excerpted from An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry. Chapter Seven- 'The Rise of Ideologies' (pp. 203-242)


Nineteenth Century Ideologies:
Conservatism Liberalism, Socialism


Conservatism: The Value of Tradition


To the traditional rulers of Europe, the French Revolution had been a great evil that had inflicted a near-fatal wound on civilization. Disgusted and frightened by revolutionary violence, terror and warfare, they sought to refute the philosophes' world-view. To them, natural rights, equality, the goodness of man and perpetual progress were perverse doctrines that had produced the Terror. In conservatism they found a political philosophy to counter Enlightenment ideology and to reassert the importance of authority.


Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) was instrumental in shaping conservative thought. Burke (1729-1797), an Anglo-Irish political theorist and statesman, wanted to warn his compatriots of the dangers inherent in the ideology of the revolutionaries. In 1790 he predicted that the French Revolution would lead to terror and military dictatorship. To Burke, the philosophes were fanatics armed with pernicious principles- abstract ideas divorced from historical experience- who had dragged France through the mire of revolution. The philosophes, entranced by great discoveries in science, believed that the human mind could also transform social institutions and ancient traditions according to rational models. Conservatives regarded them as presumptuous men who recklessly dispensed with venerable religious and moral beliefs. Conservatives saw the good society in an idealized medieval past, where the chivalric code of a Christian knight prevailed, religious values pervaded social and political life, and the various orders of society- clergy, nobility and commoners- bonded together in a healthy social organism which successfully balanced liberty and authority.


To Burke, the revolutionaries had produced anarchy and terror through their arrogant contempt for the past. He argued that the future is defiled when the past is ignored. He sharply distinguished between the French Revolution and the earlier British and American Revolutions. Those revolutions had been attempts to restore traditional liberties that had been violated by tyrannical governments, not efforts to remake society completely.


Conservatives did not regard human beings as good by nature. Human wickedness was not due to a faulty environment; it was at the core of human nature. The authority of church and state was needed to restrain humanity's dark and destructive instincts. Tested institutions, traditions and beliefs held evil in check, not reason. Without these habits inherited from ancestors, the social order was threatened by sinful human nature. Because monarchy, aristocracy and the church had endured for centuries, they had proven their worth. The clergy taught proper rules of conduct, the monarchy preserved order and property, and aristocrats guarded not only against despotic kings but also against the tyranny of the majority.


Moderate conservatives would accept reforms provided that reformers were not contemptuous of history and tradition, did not seek to level society according to some artificial or mechanical scheme, and did not move at a pace that disrupted the social order. For conservatives, society was not a machine with replaceable parts, but a complex and delicate organism. Tamper with its vital parts, and it might die.


The art of politics, according to Burke, requires common sense. The wise statesman abhors abstract principles and spurns ideal models. Rather, he values the historical experiences of his nation, and he is concerned with real people in specific historical situations; he recognizes that institutions and beliefs do not require theoretical excellence and do not have to meet the test of reason or nature in order to be useful and beneficial to society. He wrote, "It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes."


A sound political system evolved gradually and inexplicably in response to historical circumstance. Conservatives admired the English Constitution because it gave expression to the unwritten and fundamental laws that bind people into a nation. It was not a product of abstract thought:  no assembly had convened to fashion it. Because it had grown imperceptibly out of the historical experiences and needs of the English people, it was durable and effective. Conservatives thought of society as a living organism held together by centuries old bonds, not a mechanical arrangement of disconnected units. Alone a person would be selfish, unreliable and frail; it was only as a member of a social group that one acquired the ways of cooperation and the manners of civilization. Individualism overturned the very bases of human society; it shattered traditional ties that made people care for each other and the community; it destroyed obedience to law and authority and fragmented society into disconnected parts:  isolated, self-seeking atoms devoid of any spiritual or civic purpose.


Conservatives denounced Locke's social contract theory as a threat to established monarchical power. The government did not derive authority from the consent of the governed. Conservatives also rejected the philosophy of natural rights. Rights were not universal abstractions which preceded an individual's entrance into society. The state determined what rights and privileges its people might possess. There were no 'rights of man', only rights of the English, the French and so forth, as determined by the particular state. Conservatives viewed 'political equality' as another of those pernicious abstractions that contradicted all historical experience. Society was naturally hierarchical. Some men by virtue of their intelligence, education, wealth and birth were best qualified to rule. The revolutionaries had deprived society of its most effective leaders by uprooting a traditional ruling elite which had learned its art through long experience.



Liberalism: The Value of the Individual


The decades after 1815 saw a spectacular rise of the bourgeoisie. Talented and ambitious bankers, merchants, professionals, and officeholders wanted to break the stranglehold of the landed nobility, the traditional elite, on political power and social prestige. The political philosophy of the bourgeoisie was most commonly liberalism. Liberals wanted to carry out the promise of the Enlightenment and the early phases of the French Revolution.


The liberal's central concern was the enhancement of individual liberty. They agreed with Immanuel Kant that all persons exist as ends in themselves and not as an object to be used arbitrarily by others. Freed from the coercion of government and church, and properly educated, a person could develop into a good, productive and self-directed human being. Unfettered by ignorance and tyranny, the mind could eradicate traditions and prejudices that had burdened people for centuries and begin an age of free institutions and responsible citizenship. Liberals supported the advancement of education, endorsed the open mindedness of science; they encouraged open debate between opposing viewpoints and tolerated dissent.


Holding that the individual could handle his affairs better than any church or government could, liberals attacked the state and other authorities that prevented people from exercising their right of free choice, deprived them of their privacy, interfered with the right of free expression or hindered their development. John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty "...The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."


To guard against the absolute and arbitrary authority of rulers, liberals demanded written constitutions that granted freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest and the protection of property rights. To prevent the abuse of political authority, liberals called for a freely elected legislature and the distribution of power among several branches of government. Government derived its authority from the consent of the governed, as given in free elections. The best government was the one which governs least, which interferes as little as possible with the economic activities of its citizens and does not involve itself in their private lives or their beliefs.


Liberals broke with an ancient civic tradition, derived from the Greek city-state, which regarded the polis as a second family within which the individual could develop politically, morally and intellectually. For liberals, the individual was an independent unit whose needs took precedence over communal concerns. They believed that self-interest did not fragment the community into isolated, anti-social units; instead it worked to the advantage of both the individual and the community. Free to fulfill his individual potential, the individual would recognize that cooperation works to his own advantage. Self-interest would thus be naturally tempered by reason and benevolence.



Alexis de Toqueville and the Problem of Democracy


Liberals had been dismayed by the radicalism of the Jacobins during the Revolution, particularly when they had started to tamper with the economy. They also feared the social disorder threatened by the masses of the poor. In the hands of the lower classes, the natural rights philosophy was too easily translated into the democratic creed that all people should share in political power: a prospect that the bourgeois regarded with horror. Liberals opposed any extension of political franchise beyond the middle class.


Few thinkers in the first half of the nineteenth century grasped the growing significance of the masses in politics as did Alexis de Toqueville (1805-1859), the French political theorist and statesman. In the wake of the French Revolution, Toqueville, an aristocrat by birth but a liberal by temperament, recognized that the destruction of aristocracy and the march toward democracy could not be curbed. In Democracy in America (1835-1840), based on his travels in the United States, Toqueville with cool detachment and brilliance, analyzed the nature, merits and weaknesses of American democratic society. In contrast to France of the Old Regime, said Toqueville, American society had no hereditary aristocracy with special privileges, and the avenues of social advancement and political participation were open to all.


Toqueville held that democracy was more just than aristocratic government, and he predicted that it would be the political system of the future, but he also recognized its inherent dangers. In a democratic society people's passion to be equal outweighs their desire for liberty. Spurred by the ideal of equality, citizens in a democracy desire the honors and possessions that they think are their due. They no longer accept the disparity in wealth and position as part of the natural order. However, since people are not equal in ability, many are frustrated and turn to the state to secure for them those possessions and advantages they cannot obtain by themselves. They are willing to sacrifice political liberty to improve their material well being. Consequently, democracies face an ever-present danger in that people, craving to achieve equality, will surrender their liberty to a central government that promises to provide them with property and other advantages. Liberty would be lost to the tyranny of the majority which seeks to impose its viewpoint on the minority. To prevent democracy from degenerating into state despotism, Toqueville urged strengthening institutions of local government, forming private associations over which the state had no control, protecting the independence of the judiciary and preserving a free press.


Toqueville also believed that democracy spawned a selfish individualism that could degenerate into vulgar hedonism. Driven by an overriding concern for possessions and profits, people would lose their taste for political participation and their concern for the public good. If preoccupation with private concerns prevails over a sense of public duty, liberty cannot long endure.


The task of a democratic society is to temper extreme individualism and unrestrained acquisitiveness by fostering public-spiritedness. Without direct participation by civic-minded citizens concerned with the common good, democracy faces a bleak future. Freedom depends less on laws than on cultivating the sentiments and habits of citizenship.


The fear of democracy among bourgeois liberals led them to set property requirements for voting and office holding. They wanted political power to be concentrated in the hands of a safe and reliable middle class. When the fever of revolution spread to the masses, bourgeois liberals either withdrew or turned counter-revolutionary. Even so, the essential ideals of democracy flowed from liberalism. Eventually, democracy became a later stage in the evolution of liberalism because the masses, their political power enhanced by the Industrial Revolution, would press for greater social, political and economic equality. The ideals of liberty and equality are by nature universal and inclusive, denying them to people on the basis of class, race or gender cannot be convincingly defended. By the early twentieth century, many European states had introduced universal manhood suffrage, abandoned property requirements for office holding, and enacted laws to improve conditions for workers.


However, the fears of nineteenth-century liberals were not without foundation. In the twentieth century, the participation of the common people in politics has indeed threatened freedom. Impatient with parliamentary procedures and seduced by appeals to passion and prejudices, the masses, particularly when troubled by economic problems, have in some instances turned their support to demagogues who promised swift and decisive action. The people have been willing to trade freedom for authority, order, economic security and national power.


Liberal Economic Thought


In the last part of the eighteenth century, as a revolution for liberty and equality swept across France, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Great Britain. In the nineteenth century, it spread to the United States and to the European continent.


Rapid industrialization caused hardships for the new class of industrial workers, many of them recent arrivals from the countryside. Arduous and monotonous factory labor was geared to the strict discipline of the clock, the machine and the production schedule. Employment was never secure. Sick workers received no pay and were often fired; aged workers suffered pay cuts or lost their jobs. During business slumps, employers lowered wages with impunity, and laid off workers had nowhere to turn for assistance. Because factory owners often did not consider safety to be important, accidents were frequent. Municipal authorities were unable to cope with the rapid pace of urbanization and without adequate housing, sanitation or recreational facilities, the exploding urban centers were another source of working-class misery. In pre-industrial Britain most people had lived in small villages where their roots had been clear: relatives, friends and the village church gave them a sense of belonging. The new industrial centers separated people from nature and from their origins, shattering traditional ways of life. The plight of the working class created a demand for reform, but the British government, committed to laissez-faire economic principles that militated against state involvement, was slow to act.


Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations (1776)


The Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith, professor of moral philosophy in Scotland, became the foundation of liberal economic theory. Smith attacked the theory of mercantilism, which held that a state's wealth was determined by the amount of gold and silver it possessed. To build its reserves of precious metals, the state should promote domestic industries, encourage exports, and discourage imports. Mercantilist theory called for government regulation of the economy so that the state could compete for the world's resources. Smith argued that the quantity and quality of its goods and services measured the real basis of a country’s wealth, not its storehouse of precious metals. Government intervention retards the economic progress; it reduces the real value of the nation's land and labor. On the other hand, when people pursue their own interests, when they seek to better their own condition, they foster economic expansion, which benefits the whole society. Left to its own devices, Smith maintained, the market mechanism works ultimately for the benefit of all members of society, a view that supported the Enlightenment's belief in progress.


"Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage, naturally or necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.... By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than he intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good." (Smith, The Wealth of Nations)



Smith limited the state's authority to maintaining law and order, administering justice, and defending the nation. He believed that competition was self-regulating, as if an 'invisible hand' held greed in check and promoted the general good. He did not intend to apologize for bourgeois self-interest. He was critical of the manufacturers who, driven by greed, deceived and oppressed the public. The free market functions best, he said, when business people in pursuit of their own interests do not take unfair advantage of others and do not neglect the common good. He did not view poverty as an ineradicable law of nature. He believed that the working classes should have a fair share of the wealth generated by their labor, and he argued that decent wages increased the profitability of a business by encouraging hard work.


Nevertheless, the principle of laissez faire- that government should not interfere with the market was used by the bourgeoisie to justify its opposition to humanitarian legislation intended to alleviate the misery of the factory workers.


Thomas Malthus


Another theorist favored by bourgeois liberals was Thomas R. Malthus (1766-1834), an Anglican cleric and professor of history and political economy. In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus asserted that the population grows at a much faster rate than the food supply. This results in food shortages, irregular unemployment. lowered wages and high mortality. The poor's distress, said Malthus, was not due to faulty political institutions or existing social and property relations. Its true cause was the number of children they had.


"When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six. He of course finds himself miserably distressed.... He accuses his parish.... He accuses the avarice of the rich. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society.... In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which all his misfortunes originate. The last person he would think of accusing is himself." (Malthus Principle of Population)



The state cannot ameliorate the poor's misery, said Malthus: "the means of redress are in their own hands, and in the hands of no other persons whatever." This 'means of redress' would be lowering the birthrate through late marriages and chastity, but Malthus believed that the poor lacked the self-discipline to refrain from sexual activity. When they receive higher wages, they have more children, thereby upsetting the population-resource balance and bringing misery to themselves and others. This view of poverty as an iron law of nature, which could not be undone by the good intentions of the state or through philanthropy, buttressed supporters of laissez-faire and eased the consciences of the propertied classes. Compassion for the poor was simply a misplaced emotion; government reforms were doomed to fail, and higher wages provided no relief. Malthus' theories also flew in the face of adherents of human perfectibility and inevitable progress. Poverty, like disease, was simply a natural phenomenon, one of nature's laws that could not be eliminated. No wonder hiis contemporaries called economics 'the dismal science'.


Early nineteenth century liberals saw poverty and suffering as part of the natural order and beyond government's scope. They feared that state intervention in the economy to redress social ills disrupted the free market, threatening personal liberty, and hindering social well-being. Government interference, liberals also argued, discouraged the poor from finding work, thereby promoting idleness. According to liberal political economy, unemployment and poverty stemmed from individual failings.


Malthus departed from the general view of the philosophes, which saw natural law as beneficent and a model for human law. To the political economist, natural law entailed human suffering and provided no relief. In the last part of the nineteenth century liberals modified their adherence to strict laissez-faire, accepting the principle that the state had some responsibility to protect the poor against the worst abuses of rapid industrialization.



Radicalism and Democracy: The Expansion of Liberalism


In the early nineteenth century, democratic ideals were advance by thinkers and activists called radicals. Inspired by the Jacobin stage of the French Revolution and by the democratic principles expressed in Rousseau's Social Contract, early nineteenth century French radicals championed popular sovereignty: rule by the people. In contrast to liberals who were generally fearful and disdainful of the masses, French radicals trusted the common person. Advocating universal manhood suffrage and a republic, radicalism gained the support of many French workers and the lower bourgeois in the 1830's and 1840's.


British radicals, like their liberal cousins, inherited the Enlightenment's confidence in reason and its belief in the essential goodness of the individual. In the first half of the nineteenth century, radicals sought parliamentary reforms because some heavily populated districts were barely represented in Parliament, while lightly populated districts were over represented. They demanded payment for members of Parliament to permit the non-wealthy to hold office; they sought universal manhood suffrage to give the masses representation in Parliament; and they insisted on the secret ballot to prevent intimidation of voters. Radicals attacked the hereditary aristocracy and fought corruption.


English radicalism embodied the desires of parliamentary reformers for broader political representation and the hopes of the laboring poor for a better life. Two important theorists of the movement were Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bent ham.


Thomas Paine responded to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution with the Rights of Man (1791). In it he denounced reverence for tradition, defended the principle of natural rights and praised as progress the destruction of the Old Regime. The only legitimate government, he claimed, was representative democracy, in which the right of all men to participate was assured. Paine believed that democratic governments would be less inclined than hereditary ones to wage war and more concerned with the welfare of the common person. Paine supported revolution as the means of creating a truly just society, one that took reason and nature as its guide.


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) rejected the doctrine of natural rights as an abstraction that had no basis in reality. He regarded the French Revolution as an absurd attempt to reconstruct society according to principles as misguided as those that had supported the Old Regime. Bentham's importance to the English radical tradition derives from the principle of utility, which he offered as a guide to reformers. The central fact of human existence, said Bentham, is that human beings seek to gratify their desires, that they prefer pleasure to pain, and that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain bad. In Bentham's view, human beings are motivated solely by self-interest, which they define in terms of pleasure and pain. Consequently, any political, economic, judicial or social institution and any legislation should be judged according to a simple standard: does it bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number? If not, it should be swept away.


Bentham believed that he had found an objective and scientific approach to the study and reform of society. By focusing on the need for change and improvement on every level of society and by urging careful and objective analysis of social issues, Bentham and his followers, called philosophical radicals, contributed substantially to the shaping of the English reform tradition. He contended that the principle of utility, to act always for the greatest good of the greatest number of people, permits the reforming of society in accordance with people's true nature and needs. It does not impose unrealistic standards on men and women but accepts people as they are. Utilitarianism, he declared, bases institutions and laws on an objective study of human nature, on enlightened self-interest, rather than on unsubstantiated religious beliefs, unreliable traditions, and mistaken philosophical abstractions.


Bentham's utilitarianism led him to press for social and political reforms. The aristocratic ruling elite, he said, were not interested in producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number but in furthering their own narrow interests. Only if the rulers came from the broad masses of people would government be amenable to reforms bases on the greatest happiness principle. He supported extension of suffrage and a secret ballot and attacked political corruption. In contrast to laissez-faire liberals, Benthamites argued for legislation to protect women and children in the factories-, they also sought to improve sanitation in the cities and to reform the prison system.


Early Socialism: New Possibilities for Society


A new group of social theorists proposed radically different methods for dealing with the problems created by industrialization. Socialists argued that the liberals' concern for individual freedom and the radicals' demand for extension of suffrage had little impact on the poverty, oppression and gross inequality of wealth that plagued modern society. Asserting that the liberals' doctrine of individualism degenerated into selfish egoism, which harmed community life, socialists called for the creation of a new society based on cooperation rather than competition. Reflecting the spirit of the enlightenment and the French Revolution, socialists, like liberals, denounced the status quo for perpetuating injustice and held that people could create a better world. Like liberals, too, they placed the highest value on the rational analysis of society and transforming society in accordance with scientifically valid premises, whose truth rational people could comprehend. Socialists believed that they had discerned a pattern in human society, which, if properly understood and acted upon, would lead men and women to an earthly salvation. Thus, socialists were romantics, for they dreamed of a new social order, a future utopia, where each individual could find happiness and self-fulfillment.


An early expression of socialist thinking emerged during the French Revolution, when Gracchus Babeuf (1760-1797), an ardent supporter of the sans-culottes, the laboring poor, sought to end the division of society into exploiter and exploited by abolishing private property. At his trial he said,


"It is the destiny of the wretched of the earth to rule it; theirs is the right to talk as masters to the governments that neglect them.... In a truly just social order there are neither rich nor poor. The rich, who refuse to give up their superfluous wealth for the benefit of the poor, are enemies of the people."



Early nineteenth century socialists regarded the organization of society as inept and unjust. They denounced as hollow and hypocritical the liberals' preoccupation with liberty and equality, arguing that to the lower classes devastated by poverty these ideals were merely formal principles: they protected the person and property of the wealthy while the majority were enmired in poverty and helplessness. Denying that human beings fared best as competing individuals, socialists contended that people achieved more happiness for themselves and for others as members of a cooperative community, which lived, worked and planned together for the common good. Some socialists proposed communes or model factory towns as places to realize socialist ideals. The most important early nineteenth century socialist thinkers- Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen espoused a new social and economic system in which production and distribution of goods would be planned for the general good of society. Their thought influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who in the second half of the nineteenth century, became the most influential formulators and propagators of socialism.


Henri Comte de Saint Simon (1760-1825) was descended from a distinguished French aristocratic family, but he renounced his title during the French Revolution and enthusiastically preached the opportunity for a new society. He argued that just as Christianity had provided social unity and stability during the Middle Ages, scientific knowledge would bind the society of his time. The scientists, engineers, industrialists, bankers, artists, and writers would replace the unproductive classes- clergy, aristocracy and idle rich- as the new social elite. In the new industrial age, the control of society must pass to the 'indistriels'- productive people who would harness technology for the betterment of humanity and eliminate the causes of social conflict.


Like the philosophes, Saint-Simon valued science, had confidence in the power of reason to improve society, and believed in the certainty of progress according to laws of social development. He believed that industrial society constituted a new stage in history, that unchecked individualism was detrimental to society, and creative and collective planning was necessary to cope with social ills.


Another early French socialist was Charles Fourier (1772-1837). He believed that society conflicted with the natural needs of human beings and that this tension was responsible for human misery. Only the reorganization of society so that it would fulfill people's desires for pleasure and satisfaction would end that misery. Fourier sought to create small communities to allow men and women to enjoy life's simple pleasures. These communities or about 1,600 people, called phalansteries, would be organized according to the unchanging needs of human nature. In phalansteries, no force would coerce or thwart innocent human lives. Holding that human beings have been degraded by dehumanizing manual labor, Fourier sought to make work emotionally satisfying. All people would work at tasks that interested them and would produce things that brought them and others pleasure; consequently, work would look like play. In the phalansteries, money and goods would not be equally distributed; those with special skills and responsibilities would be compensated accordingly. This system of rewards accorded with nature, said Fourier, because people have a natural desire to be rewarded. Fourier supported female equality and not simply in political terms. He believed the institution of marriage distorted the natures of both men and women because monogamy restricted their sexual needs; human nature required variety. Fourier also hoped that the family unit would eventually disappear, believing that women had to devote all their time and strength to household and children. The community itself would care for the children.


In the United States during the 1840's at least twenty nine communities were founded on Fourier's principles, but none lasted for longer than five or six years.


In 1799 Robert Owen (1771-1858) became the part owner and manager of the New Lanark cotton mills in Scotland. He was distressed by the widespread mistreatment of his workers and resolved to improve the lives of his employees and do so while not destroying profits. He raised wages, upgraded working conditions, refused to hire children under ten, and provided workers with neat homes, food, clothing, all at reasonable prices. He set up schools for children and for adults. In every way he demonstrated his belief that happier, healthier workers produced more than less fortunate ones.


He held that the environment was the principal shaper of character, that the ignorance, alcoholism and crime of the poor derived from bad living conditions. Public education and factory reform would make better citizens off the poor. When Parliament balked at reforms, Owen even encouraged the creation of a grand national trade union of all the workers in England. In the earliest days on industrialization, this dream seemed an impossible one. He established a model community at New Harmony, Indiana, but it was short-lived.