Political labels get thrown around as though they mean something, but when pressed, it's not particularly easy to say what it means to be "liberal" or "conservative." Add to that "neoliberal," "neoconservative," "progressive," "socialist," "libertarian, "communist," "green," "leftist," "right-winger," and any number of other labels, and defining any of them seems pointless. Still, the political landscape is not without some noticeable groupings. In 1925, the sociologist Karl Mannheim published an essay entitled, "Conservative Thought" in which he argued that political groupings of this sort can be distinguished by specific "styles of thought" (though a style of thought will not be limited to politics). Styles of thought characterize more than just the subjective thinking of individuals. At the same time, they are not entirely objective. Individuals participate in a style of thought which will survive their coming and going, but it does not exist apart from the individuals.
To illustrate this theory, he examines conservatism during the first half of the 19th century in Germany. As he believes that styles of thought are highly nuanced, it is necessary to limit his claims to a small temporal and geographic range; however, he acknowledges that some similarities exist between temporally and spatially related populations. It may be more accurate to say that similarities exist between styles of thought in population that are in significant communication with each other or descend from the same ancestal style of thought.
In general, early 19th century German conservativism was a reaction to enlightenment rationalism, the central elements of which were constructed deductively from logical principles and embraced a theory of natural law in moral and political philosophy. This theory included the doctrine of popular sovereignty, the inalienable rights of man expressed in terms of negative freedom, and the justification of the state based on a social contract emerging from the state of nature. Enlightenment rationalism extolled constitutions and contracts and was prevalent among the new capitalist bourgeoisie and to some extent the proletariat. Above all, the enlightenment saw existing social arrangements as defective -- to be rectified by bringing about more just arrangements. This required enlightenment thinkers to step away from what is actual and image abstract, non-existing states of society that would be preferable to the present.
In contrast, German conservativism was firmly rooted in the actual world and saw the present as a culmination and continuation of the past which evolved as it did for good reason. Any change would need to be gradual. Conservativism employed a number of ideas or methods that are found in Hegel: dialectical, historicist logic; property, not as an alienable commodity, but as necessarily bound to its owner; and a positive concept of freedom. Persons where essentially unequal and their liberty was vested in their estate, not in themselves as individuals. In many respects, German conservativism romanticized medieval relations and employed the writers of the romantic movement to articulate their style of thinking.
Mannheim's effort to capture the essence of a socio-political movement in its style of thought is quite valuable. It goes beyond thinking of the social group as a collection of people adhering to a set of public policy positions, and provides some understanding of why those policy positions hang together. However, any effort to distill a complex socio-political phenomenon into a crisp, coherent theory is surely going to miss much of what is really happening in the world. Anomalies and counter-examples are sure to be readily found, but insofar as they can be incorporated into the social theory, one can conclude that a consistent socio-political current has been discovered at a specific time and place. Without knowing more about the place, period, and people that Mannheim studies, it is difficult to know how accurately he has captured the essentials of 19th century German conservatives, but no doubt he is not completely off the mark, and from my perspective, quite close to the mark.
Only a little of Mannheim's picture of 19th century German conservativism has survived to to become contemporary conservativism in Germany and elsewhere. Today, ethnic, religious, educational, and linguistic diversity, along with gender and sexual orientation differences complicate any analysis based on the early 19th century style of thought. One also wonders if Mannheim's analysis sufficiently includes class interests in understanding socio-political groupings. In many respects, contemporary conservativism is a descendant of the bourgeois capitalism of the enlightenment and only opportunistically inherits some of the attachment to the past that the older form of conservativism manifested. This suggests that was really motivates the style of thought that is conservativism, is a commitment to the interests of the dominant class, just as the 19th century's conservativism was a motivated by a commitment to the fading dominant class of the 18th century.