Sunday, 31 July 2011

Review of "Reflections on the Revolution in France" by Edmund Burke

This is perhaps the seminal text of traditional British conservatism.  First published in 1790, it is the best known attack in the English language on the French Revolution and the principles that motivated it.


Burke was writing early on in the revolutionary period, before the worst excesses had yet come to pass.  The reign of terror lay several years in the future, and Napoleon Bonaparte was still an obscure artillery officer in Corsica.  Nevertheless, Burke was horrified by what had happened on the other side of the Channel:
All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about, in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous, in the most ridiculous modes, and apparently by the most contemptible instruments.  Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.  In viewing this monstrous tragicomic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed and sometimes mix with each other in the mind: alternate contempt and indignation, alternate laughter and tears, alternate scorn and horror.
The old French monarchy and aristocracy had had their faults, Burke conceded, but they really hadn't been so bad, and carrying out a revolution against them had been a terrible mistake.  As it was, the "degraded king" had been stripped of real power and replaced with "a despotic democracy", and the people's representatives in the National Assembly - which had no Senate to balance it - were nothing more than a bunch of country lawyers and members of the lower clergy.

As well as being barbarous and destructive, Burke argued, the revolution had been pointless and counter-productive.  The revolutionaries had risen up against a relatively liberal king, and their actions would simply result in other kings becoming paranoid and tyrannical.  Louis XVI's regime had been reforming - if anything, it had been doing so too hastily - and the French constitution had been evolving in the direction of the British constitution.

Burke intended this as a compliment.  He was very keen indeed on the British constitution.  His own favourite revolution was Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688, which had been undertaken "to preserve our ancient, indisputable laws and liberties and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty".  He revered the 1689 Bill of Rights and the great English tradition of Magna Carta, Coke and Blackstone.  He admired "the firm but cautious and deliberate spirit" of the British system of government, and "the fixed form of a constitution whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience and an increasing public strength and national prosperity".  True, the unreformed House of Commons was elected on an eccentric and somewhat corrupt basis.  But that didn't matter: the system worked quite well in practice.  Anyway, if one started questioning the legitimacy of the Commons, where would it end?  With the abolition of the Lords?  Of the monarchy?

Burke favoured neither democracy nor absolute monarchy.  Rather, he advocated the British model of "a monarchy directed by laws, controlled and balanced by the great hereditary wealth and hereditary dignity of a nation, and both again controlled by a judicious check from the reason and feeling of the people at large acting by a suitable and permanent organ".  He subscribed to the view that the British constitution was a balanced combination of rule by the king, the nobility and the common people: "We are resolved to keep... an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater."

Burke thought that democracy would on occasion be an appropriate form of government, but feared the consequences of a tyranny of the majority.  He dismissed the liberal idea that the British people had the right to choose their rulers and to dismiss them for misconduct.  On the contrary, he affirmed, the King of Great Britain reigned not because he had been elected to his position but because he had inherited the throne in accordance with the law.  True, James II had been deposed in 1688, but that had been a exception to the general rule, a reluctant necessity occasioned by that monarch's extraordinary crimes.  Burke was also relaxed about social inequality, and did not favour too high a degree of meritocracy.  It was quite fitting that the House of Lords - and, in practice, the House of Commons as well - should be composed of the landed gentry.  "Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth is neither unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic."  After all, the mass of the people did not necessarily know what was good for them.


Burke laments not only the passing of the old French monarchy, but also more generally the age of romance, honour and chivalry, which was being replaced by the "barbarous philosophy" of rationalism:
[The age] of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.  Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.  The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone!...  All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.  All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.  All the super-added ideas... which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature... are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Stop the world, I want to get off....  The problem, according to Burke, was that the bloodless reason of the Enlightenment was unequal to the task of keeping society together.  The naive endeavours of the liberal reformers would bring not freedom and justice but only tyranny.

It was not that Burke was a friend of monarchic absolutism or an enemy of freedom.  He liked freedom, or, at any rate, a "rational and manly freedom".  He described himself as "one almost the whole of whose public exertion has been a struggle for the liberty of others".  However, liberty could not be regarded as a sole and absolute good: it had to be combined with public order, effective governance, morality, respect for property, and "civil and social manners". He wrote: "I shall always... consider that liberty as very equivocal in her appearance which has not wisdom and justice for her companions and does not lead prosperity and plenty in her train."

Burke's philosophy of the state was predictably romantic.  For liberals, the state was a device for protecting and enforcing individual rights.  For Burke, it was an organic entity ordained by God:
It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it 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 an Irishman, Burke had a quintessentially British pragmatism, and an impatience with idealistic projects to remake humanity.  It is for this element of his political thought that he tends to be remembered today.  He rejected what he saw as the French revolutionaries' naive liberal blueprint.  Their error had been "to despise the ancient, permanent sense of mankind and to set up a scheme of society on new principles".  He asked:
What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.
The problem with Enlightenment liberals, he said, was that they "are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature".

Burke was quite a different sort of conservative from the 'clerical philosophers' of the reactionary school like our old friend Joseph de Maistre (though de Maistre read and admired the Reflections).  Whereas de Maistre was preoccupied with absolute power as a bulwark against primaeval anarchy, Burke had a more level-headed and British concern with order, stability and tradition.  When he writes of "those exploded fanatics of slavery.... [those] old fanatics of single arbitrary power dogmatised as if hereditary royalty was the only lawful government in the world", it is difficult not to apply his words to de Maistre and his legitimist friends.  Burke was, after all, a Whig rather than a Tory.

Nor, in the final analysis, was Burke a diehard anti-reformer.  He famously wrote that "[a] state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation".  He may have been a conservative, but he recognised the "two principles of conservation and correction" - "in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete".  His ideal politician was a cautious reformer rather than a well-meaning hothead:
A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.
All the same, the striking fact is that Burke was on the wrong side of history.  He was right about the violence and instability at the heart of the French Revolution, but his own precious British constitution was looking a bit peaky and would be fundamentally reformed over the coming century.  In that spirit, I will give the last word on Burke to William Ewart Gladstone, in his speech on the 1866 Reform Bill:
My right hon. Friend the Member for Calne has prophesied to us, in the most emphatic terms, the ruin of the British Constitution. His prophecies were beautiful so far as his masterly use of the English language is concerned. But many prophecies quite as good may be found in the pages of Mr. Burke and Mr. Canning, and other almost equally distinguished men. What has been the fate of those prophecies? What use do they now serve? They form admirable material of declamations for schoolboys, and capital exercises to be translated into Greek.