Burke and History

Owen Dudley Edwards

  • Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism by Michael Freeman
    Blackwell, 250 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 631 11171 9
  • Burke by C.B. Macpherson
    Oxford, 83 pp, £4.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 287518 3

With the inevitable exceptions of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx, it is doubtful whether any political thinker has inspired more sustained imbecility among his friends and enemies than Edmund Burke. And, despite first appearances, his appeal is far less predictable than theirs. Both Aquinas and Marx were in the first place theoreticians: the latter died at his desk, the former should have done. Burke in action automatically comes to mind as on his legs before the House of Commons, admittedly with his profundities passing over the thick heads of most of his audience. Aquinas and Marx are approachable in a large but obvious body of writings: Burke survives through a wide swathe of pamphlets, speeches, letters, no single item being in the least comparable in extent with Das Kapital, much less the Summa. Above all, Thomists, Marxists and their enemies know, and make known, what they are for and against and why, while Burkeans and anti-Burkeans are far less predictable in ideological terms.

At the height of the Cold War, Burke, for instance, proved a combined fountainhead and figurehead for extreme right-wing American ideologues. He was ‘for’ the spirit of ’76 (in actual fact, he was not, but the Cold War did not offer nice distinctions between sympathy and understanding, on the one hand, and identification, on the other). He was anti-Communist (the more refined and arcane thinkers of the New American Right easily found a common conspiratorial character across time between Paris in 1789 and Moscow in 1917, via such channels as Freemasonry, anticlericalism and a certain lack of respect for the Almanach de Gotha: it was, happily, hidden from them that Burke would certainly have preferred the Russian to the French Revolution in at least one respect – its sense of history). And he was Irish (an excellent credential in the struggle against the Russian Anti-Christ, as in their various ways the Joe McCarthys, Kennedys, Nixons, Fulton Sheens, Cardinal Spellmans, Senator Pat Mc-Carrans bear witness).

On the other hand, the most profoundly conservative British historian in this century, Sir Lewis Namier, cordially detested Burke and found his ideological claims a distorting distraction and delusion in the important business of political classification and observation of manoeuvre. The point is of consequence because in comparison with the Conservatism of the New American Right Namier’s is of a richness and reality which recalls the claims of a prime steak against a curling, withered slice of salami. Nor is this simply a matter of Galician Jewish origins finding little in common with Irish Catholic ones. British Conservatism in practice seems curiously alien from Burke. For one thing, while not Junker, it is somewhat militaristic. Burke did preach a holy war towards the end of his life, and yet most of the causes he opposed seem to have a violent and militaristic chauvinism in common: the Protestant oppression of Irish Catholics, the British repression in the American colonies, the rule of Warren Hastings, the French Revolution. His enemies found sacraments in the sword and the drum. Burke’s own caste, the Irish Catholics, from whom he was legally but not culturally severed, had lost virtually everything because of sword and drum, and their cultural heritage had not glorified war (as in the next two centuries the new, Anglophone rhetoric of their descendants was to do). It is difficult to think of modern British conservatism as separate from the triumphalism of Arne or Elgar: Burke was on the wrong side of that triumphalism, by ancestry, and he never really changed sides on it.

British Conservatism still has as one of its strengths that it can comprehend and even exploit what seems alien to it: the party of Disraeli can surely feed itself on the less incongruous figure of Burke. But even if conservatives can digest Burke, if only by swallowing hard and making hideous faces, modern radicals have shown that Burke can also be theirs. Raymond Williams’s great seminal work Culture and Society began by showing the importance of Burke to the Left and the lessons he has to offer. Conor Cruise O’Brien has examined Burke’s relationship to revolution in several papers which offer fascinating fore-tastes of the biography he has in the making: among other points he has established significant common ground between Burke and Marx.

Mr Michael Freeman’s position in all of this is initially uncertain. The blurb seems to imply that he shows what a powerful case Burke makes for radicals to answer. But in fact Mr Freeman is much more interested in descriptive work than in recruiting the great dead to the party banners, and all credit to him. He wants us to take Burke’s ideas seriously, not so much to convert us as to make us think. His closing words are:

Thus the debate between conservatives and radicals remains inconclusive. Burke is still worth our attention because his is a classic statement of conservatism. It has the classic strengths and weaknesses of that position. He offered 18th-century solutions to 18th-century problems. But those problems belong to a family whose descendants live still among us. We still do not have very good solutions. We must therefore come to grips with his.

Put it another way, and say that conservatives and radicals alike will do themselves a great deal of good by informing their political consciences with reflections on Burke.

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