2.4.5 ‘Conservatism’ and ‘socialism’

Back to 2.4.4

Unit 2 Contents


But first, how did the Church’s position relate to the other two main ways of seeing the world that emerged as competitors to liberalism in the nineteenth century, namely ‘conservatism’ and ‘socialism’?  We have to ask this question because ‘liberalism’, ‘conservatism’ and ‘socialism’ are the three great traditions of political thought and practice that have dominated public life in the West for the last 200 years.

This raises a major question: Does CST represent a way of seeing the world and acting in political life that corresponds, more or less, with one of these three?  Or does CST represent something different and distinct from all of them?

This question will be with us throughout the module.


In order to continue tracing the historical background to contemporary CST, let us look at ‘conservatism’ briefly.  Note that we are talking about conservatism with a small ‘c’, not any particular political party that calls itself Conservative.



Sometimes political parties that are called Conservative don’t at all act in conservative ways (so don’t be misled by that use of the term).

What do you think the term ‘conservatism’ means?


What came to be called conservatism emerged as a result of, indeed a direct reaction against, the French Revolution.  Immediately after it, Edmund Burke, a British/Irish Parliamentarian, wrote a book called Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published in 1790.  Burke argued very strongly that the Revolution was a disaster.  The attempt to destroy an existing social order and to construct a new one on the basis of an abstract, individualistic doctrine was bound to fail. This was because there is so much that is valuable in the customs and shared practices that make up the common life of any society – even a very unjust and troubled one – that to destroy them all and try to start again from scratch is bound to lead to losing far more than is gained.

This is ‘conservatism’.  The social practices any society shares need to be sustained, rather than torn down and replaced.  Change is inevitable, but it needs to be gradual and careful, in order to avoid losing really valuable things without realising it until after they’re gone.

Burke was not a Catholic and he had some views that were different from Catholic teaching, but in the century following 1789, ‘conservatism’ and the Church shared much common ground.  Certainly, the Church’s view appeared basically conservative.  Donal Dorr, author of one of the best books about CST, says of this period, “There was an almost neurotic fear of social disorder – so much so that nearly every other social value was in practice subordinated to the values of stability and harmony in society”.1. As Dorr brings out, this was true even of Pope Leo XIII, whose encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 is generally interpreted as moving beyond the conservatism of earlier popes.2

So the Church rejected ‘liberalism’ and throughout the nineteenth century appeared allied with conservative social forces which were defined by rejection of the French Revolution.  It was not until the twentieth century that the Church developed its social teaching in ways that mark it out as in clear contrast to conservatism.


What about socialism?



What is your reaction to the term ‘socialism’?

Can you name any of its defining features?


The chronology of events given in the ‘Response’ to the earlier Exercise said that socialist movements emerged between about 1850 and 1900 across Europe.

What were these?  Basically socialism was defined by opposition to capitalism.  While there were various versions of socialism, what they had in common positively was that they advocated some form of collective ownership of property, especially large-scale property like factories and other ‘means of production’.  Socialism argued that such property should be owned collectively, whether by state bodies or by co-operatives, in order to be used in ways that benefited all, not just a small number of capitalist owners.

You have the opportunity to study socialism more fully in Module A on ‘Living Life to the Full’ – because Module A gives attention to issues of material goods and economics, and looks at what CST says about these.  You might wish to look now at what the historical outline in Unit 2 of that module says about socialism – if so go to Module A, 2.1.4.

Yet it will be helpful to give a bit more attention to socialism here, in order to flesh out the historical background to the parts of CST we shall be focusing on in the rest of this module.  Given that Module A addresses issues around economics, what we need to do here is get a sense of where socialism fitted in politically.  We have already looked at the emergence of political liberalism and of conservatism.  How was socialism related to these?

To answer this question, it can be extremely helpful to continue to think about the French Revolution and its legacy, its very ‘long tail’.  It was liberalism that was the political position that represented the French Revolution.  Like conservatism, socialism emerged in reaction against that liberalism – but it was a very different kind of reaction.  Whereas conservatism argued against any wholesale social change, socialism argued for much greater and more radical change.  Why?  Socialists held that, during the nineteenth century, political liberalism became the political ideology that defended capitalism, and therefore buttressed appalling economic inequality, rather than making equality a reality – even though this had been one word in the French Revolutionaries’ slogan.

In other words, conservatives said, “Stop! This will be a disaster!”, whereas socialists said, “The liberal revolution has proved a sham, and if we’re really going to get ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, we need to go much further. We need another revolution, or at least a huge change that will end capitalism and bring in common ownership”.



End of 2.4.5

Go to 2.4.6 How is CST related to liberalism, conservatism and socialism?

Module B outline

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  1. Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching (Orbis, rev’d ed. 1992), 52 

  2. Dorr, Option, 53-58