Chukoshinsho paperback Hoshushugi to wa nanika (What is Conservatism? – From the Counter-Revolutionaries of France to Modern Japan)
The term “conservative” is being thrown around with abandon these days and at times is indiscriminately used in reference to xenophobic or anti-feminist attitudes.
The first use of the term in a political context was at the time of the French Revolution when it was applied to those who criticized the revolt. In time, usage of the term expanded to encompass those opposed to socialists and liberals supporting big government. Conservatism functioned as a means of restraint to hold back those promoting radical reform in the name of abstract concepts like human rights.
Today, however, radicalism has lost its momentum, depriving conservatism of its foil, to the extent that even conservatives perhaps no longer know what they stand for. The result has been an unending inflation of the word “conservatism” and the objective of this book is to put a stop to that.
Protect what needs to be protected but change what needs to be changed; that is the core value of conservatism. Rather than ignoring reality in the name of some abstract concept and trying to remake society from scratch, true conservatism builds on historical foundations, applying what can still be applied and reforming what needs to be reformed. I fear, however, that the deep insight into the past and pragmatic outlook that were the trademarks of conservative wisdom are being lost.
In speaking of conservatism, people frequently point to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke was Irish. While conservative politicians tend to be seen as supporters of the status quo, he was for most of his political career aligned with the opposition and served in the Whig Party which would later become the Liberal Party. Burke supported the movement for independence in the American colonies and did not hesitate to confront the king at times. He disapproved of any deviation from expected norms and strongly resisted attempts to undermine the traditional respect for freedom, even if it meant standing up to the king.
And yet, Burke was highly critical of the French revolutionaries in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He was not critical of the revolt itself so much as of the surge to abandon the existing social structure to create a whole new nation based only on an abstract model. Burke argued that no matter how absurd traditions and customs might seem, there were reasons that they had persisted through the ages. Just because you didn’t understand what those reasons might be didn’t mean they should be promptly destroyed. His view was premised on the perception that humans are imperfect beings. Our rationality and intellect are not enough to comprehend everything.
Today, as conservatism becomes increasingly diffused it may not be such a bad thing for each of us to protect whatever it may be that we hold most dear. That, too, is conservatism. As we cling to our personal values, however, it is essential in our discourse to respect the values of others.
(Written by UNO Shigeki, Professor, Institute of Social Science / 2019)