, then you’re probably a conservative. And even if you are, well… did you do it naked? If not, your one (slightly) unconservative action is more than balanced out by your wearing of clothes. To say nothing of not walking on your hands, addressing the diner in Klingon, or wearing eau de skunk cologne.


The trouble is that there’s just too much ordinary life all about us. We all live in, and with, a very thick matrix of social convention, no matter how unconventional we are. And we all take it very much for granted, no matter how politically radical we may be: Joseph Stalin wore his shoes on the proper feet, and Mao Tse-Tung held firm to traditional Chinese medicine. (For all the good it did him.) And in a million other things, everyone is a conservative.

Meanwhile, everyone wants to innovate, but only in a comparatively few things. And when Oakeshott discusses innovation, he isn’t any better. He writes:

From all this the man of conservative temperament draws some appropriate conclusions. First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Second, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that an innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances…. Fourthly, he favours a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments… [He] considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you that noted conservative political philosopher… Karl Marx!

Point by point:

1. In contemplating the proletarian revolution, Marx very clearly weighed whether the loss was likely to outweigh the gain. Famously, he found that the proletariat had nothing to lose but their chains. (They really were quite miserable at the time; this isn’t something he just made up.) Marx very explicitly and publicly considered what stood to be lost, and he found that the risk was very small indeed.

Now, as a non-Marxist non-conservative, I find personally it somewhat insulting to be told that no one other than conservatives considers the costs of a prospective change, but then, let’s stick with my interpretive framework here: I’ve been arguing so far that Oakeshott’s definition is vague enough to include everyone – Karl Marx included – so I guess it’s not really an insult, because it follows that everyone considers the costs of a prospective change. So it’s not an insult. It’s just empty verbiage.

2. Marx very clearly thought that the proletarian revolution would resemble “growth.” This was all but necessary by the terms of his dialectic. Marx wrote frequently of the stadial nature of history, of the development of human powers, and of the realization of our latent potential. The point of his envisioned revolution was not to tear down, but to grow beyond a present set of constraints. Here’s a bit from Friedrich Engels’ eulogy:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.

Human life needed to look like growth, and to look like evolutionary biology in fact, if our theories were to have any chance of being true. (Fancy seeing today’s conservatives assent to that one, Michael Oakeshott notwithstanding. Taking this criterion to be definitive – and not his earlier, empty one – today’s conservatives might be nearly the only ones who fail, because they reject evolutionary biology, and thus the notion that natural development proceeds gradually. For them it doesn’t appear to proceed at all.)

3. The innovation Marx hoped for was clearly in response to a disequilibrium that he believed he had identified. Now, I personally think he was all wrong in his identification, but that hardly matters. Marx passes this test without batting an eyelash.

4. Marx thought the revolution was inevitable, and he believed – admittedly – that it might come very quickly indeed, but he did not believe that he could accurately predict its date, and he certainly thought that it could happen either prematurely or defectively. He worried for nearly all of his adult life about the present circumstances, and about whether or not they were propitious for change.

By Oakeshott’s definition, everyone can be a conservative, starting with Karl Marx. Indeed, we’re all pretty much helpless to do otherwise. But this does not indicate the strength of the definition. It shows that it’s completely vapid, because it can’t distinguish a thing. It’s a truism, and it’s used to disguise a particular agenda, namely the one that conservatives actually want.

This agenda as far as I can tell currently entails an attempt to romanticize the past (and not the present), to slyly (or not so slyly) denigrate women and minorities, and to deny scientific theories on the basis of a personal wish that they not be true. It also involves a good deal of flag-waving.

What all of this has to do with Oakeshott is anyone’s guess. But clearly modern conservatism can function without him. It’s not like Oakeshott’s definition actually does anything.

Image credit.

2 thoughts on “Oakeshott’s Empty Conservatism

  1. Now that I have had time to read this (well most of it) … I’m wondering… Can we really define ourselves by such narrow definitions ? They really are just labels after all aren’t they?


Comments are closed.