Conservative Idea
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

[from:] “Czas”, 24–25 July 1913




It was with some interest that I opened the “attempt at a doctrine” that Wincenty Kosiakiewicz[1] published under the title Conservative Idea as the first volume of the Conservative Library series. As I read, my interest only grew and after reading it I not only felt stimulated to think more on the subject, but in fact I wanted to offer the booklet to everyone capable of unprejudiced thought, to encourage them to read it and to hear their opinion.

In the era of universal and equal vote, a book that opposes the idea is a rare phenomenon. It is rare owing to the courage of its author who does not hesitate to lay himself open to criticism (we can already hear the accusations and guess what they will be about) and says what he thinks, what he feels and in what he deeply believes.

Mr Kosiakiewicz’s work is a refreshing phenomenon in journalism – so noble in its motives and aims and so beautiful owing to the sincerity and strength of the conviction with which it was written. In order to really grasp the author’s intentions when he writes of conservatism as the doctrine that will heal the nation and allow it to be reborn, one must properly understand his words: “Conservatives must defend life from a raging cemetery; they must save the society, however sad it may be, from the gravediggers’ philosophy, their ambition and heroism. Noble defenders have to endure the most terrible accusations that they are in fact defending an evil cause. From time to time, they can be seen in very bad and highly embarrassing company! They are misunderstood, and so fools slander them and the naïve avoid them”.

Mr Kosiakiewicz published his work as an “unfinished edition”, wishing to provoke discussion and use its results in the “definitive edition”. I want to participate in this discussion not by polemicising with his views, but rather by pointing out another point of view, which in my opinion could also be useful when addressing the issue of conservatism. If we look from this point of view, we may find answers to many of the questions and points raised in his booklet that are less categorical and absolute than the ones Mr Kosiakiewicz offers. However, before penning my remarks, I must familiarise readers with the author’s views so that they at least know the basics: the directions presented by the author and his method of thinking.

According to Mr Kosiakiewicz, our age is one in which democratic notions have been completely ruined. Fraternity has never been tried. Freedom also quickly ended its career, having been killed by equality, which had the following result: “the democratic electoral system became a huge institution that enabled people to be lied to and cheated”. “All this entitles, encourages, and even compels us to look for a doctrine that would not just be a collection of illusions, chimeras and falsehoods”. “The conservative doctrine will be our new thinking, tomorrow’s thinking enriched with all the positive experience of ancient times and all the negative experience of the last century”.

The author discusses the formulation of this doctrine, and presents the following conclusion to his arguments:


The conservative doctrine is an anti-revolutionary, anti-rationalist and anti-centralistic one – it is a traditional, positive and experimental doctrine that is in fact progressive, autonomous, freedom-oriented and liberal; finally, it is the doctrine of maximum aid that a weaker individual may receive from the society… Moreover, the conservative doctrine is an anti-republican, aristocratic, hierarchical and class-based one. It rejects Equality and puts Justice in its place.


Understanding politics as the general “theory on group behaviour”, the author believes that the conservative doctrine as described by him is a “rich and complete” one and that it “has the capacity to encompass all areas of human life and activity; the capacity to become concentrated in a small number of organically connected principles that will be sufficient as a source of guidance and advice in probably all circumstances in the life of the nation. How easy, for example, it would be to deduce from the point of view presented in this doctrine what Polish literature, art and criticism should look like! And how easy, having such a criterion at one’s disposal, it would be to judge whether a given novel, poem or comedy contributes to the health of the nation of detracts from it, causing a disease”.

The booklet contains justifications for the statements given above. We cannot summarise these justifying arguments here for fear that we would not do justice to the author’s complete idea and thus could present him in the wrong light; this review, whose purpose is to familiarise the reader with the author’s way of thinking, will just include several characteristic paragraphs from his work. For example, in one of them he states as follows:


And this is the most important, deepest and most intransigent difference between a conservative and a democrat: that the latter considers the primary element of the human community to be the individual, while the latter considers it to be the group. A democrat sees freedom as the rights of the individual within the already organised core social groups. Hence a democrat will establish, first in his head, and then on paper, various new social institutions that are composed of individuals. On the other hand, a conservative will apply his designs to already existing groups that have very specific rights and obligations. Hence a democrat, having at his disposal a material that is highly plastic because it is as indeterminate as an individual, will construct various constitutional edifices to bring happiness to humanity regardless of whether these designs are realistic. Hence a conservative, knowing that he is not dealing with an abstract individual, free of all constraints, who looks as if he has been dropped on out planet for experimental purposes, but rather with realities that have already functioned for centuries, cannot make such abstract and far-reaching plans. Hence a democrat is a rationalist. Hence a conservative is a positivist. Hence a democrat is a revolutionary. Hence a conservative is an anti-revolutionary. A democrat who imagines that society is a collection of individuals cannot hesitate to destroy the institutions that do not fit his plan that was designed either in the silence of his study or in the bosom of nature among the scent of spring flowers and nightingale songs that move the human heart so sweetly. A conservative cannot imagine destroying the essential institutions of any community because he knows that in this way, the community itself will also be certainly destroyed with truly horrible consequences; if he wants to improve a nation or state, he knows that the only way to do this is through improving its essential components so that they work together harmoniously for the benefit of the whole.


The author’s thought is reflected most accurately in the following statements:


The conservative doctrine does not oppose the political or social experiment. Quite the opposite: it promotes such experiments and desires it… However, it always delineates a limited scope for social experiments. Moreover, a conservative wants the experiment to take place in a real-life environment. Therefore he willingly conducts in on a municipality. He preaches decentralisation precisely so that social and political experiments can be conducted in the most diverse conditions possible and with the least possible risk of harm and losses. This feature also distinguishes him from democrats who have faith in grand designs for the entire country that are imposed by representatives of the people and mandated by the state. So a conservative remains a positivist and an evolutionist. He is still an advocate of freedom, since he wishes social experiments to be freely and independently conducted in each municipality, in each parish, in each county council and in each guild in order to give space to all private initiatives, to take advantage of any differences in the residents’ local talents, to enable the society to benefit from all virtues and all passions by enabling them to be promoted among communities, while at the same time limiting the possible risk arising from such activities and groups. Thus a conservative is a proponent of life that is dynamic and diverse.


To avoid any misunderstandings, the author writes that “the conservative’s positivism only means his willingness to apply scientific methods in observing the natural behaviour of societies”.

I do not want to present too many quotes here, although many of the author’s statements really should be repeated, since they are either very noble, like those that concern Catholicism and the family, or very convincing, like those in which he defends conservatism against accusations that it inhibits progress or against equating it with backwardness. “Conservatives”, he says, “are about ideals, while reactionaries are only about interests; the former strive for joys of the future, while the latter for the pleasures of consumption; the former are officers of progress, while the latter provoke revolutions”. As I have said, I do not want to present too many quotes, but I think that in the light of what has already been said about the booklet, there will be at least one passage, which – under conditions that are not conducive to matter-of-fact discussions – will leave the author open to attacks, because it is most likely to be misunderstood by those who do not wish to understand it. Kosiakiewicz writes:


The conservative doctrine recognises the utility of classes as such; it considers the upper classes to be more useful, since they have more means as well as social duties and since they feel, to a degree greater than others, the need to constantly justify themselves, and the very example of their existence may, to some extent, set the goal for outstanding individuals from the lower classes to use their energies in order to gain entry to the upper classes.

This is because no class should be hermetically sealed and anyway no such closed class has ever existed in the history of European nations. Aristocracy is among the most useful bodies within a nation, from which it follows that weakened nations should care about the preservation of their aristocracies even more than powerful ones. Where the social position of aristocracy is threatened, a major foundation for the advancement of civilised life is removed, since all foundations of civilised life lie above. The democratic age, which has been an age of malignant illusions, has demoralised aristocracy in some countries. In many aristocratic souls, the conviction that the privileges of the aristocratic class are fair, has been weakened or even has withered, and these are by no means the worst or least noble aristocratic souls. In fact, it is often the opposite. However, these noble souls certainly lack a few aristocratic virtues, primarily courage and fortitude. And our aristocracy has a greater duty than any other to nurture this courage and fortitude. However, it is necessary for the other classes to encourage it to move in this direction. This will be a task of the conservative group, party or camp, which must arise in Poland as one of the imperatives of national existence.


One could not close this review without quoting the words of the author of the Conservative Idea – the words that permeate his doctrine: “To abolish social classes would only be to do the work of destruction, which would reach far beyond the classes destroyed, affecting the entire nation. But bringing social classes together and uniting them in love and trust will be constructive work, and thus a beneficial and truly patriotic deed”.




Mr Kosiakiewicz’s intention has been to propose a political doctrine, which he understands as a scientific theory of group behaviour. If he had strictly stuck to this intention, he would have defined the concept of politics first or at least allowed his readers to deduce what it is according to him, and subsequently, while presenting his theory of behaviour, he would have defined conservatism in formal terms. Despite this intention, however, he chose to go a different way. From his booklet, we are unable to guess what he means by politics, and this matter is neither easy nor undisputed. Further, he does not stick to the political framework in putting forward his ideas despite his desire to present a political doctrine; on the contrary, he states that his doctrine “encompasses all areas of human life and activity”. Finally, although he himself says that a political doctrine is a theory of behaviour, he provides a whole series of material definitions.

While the intention was correct and justified, its execution not so much and as a result Mr Kosiakiewicz’s booklet is bound to cause misunderstandings. If he had stuck to his intention of creating a “political doctrine”, he would have presented a notion of conservatism that is formal, permanent and independent of time and place. However, mixing two points of view: the theoretical one (the author speaks of “doctrine” in the sense of a theoretical perspective on things) with the historical and descriptive one is detrimental to the author’s ability to convince readers and win them over to his point of view.

I do not want to supplement the author’s arguments here or suggest a definition of politics to him, but I must say that if he had stuck to his own notion that “political doctrine is a theory of group behaviour”, he would have chosen just one of the definitions of conservatism from among those that he adopted: anti-revolutionism, anti-rationalism, positivism (as understood by the author) and experimentalism. All other characteristics are of a material nature and therefore belong to history rather than theory. Conservatism as a kind of “group behaviour” is a way of doing things, a way of thinking based on certain dominant properties of the mind. If the author had left it at this point and refrained from mixing theory with history, he would have – just as I have – come to the conclusion that parliamentarianism, the republic, universal suffrage, etc. are historical symptoms, which conservatism may, in different times and in different countries, assess differently, rejecting, accepting or modifying them, but none of these institutions or arrangements are essential components of the notion of conservatism. These matters may therefore vary, but the constant element is that conservatism everywhere looks, judges and works in the same way, since conservatism is a way of thinking and a way of doing things.

Mr Kosiakiewicz is right to say that French literature has very much of offer on this subject. In France, there is indeed a renaissance of conservative thought. However, it is precisely there that Bourget[2] praises Maurras[3] as the one who represents “une méthode, celle de la science expérimentale applique à la politique” [a method that applies experimental science to politics]. In his Conservatism (Home University Library), Lord Hugh Cecil[4] presents this issue even more clearly, lucidly and precisely. He distinguishes conservatism from the conservative party by defining the former as a “tendence of the human mind” or “a mental disposition”. Let us add that Lord Cecil agrees with Mr Kosiakiewicz that this tendency of the human mind that determines conservatism consists in reliance on experience rather than rationalising.

The fact that Mr. Kosiakiewicz failed to separate the theoretical part of his work from the historical and descriptive one and that he omitted to say what constant and absolute features of conservatism are and which of its elements depend on the time and place will open his book to unfair accusations that it only serves to agitate readers (in the noble sense of the word). Moreover, this confusion of two points of view results in a one-sided perception of even the historical evidence that he provides. He obscures the doctrine by conflating it with history, and only sees history through the prism of his doctrine. And it is precisely the history of English conservatism that would illuminate the matter clearly enough that the author would leave out at least half of his definitions of conservatism.

Another remark invited by Mr Kosiakiewicz’s arguments concerns the claim that democratic slogans are completely bankrupt. I do not know whether this is the case, but I can say with some certainty that Mr Kosiakiewicz’s work has provided ample evidence that many democratic arrangements introduced under the banner of democracy have already gone bankrupt or are going bankrupt, but it has not provided any evidence that the slogans themselves are bankrupt. Here again, there is a need for clarity if there is to be harmony between the author and the reader.

Mankind, societies and nations do need ideals and ideas. They need them because ideals and ideas satisfy their longings and drive their actions. The problem lies in the method and the means used to achieve these ideals and to fulfil these ideas. Mr Kosiakiewicz would have satisfactorily discharged his task if instead of stating that the slogans of the great revolution have been ruined, he had demonstrated that the institutions, arrangements and laws established in their name have failed precisely because they were built, constructed or created not according to a positivist and anti-rationalist method, but rather according to a revolutionary, rationalist and aprioristic one. Such evidence would be the best and most convincing advertisement for conservatism, and a source of strength that will ensure its victory.

Mr Kosiakiewicz’s views make it appear, and completely unnecessarily so, as if conservatism were fighting the ideas that defined the 19th century and will continue to define history for a long time yet. This is not the case. The essence of conservatism is not in this fight, but in its way of doing things. Conservatism not only does not rule out ideas – first of all, it has a need for ideas itself. Mr Kosiakiewicz understands this perfectly and he himself proposes the idea of justice instead of the idea of equality, but he certainly also understands that justice looks different to a Christian soul than to a pagan one, and that his own idea cannot be said to be triumphant or moribund on a basis other than the living traces of its existence – these arrangements in which it is embodied at a certain time and in a certain place.

Thus the misunderstanding lies in the fact that accepting ideas and treating them as important is not the antithesis of conservatism. Conservative thinking must be driven by ideals and ideas because otherwise it would resemble drifting on an endless sea without a compass. The antithesis of conservatism as thinking and acting on the basis of experience and on tradition is thinking and acting that is detached from reality – rational and revolutionary thoughts and actions.

And what about these ideals that conservatism serves, these ideas that guide its steps? These are the nation, its existence, preservation and development. The nation, in turn, can be defined as a sum of its traditions, a living history, an eternal and constantly self-renewing focus of beliefs and preoccupations. This is yet another proof that in pursuing a national ideal, only a method, which is (as the author of the Conservative Idea states) positivist, anti-rationalist and experimental, can be successful. It depends on time and place whether it also needs to have the other characteristics listed by Mr Kosiakiewicz, but the answer to this question is not up to the “doctrine” that the author of the booklet wished to present but rather should be contained in a positive programme of a conservative party at a certain time and in a certain country.

[1] Wincenty Kosiakiewicz (1863–1918) – Polish conservative journalist, columnist and writer. He graduated from a railroad engineering school and worked as a supervisor of a railway tunnel construction site in Miechów. He resigned his railway job after his literary works, e.g. a short story collection entitled Druty telegraficzne [Telegraph Wires] (1889), proved successful. He earned his livelihood as a contributor to newspapers including, inter alia, Gazeta Polska [Polish Gazette], Tygodnik Ilustrowany [Illustrated Weekly], Kraj [Country], Kurier Codzienny [Daily Courier], Ateneum [Athenaeum], Biblioteka Warszawska [Warsaw Library] and Słowo [Word]. He was also an important contributor to Kurier Polski [Polish Courier]. He was a member of the Stronnictwo Polityki Realnej [Polish Realist Party]. He translated works by William James and was a proponent of neo-Scholastic thought. As a conservative thinker, he was primarily known for his series of books under the collective title Conservative Library (which included, among others, Idea konserwatywna. Próba doktryny. Wydanie nieostateczne [Conservative Idea. Attempt at a Doctrine. Unfinished Edition] of 1913).

[2] Paul Bourget (1852–1935) – French writer, author of psychological novels (including La Terre promise, 1895), nominated five times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, member of the French Academy.

[3] Charles Maurras (1868–1952) – French poet, writer and political thinker, leader of the royalist Action Française, creator of “integral nationalism”, sentenced to life imprisonment for his collaboration with the Vichy government (he was released from prison shortly before his death), which also cost him his place at the French Academy. He wrote, inter alia, Dictateur et roi (1899), Le Pape, la Guerre et la Paix (1917), Kiel et Tanger (1928), De Démos à Cesar (1930) and La contre-révolution spontanée (1943). In 1926, Pope Pius XI placed some of Maurras’s books on the list of prohibited books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum).

[4] Hugh Cecil (1869–1956) – British politician, member of the Conservative Party, member of the House of Commons, author of Conservatism (1912), which was translated into Polish by A. Starzeńska and published in the Conservative Library series.

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