Conservatives are engaged in deep introspection these days. As they reconsider their direction, they would do well to look back to the formative period of their movement. They may find something there of great value—something many conservatives think their movement embraced, but in truth rejected.

By 1952, liberal candidates had not only captured the last five Democratic presidential nominations but the past five Republican nominations as well. Most observers considered conservatism dead—a philosophy unsuited for modern times. A small number of intellectuals disagreed. They believed that—if redefined—conservatism might be resuscitated. But they passionately disagreed about how it should be redefined.

One group wanted to follow the teachings of the great 18th-century English statesman Edmund Burke. Russell Kirk was the most prominent of this group. In 1953, Kirk—a young assistant professor of history at Michigan State—turned his doctoral dissertation into a book. “Burke’s is the true school of conservative principle,” Kirk argued, and he described Burke’s philosophy so appealingly that Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind, became wildly successful. Other Burkeans included Clinton Rossiter, a political scientist at Cornell; Robert Nisbet, a sociologist at Berkeley; and Peter Viereck, an historian at Mount Holyoke College. These men, though academics, were gifted writers, and each produced a popular book advocating the Burkean way.

What is the Burkean way? Those who have read only Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France—his brilliant jeremiad against the convulsive overthrow of the French monarchy—often think of Burke as an implacable defender of institutions and tradition. But that can be misleading. Burke was, in fact, a reformer, though of a particular kind. He believed that society was a complex organism that evolved to its present condition for reasons that were not always evident. Burke believed that changes are often desirable—and a constant process of improvement essential—but those changes should be made carefully, with respect for tradition and a concern for unintended consequences. “We must all obey the great law of change,” he wrote. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.”

Burke’s new disciples agreed. “Conservatism,” Russell Kirk wrote, “never is more admirable than when it accepts change that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of the general condition; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish that principle.”

At the most fundamental level, Burke was a communitarian. It is institutions—governmental, professional, religious, educational, and otherwise—that compose the fabric of society. Each of these institutions has classes of people who devote their careers to preserving and improving them: jurists serve the law, scholars their disciplines and universities, clerics their church, and so on. All citizens, in fact, are engaged in a sacred intergenerational compact. “Society,” Burke said, “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

For the Burkeans of 1950s, emphasis on community was at the heart of a properly conceived conservatism. Kirk wrote: “True conservatism … rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.” Robert Nisbet titled his book The Quest for Community.

Though it may surprise people who have been taught that Edmund Burke is the father of modern conservatism, the Burkeans were, in fact, defeated by a rival group with a nearly diametrically opposed view. The leader of that group was William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review. When, in 1952, Buckley first articulated his philosophy in God and Man at Yale, he called it “individualism,” though the nearly absolute laissez-faire philosophy he advocated became better known as libertarianism.

How did Buckley prevail? He deftly co-opted Kirk by inviting him to write a regular column for National Review, something Kirk could not afford not to do after imprudently giving up his faculty position. Kirk abhorred the libertarian direction in which Buckley and colleagues were taking conservatism. Kirk later denounced libertarianism for revering “self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment” rather than Burke’s “community of souls.” He complained that libertarians take “the state for the great oppressor” although Burke taught that government “is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” Yet for the quarter-century that he wrote for the magazine, Kirk held his tongue.

March/April 2013For their own reasons, the other three Burkeans also left the field of battle. Paradoxically, the Burkeans never collaborated. These communitarians acted—and were defeated—as individuals while the individualist Buckley built a community of thinkers and readers through his magazine.

Maybe Buckley’s was the necessary path in the 1950s. Conservatism then needed to differentiate itself starkly from the prevailing liberalism. Burkeanism would have made that difficult because, as Kirk often observed, Burke was both a conservative and a liberal. But if conservatives today are looking for wisdom—and maybe even a less truculent partisanship—they might consider the path not taken.

Carl T. Bogus, who considers himself a liberal Burkean, is a professor of law at Roger Williams University and author of Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism.