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On Conservative Socialism

Far from being a phantom in the imaginations of a handful of writers and scholars, conservative socialism is a real phenomenon.

· 16 min read
On Conservative Socialism
From left: George Orwell, John Ruskin, and Simone Weil. Wikimedia Commons


Blue Labour. Red Tory. Tory socialism. Tory anarchism. Tory communism. There is no shortage of apparent oxymorons tying conservatism to left-wing radicalism. Sometimes these are self-referential. Maurice Glasman, for instance, coined the term “Blue Labour” in 2009 to describe the conservative strand of labourism, with its “fundamental commitment to work, faith, family, and country,” represented by his late immigrant Jewish mother. Similarly, in his 2010 book, Red Tory, Phillip Blond used the term to describe his project of rolling back the “market state” in the British conservative imagination. And George Orwell famously referred to himself as a “Tory anarchist” before he fought in Spain in 1936.

More often than not, though, the labels are imposed by others, often retrospectively. In his book, Tory Socialism in English Culture Society and Politics 18701940, for example, Tony Judge described Henry Hyndman, Joseph Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, and Harold Macmillan as Tory socialists, although they did not use the term themselves. So far, however, scholars have, for the most part, been reluctant to take these hybrid ideologies and political identities seriously. With only a handful of exceptions, they have judged that it is impossible to be both a conservative and a species of left-wing radical at once. Consensus has it that, no, John Ruskin cannot be a “violent Tory” and a “communist—reddest also of the red” simultaneously. To be Blue is to cease to be Labour.

Why, then, do the labels persist, and even proliferate (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here)? Are those guilty of using them simply ignorant, naive, or ignorant of the obvious incompatibility?


In the “real” world of political discourse, the content of ideology is largely a product of “spin.” Conservatism and socialism and anarchism are what the most powerful players in the field say they are. Within the more staid environs of the academy, however, ideologies are usually defined by a relatively stable set of core concepts. So anarchism, for example, rejects the state, repudiates capitalism, sees the self as fundamentally social, and insists on the symbiosis of ends and means. Concepts such as class war, revolution, and vertical relations of domination form a conceptual periphery.

Ideologies change over time and proliferate according to how these core and adjacent concepts interact, giving rise to sub-ideologies (“new” or “post” anarchism, for instance) and new ideologies altogether (anarchism itself has its roots in the liberal and socialist ideological families, for example). Tory anarchism has been the subject of more critical scrutiny than Tory socialism (or what I will call “conservative socialism” here).

In 2009, as Glasman was creating Blue Labour, Peter Wilkin first attempted to theorise it. Tory anarchism, he claimed, has “mainly been an English phenomenon.” It is “the product of men, not women, who are members of the English middle and upper-middle classes and that are often in revolt against what they see as the denigration of the core values of England or the idiocies of a ruling establishment.” It emerged “against the background of Britain’s changing circumstances in the World System,” in particular, “the end of Empire and relative decline of the UK.”

It is, Wilkin argued, both “an evocation of and a commentary upon the changing nature of English identity over the course of the C20” and an “ambivalent reaction to modernity and capitalism that invokes a cultural critique sharing many concerns with those of the Frankfurt School.” These include the “death of the individual,” the “rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism,” the “subordination of moral values to monetary value,” and an “ambiguous attitude towards both elite and mass popular culture.” His list of Tory anarchists is comprised of William Cobbett, Jonathan Swift, Evelyn Waugh, Michael Wharton, Auberon Waugh, George Orwell, Richard Ingrams, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, and Chris Morris. Tory anarchists are, on this reading, cultural dissidents. They do not advance a political ideology.

The affinities between certain strands of anarchism and conservatism were noted long before Wilkin, though. And other scholars have been less modest about the claims they make for the nature of the creed. Describing Joseph Conrad as a Tory anarchist in 1957 in Politics and the Novel, the critic Irving Howe thus wrote:

Both the conservative and the anarchist … find industrial society odious. … Both try to improvise a moral shelter in the crevices of this society, the conservative in his cultivated circle, the anarchist in utopian communities. … And both see the ideal society as one in which men stand at a measurable distance from each other, free to enter direct relationships.

This is partly true. Yet affinity is one thing, a successful ideological hybrid quite another. As the political theorist Benjamin Franks argued, Tory anarchism fails as a new type of ideology, since the core concepts of each facet of the hybrid contradict—above all, anarchism’s commitment to the destruction of the state and conservatism’s belief in human imperfection. For conservatives, the state might be small—it might, preferably, be very small indeed—but, human nature being what it is, it can never be eradicated.

For that reason, Tory anarchism will not be discussed any further here. The same is true of Tory communism: if communism implies the eventual abolition of the state, it is not compatible with conservatism. So what, then, are the core concepts of conservatism and how are they compatible with socialism?


The precise definition of conservatism is a contested subject. For Michael Oakeshott it is simply a disposition. Conservatives, he wrote, “centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else”; they “delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” In his book, Ideologies and Political Theory, however, Michael Freeden argued that conservatism is not an ideology of the status quo. On the contrary, it is “predominantly concerned with the problem of change,” seeking “to render it safe.”

Conservatism, on Freeden’s view, has three core components. First, it involves “controlling change” and following an organic course rather than an artificial one devised by humans. An excess of reason, conservatives believe, usually leads to entropy.

Second, and connectedly, conservatives “believe in the extra-human origins of the social order—i.e., as independent of human will.” Freeden explains how “God, history, biology, science … have served in turn as the extra-human anchor of the social order and have been harnessed to validate its practices.” We must account for phenomena like the bonds of family and psychological principles such as the desire to compete and the need to provide incentives to labour. Conservatism is therefore politically sceptical, doubting the efficacy of rationalisation and planning.

And third, conservatism is a counter-movement. It has a “mirror-image characteristic.” Conservatives “develop substantive antitheses to progressive core concepts, such as reason, equality, or individuality, but then (often unconsciously) assign them only adjacent status within the conservative morphology.” It is reactive, with its enemies changing over space and time.

Socialism, on the other hand, is more straightforward. According to Freeden, it contains five core concepts: “the constitutive nature of the human relationship”—i.e., the fundamental importance of human ties—“human welfare as a desirable objective, human nature as active, equality, and history as the arena of (ultimately) beneficial change.” On its periphery are concepts such as democracy, collective ownership or control of the means of production and exchange, class, trade unionism, efficiency, and liberty.

It matters that conservative socialists have typically originated in the socialist tradition—that their direction of travel has been from socialism to conservatism, but without renouncing the former or fully embracing the latter. The figures cited here started out, almost exclusively, as non-Marxist socialists or Marxists of an independent hue, New Left or analytic. They are all leading minds, or, in Edward Shils’s language, “productive intellectuals.” If an intellectual tradition “is a set or pattern of beliefs, conceptions of form, sets of verbal usages, rules of procedure, recurrently and unilaterally linked with each other through time,” these intellectuals are the kind who “create works which extend and change their traditions.” And so they have.

What they retained from socialism was its emphasis on human inter-relationships, its belief in human welfare as a goal worthy of pursuit, and, in a more limited way, socialism’s view of human nature (human nature is plastic, but not that plastic). What they commandeered from conservatism were its emphasis on controlling change and its character as a counter-movement. To this, conservative socialists added four more core concepts and three adjacent ones. Its core comprised opposition to efficiency, the need for roots, a localist and personal political economy, and virtue ethics. While its periphery included patriotism, ecologism, and a pro-family stance.


Conservative socialism was preceded by Tory radicalism. Tory radicals were figures such as William Cobbett, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Benjamin Disraeli. They were romantics, who rejected the “Mechanical Age” ushered in by capitalism. They mourned the death of chivalry, the decay of the “Metaphysical and Moral sciences,” and the decline of religion. With Ruskin, Tory radicalism began to morph into conservative socialism, an ideology not based simply on nostalgia for a socially harmonious, pre-industrial past but on a concrete programme of what a truly just and free society ought to look like. What it did not look like was the Paris Commune.

Like the Tory radicals, Ruskin responded to the rise of capitalism vituperatively. He abhorred liberalism and utilitarianism, describing these philosophies as “ossifient” theories of progress founded on the negation of the soul. Capitalist production divided human beings and made them into tools. It destroyed nature and beauty. And it exchanged riches, or luxury, for a life worth living. The Paris Commune, Ruskin argued, did not resolve these issues but perpetuated them.

The mirror-image aspect of Ruskin’s conservative socialism was therefore Janus-faced. For liberal progress he substituted tradition. He replaced capitalist wealth with a life defined by meaningful labour and rich human interconnection. In place of communist envy he insisted on virtue. And to “wise production” he counterposed “wise consumption.”

A realist, as well as a romantic, Ruskin believed that human beings were flawed creatures. This made them interesting but also unpredictable. Society could not therefore dispense with the state. While Ruskin criticised the phenomenon of “Occult Theft,” which enriched the capitalists of Europe and kept the poor sinful and ignorant, he continued to view human beings as intrinsically unequal, some destined by nature to lead, others to follow.

To the communards, who had burnt the Louvre in protest at capitalist injustice, Ruskin counselled that before one considers mastering others one ought first to have mastered oneself. By destroying property, the communards were undoing good work. Change, for Ruskin, must be steady and peaceable. Unlike the communards, he did not envisage dividing property equally. Rather, Ruskin sought to make citizens thoughtful and judicious. He envisioned a society of ethical production and consumption.

Ruskin was the first conservative socialist and the most conservative among them. In this, however, he was rivalled by Simone Weil. She, too, was concerned with change, both too much of it and too little. Having spent the duration of the Second World War in Britain, Weil it seems was aware of Ruskin’s work. One way or the other, they were both concerned with preserving the past.

Weil and Ruskin had different adversaries. Capitalism they shared in common. Born in 1908, Weil, however, had the Third International to contend with, communism as envisaged by Lenin, as well as fascism. Unlike Ruskin, then, who had not heard of Marx, Weil reacted to Marxism, chastising Marxists for ignoring the lived condition of the working class and repudiating the Marxist notion of revolution.

Change, for Weil, needed to be controlled, due, above all, to the fact that, on her view, the need for roots was the most important need of the human soul. A life without roots was a life of ennui, and Weil blamed the 18th-century encyclopedists for promoting an idea of progress which did not carefully conserve its roots. What was left for human attachment was money and the state—that is to say, oblivion.

Like Ruskin, Weil argued that a country’s economy ought to be a mix of privately and collectively held property. Similarly, she also insisted on equality of respect but not on equality of talents. Nonetheless, anticipating later, post-war conservative socialists, Weil rejected the idea of meritocracy. “Equality is all the greater in proportion as different human conditions are regarded as being, not more nor less than one another, but simply as other,” she wrote in The Need for Roots. Tilting again at the socialist tradition from which she emerged, Weil argued that there was nothing wrong with experiencing love of country. In the midst of global war, she urged compassion for France, comparing patriotism to the feelings children, parents, or a spouse inspire in a person.

Although firmly embedded in the Left institutionally, Weil was always unorthodox. The same is true of Orwell with whom Weil shares a huge amount in common, not just politically but personally too—both fought in Spain and both went “down and out.” It might seem strange to say so in the light of Orwell’s various diatribes against socialism and socialists but Orwell, however, was more constrained; he left a lot more socialist ideology intact than Weil did. It was, above all, Orwell’s commitment to socialism that urged him on to abuse its precepts and proponents. While Weil was an enthusiastic patriot, Orwell was only a reluctant one. While he regretted the “emotional shallowness” of Left intellectuals, he hoped ultimately to instrumentalise the worker’s patriotism rather than fully endorse it. Alert to the horrors of Stalinism, Orwell attacked Marxism, state socialism, and utopianism relentlessly.

Orwell’s socialism was, for the most part, the mirror image of Marxism. In Marxism, he detected hatred and a “hypertrophied sense of order.” To this, Orwell juxtaposed a vision of socialism based on justice and common decency. If Marxism was totalitarian, Orwell’s conservative socialism was liberty-loving. If Marxism was mechanical and technophilic, Orwell’s conservative socialism was humanist and technophobic. If Marxism was homogenising and neglectful of aesthetics, Orwell’s conservative socialism was variety-seeking and attentive to beauty and taste.

Like Weil and Ruskin, Orwell foregrounded the necessity of work in a life well-lived. Railing against the British Fabians as well as international communism, Orwell lampooned the “fat bellied version of ‘progress’,” which promised to transform human beings into “a race of enlightened sunbathers whose sole topic of conversation is their own superiority to their ancestors.”

Orwell was no reactionary. Nonetheless, he sympathised with reactionary writers who refused to believe that human society could be fundamentally improved. Up to a point, they were right, he held. Human beings are complicated, emotional creatures, ill-fitted for living in harmony with one another at scale. If socialism was to be viable, Orwell argued, it must cease to be utopian. Socialism, on Orwell’s view, was neither perfectionist nor hedonist but modestly humanitarian.

That said, Orwell was in a hurry. He was less squeamish than most other conservative socialists about dramatic change. Socialists ought to be patient but they ought not to wait for a revolution of the self as Ruskin suggested they should. To argue as much was to ensure that capitalism went on forever.


With the death of Stalin and the Khrushchev thaw in the 1950s and ’60s, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the rise of the New Left, and the formation of welfare states in the European social democracies of the immediate post-war years, the targets again began to change for conservative socialists.

If Orwell felt the need to dissociate socialism from the Soviet Union and productivist utopianism more generally, conservative socialists of the post-war era felt compelled to dissociate socialism from individualism and the narcissism to which it gave rise. As erstwhile New Leftist Christopher Lasch argued in The Culture of Narcissism, for example, the cultural revolution of the 1960s merely “reproduced the worst features of the collapsing civilisation it claimed to criticise.” Solidarity had been swapped for selfishness, yet surreptitiously, in the name of human flourishing. In the 1990s, Lasch described a revolt of the elites and a betrayal of democracy. This was connected to the narcissistic culture he had described in the 1970s, and he inveighed against them both. The chief threat to social order and the traditions of Western culture came not from the bottom but the top.

As Weil predicted, meritocracy had been a disaster. Obligation had been depersonalised and the so-called talented, suffering from a lack of gratitude, were incapable of assuming the burden of leadership. Cosmopolitan and physically and emotionally detached, they jeered at those they were supposed to represent. Lasch defended the traditional bourgeois family. In spite of its repressiveness and authoritarianism, the old-fashioned family structure produced the capacity for independent thought and judgment. More permissive and egalitarian regimes, by contrast, generated a narcissistic personality type, simultaneously aggrandising and peer-dependent. The transformation of the family had thus weakened the psychic basis of democracy, the self-reliant individual.

For the endless possibilities envisioned by liberals and socialists, the desire to live for the moment, Lasch substituted limits: one ought to live for one’s predecessors and posterity too, he argued, with all the constraints that that must entail. If the malaise began in the 1960s and ’70s for Lasch, other conservative socialists believed that the “new dark ages” had started centuries ago. As opposed to post-war liberal and socialist permissiveness, it was the Enlightenment which was responsible for the moral catastrophe of the modern age.

In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre, another former New Leftist, published After Virtue. He argued that virtue had been displaced by a set of competing and incompatible moralities—“seventeenth century puritanism, eighteenth century hedonism, the Victorian work ethic and so on.” This, in turn, led eventually to emotivism, the theory that “all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference.” MacIntyre insisted on the need to recover Aristotelian virtue ethics and stressed the need to recognise limits. He, too, believed that we are bearers of tradition and ought to recognize our dependence on the past and our obligations to the past, present, and future.

Describing Marxists as embryonic Weberians and Marxism as an exhausted political tradition, the same exhaustion, MacIntyre claimed, was omnipresent. Liberalism, in other words, and conservatism, which merely sought to conserve the individualism of the latter, were exhausted too. Instead, MacIntyre proposed new forms of community within the old which could sustain “civility and the intellectual and moral life”—a gradualist, non-revolutionary proposal for social change, contingent primarily on moral transformation through “practices.”

By a “practice,” MacIntyre meant:

any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

Publicly sceptical about the value of conservatism as a tradition of political thought, MacIntyre’s conservative socialism is implicit rather than explicit.

G.A. Cohen, another former Marxist turned conservative socialist, was, by contrast, quite open about the strongly conservative opinions he harboured about many issues. Cohen, for instance, abhorred the “attitude of universal mastery over everything,” common to liberals and Marxists alike. Ontologically modest, like his conservative socialist peers and predecessors, in many instances we ought to accept the given, he argued. “Certain things are to be accepted from nature, and that includes aspects of ourselves.”

Reacting to hubristic scientific ambitions in the field of combatting disease and physical affliction, Cohen identified “a slippery slope” in these and other matters. We “devalue the valuable things we have,” he wrote, “if we keep them only so long as nothing even slightly more valuable comes along. Valuable things command a certain loyalty.” Cohen not only accepted the given and valued the valuable, he also argued that we ought to value what is already valued. We should not just dispose of things. It is things, on the contrary, along with relationships, that provide us with our attachments and satiate our need to belong. “We cannot belong to something abstract,” Cohen averred.

Yet this is precisely what free-market liberals and state socialists offered, expecting us to find meaning and satisfaction in a homogenised and ever-changing world where there is no room for the particular. In the 1980s and 1990s, Cohen did battle with the procedural social liberalism of John Rawls from a Marxist perspective. By the noughties, he had adopted a moral vision of change derived from Christianity. “In order to preserve valuable things in the status quo,” he concluded, “we might have to revolutionise our situation.”

Maurice Glasman brings nearly all of these themes together and is perhaps the paradigmatic conservative socialist. He reacted to two connected movements: the rise of neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and its promotion and victory within the British Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The “tragedy of the conservative tradition since Burke,” Glasman argues in Blue Labour, is that “they have been unable to comprehend that the market centralises power, concentrates wealth and commodifies human beings and their environment.” The tragedy of Labour is that they, too, have been seduced by the same narrative that claims that with free markets everybody prospers. The existing system, Glasman complains, which they collectively authored, incentivises vice instead of virtue, and society, bordering now on fiction, has succumbed to an oligopoly.

Under the influence of Catholic social thought, Glasman argues that society must repair itself by attending to the relationships that sustain it—we must collectively bring the loneliness of liberalism to an end. Society must recognise its traditions, and it must not neglect vocation, since these are constitutive elements of a meaningful life.

Repudiating utopianism, Glasman seeks not the victory of one class over another or the voluntary abolition of class altogether but simply the pursuit of the common good. It is a tradition, he claims, with a healthy history in Continental Europe. But in Britain, it has been in abeyance since 1945 when Labour's reforming government chose centralisation and technocracy over federalism and subsidiarity, preventing the establishment of an effective partnership between labour and capital.

Scornful of efficiency, Glasman argues that economics must be subordinate to the needs of family, place, and dignified and skilled work. It is a vision, or a reaction rather, which is conservative and socialist in equal measure.


Far from being a phantom in the imaginations of a handful of writers and scholars, conservative socialism is a real phenomenon. Conservative socialists may not have described themselves as such, or may not do so now, but that does not mean the label is not apposite. For just as the psychoanalyst has greater insight into the psychic condition of the analysand than the analysand themselves, the intellectual historian is apt to provide a better description of the political theorists’ theory than the political theorist. Having said that, the label has not always been deployed accurately.

The historian Tony Judge, for instance, has taken an extremely ecumenical approach in deciding who is and who is not a Tory socialist. By adopting an essentialist (and, ironically, parochial) definition of conservatism, which stresses its preoccupation with the past and rural life, as well as patriotism, the monarchy, and empire, Judge cast his net wide to include figures as disparate as Robert Blatchford, Walter Crane, Henry Harben, Stewart Headlam, Octavia Hill, Cyril Joad, F.D. Maurice, Richard Oastler, and Charles Trevelyan.

Similarly, movements such as the Morris dancing revival promoted by Cecil Sharp, the revival of English folk music under Ralph Vaughan Williams, C.R. Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft (1888), the Settlement Movement (1884), the Allotment Extension Society (1883), J.C. Kenworthy’s ideal community in Croydon (1897), and Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement (1899) are all described by Judge as Tory socialist.

This is an incautious method that produces inaccurate results. Most often, what Judge describes as Tory socialism is reactionary socialism, or neither Tory nor socialist at all. For example, William Morris and Edward Carpenter, the latter especially, are scarcely conservative. They are sentimentalists, who look backward, and advocate violent revolution to get there.

That is not to say that there are no conservative values in the thought of these individuals and movements. The conservative disposition is, certainly, sometimes dimly, or more than just dimly, visible here. Nonetheless, a penchant for beauty or community or nature alone, or in combination, does not make for conservative socialism. By making conservative socialism such a loose category, to the extent that it is almost all-inclusive (Judge also mentions Bertrand Russell and Oscar Wilde), analysts such as Judge reduce it to a non-phenomenon.

In fact, coherent yet complex conservative socialism is a distinct sub-ideology of socialism, which began with Ruskin in the mid-19th century, continued through Weil, Orwell, Lasch, and Cohen in the 20th, and is articulated in the present by MacIntyre and Glasman. It is a tradition from which we can learn.

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