Is Conservatism a Ruling Class Ideology?

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Essay: Is Conservatism a Ruling Class Ideology?


All of the documents [including this one]  in the Political Ideologies section of this website were written prior to the introduction in 2017 of the new Government and Politics Specifications Changes in the new Specifications and in particular the emphasis placed upon particular key thinkers within each ideology mean that the documents on this page do not currently adequately reflect the requirements of the new Specifications. Consequently my advice to students following the New Specification would be to rely upon advice from your teachers and recently published A Level texts on Political ideas rather than the documents posted here. I hope eventually to rewrite these documents to reflect the new Specifications but this is going to take a long time. 




Click here for a detailed Marxist analysis of the Conservative Party suggesting that Conservatism is indeed a ruling class Ideology. But do you agree or disagree and if so why?{Link added October 2011]


Click here for another article supporting the view that Conservatism is in many respects a ruling class ideology.[Once you reach the Radical Philosophy page click on the PDF document] Again do you agree or disagree and if so why?{Link added April 2012]



Despite some arguments that conservatism is not in any case an ideology most analysts of ideology would reject this view and claim that the key elements of conservative ideology include a pessimistic attitude to human nature, a belief in natural inequality, a belief in the inevitability and desirability of political and economic inequality combined with equality of opportunity and a belief in the efficiency of the market mechanism operating in a capitalist system in which individuals have a right to own their own property. There are some disputes within Conservatism in that, for example, traditional conservatives would argue that within a capitalist system traditional institutions should be respected and the state should play a significant role in the management of gradual social change, neo-liberals adopt a more radical and less traditional approach to social change in which the role of government should be more limited.


Conservatives therefore defend political and economic inequality but they do so on the grounds that such inequalities derive from inevitable natural inequalities and that they will result in greater individual freedom, meritocracy, economic efficiency and rising living standards for all citizens which means that conservatism cannot remotely be described as a ruling class ideology designed only to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. In any case they, along with evolutionary socialists and liberals argue that no such ruling class exists and that the distribution of power is more accurately to be analysed in terms of a spread of political power among a range of liberal democratic political institutions indirectly representing the interests of all citizens.


Contrastingly Marxists continue to argue that a ruling class exists and that conservative ideology amounts to nothing more than a combination of misleading myths designed to hide from exploited workers the real sources of their exploitation. For Marxists conservatism is indeed a ruling class ideology designed to entrench the economic and political power of the ruling class at the expense of the rest of society. [They would also describe the ideologies of liberalism and social democracy in rather similar terms.]


Conservatives argue that capitalist systems based upon private enterprise and the operation of the market mechanism are far more efficient than socialist /communist economic systems based upon state control and/or ownership of the means of production. The economic inefficiency of socialism/communism is indicated, according to conservatives, by the relative inefficiency of UK nationalised industries and, more fundamentally, by the relatively faster economic growth and higher living standards of advanced capitalist economies in comparison with socialist/communist societies such as the former USSR and its former Eastern European satellites.


Also while conservatives agree that in capitalist societies, incomes and wealth are unequally distributed they claim that these economic inequalities are natural and inevitable in free societies and also beneficial to all members of society, including the poorest. Conservatives believe that individuals differ inevitably in their talents and abilities as a result of their differential genetic endowments and that, in a free society unrestricted by excessive government intervention talented individuals will inevitably earn higher incomes and accumulate greater personal wealth.


Furthermore economic inequalities are beneficial for society as a whole because they provide necessary financial incentives for individuals to study, to work hard and to save and invest in productive, efficient private enterprise. Thereby economic growth increases and the benefits of economic growth will “trickle down” to the poor ensuring that they too will enjoy higher living standards than have been possible in socialist regimes based upon greater economic equality. In their support for economic inequality conservatives argue that they are working “with the grain of human nature” which is essentially materialistic and self-interested and that socialist strategies relying on greater economic equality and beliefs in the greater cooperativeness and community spirit are doomed inevitably to failure  because of the socialists’ unrealistic view of bhuman nature.


However despite this conservative support for inequality of outcome they emphasise that they strongly support equality of opportunity which promotes social justice by enabling individuals to make best use of their talents and promotes economic efficiency by ensuring that the most demanding occupations are filled by those with the suitable higher level talents and skills.


Although all conservatives are strong supporters of capitalistic private enterprise and of economic inequality of outcome they differ in their opinions as to the desirable extent of state intervention in society. Conservatives in the “One Nation” tradition from Disraeli in the mid-late C19th [Disraeli: Conservative PM 1868 and 1874-80] to the Right Progressives of the post 2nd World War period have argued that unrestricted capitalism based upon laissez faire could result in social and economic inequalities which generate unacceptably poor living standards for many working class people thereby undermining equality of opportunity and social justice. These conservatives have therefore supported greater state intervention and the introduction of a range of social reforms seeking to improve the economic and social conditions of the poor. However they also continued to support the continuing dominance of a dynamic capitalist economy involve the considerable economic inequalities of outcome which these conservatives still believed were essential for the maintenance and improvement of overall living standards including those of the poorest.


Contrastingly of course New Right conservatives, heavily influenced by doctrines of neo-liberalism [but also be neo-conservatism] have provided a stronger defence of the market mechanism and of economic inequality and been critical of the expansion of state activity supported by socialists but also to a considerable extent by One Nation conservatives. These New Right conservatives [including UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her supporters] have argued that it is the private sector which is the fundamental source of economic growth and that both Labour and One Nation Conservative governments undermined the efficiency of the capitalist economy.


Once in power from 1979 onwards Mrs Thatcher’s governments reduced rates of income taxation especially on the rich, using the usual arguments that they would generate greater incentives, faster economic growth and “trickle down” benefits for the poor [although at the same time indirect taxes were increased despite the fact that they are regressive in their incidence: i.e. paid disproportionately by those on low incomes.} Mrs Thatcher aimed also to reduce some social security benefits, most notably unemployment benefits claiming that these “excessive” benefits created a dependency culture and an underclass whose members’ own individual initiative had been sapped by their long –term dependence on easily available welfare benefits. Cutting such benefits would therefore gradually help the poor and enable Mrs Thatcher to reduce taxation still further.


Mrs Thatcher believed also that it was necessary to strengthen the private sector via the privatisation of previously nationalised industries thereby indicating that she rejected, rightly or wrongly, all of the arguments which socialists have traditionally used in support of public ownership. She further emphasised the conservative belief in private property by encouraging individuals to buy shares in privatised industries and by enabling council house tenants to purchase their council houses at reduced prices. Finally the trade unions, which according to socialists exist to protect workers living standards, found their powers much restricted by Mrs Thatcher on the grounds that their activities undermined the efficiency of the capitalist economy which alone can guarantee rising living standards for all.


In summary there are ideological differences within conservatism as to the desirable extent of state regulation of the capitalist system but all conservatives are essentially supporters of the capitalist system based upon private property, private enterprise, private profit and inequality of outcome combined with equality of opportunity. It may be argued that the traditional conservative respect for traditional values and institutions and gradual rather than radical social change serve in effect to safeguard the dominance of the capitalist system. Mrs Thatcher appeared to part company from traditional conservatives in her occasional criticisms of traditional institutions such as the Civil Service, the Church of England, the BBC and the universities and her radical approach to economics could hardly be described as “gradual” but there can be no doubting Mrs Thatcher’s overall endorsement of the capitalist system.


However as hopefully already explained conservatives claim that conservative government based upon these principles is in the interests of all citizens of society not in the interests of a ruling class which in any case does not exist according to conservatives.


Marxists are critical of the capitalist system: they argue that a ruling class does exist and that conservatism does indeed amount to a ruling class ideology designed only to secure the dominance of the ruling class and not to enhance the welfare of the rest of society. In the Marxist analysis of capitalism the Bourgeoisie [the owners of the means of production] are not only an economically dominant class but also a politically dominant ruling class as a result of their abilities to exercise indirect control over the institutions of the State. The dominance of the Bourgeoisie is sustained according to Marxists because, via the family, the education system, the mass media, the Church and the political system a ruling class ideology is disseminated which persuades the vast majority of workers, some of whom are very poor, to accept the continued existence of the very capitalist system which is the source of their exploitation. According to Marxists Conservatism is a ruling class ideology in this sense


In contrast to Conservatives Marxists argue that capitalism inevitably results in the exploitation of the proletariat, the existence of unjustifiable inequality of economic outcome, restricted equality of opportunity and the denial of individual liberty. Individuals are unable to live in accordance with the natural human tendency to cooperation and community spirit which has been warped by capitalist self-interest and competitiveness. Furthermore since capitalism is driven by the pursuit of private profit it results in the production of a range of unnecessary but expensive consumer goods while important human need are not being met.


Marxists also reject the conservative justification of economic inequality of outcome as natural, inevitable and desirable. Thus Marxists argue that individual talents and attitudes are determined primarily by social environmental factors rather than by natural genetic inheritance: according to Marxists we are naturally more equal than is suggested by conservatives. Neither are individuals naturally self –centred and materialistic and in socialist and communist societies they can gradually recover their natural human coooperativeness and community spirit so that large differences in income, [although necessary to some extent in transitional socialist societies where incomes will be distributed from each according to their ability to each according to their work… which would imply much greater economic equality than under capitalism] can be reduced gradually such that under communism incomes will be distributed from each according to their ability to each according to their need.


Marxists therefore see all variants of conservatism [as well as liberalism and democratic socialism/social democracy]  as different kinds of ruling class ideology designed in various ways to maintain the economic and political dominance of the ruling class at the expense of the rest of society’s members.


This essay contains no conclusion…it can be discussed in class!