Politics today, though it must deal with the most serious matters, is a great deal lacking in seriousness. This is due partly to a lack of thoughtfulness among politicians: to their inability, or refusal, to appreciate the questions of principle that are always involved, however unacknowledged, in political action. We therefore need a strong (in Coleridge’s phrase) clerisy. But our intellectuals, by and large, are not up to the task. Steeped in a utopianism whose origins lie far back in religious dissent, they exhibit an ignorant political romanticism that finds innocence abroad and evil-doing at home. Today’s left-wing intellectuals, and the troops of the enlightened who trail after them in public and private life, are not moved by ordinary emotions of fear and anger when their country comes under deadly terrorist attack—they are full of understanding. Their moral vainglory would cut the throat of liberty once again, threatening the survival of culture, so as to satisfy the sense of their own virtuousness. How well Edmund Burke understood this, two centuries ago.
Politics today, though it must deal with the most serious matters, is a great deal lacking in seriousness.
"Irish adventurer" is what Burke’s detractors called him, with some truth but more malice. He had come from Dublin to London in 1750 at the age of twenty-one to acquire a law degree and then return home. Instead, giving up the law, he stayed on to make his way as a writer. To scribble for a living was to inhabit the lower regions of respectability. Also there were his Roman Catholic mother, sister, and less close kin. (He himself, following his father, adhered to the Established Church—Anglican—of Ireland.) Far from repudiating these questionable connections, Burke only added to them by marrying the Irish Catholic Jane Nugent.
He wrote A Vindication of Natural Morality and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in the late 1750s. He undertook to write a yearly chronicle of events, the Annual Register, his qualification being that he knew so much. Burke always seemed to know more than anybody else about almost any subject and early on attracted notice by his literary endeavors. (He was much admired by his deep-dyed Tory friend Samuel Johnson.) His life took a decisive turn in 1765 when he became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, a high-minded leader of the Whig party. At the end of the year he became a member of Parliament for a pocket borough and was much applauded for his first speeches attacking the vacillating British policies on the American colonies.
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Irish-born Burke soon established himself as an eloquent champion of the Whig cause—the Anglican cause which had imported a foreign king and army into England in 1688 to chase the absolutist Roman Catholic James II from the throne. The Glorious Revolution was the work of Whig noblemen who violated legitimacy so as to have a Protestant monarch who would be in sympathy with the feelings of the people (“people” meaning the small group of the propertied consisting first of all of the great landowning peers, then county gentry, city merchants, and a few others). Because they fought better for James in Ireland than he had fought for himself in England, the Irish Catholics were legally discriminated against. This history (still very present) made for some inner strain in Burke. He never forgot—nor was he allowed to forget—his origins. It was not the only self-division that was to strain his spirit.
Chance may have steered Burke into the Rockingham camp; ambition and conviction kept him there. He was not a Whig by chance. With his Whiggism went an admiration for the Whig aristocratic ideal, with whose embodiments he now became closely engaged. It doesn’t seem, however, that he was ever an intimate of those indolent, fox-hunting, many-acred lords; their pleasures, their lives were not his. He was surely dazzled by the grandeur of the Whig magnates—for a while. But clarity, not disabusement, followed familiarity. It is not surprising that the aesthetician of the beautiful and the sublime should have responded to the magnificence of the English lords.
Burke’s commoner’s admiration for the Whig grandees deepened into a profound political sentiment. He had “long considered men of honor and noble reputation,” David Bromwich writes in the introduction to his fine anthology of Burke’s speeches and letters (Yale, 2000), “as the steadiest resource of liberty, whether the threat to liberty came from the king or from the people. By their habit of reflecting on themselves in a line of succession, and the wish to deserve the pride that belongs to the character of their families, such persons are to be relied on more than any others for public spirit and self-sacrifice.”
In a 1771 letter to the Duke of Richmond, Burke wrote that “persons in your station of life ought to have long views. You people of great families and hereditary trusts and fortunes are not like such as I am … we are but annual plants that perish with our season and leave no sort of trace behind. You, if you are what you ought to be, are the great oaks that shade a country and perpetuate your benefits from generation to generation.” There was some ambiguity, however, in his denominating “you people of great families” as great oaks. Oaklike stability might also be called oaklike stolidity. In the same letter he had written that “men of high birth and great property are rarely as enterprising as others”—as enterprising, for example, as the Jacobins in France, he was to say many years later, as enterprising as Burke himself, you think (and he thought).
Burke in his political career until the 1780s was a Whig reformer of the English constitutional monarchy, all his concern being for the constitution and all his criticism being directed at the monarchy. However radical his criticism, he had no wish to alter the foundations of the existing nobiliary-monarchical system, which he accepted without question when young and hotly defended when old. Yet where was his own place in it? The brilliant protégé of a great lord thanks to his talents, he had a position, not a place. Early in his political life he bought an estate he couldn’t afford and looked to become a titled lord, the Earl of Beaconsfield. “Burke remained caught,” writes J. D. C. Clark in the introduction to his splendid edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, “in the tension between the patrician ethic he sought to uphold and the claims of talent, which were his title to assimilation into the aristocracy.”
Burke scolded the peerage in order to bring them up to the measure of their station.
When his much-loved only son died, that long-held ambition died, too. That, and his own approaching death, freed him to assert with less constraint the pride he took in the merit his abilities had earned him. In Letter to a Noble Lord (1796), Burke replied with a crushing force to two whippersnapper peers, obscenely rich enthusiasts of the philosophes and the French Revolution, who had attacked him for accepting a pension from the crown. He set his lifetime of accomplishments against the nothing of their juvenile efforts, his defense of their inherited rank and acres against their coquetting with a power whose universal ambition, if it were able to reach across the water, would have swept away all that they were and owned with a grin. Burke’s prose—sober-paced, weighty, powerful to the point of being overbearing—has always close behind its argumentation a reserve of poetic energy which now gleams, now flashes, and now, as in this letter, explodes in a fireworks of dazzling metaphors, a storm of epical-satirical language that tosses around the duke and earl, great galleons of the nobility, like little cockboats.
When Burke fell out of favor in post-Victorian times, the charge of adventurism turned into the blunter accusation of servility. He wore, an important historian wrote, the “livery” of his noble friends. After World War II the sneer was still being repeated, as I found in an essay by the distinguished historian of the eighteenth-century, the late J. H. Plumb. Burke, said Plumb, was “the servant philosopher of the Rockingham Whigs.” Was Aristotle the servant schoolmaster of Alexander the Great? I suppose he was. To be the political brains of a lord who owned immense tracts of land and who inherited with them without effort great political power according to the hereditary system of old England, when all you yourself owned was your talents, was, of course, to “serve” him. Without patronage, politics was closed to the likes of Burke. He was deferential to aristocratic rank, yes. Deference, however, wasn’t slavishness; it belonged to the general, largely unquestioned, acknowledgment of rank in pre-modern Britain. It allowed for some mutuality of respect. And it entailed no suspension of his critical faculties.
For Burke, democracy was the tyranny of the many-headed, as in the classical tradition.
Burke scolded the peerage in order to bring them up to the measure of their station. He could become quite impatient with his ducal oaks for being planted too, too solidly. During the American crisis he wrote to Rockingham, saying that “the question, then, is whether your Lordship chooses to lead or to be led, to lay down proper ground for yourself, or stand on the ground which will be prepared for you.” In his brilliant Thoughts on the Present Discontents, he wrote, as part of his attack on the “King’s men,” that
The virtue, spirit, and essence of a House of Commons consists in its being the express image of the feelings of the nation. It was not instituted to be a control upon the people, as of late it has been taught… . It was designed as a control for the people [which was not a control by the people].
A sardonic modern knowingness, confident of its better scholarship and better sentiments, dismissed as a myth the once orthodox tradition, which Burke had so large a hand in defining, of Whiggism as the great bulwark of English constitutional liberties. It is now held that what the Whig landed oligarchy defended was its own class privileges. But the idea of class, and of class differences as constituting a fundamental struggle, is a modern one and did not exist yet. The ascendancy of the British aristocracy was a given: thus was the world constituted. Their privileges, which were also called liberties, belonged to them by prescriptive right, the right conferred by ancient custom. The antiquity of customs was a sign of their enduring wisdom, not (as with us) of their superannuation. Upon the liberties of the aristocracy rested its independence, out of which grew a great tradition of public service. And by their service the constitutional powers of Parliament in an age of absolutizing monarchies were preserved and maintained for the nation. “Nation,” the British nation, meant themselves, to be sure, but we must allow another time to have been itself and not scold it for stupidly (or wickedly) failing to be us. Across the Channel, the same class had been reduced by Louis XIV to the privileged impotence of Versailles courtiers.
Burke was a reformer but opposed “innovation,” or drastic (revolutionary) change. He was one with the governing classes of his time in his opposition to democracy. Today we equate democracy and liberty. In fact, it’s a loose equation; the two parted company often enough in the twentieth century. For Burke, democracy was the tyranny of the many-headed, as in the classical tradition. It might be respectable under certain conditions—he would “reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principle”—but to him it smelt of, it was, the mob. His was one of the great voices of political liberty, and he found it upheld by ancient common-law traditions and the patriciate (when it was virtuous) of the hereditarian England to which he had come and lent his genius.
The enfranchisement of the entire people, the idea of which Burke so abhorred, was accomplished as a purely British matter, in the spirit of Burke.
What, Burke asked, was the English constitution but the ancient customs, legislated into law, of the English people? Its “sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind.” Burke’s term for such authority, prescription, is a legal, not an anthropological, biological, mystical, or any other kind of term. British experience, British history, the community of Britons had created the British body politic without calculation and without system by following “nature, which is wisdom without reflection and above it.” Burke despised a speculative, abstract politics; retorting in the Reflections to the metaphysical schemers of revolution, English and French, he upheld the spontaneous, improvisatory way the British did things. His great follower in this was the patriot socialist George Orwell. (I have never seen a reference to Burke in Orwell. Are there any?) Writing about the English in 1940 (under Nazi bombs) Orwell said “they have a horror of abstract thought… . But they have a certain power of acting without thought.” Imagination, feeling, heart play their part in improvisation; revolutionary rationalism excludes them. “In England,” Burke wrote, “we have not yet been completely [dis]embowelled of our natural entrails, we still feel … those inbred sentiments which are … the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals.” Orwell one hundred and fifty years later preferred his “God-save-the-King” upbringing to being “like left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.”
The British people, Burke wrote, didn’t follow ideas. By following nature in its
changeable constancy … of decay, fall, renovation, and progression … in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy.
His traditionalism linked the present to the past, but also, just as importantly, to the future. It was rational, not sentimental.
Burke’s argument that time was of the essence in political life, not as swift, decisive action but as slow, accumulated “habitudes,” would prove as true for democratic as for aristocratic rule. In an age of revolution, custom was the enemy blocking the way to change. Yet in Britain’s case it provided a link to the future as much as it blocked the way to it. Prescription of government, Burke said, is not
formed upon blind unmeaning prejudices—for man is a most unwise, and most wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it as a species it almost always acts right.
The English species (for he didn’t mean the human) was indeed given time; it surely did not seize it. Over the nineteenth century and a good part of the twentieth, with much dissension, after peaceful mass meetings of the people and wild riots, after massacres by the authorities and concessions grudgingly allowed, after the formation of distinct (but not so very distinct) parties, slowly and reluctantly, by a second and third Reform Bill after the first, a Parliament still run by aristocrats conceded political rights to the (respectful, not revolutionary) manufacturing and business classes of the midlands and the north, to the less propertied, and to those without property, until an entire people possessed them. But “rights” isn’t the right word if it suggests the Rights of Man. It was more a case of Parliament extending the privileges of the few to the many; step by step it privileged the entire British people.
The egalitarian ideas of the French Revolution had spread in Britain during its first years, but then were checked by stiff repression. They never penetrated deeply and they never would. (Egalitarianism, but not the angry French kind, came late to Britain, during World War II.) Having established parliamentary rule on firm foundations at the end of the seventeenth century, the English aristocracy submitted to that rule when compelled to share its power and when ultimately forced to give it up entirely. The Duke of Wellington, after the passage of the 1832 Reform Bill, foresaw the end of “reverence for old authorities, even for the House of Commons, which will only change to become worse, will render government by royal authority impracticable… . [T]he result will be that at last we shall have a revolution gradually accomplished by due form of law!” (his emphasis). And so it happened.
The enfranchisement of the entire people, the idea of which Burke so abhorred, was accomplished as a purely British matter, in the spirit of Burke. “[I]t has been the uniform policy of our constitution,” he famously wrote in the Reflections, “to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.” Such a purely British liberty, expressly dissociated from any sublime conception uniting the British people with all humanity, signalled a new sense of separation from the Continent. A gentlemanly England had been a part of the Europe of gentlemen. When the French Revolution made war on gentlemen, the English withdrew into insularity. This had its bad consequences. Its good consequence was that it saved them from being drawn too deeply into the hubbub and violence of European revolution and reaction. It allowed them to be a bulwark of liberty for the two centuries during which the guillotine, the gallows, and the death camp seized the rule successively at critical times in Europe.
The great democratic transformation of Britain being gradually accomplished, the hitherto excluded were now able to make their voices heard; life became more just. But admirable elements were lost, too, never to be recovered. Admirable, irrecoverable—such was “the age of high politics” as Bromwich calls it, that Burke “helped to invent,” and represented. “High politics” is a good phrase, not least because it suggests a connection with high culture. The politicians of Britain in the eighteenth century (and in the nineteenth, but not in the twentieth) were cultivated men sharing, among many things, the same classical education. Gibbon illustrated this atmosphere in a report, so amusing, of a parliamentary exchange:
Mr. Burke, in the course of some very severe animadversions which he made on Lord North for want of due economy in his management of the public purse, introduced the well-known aphorism, Magnum vectigal est parsimonia, but was guilty of a false quantity by saying vectigal. Lord North, while this phillipic went on, had been half asleep, and sat heaving backwards and forwards like a great turtle; but the sound of a false quantity instantly aroused him and, opening his eyes, he exclaimed in a very marked and distinct manner, “vectigal.” “I thank the noble Lord,” said Burke, with happy adroitness, “for the correction, the more particularly as it affords me the opportunity of repeating a maxim which he greatly needs to have reiterated upon him.” He then thun- dered out “magnum vectigal est parsimonia.” (Cicero: Thrift is a large income.)
In such an atmosphere of intimacy and common culture, bombast, vanity, sophistry, hypocrisy, and falsehood were no less active than usual, but perhaps it was harder to outface scrutiny.
Politics, a free politics, for Burke was the contest of principled parties for power. Men came together who had common interests but also common convictions about the common good. A “generous contention for power” was easily distinguished from “the mean and interested struggle” of factions. Politics today by comparison is shockingly low in the mostly lip-service it pays to the common good. Just as shocking is its economization. Today politicians offer themselves as agents of economic interests; political assemblies turn into marketplaces, the body politic into a body economic. A society with an enervated political and all-absorbing economic life is threatened by triviality, a life of jobs and cars, which threatens worse things in turn.
Burke’s chief concerns before 1789 were Ireland, America, and India. His own efforts on behalf of Catholic Ireland he reckoned of small account in the end. His second great concern, the American colonies, engaged his energies from his first day as an MP. It was a subject about which he came to know a great deal and the English knew little and cared less, except as the colonies were a source of wealth and pride of empire. British policy vacillated between rigor and retreat. Burke urged a policy of generosity.
Burke waged a fourteen years’ campaign to expose the crimes of the East India Company and to impeach its governor general. But again he failed.
I first read his speech On Conciliation with the Colonies in a Brooklyn high school, Erasmus Hall, before World War II, when it was still a required text. I remembered only one detail from it: the epic passage about the American whaling ships running (the passage) like a great wave from the mountains of ice and frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay and Davis’s Straits all the way down to Falkland Island and the frigid Antipodes, from the whalers’ striking the harpoon on the coast of Africa to running the longitude in pursuit of the gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. I was an avid Melville reader then, so the passage stayed with me; the words were grand and made me feel American pride. I did not have the understanding to remember the passage’s lovely peroration, with its reverence for the free, unconstrained development of the “happy form” of colonial society.
[W]hen I know that the colonies in general owe little or nothing to any care of ours, and that they are not squeezed into this happy form by the constraints of a watchful and suspicious government, but that through a wise and salutary neglect, a generous nature has been suffered to take her own way to perfection… . I feel all the pride of power sink, and all the presumption in the wisdom of human contrivance melt, and die away within me. My rigour relents. I pardon something to the spirit of Liberty.
Do not, he urged the British, insist on your abstract rights of sovereignty. “The question with me is, not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy.” But the British insisted on their sovereign rights.
With the American colonies it had been possible to imagine the empire as a body held together by the noble bond of liberty. That was not possible in India’s case. Burke’s doubt of the imperial idea turned into a ferocious indignation. He waged a fourteen years’ campaign to expose the crimes of the East India Company and to impeach its governor general. But again he failed.
Burke grew old and tired, embittered by what he felt was “his perpetual failure,” quoting Ovid: “Shame when an old man is a soldier.” Perhaps he would retire. And then came 1789. Into battle he rushed again with his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He had stood in the past against monarchical power and the oppression of subject peoples. A man of notable humanity, in lesser matters as in great, he had stood for kinder treatments and gentler punishments. Now he had taken his stand on the other side, on the side of kings and old oppression—or so it appeared in 1790 to his shocked friend, the Whig leader Charles James Fox, to the Whig party, to the reformers, and to his correspondent and friend of sorts, the radical Tom Paine. He was a Whig; he belonged to the party of the English Revolution; how could he oppose the French one?
Burke’s answer was, he had defended liberty against the monarchical threat, now he was defending it against the “democratist” one (“democratist” meaning the direct democracy of the Paris sans-culottes). At the end of the Reflections he wrote that it was no intention of his “to belie the tenour of his life”; as in a vessel overloaded on one side, he had shifted the “small weight of his reasons” to the other side so as “to preserve the equipoise.” But to his former allies he hadn’t preserved the balance of the Whig vessel; he had jumped ship and deserted to the enemy.
Burke was a staunch upholder of Whiggism first and last, the founding principle of which was the rejection of absolutism. He would advocate a war against Jacobinism with furious insistence but never a Restoration. Yet his Whiggism had changed. He had come to fear for the survival of the England that he knew, for England’s ancien régime as Professor Clark calls it. The Reflections, as much about England as France, was a retort to a November 1789 sermon by a “political theologian and theological politician,” Dr. Richard Price, a dissenting divine who interpreted the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in a radical democratic sense and hailed the French Revolution as a still more glorious triumph signalling the downfall of tyranny and priestcraft and a utopian future of benevolence and world citizenship. A year later Dr. Price proposed a toast: “The Parliament of Britain—May it become a NATIONAL ASSEMBLY.” (If there is such a thing as a historical shudder, this gives you it.) “Burke’s aim until the 1780s,” writes Clark, “was to win power within the old order of society by condemning its vices and championing its virtues.” But then becoming alarmed at the union of religious and political heterodoxy, his aim changed “in the 1790s [to one of] defend[ing] the old order as such, virtues and vices together.”
Events justified Burke against his critics about the direction in which the French Revolution would go. It ushered in no ideal state, no brave new world, no constitution- al monarchy; on the contrary, it brought about a euphoric-anarchic convulsion of street, assembly, and countryside. The first government it achieved was the Jacobin dictatorship of terror and war in 1793–94. Fox clung for years to the notion that 1789 was the French 1688, until he could no more. After which, it was reported, he said that Burke was right after all, he was often right, “only he was right too soon.” An anticipation of “premature anti-communism”!
Burke was right after all, he was politically right. Liberty, however, which is first of all a political thing, came in time to be less regarded. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, representative government, with its noisy contentions of political parties, fell into contempt, which it partly earned by scandal and corruption. The liberal democratic social order was condemned as a whole, from the left and from the right. To understand this, we need to go back to Rousseau, who was among the first to envisage and judge society as a whole. His influence, extraordinary in the eighteenth century, is by no means dead. One Rousseauvian influence is stronger than ever. Ernst Cassirer expressed succinctly what it is: “Rousseau created a new responsibility for evil; neither God nor man but human society.” There was a personal motive involved in this new accounting for evil: Rousseau’s desire to shift from himself the responsibility for his long succession of contemptible acts. They did not touch his inner being, his soul, he said in the Confessions; his virtue kept its purity. If he wasn’t responsible for his own actions, who was? Society, Rousseau declared, meaning the rich and powerful. In finding society guilty, “poor Jean-Jacques,” as he called himself—Tartuffe as François Mauriac called him—attempted to get himself off the hook. In extending this principle to a general truth, he got us all off the hook.
To recognize that society bears a heavy responsibility for the evil in the world was indeed to discover a great truth, a sociological truth. But this scientific truth was distorted significantly to make the modern claim of universal innocence. As Joseph K. tells the priest in The Trial: “Wie kann denn ein Mensch überhaupt schuldig sein?” (How can a man—any man—be called guilty?) Rousseau argued that what made men bad were the institutions of inequality, by which society is structured in depth.
It seemed to follow that politics was a superficial agitation of the surface, while the real movement of things took place down below, in the social depths. The bright light of uncovered social truth, shining upwards, exposed the political lie. Britain’s celebrated liberty, what was it but the rule of an oligarchy? What was the democratic freedom of America but the freedom of cotton-growers to enslave blacks, of capitalists to enslave workers? The Marx of the British Library and Capital also dismissed political action as ineffectual. What would bring capitalist society down were its internal contradictions—it would fall not by the action of parties (whose actions are determined by individuals) but of impersonal forces. But since it is only in the political that one finds liberty, the devaluation of politics was the devaluation of liberty. Movements—which is to say organized mobs—supplanted or challenged political parties in much of Europe and elsewhere, proclaiming one or another kind of social justice. Social equality isn’t liberty. It can be obtained without liberty. Burke, as an undistracted political man, never lost sight of the interest of liberty, whether in America, India, Ireland, or revolutionary France.
In 1788 he had hoped to see France reform herself into a society enjoying constitutional liberties under a constitutional king. What he saw in 1789 was a France turned completely upside down, a democratic ideology proclaimed (not a democratic system established) and equality achieved in the street in the form of what Simon Schama calls “the liberation of disrespect.” Liberty, whose agency was the Revolution’s representative assemblies, was weak from the start, menaced by the sans-culotte mob. They embodied, they were sure, Rousseau’s general will, that anticipation of totalitarianism. Their interest was socio-economic (bread, price controls, and poor relief), not political, in equality of sacrifice, not in liberty. Suspicious of middle-class representatives, they sat in at the Constitutional Assembly’s sessions with Marat’s L’Ami du peuple sticking out of their pockets, shouting and cursing. Sometimes they climbed down from the gallery and sat among the representatives. The deputies, Burke wrote,
act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience … amidst the tumultuous cries of a mixed mob … who … direct, control, applaud, explode [hoot] them; and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them.
Such an overthrow of absolutism inspired no enthusiasm in Burke. He saw clearly what a century-and-a-half of democratic and radical opinion ignored or excused: that the Revolution would allow no room for disagreement, much less opposition. “The dictators in Paris,” as he called them, “proceed in argument as if … those who reprobate their crude and violent schemes of liberty ought to be treated as advocates for servitude… . Have these gentlemen never heard … of anything between the despotism of the monarch and the despotism of the multitude?” Differing from reigning revolutionary opinion was to advocate counter-revolution; opposing it was counter-revolution itself. “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”
Burke has been called a liberal, a conservative, a reactionary. He was none of these.
The liberal representatives of the Constituent Assembly courted the illiberal democracy of the sans-culottes in what Burke called an “auction of popularity.” It was an uneasy alliance: the mob saved the Revolution in 1789 and it could overthrow it—which it did in 1792. The pseudo-constitutional regime fell before the mob’s invasion of the Tuileries on August 10. The slaughter at the Tuileries was outdone in September—when it was learned that the Prussians had taken Verdun—by the sadistic, drunken massacres of the Paris prison population. Those responsible for order, Danton and Roland, did nothing. The Girondins, after beating the drums for war and denouncing royal plots, now justified-deplored the massacres they had done so much to provoke.
Burke, in his 1794 “Preface” to a translation of an address by the Girondin leader Brissot, quoted from a letter the always moral Roland wrote to the Assembly, as the slaughter continued at full swing. (The italicization of Roland’s circumlocutions and lies is Burke’s, with one exception.)
Yesterday was a day upon the events of which it is perhaps necessary to leave a veil; I know that that people with their vengeance mingled a sort of justice; they did not take for victims all who presented themselves to their fury; they directed it to them who for a long time had been spared by the sword of law, and who they believed, from the peril of circumstances, should be sacrificed without delay. But I know that it is easy to villains and traitors to misrepresent this effervescence, and that it must be checked.
This is perfect newspeak: “victims who presented themselves for slaughter” (less mad in the idiomatic French); mass murder as “effervescence” when committed by the virtuous populace of Paris. “The whole compass of the language,” Burke commented, “is tried to find synonyms and circumlocutions for massacre and murder.” One hundred and fifty years later, J. H. Plumb, in his England in the Eighteenth Century, wrote:
In Paris the Committee of Public Safety … was transforming the French economy. The flamboyant use of the guillotine has distracted attention from the extraordinary efficiency of the Terror in mobilizing the industrial resources and manpower of France.
Flamboyant! It’s a match for Roland’s “effervescence.” The two light-hearted words, centuries apart, have the same purpose: to defend the indefensible. They deprecate urbanely a horrified human response to the appalling barbarism of the Terror, excused by Roland as a sort of justice and credited by Plumb with the extraordinary efficiency with which the Jacobins, institutionalizing it, organized the war effort.
How did intelligent, cultivated people, then and later, come to excuse these abominations which ordinary simplicity sees for what they are? One answer, of course partial, seems to be the deep shift, anticipated by Rousseau, of moral feeling away from concern for liberty to concern for social justice.
The cause of liberty rallied men in the nineteenth century against the European dynasties. But even as Parliamentary democracy triumphed, it was attacked by a left intelligentsia tending towards socialism and a right intelligentsia refusing modern conditions. Liberal democracy in the first half of the twentieth century was always taken to task (for good and bad reasons) and taken for granted, at the same time. The cost was tremendous. I recollect reading recently what a historian of present-day slavery (which continues to exist in many parts of the world) said about the phrase “peculiar institution,” once a periphrasis for black servitude in the American South: “Peculiar institution? Slavery isn’t peculiar. What’s peculiar is liberty.”
Burke has been called a liberal, a conservative, a reactionary. He was none of these. They are all terms from the political taxonomy of our world, not his. Whether you are for or against him, he touches you on your own political pulse—whereupon history tends to fly out the window. Consider the exchange between Conor Cruise O’Brien and Isaiah Berlin (appended to the former’s biography of Burke, The Great Melody). O’Brien, arguing that Burke “was a liberal and pluralist [!] opponent” of the murderous utopian absolutism of the French Revolution, called on Berlin to retract his charge (in The Crooked Timber of Humanity) that Burke was a reactionary. Good-humoredly, Berlin complied at once: O’Brien was right; Berlin’s knowledge of Burke was no more than the common stuff one picks up: “all honor” to Burke for “seeing through the fallacy and danger of utopian universalism.” He had, however, some qualifications: Burke was “deeply illiberal [in his] respect for hierarchy, and for rule by a gentlemanly elite”; in his opposition to democracy; in his failure to recognize general human rights. Wasn’t Burke “in some way” a defender “of some kind of ancien régime, though not perhaps to the degree to which my maverick colleague in All Souls, Jonathan [C. D.] Clark tries to make out? … Don’t you think Burke might have been somewhat Pétainiste” if he had been a Frenchman of that later time? (What a question!) Berlin thus retracted his retraction. To be “somewhat Pétainiste” is to be as reactionary as you can get, is to be “somewhat” liable to the death sentence for betraying your country.
You throw your hands up in dismay to see how all historical sense has deserted both men.
Of course Burke was no reactionary. How could he wish to turn the clock back? The time it told—the hour of a hereditarian, aristocratic, constitutional Britain—was the very hour in which he lived and moved and had his being.
Of course Burke, as a Whig upholder of hierarchy and degree, was no liberal. Liberals hardly existed yet. What kind of liberal would believe your station in life was appointed by Providence?
Of course Burke, as a Whig reformer (except in the case of electoral reform), was no conservative. Conservatives also did not yet exist. “People will not look forward to posterity,” he wrote in the Reflections, “who never look backward to their ancestors.” His traditionalism looked forward.
Of course Burke was a defender of what the “maverick” Clark, as an historian, called England’s ancien régime. But for Burke living in it, it wasn’t ancien, it was actuel.
Then what more specifically than a Whig may one call Burke without insulting history? The maverick Clark provides, I think, a fitting word for a man (like Orwell) hard to pigeonhole: libertarian, a man of liberty.
When the chips were down in dire totalitarian times, it was patrician leaders who showed themselves the most stubborn defenders of liberty: Churchill, de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt. Such men were understood by Burke (as I quoted David Bromwich earlier as putting it) as “the steadiest resource of liberty.” And the same may be said of the Irish commoner who spoke for them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 7, on page 4
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