The modern right-wing has its roots in a particular historical event

Douglas Giles, PhD

Douglas Giles, PhD

4 days ago (

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Left Wing, Right Wing, People, and Power.

Burke, Edmund Burke, stirred but not shaken

The earliest uses of “Left” and “Right” in politics did not reflect political philosophies or ideologies. Instead, they indicated support for or opposition to a particular government. “Left” and “Right” as relative terms came from their first uses in the days of the French Revolution. In 1789 in the French Legislative Assembly, supporters of the king chose to group themselves sitting to the right of the assembly president, and opponents of the king sat opposite them on the left. The French newspapers of the time used the terms “the Left” and “the Right” to describe the opposing sides, and the usage spread throughout Europe.

Political groups in the 1790s used “Left” and “Right” to express common ground with one or the other side during the French Revolution. Before long, all political movements opposed to a sitting government were called “the Left,” with “the Right” referring to those who supported that government.

The French Legislative Assembly members who, in 1791, sat to the right of the assembly president were united by a common cause to maintain the position of the king, Louis XVI. On the one hand, their politics were a continuation of an old order that had been in place for centuries. On the other hand, their politics were a response to new events unfolding in their nation. Out of a blend of old ideas and new realities was crafted the philosophy of conservatism, the precursor to the various movements today that can be classified as right-wing.

There are three main trajectories of right-wing thought — conservatism, reactionism, and libertarianism. They are at times starkly different, but they share a fundamental belief on how power should be structured. I will discuss reactionism and libertarianism later, but first, I will address the philosophy that preceded the other two, conservatism.

The Father of Conservatism

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is widely regarded as the father of conservative thought because of his philosophical attack on the French Revolution. He was English, but he sympathized with the French right-wingers and their cause. Burke was no absolutist, though. As a member of Parliament, he supported laws to curtail the power of the English king. His concerns were to conserve what he saw as the proper political power structure and the validity of the status and hierarchy of the aristocracy.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke condemned the French revolutionary attempts to tear down the old traditional power structure and replace it with a new power structure based on rationality. Burke responded that no single generation has the right to destroy what has been built by many earlier generations. He advocated a balanced view that rulers should be responsive to the views and needs of its subjects and to the reality of social change, but that there must be a connection to tradition. The proper way to address change is to apply the values embodied in tradition to new circumstances. A nation’s traditions, Burke argued, are the repository of civilization, the source of ethical life, and the arbiter even of reason itself.

Burke’s appeal was not to, as Hobbes had appealed, the power of a sovereign, but to the broader power structure of the aristocracy. Burke’s claim was that the aristocratic institutional system of prescriptive rights and customs, had grown out of a process cultivated by learned men of the past. We should thus, with devotion akin to religion, revere this product of generations of collective intelligence and adapt it to present circumstances. We should, he insisted, presume in favor of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, because we have long existed and flourished within traditional methods and institutions.

The revolutionaries’ demand for a new power structure horrified Burke, especially in the violent manner in which they were trying to achieve it. Burke believed in citizens’ political involvement, but in the context of a body politic that delineates social ranks. A social hierarchy, he thought, was necessary for the wiser to be able to enlighten the weaker and less knowledgeable. He saw democracy as a dangerous abstract rule of mere numbers. A nation and its decision-making must be guided by the responsible rule of a hereditary aristocracy. Institutions can change and grow, but only in response to tangible social needs, never because of novel ideas or desires, and change should only happen gradually within the spirit of the nation’s tradition.

The Burkean Worldview

Burke’s rebuttal to the revolutionaries’ demands for changes in the power structure set the philosophical tone for the right-wing worldview regarding change. Central to the conservative worldview is the preference for tradition. Conservatism includes, if not requires, a resistance to principles outside of and especially contrary to established traditions and cultural realities.

The conservative worldview motivates people to political actions that seek to conserve that are viewed as tried and tested traditions. It rests on what Burke called the “latent wisdom” of prejudice — customary judgments which have accumulated over the generations. In this context, prejudice is not bigotry, though it may degenerate into it. It is a pre-judgment — the attitude that the truth has already been found, the answer has already been given, there is no need to discuss it further.

Also inherent to the worldview of Burkean conservatism is the notion that communities are held together not by independent thinking and acting but by an acceptance of membership and duty. Unity comes from one feeling that one has a place in the community even though it be but a lowly one. Being a member of a community, and being a citizen of a nation, obligates one to carry the moral burdens that one’s status traditionally imposes.

There is in Burkean conservatism a form of quietism, of knowing one’s place and accepting it. According to John Gray,

conservatism’s fundamental insight is that persons’ identities cannot be matters of choice, but are conferred on them by their unchosen histories, so that what is most essential about them is…what is most accidental. The conservative vision is that people will come to value the privileges of choice…when they see how much in their lives must always remain unchosen.”[1]

This insight reflected the traditional feudal power structure of sovereign, nobles, and serfs. It is certainly the case that one’s freedom of choice is limited by life circumstances, but conservatism gave a rational justification for an attitude of resignation to circumstances.

In all fairness, Burke placed the moral burden of accepting one’s unchosen history on the upper class, not just on the lower classes. Clearly, the aristocracy was more privileged than the working classes, but with that privilege came the obligation to use one’s position in service of the nation. The good of the nation was what was important, and this was the good that all classes should serve.

Burke stated that rulers needed to take into consideration the interests of the citizenry, but he considered interests as belonging, not to individuals, but to social groups such as the merchant class and the landowner class. The primary social group is the nation itself. An elected representative to government, Burke said, represents not the interests of a geographical area but of the common good of the nation. A representative in Parliament, of which Burke was one, should not be bound to the interests and inclinations of individual constituencies, because “government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination.”[2]

It could be said that Burke and those who followed his conservative ideas on the social hierarchy are guilty of falling on the wrong side of the is-ought problem. David Hume identified the is-ought problem by separating empirical realities from value judgments. Hume stated that we cannot argue from descriptive statements of what is to prescriptive statements of what ought to be. Our ethical judgments cannot legitimately be derived from observation of how things are in the world.[3]

Contrary to Hume’s admonition, because conservatism places its faith in tradition as received wisdom, it is inclined to accept what is as what ought to be. The Burkean worldview accepts the values embodied in tradition and the need to consent to one’s unchosen history, one’s place in society. In practice, conservatism was and is a rejection of changes to the power structure, appealing to presence of tradition as the ethical verification for the rejection.

Alexander Hamilton. The real one did not sing.

The Federalists

When the American colonies fought a war seeking succession from Great Britain in the 1770s, Burke largely approved. For Burke, the American revolt was fundamentally different than the later French Revolution, and this speaks to the heart of conservative thinking. Whereas the French revolutionaries wanted to dismantle the old power structure and replace it, the American rebels sought a much less radical restructuring. Burke saw the colonies’ revolt not as a radical innovation but as a restoration of the rights and privileges of the wealthy class in those colonies. He had for the same reason approved of England’s so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that had replaced the legitimate sovereign, King James II, with one more agreeable to the interests of the aristocracy.

The Federalists in the newly formed United States were a group of wealthy landowners and merchants who supported the American War of Independence. They were successionists who thought that King George III and the British Parliament had too much power over the colonies, sidelining and ignoring their interests. Most Federalists were anti-monarchists, not just opposed to George III’s method of rule, but against the idea of a political structure of a single sovereign.

After the colonies won the war and gained independence, the Federalists as a political faction advocated for a political structure for the new country in which a federal government united the former colonies under the general sovereignty of a Federal government. States maintained some autonomy but were not sovereign states. Importantly, the new government would not be headed by a hereditary monarch. Equally important, the new government would be representative of the geographical territories of the states, though the representatives would be selected by the upper class. The Federalists were aristocrats in all but name, and wanted to increase the power of their class, not to the “lower” classes.

Leaders of the Federalist faction were Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, who later left the Federalist faction. As political thinkers, they wrote the Federalist Papers, published in 85 volumes in 1787 and 1788. In those publications, they argued for a central government of sufficient strength to safeguard the good of the nation. Its primary topic was a detailed defense of the provisions of the new US Constitution, aiming to persuade voters in the states to ratify the Constitution. A common secondary topic was to warn against the dangers from foreign intervention, dissention between the states, and domestic insurrection. Consistent throughout the Federalist Papers was the conservative idea that power should primarily be held by a central government. As described by John Jay in the “Federalist №2” publication.

Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.[4]

On the one hand, the American experiment of founding a new nation was novel, but on the other hand it was conservative in that its innovations were grounded within a valuing of traditional power structures.

Like Burke, the Federalists favored the wealthy class as more capable of ruling the nation, and thus rejected democracy, widespread suffrage, and open elections. Forming a political party, the Federalists were a dominant force in Congress and advanced a legislative agenda based on their conservative principles. Most notably, they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 that restricted freedom of speech and freedom of the press, ostensibly to protect the nation from enemies.

Consistently, the Federalists, as political thinkers and political party, advocated a conservative agenda of a power structure of national over state government, and policies that favored banks, manufacturers, and protectionism of American business. During the Federalist era — the first years of the US nation, 1789 to 1800 — the Federalist faction consciously attempted to establish a new tradition for the new country. Their vision was a social power structure based on conservative principles of tradition and hierarchical power applied to the circumstances of the new nation. It is no surprise that Burke did not object. The Federalist Party fell into the minority after the election of 1800, but their legacy of conservatism remains foundational to the United States to this day.

Hegel, what have you done?

The Right Hegelians

The events of the French Revolution were a catalyst for a great deal of philosophical discussion in Europe. There were those who were inspired by the idea of the revolutionaries, and there were those, like Burke, who were repelled by the prospect of the overthrow of existing traditions and institutions.

The most influential continental European philosopher who defended traditional power structures was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel’s philosophy was broad and obscure, easily interpreted in various ways as philosophers took what they liked from Hegel’s ideas. Interpretations of Hegel’s political philosophy fell into two camps — the Left Hegelians and the Right Hegelians, reflecting how they applied Hegel’s insights into a Left or Right view of political power structures. The most famous of the Left Hegelians are Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. None of the Right Hegelians ever reached prominence, it was more of a general movement that influenced later German political philosophy.

Foundational to Hegel’s political philosophy is his notion of historicism. For Hegel, the history of the world and society is to be understood as the working of an objective, rational order. Hegel observed that we can only understand events after they occur. Human reason and freedom are historical achievements, each generation dependent on earlier ones. Only through studying objective history can we know ourselves and understand how the nation should be structured. For Hegel, rationally realizing one’s role as a cog in the machine of history is the realization of freedom, and the fullest realization of this is understanding one’s role in the political nation-state.

Hegel did not advocate absolutism, as Hobbes had. Instead, Hegel called for a constitutional monarchy — the rule of a sovereign possessing power but bound to the law of the constitution and the interests of the aristocracy. All institutions and individuals are to obey the law of the land, which is Sittlichkeitthe ethical order. For Hegel, Sittlichkeit is “ethical behavior grounded in custom and tradition and developed through habit and imitation in accordance with the objective laws of the community.”[5]

Hegel’s historicist system is clearly a defense of the nation and its existing power structures. In that, it is a right-wing political philosophy. In Hegel’s view, the nation is the result of a rationally ordered system of historical development. The power of the nation is its Sittlichkeit, which provides the parameters of human rights and freedoms. Individuals can think and act freely, but only within the parameters of the ethical order.

Hegel’s insight that freedom exists within the framework of an ethical order is profound and clearly accurate. It’s an insight that has significantly inspired philosophy and the social sciences, in particular, clarifying the need to see the rule of law as the means for people’s both positive and negative freedoms. The right-wing interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy extended the notions of historical inevitability and a hierarchical rational order as the basis of the social power structure. Right Hegelians also emulated Hegel’s strong strain of nationalism and the idea of German society as superior, a bulwark to radicalism.

This chapter is by no means an exhaustive account of right-wing thought. It serves as a background for the assertions and actions made today by adherents to right-wing ideas. Conservatism is in essence a positivist standpoint — what is ought to be — that is skeptical of novel ideas to change existing power structures. Conservatism’s worldview puts trust instead in heritage and the social hierarchy.

[1] John Gray, Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, Penguin. 2010. 159.

[2] Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 6 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–56. 1774. Retrieved from The University of Chicago Press at,

[3] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. 1739.

[4] John Jay, “Federalist №2” in Federalist Papers: Primary Documents in American History. retrieved from Library of Congress at

[5] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. 1998. 266.

Douglas Giles, PhD

Written by Douglas Giles, PhD

Philosopher by trade & temperament, professor for 21 years, bringing philosophy out of its ivory tower and into everyday life.

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