Why Edmund Burke would have taken issue with Jeff Hart

[Posted 1:30 PM by Roger Kimball]

I am pleased to see that my friend Jeff Hart has not misplaced his ability to spark debate. Like many others, I was surprised by some of Jeff’s comments, both in his Wall Street Journal piece several days ago and in his subsequent response to Fr. Gerald Murray’s reflections on his discussion of Roe v. Wade and abortion. (This later exchange is to be found here.)

I want to focus on what Jeff had to say about Edmund Burke, which I believe is quite mistaken. But first I’d like to say a word or two about "the woman’s movement" and its relation to abortion.

Jeff seems to believe that socially sanctioned abortion was the natural product of those developments that brought women into the workplace and the voting booth. I disagree. The "privatization" of abortion--that moral metamorphosis according to which abortion would henceforth be regarded not as an enormity but as liberating "choice"--was part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In this sense, I believe, the normalization of abortion represented not the fulfillment of the woman’s movement but its most terrible subversion. It seduced many women--many men, too--into believing that ending a life was a legitimate, often a "courageous" expression of personal freedom.

I was surprised--a little shocked, even--to find Jeff colluding with this idea by citing with apparent approval the Sixties euphemism according to which abortion is rebaptized as a woman’s taking control of her "reproductive capability." What abortion really means is annulling reproductive capability in the name of a spurious notion of personal autonomy. There is something Orwellian about the fact that the slogan "reproductive freedom" has turned out so often to mean "freedom from reproducing." Regarding the widespread acceptance of the practice of abortion, Jeff says: "That is the social actuality." The intended implication is, "That’s just the way things are and it is bootless to whine or argue about it. Buck up and get on with it."

But (here I echo Fr. Murray) surely Jeff would agree--I hope that he would agree--that an enormity does not cease to be an enormity simply because it is widely practiced. Granted, abortion is very widely practiced: most experts estimate that there are between 1.5 and 2 million abortions [Update: I’m reliably informed that’s declined to 1.2- 1.3 million] performed in the United States every year. Jeff stresses, with some exasperation, that he is offering a political analysis, not a blueprint for his ideal society. I do not see that that changes the fundamental issue, though. In a democratic polity, political power is (at least in theory) widely distributed. Political power is the power to determine to some extent the shape of society. It is not the power to define morality, which precedes and guides political power. If voters in some society voted to make murder legal, that would not mean that murder would henceforth be morally OK. The fact that Adolf Hitler was duly elected by democratic franchise in 1933 illustrates one of the limits of that emollient epithet, "democracy."

It is ironical that Jeff should appeal to Burke and to Russell Kirk, Burke’s great twentieth-century apologist, to bolster his case. Following Matthew Arnold, Jeff offers Burke’s 1791 "Thoughts on French Affairs" as a model for how an adult should approach political-social realities. Everyone knows that Burke eloquently warned against the cultural and moral devastations to be expected from the French Revolution in his Reflections. That was in 1790, well before the Terror, which didn’t get underway until 1792. But did Burke change his mind? Jeff thinks so:

He recognized now that the complex forces bringing about the French Revolution had accumulated to the point, had acquired such irresistible power, that the ancien r�gime was doomed.
This is partly right. Burke wasn’t trying to restore the ancien r�gime--that was never part of his program. He was trying to stop the cancer of the French Revolution. In "Thoughts on French Affairs," a private memorandum that Burke wrote as part of his campaign to motivate England to go to war against France, he noted that the French Revolution, unlike this or that local revolution whose effects did not resonate much beyond one country’s borders, was of "quite another character and description." The French Revolution, like the Reformation, was "a revolution of doctrine and theoretic dogma," which, "by its essence, could not be local or confined to the country in which it had its origin." What was at stake was nothing less than the future of European civilization and its moral, religious, social, and political institutions. "The message Burke sought to convey to Pitt" in that memorandum, Conor Cruise O’Brien notes in The Great Melody, his thematic biography of Burke, "was that the French Revolution was potentially as explosive an event, in social and political and military terms, as the Reformation had been."

Jeff quotes from the famous concluding paragraph of "Thoughts on French Affairs," "What is to be done?" Here is the whole thing.

It would be presumption in me to do more than to make a case. Many things occur. But as they, like all political measures, depend on dispositions, tempers, means, and external circumstances, for all their effect, not being well assured of these, I do not know how to let loose any speculations of mine on the subject. The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me. I have done with this subject, I believe, for ever. It has given me many anxious moments for the two last years. If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they, who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.
Like Matthew Arnold, Jeff presents this as, if not an about-face, at least a sort of resignation on the part of Burke: the accumulated realities of the situation, Jeff argues, suggest that we make our peace with the new order lest we appear "perverse and obstinate." Arnold (in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time") puts it thus:
That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: . . . still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so be it, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question. . .
But Arnold was wrong about Burke’s being "carried . . . to the opposite side of the question," just as he was wrong that "Thoughts on French Affairs" "were some of the last pages he ever wrote." Burke wrote "Thoughts" in 1791; he lived on until 1797, and the disaster of the French Revolution was never far from his thoughts--or his activities as a politician and rhetorician. "Burke never desisted," O’Brien noted, "from February 1790 on, from his attack on the French Revolution and its English sympathisers. But he was careful how he chose the ground of his attack. During the second half of 1791 and the first quarter of 1792 he fought the battle through correspondence, through conversation with powerful individuals, and above all through his great series of political tracts."

Russell Kirk makes a similar point in Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Burke had advocated peace with the American colonies, concessions to Ireland, more generous relations with India. "But from 1790 onward, he demanded war to the knife against the European revolutionaries, going beyond Pitt and his cabinet in his sternness." Again, Jeff is right that Burke did not advocate restoration of the old regime in "Thoughts." Nor did he in any of his later writings on the subject. As he said in a letter to Marie Antoinette, should the King accept the new constitution, they were sure to be "undone" forever.

And so it was. But that did not diminish by a whit Burke’s ferocity against the Revolution. Kirk has it exactly right, I believe, when he observes that Burke concluded "Thoughts" with a passage (quoted above) "which some scholars, very curiously, have interpreted as a mark of feebleness in Burke." To be sure, Burke was discouraged when he wrote "Thoughts." Like Churchill in the late 1930s, he was a near solitary voice crying in the wilderness. That concluding paragraph was not an instrument of surrender or capitulation; it was a calculated, if weary and (strange for Burke) rhetorically ambiguous, admission of the difficulties that lay ahead. As Kirk put it, what Burke was asking for in "Thoughts" was "an assault `with guns blazing’ on revolutionary France." This was his consistent policy, expressed in numerous speeches, letters, and manifestos. In "Remarks on the Policy of the Allies with Respect to France" (1793), for example, he admonishes his readers to bear constantly in mind "the nature and character of the enemy we have to contend with. The Jacobin Revolution is carried on by men of no rank, of no consideration, of wild, savage minds, full of levity, arrogance, and presumption, without morals, without probity, without prudence." England must, he says, "meet a vicious and distempered energy with a manly and rational vigor. As virtue is limited in its resources, we are doubly bound to use all that in the circle drawn about us by our morals we are able to command."

Jeff attempts to enlist Burke in a policy of resignation. But few figures in the annals of conservative thought are less likely accomplices in such an enterprise. Jeff seems to argue that because Roe v. Wade enjoys the sanction of popular sentiment (if it does enjoy that sanction, which some would dispute), it therefore ought to be accepted. "Facts of the social reality have changed a great deal," Jeff reminds us, "and actual people make actual decisions within the actuality they inhabit." Well, does the fact that a certain practice is popular legitimate it? Burke had it right, I think, when he warned in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) that "the votes of a majority of the people, whatever their infamous flatterers may teach in order to corrupt their minds, cannot alter the moral any more than they can alter the physical essence of things."