Conservative and Critical Political Thought. Since political thought usually aims either to support or to attack existing political institutions and methods, it may be classified broadly as either conservative or critical. Theories of the conservative type arise from the attempts of men to explain and justify the political system under which they live and to maintain the status quo.
Such theories are usually created or supported by the class in power and by those who benefit under the existing regime. They also represent the natural mental attitude of those who love law and order, and dislike confusion and change. The best example of this type of theory is the doctrine of divine right, by which the religious authority of the church was added to the political authority of the state, a supernatural sanction was given to law, and the position of the rulers made sacred and inviolable.
This theory, which made resistance to the powers that be a sin as well as a crime, was mutually advantageous to the officials of the state and to the leaders of the church, and appeared frequently in the history of political thought as the support of autocratic authority and the opponent of reform.
Milder forms of conservative theory were represented in the laudation of the British Constitution during the eighteenth century in the writings of Montesquieu, Blackstone, and De Lolme, and in the general praise accorded to the American Constitution by almost all American writers during the nincteenth century. By establishing a widespread belief in the perfection of existing institutions, they made change more difficult.
Similarly, political policies may be crystallized into dogmas or shibboleths and receive unthinking support because, by constant repetition, they became embedded in the national tradition. The Monroe Doctrine is an example of a conservative theory created by this process.
Those who hold conservative theories view changing conditions with emotions ranging from regret to alarm, When their theory no longer corresponds with actual conditions, they picture a golden age in the past, believe that the world is going to ruin, and long to return to the good old days. In this form conservative theories become reactionary and usually disappear, though they often die hard in their last efforts to resist inevitable change.
Critical theories arise in opposition to the status quo and support efforts to change existing political institutions and methods. Such theories range from philosophical and imaginative utopias that have little apparent connection with actual life and no likelihood of practical application, to the concrete ideals of reformers who are aiming to remedy certain evils or to accomplish desired reconstruction.
These latter vary from attempts to change some single device of organization or to make minor readjustments in governmental activities, to wide-sweeping schemes of political reorganization or the creation of new political systems. Some of their advocates are willing to work slowly and through legal channels; others believe in immediate and revolutionary methods. Liberal theories thus shade off into various degrees of radicalism.
It is obvious that critical theories could not arise and become widespread until men had reached a considerable degree of political intelligence and were permitted freedom of thought and of discussion. Such theories are usually held by those who are not in power, who are not, prosperous and happy under the existing regime, and who hope to better their condition by change.
Critical theory at its best is always constructive, since it includes not only a generalization of facts but also a valuation of tendencies. In destroying outworn and obsolete ideas, critical political thought implies an ideal of what ought to replace them.
Such doctrines are dangerous to the powers that be, and during the greater part of human history have been forbidden and suppressed. Only occasionally, as in the Greek cities or in modern democracies, has it been possible to build up, without serious opposition, a critical political philosophy or to accomplish by legal methods the reform desired.
An important example of critical political thought was the doctrine of social contract and natural rights as set forth by Locke and Rousseau. This theory served as the basis for the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the French and American Revolutions of the eighteenth century. It attacked the divine right of kings and justified revolution and popular sovereignty. Modern socialistic doctrines furnish other examples of critical theory.
It is interesting to observe that when a critical theory is generally accepted and becomes successful in practice, it tends to become a conservative theory, making certain concessions to practical necessity but endeavoring to maintain what it has accomplished and to prevent further change. Thus the doctrine of natural rights, with its emphasis on individualism and on the safeguarding of personal and property rights, was a critical theory in the eighteenth century, attacking the autocratic and paternalistic governments of that day.
At present the theory is used as a conservative support for the vested interests in an effort to prevent the extension of state regulation and control that the socialists demand. This thesis is further substantiated by recent developments in Russia. Communist theory, having been adjusted to meet existing conditions by Lenin and Stalin, has now taken on a marked rigidity which will tend to maintain the prevailing order and to oppose further change.
Both conservative and critical theories have points of strength and weakness. Conservative theories, valuable in maintaining public peace and stability, frequently prevent or delay much-needed reform. Critical theories, necessary to prevent stagnation and to secure healthy political progress, frequently represent the panaceas of fanatics or lead to political chaos and anarchy. The proper compromise in political thought between undesirable extremes of conservatism and radicalism is difficult to maintain, and a swing too far in one direction is likely to be followed by a reaction toward the opposite extreme.