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.

The problem about Mr Freeman’s book is that it is much weaker than is fair to the author, his ideas and his subject. It seems to me a case of a bad book containing a good book which is fighting to get out. Its great weakness is that it is supremely unhistorical. Mr Freeman does give us a date or two to play with, but most of the time he dives into the lucky bag of Burke’s works and emerges flourishing something to be placed against something else with no indication for the most part as to the differences in time, place, occasion and deliberation of utterance. The very manner of the author’s footnoting conveys the problem. Footnotes have claims on the general reader as well as the specialist, and if Burke is to be quoted, it is wholly unsatisfactory simply to quote a page and a volume in the collected writings or correspondence. We want to know what he was writing, who (singular or plural) was the audience, when he was saying it. If the author is not going to tell us these things in his text, at least we should have the chance of working it out from the notes.

The method is instructive as to the author’s priorities, and it does indicate a serious cleavage between the historian and the political scientist, one where the latter seems to have little defence. And Burke is a dangerous person with whom to play tricks of this kind. It might be argued (though I wouldn’t want to argue it) that a book could be written about Thomas Hobbes which, despite his ninety years of existence, concentrates entirely on Leviathan and says what Hobbes ‘thinks’ and ‘does not think’ on the strength of it. Certainly Hobbes’s claims on the political scientist, and even on the historian, might not seem to go much further than Leviathan, unless we want to build elaborate theses respecting his tutelage of Charles II. But Burke’s contributions to political thought are scattered over several decades and were conceived in all sorts of different circumstances. Private letters say one thing at one time, public letters another at another. His attitudes shifted, as did his personal loyalties, his place of residence, his occupation, his friendships, his outlook. In one respect, his career is staggeringly at variance with itself. He was, as Goldsmith noted so brilliantly in his Retaliation poems, an extraordinary mingling of ideological conviction and party-political management, a condition which remained until 1789, when on the issue of the French Revolution Burke burst the bonds of political expediency into fragments, ended political friendships and alliances of over twenty years, and became the supreme ideologue – the machine man off the rails. No anti-pragmatist is as ruthless as the ex-pragmatist.

Now all of this makes the study of Burke’s ‘thought’ a very sticky business. It is reasonable to see consistencies, to note continuing trends, to observe the development of certain attitudes and the alteration of others. But in Burke’s case it has to be done with the most careful allowance for the time and occasion of writing, as well as for the extent to which Burke is unveiling his mind on each occasion. Politics might veil some matters, in part at least. Personal considerations, especially in correspondence, might inhibit expression of others. In some cases, especially where the speeches are concerned, we are faced with imperfect texts: the Leeds scholars have done golden work with the correspondence but until their work on the speeches is finished it is perilous to rest too much confidence on existing texts. And in addition to all of that, Burke, an intensely social animal, to whom friendships and family meant so much, simply cannot be considered without reference to these. Burke’s love and admiration for the Marquess of Rockingham actually supplied the foundation for a great deal of his political belief. Rockingham both answered that part in Burke’s nature which wanted to play the role of the Gaelic bardic intelligentsia to their royal patrons, and that which rejoiced in the Whig ideology of the Glorious Revolution while remaining bitter at its perversion in Ireland. Rockingham, the agricultural improver, was a constant reminder to Burke of what Ireland could have been had landlords seen themselves as chieftains rather than predators. Love of Rockingham could encourage Burke to yet higher levels of libertarianism, and could lead him to offer last-ditch defences of seemingly outrageous aristocratic archaic privileges. In fact, Rockingham, alive or dead, offers one connecting chain of motivation for Burke’s political attitudes throughout his life. He was probably the single most important person in Burke’s political career. Mr Freeman does not mention him once.

Mr Freeman also seems to miss something of the importance of Burke’s attitude to history. Burke probably had one of the most fully developed historical senses of any political thinker before Marx, and undoubtedly one of the bases for his hostility to the French Revolution was its contempt for the past (and indeed its abolition of it). Burke was peculiarly Irish in his sense of being dominated by history, and in his fascination with historical myths and their verification. His respect for the American Revolutionaries owed something to their insistence that they were acting out of obligation to the past, and that their cause was conceived in the light of the traditions history established. His hatred of Warren Hastings was the hatred of a man seeing an egregious outsider smashing the history of an ancient culture into the dust, much as the British conquistadores had smashed the Gaelic past of Burke’s own people. Mr Freeman is somewhat aware of the significance of history, yet it leads him in very strange directions. He goes to some trouble on page 97 to explain that Burke’s respect for ancestry did not lead him to glorify the Anglo-Saxons. As none of Burke’s ancestors were Anglo-Saxons, so far as we know, this is hardly surprising. Mr Freeman does realise the Irish dimension exists, but he seems to have to remind himself of it, and often fails to. His Burke, so to say, is always passing for white, and usually successfully: but Burke was black. Thus Burke’s attitudes to the disabilities of Irish Catholics are not simply humanitarian or liberal, any more than the efforts of Queen Esther on behalf of the Jews at the court of her husband were simply humanitarian and liberal. That makes the conduct of Burke (and Esther) no less courageous. They had much to lose.

I may appear a little unkind in stressing this. After all, the Burke whom I know in this way as a simple ethnic heritage is one Mr Freeman has painfully to learn, with all the more difficulty in that Burke often passes for white so easily. Unhappily, Mr Freeman has made Ireland a two-edged sword for himself. Not only does he fail to see it most of the time, but when he does see it he is convinced he understands it better than the Irish do. And his choices for such demonstrations of scholarly superiority are unfortunately, if almost blindly courageously, chosen.

Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien writes that ‘Burke understood very well the feelings of conquered people – feelings that were necessarily in his own bones – and he even reluctantly condoned that form of revolutionary action which comes first to a desperate peasantry: agrarian terrorism.’ His basis for this claim is a single sentence Burke wrote in a letter to the Rev. Thomas Hussey on 18 January 1796: ‘Dreadful it is; but it is now plain enough that Catholic defenderism is the only restraint upon Protestant Ascendancy.’ But Dr O’Brien goes too far in saying that this is a condonation of ‘revolutionary action’. It was defender-ism Burke reluctantly condoned. Burke sympathised strongly with the plight of the Irish Catholics. But he did not condone, not even reluctantly, Irish radicalism, still less Irish revolution, and his condonation of ‘defenderism’ was not only reluctant but wrung from him once only.

It is with genuine feelings of regret that I see Mr Freeman leaping with shouts of confidence into the centre of this hideous quicksand. First, Dr O’Brien did not commit Burke to the defence of any revolutionary action save the agrarian. On the other hand, however limited the goals of Irish agrarian revolt, it can seem pretty revolutionary if you find yourself on the wrong side of it at the wrong time. Secondly, does Mr Freeman realise the ‘Defenders’ were Catholic agrarian rebels bound in secret conclave? Because, if he doesn’t, there is a good deal of tedious spade-work ahead of him. And, if he does, what on earth does he mean by saying that it was agrarian social revolt which Burke condoned but that he did not condone Irish radicalism? I suppose it is arguable that peasants shooting landlords or fighting with loyalist Protestant mobs are being conservative, rather than radical: much comfort that must have been to their victims. Mr Freeman’s uncertainties create a situation where his interpretations have to be viewed with allowances for a 10° error in latitude. ‘Note,’ he adjures us rather dictatorially on page 144, ‘that Burke writes of events in Ireland as taking place “at home”. Irish tyranny may once have been the harshness of foreign conquest, but now it is plain British tyranny.’ Apart from the confusion of geographical attitudes as between location or possession of the tyranny, the point is misleading and dangerous. Burke did not regard Irish Protestant bigotry as being British: he knew it to be Irish. He called his birthplace ‘home’. To think otherwise would be to make the error of calling the Highland Clearances ‘English’. Both actions might be chosen in quest of English preferment, or in an attempt to accommodate to what were taken to be English manners. But Burke attacked tyranny in Ireland, and however founded it may have been on the English connection he recognised its perpetrators as Irish. Similarly, it is unreal to assert that ‘Burke places loyalty to nation before loyalty to religius [sic] denomination,’ in that his ‘sympathy for Catholics enables him to celebrate the unity of Britain,’ since this loses sight of the essential Irish Catholic shadow falling over so much of his beliefs.

Most ironic of all is when Mr Freeman’s self-emasculation from the historical and the Irish dimensions leads him to scold Edmund Burke for failing to understand the Irish Catholic question. As examples go of scholarly wisdom after the fact, it is a fine entry, comparable to the economic historians who abuse the victims of famine for dying of hunger on the ground that statistics now proved no famine to have existed. He notes a proposal for Catholic relief put forward in gradualist terms by Burke:

The reform in question would have relieved oppressed Catholics from burdens imposed upon them by tyrannical Protestants. Yet Burke would not unfix the interests of the tyrannical Protestants at once, lest they become sullen and discontented. Nor would he relieve the Catholics from the burdens of tyranny at once, lest they abuse their new power with a licentious insolence. Burke did not consider that Catholics slowly unburdened might become sullen and discontented nor that Protestants maintained in most of their old interests might abuse their old power with licentious insolence.

With the greatest possible respect (which, at this point, isn’t very large), I would prefer Mr Edmund Burke to Mr Michael Freeman as a reliable witness to the ailments and requirements of Irish Catholicism in the 18th century. In fact, I would appeal from Mr Freeman drunk to Mr Freeman sober. Mr Freeman’s own arguments elsewhere about the strength of Burke’s ideas have every relevance in this instance. Burke knew Irish Catholics to have sustained a most cruel oppression at the hands of Irish Protestants; he feared that too drastic a reversal in extent and in speed could result in triumphalist brutality on the part of the Catholics, in lash-back occasioned by fear and status displacement on the part of the Protestants. One century later, precisely such unwise triumphalism induced precisely such lash-back, with results that still bedevil Ireland. Burke knew his people, and knew the ‘licentious insolence’ of which they had already had considerable experience in the early 19th century. He saw the dual dangers of Catholic revenge and Protestant terror. And his own life had involved the threat of physical injury from precisely such causes.

I have taken but two aspects of Mr Freeman’s weaknesses: others could be cited. From time to time, his objectivity, bereft of historicism, makes other dives into self-congratulation at Burke’s expense. Yet at other points again he has argued his material ably and well, his final chapters on Burke’s understanding of revolution being particularly felicitous. He draws attention to Burke’s sociological strength, and even discusses the point in English, which will win him few friends among the sociologists. He knows how to play with political ideas and move them around without being hypnotised by them.

Professor Macpherson’s book, in Oxford’s new ‘Past Masters’ series, is an elegant and stimulating presentation of Burke’s ideas, printed on revolting paper of the type familiar to users of penny jotters in World War Two. Macpherson’s discussion is welcome in following a chronological pattern, and if its limits of space and preoccupation with basic thesis lead it to cut corners on individual works, it manages to give trenchant accounts of at least part of the argument of most of them, buttressed by apposite quotations. Its remarkable literary economy is symbolically appropriate, in that Professor Macpherson’s emphases are on Burke’s economics. Burke appears here as the prophet of capitalism, as a pre-eminently bourgeois figure, but one ‘out of court for the late 20th century’ because of the change in the times. This is to make too much of a totality of Burke’s ideas – admittedly an understandable reaction to 19th-century British liberals and 20th-century American conservatives, who sought to recruit him in his entirety for their causes after the adjustment of appropriate spectacles to ensure necessary blind spots. Professor Macpherson is impressive in disposing of both of these companies of ideological recruiting sergeants, but he makes a comparable error in in his classification of the subject as unfit for contemporary service.

The central thesis is vulnerable to various arguments, one being that Burke was much more alive to the dangers of economic adventure at the expense of a people than Professor Macpherson will allow. As an immigrant to England he was perhaps a little starry-eyed as to its traditions and prospects, however much he might dissent on specific controversies from prevailing English attitudes. But on India, America and Ireland he specifically opposed measures which his contemporaries argued to be for the betterment of the British economy and hence the development of British capitalism. Professor Macpherson is a good man for grasping his nettles, and on France he argues that Burke could not be expected to see what the effects of revolution would be for the furtherance of capitalism there, beholding only the self-interest of the petit bourgeoisie. But Burke’s fury at the destruction of French Church and aristocracy will hardly be accounted for by a mission to further capitalism.

In certain respects, Professor Macpherson seems to argue somewhat against his own basic thesis. He goes into the question of Burke’s style and quotes against it the criticism of Paine (a gander in considerable need of his own sauce) and of Mackintosh, to the effect that with Burke style became the ambulance of mortally-wounded argument. I retreat once more to my ethnic tent: as the product of a (very recently) post-Gaelic culture, Burke was legatee to a tradition where analogy and metaphor were essential to speech in embodying a desire to bring the abstract to the concrete (something that intrigues the professor in Burke elsewhere), and where an oppressed culture virtually depended on somewhat fanciful allusion to get its meaning clear to its own people while not arousing the suspicions of its overlords. Much of Burke has to be read with the realisation that in many controversies he is using a rhetoric to distance suspicion from his own origins and loyalties while in some degree affirming their priorities.

By profession, Burke was of the class which Bacon held to produce a ‘ready man’ as opposed to an ‘exact man’, and even his writing acquires new force and meaning when it is declaimed. He was, after all, the product of an oral tradition. On the other hand, his oratory was in its profundity most untypical of the age. The 18th-century Irish parliament abounded in floral and florid rhetoric, reaching Classical heights on questions which boil down to a preservation of the narrowest bigotries and an acquisition of the least defensible gains.

One of the most valuable qualities in Professor Macpherson’s book is that, for all its brevity, it can stimulate reflections far beyond the bounds of its thesis. He points out that Burke’s view, in the Reflections, of civil society as contract was ‘of a very odd sort: it was between three sets of people, two of whom were non-existent,’ envisaging ‘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’. Perhaps this may offer some sort of synthesis between my preoccupation with a Burke bound by history and his with a Burke motivated by economics. But it also takes us much further. It accounts for Burke’s conservatism on representation, in that he saw an enormous constituency, the enlargement of whose rights in one part would be at the expense of the other two parts. It gives frightening legitimacy to a group Burke would certainly not have wished to legitimise and against whom his life and arguments militate powerfully in other respects: Irish (and other) violent revolutionaries, who set up their republics, despite present unpopularity, by just such an appeal to present and past. The affinity is not accidental: Burke was indeed read by late 19th-century Irish nationalists with perspectives very different from 19th-century British liberals or 20th-century American conservatives.

Yet Burke’s social contract can be applied in very different ways. It can give additional force to the environmentalists, who see a world being destroyed by the greed of one generation in a spirit of contempt for its ancestors and of indifference to posterity. In essence, this was Burke’s charge against the French revolutionaries, against Warren Hastings, against British rule in Ireland, against the drastic innovations of government respecting the colonies in America. And in this environmental context it has every relevance to the problems of today. Macpherson’s breadth of reference has furnished us with arguments against his assumption of Burke’s irrelevance for the late 20th century.