Edmund Burke's Conservatism
Jude Wanniski
June 19, 1998

 

Edmund Burke's Conservatism

Memo To: SSU students on summer break
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: An introduction to Burke

When I think of myself as a conservative, I do so more or less in the tradition of Edmund Burke, the 18th century British parliamentarian. I say more or less because Burke was an opponent of the French Revolution, because he saw it as a sharp break with history, and believed that history should be composed of flows without sharp breaks. I occasionally see the need for a sharp break with history, and the French Revolution was one of those times. I'm Burkean today when I look around the world and see the need for change in a great many places, but without need for sharp breaks. Some of my old conservative friends who consider themselves Burkean, on the other hand, look at China, for example, and expect it to change overnight to a model they prefer. Burke, I think, would be happy enough to see a gradual flow in the right direction, as China's polity is given time to swallow, digest its communist experience, adding that experience to its long history rather than subtracting it. Here at home, I have argued for 20 years that a change in our power structure from the New Deal era to a revived era of smaller government should be gradual as well, and that the New Deal philosophy be absorbed into our longer history, not abruptly discarded. Again, some of my Burkean conservative friends only desire conservative flows when they are out of power. When they have control, they want change as fast as possible, and to hell with the New Deal.

This weekend offering is not by Burke, but about him. It is a small excerpt from a fine book by a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Roland N. Stromberg, published in 1966 by Prentice-Hall, EUROPEAN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY SINCE 1789 . The concept of "intellectual history" is one that has always interested me, but until I ran across this book not long ago, I'd never seen it framed exactly as he does. The book was republished in 1994 and is available in paperback, but I imagine you can also find it in a good library if you don't have the $35 at hand. You should definitely acquire Burke's The Reflections on the Revolution in France for your permanent library, which Amazon stocks on occasion.

Excerpt on Edmund Burke from the chapter, "Romanticism and Revolution: 1789-1815"

Edmund Burke's renowned book of 1790 is as famous as any tract in the history of politics, and about as controversial as any. Reflections on the Revolution in France has been and probably always will be the subject of violent disagreement. But its distinction is usually admitted even by those whose ideology forces them to be its foe on principle. Burke claimed that the revolution went wrong because its leaders tried to scrap an entire political system and put a new one in its place overnight; he related this mistake to the outlook ofthzphilosophes, the political rationalists whose method lacked realism in an era where abstractness is fatal and the nondoctrinaire approach is vitally necessary. On neither of these points has he lacked adversaries, then and later. But he made a strong case on both scores, though it may be hard to see how the mistakes could have been avoided. It is true that the wholesale abolition of an entire order in France in 1789 created immense confusion during the transformation period. "Feudalism" was declared at an end, which meant the dissolution of such institutions as the army, local government, the judicial system, the clergy. As for the philosophe political ideology, it did indeed consist in good part of general maxims without careful attention to detail and so was more helpful in tearing down than in building back up.

Whether Burke's analysis of the Revolution was right or wrong, the events in France stimulated him to formulate his political philosophy. A soaring eloquence and dazzling sense of the subtle texture of actual politics lent to Burke's book a memorable quality; as a piece of literature, it is one of the pioneer works of the new school of romanticism. The leading idea emerging from this eloquence and this subtlety was that society is a vast and complicated historical product which may not be tinkered with at will like a machine; it is a repository of collective human wisdom to be regarded with reverence, and if reformed at all it must be with due respect for the continuity of its traditions. There were other related ideas: that a political community is something made by history, an unanalyzable bond between men which makes free government possible; that the social organism has its "natural aristocracy" which the commoner sort of men must and do, in a healthy society, respect; that general rules and abstract principles are no help in politics.

With a disdain for the "abstract rights" proclaimed by the French, he tried to make clear the real rights of man: Burke certainly believed in rights, but he stressed the degree to which men in entering civil society must give up some of their liberties in order to gain the advantages of government. He distrusted the restless innovators who had no patience to search out the wisdom of their ancestors but must draw amateur blueprints for the total reconstruction of society, as if they were the first to think. The science of government is not for these, whose visionary schemes "in proportion as they are metaphysically true, are morally and politically false." These "smugglers of adulterated metaphysics" knew  not man or God. Burke was pious and felt that political society was sound only on Christian foundations. To Burke two human needs were evident above all: history, and religion. Man is a religious animal who, if he did not have Christianity would turn perforce to some other, and probably less satisfactory faith not a bad prediction of what has actually happened in recent times. He is a social animal, who would be no more than a beast if he were cut off from the fabric of ancient custom and tradition that sustains him. Reverence toward God and toward the social order are therefore the two great duties, and they are linked, for history is the revelation of God's purpose.

There is irony, and perhaps confusion, in the fact that Burke accused the philosophes of being "metaphysicians," they whose banner always bore the motto "Down with metaphysics." He turns their own weapon against themselves. It seems that Burke is right, if we think of some of the cruder post-Rousseau political pamphleteers. They were Utopian fantasists without the least practical knowledge of politics. But Burke's own empiricism has roots in the better sort of Enlightenment political thought, Hume and Montesquieu especially.

The Irish politician deeply influenced all subsequent conservative political thought. Edition followed edition of Reflections, all over Europe. Louis XVT personally translated it into French. For this popularity, its timeliness, and what seemed an uncanny prophetic quality (Burke announced the failure of the Revolution before it had failed, it seemed) were partly responsible along with the richness and color of the style. Stripped of its rhetoric, Burke's thought may not appear extraordinary, but its phrases would echo long afterward.

Perhaps it was not necessarily "conservative" in the most obvious sense of this word. In suggesting an empirical approach to the enormous complexity of human affairs, in place of the vague sloganizing of the philosophes, Burke may well be viewed as the founder of a real science of social reform, rather than as a hidebound conservative. He was certainly not opposed to change, if properly carried out, and his own career, that of a person of humble birth, consisted of one passionate crusade after another. His biographer, Philip Magnus, identifies many; the more famous were his crusades on behalf of American independence, Ireland, India (the Warren Hastings affair), and against the French Revolution. "The most urgent need of his nature was always some great cause to serve some monstrous injustice to repair." This tempestuous Irishman was temperamentally as little a conservative as well can be.

But there was of course the conservative Burke, or, since he almost created the school, the Burke traits that came to be thought of as conservative. The feeling of piety for the social order, the mistrust of harebrained reformers with a one-shot plan, the organic conception of social growth, these were the foundations of the conservative faith. A great deal of Burke has been accepted as essential political wisdom for anyone who wants to participate in politics as it always is and must be, rather than merely shout slogans from a distance. A modern socialist, Harold Laski, declared that "The statesman ignorant of Burke is lost upon a stormy sea without a compass." The features of Burke's outlook less palatable to most moderns include his belief in aristocracy, with the accompanying rejection of equality.

Reflections on the Revolution in France was a work of genius, written at white heat, blazing with indignation and charged with eloquence an eloquence that is a bit too much for some modern readers ("Burke never takes the trumpet from his lips") yet makes a gorgeous effect. It deeply influenced his generation and contributed not only to the anti-Revolutionary cause but to the romantic taste. In his youth, in the 1750s, a struggling young lawyer turned literary man, Burke had written a treatise called The Sublime and the Beautiful , which has often been seen as a landmark in the evolution of taste from neoclassical to romantic. He argued that while the realm of the "beautiful" is indeed subject to the familiar classical rules about harmony, proportion, elegance, etc., there is another realm, the "sublime," which inspires fear, awe, which does not civilize and socialize us as the classical does but makes us feel alone, exalts and exhilarates us. Burke was always a little romantic, his career was exceedingly so, and his last great work is, perhaps paradoxically, as romantic in style as it is conservative in content. So in a way the great spokesman of the counterrevolution was a revolutionary, too.