Abstract by Prof. Dr. Thomas Biebricher

Moderate and Radical Conservatism – A Meaningful Distinction?

Pinning down the specific meaning of conservatism has proven to be a daunting over the last two hundred years, not only for political theorists but also for those actors in politics who either claim or reject this label emphatically. Lately, one of the most heated debates around the definition of conservatism has been sparked by the rise of right-wing populist, or rather authoritarian political forces who have tried to appropriate the term for their own projects, claiming that they are a truly conservative alternative to the lukewarm conservatism of established center-right parties and intellectual traditions.

In this talk I want to explore the possibility of dinstinguishing between a moderate conservatism that is fueled by a line of tradition harking back to Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and others on the one hand, and a radical conservatism that draws on a different tradition and ultimately collapses into right-wing authoritarianism. While there may be similarities in some aspects of their political agendas, I argue that there are fundamentally different conceptions of what it means to pursue conservative politics underlying these two traditions. While one is dedicated to preserving certain aspects of the status quo and cultivating incremental and ‘organic’ change, the other is committed to overcoming the status quo, which is considered to be irreparably corrupted. The latter tradition is thus strangely aligned with an almost insurrectionary mode of politics and in contrast to the pragmatic acceptance of social change characterizing moderate conservative traditions it is bent on what amounts to a reactionary resetting of social conditions – especially matters related to gender and family. It is therefore a truly paradoxical phenomenon that combines almost revolutionary aspirations with a diffuse reverence for an idealized past.

In the talk I will mostly focus on the German context but the implications of the conclusiosn are arguably relevant for a broader European and Transatlantic context as well.