October 12, 2008

THE ESSENTIALS (via Mike Daley):

The Irish Prophet: a review of Edmund Burke: Volumes I & II by F.P. Lock (Henrik Bering, Policy Review)

[B]urke was spot on with his predictions in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, despite the fact that he had only visited the country briefly in 1773 to secure French lessons for his son. But he read everything available and had a steady stream of informants visiting him in his home at Beaconsfield. Most notably, he knew how to tune out the surface noise and hone in on the underlying essentials.

Many Britons welcomed the French Revolution, among them Charles Fox, the easygoing dandy and inveterate gambler, who had taken over as party leader after Rockingham’s death in 1782 and who had allowed himself to be carried away by the ideals the revolutionaries espoused; he referred to it as “how much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world. And how much the best.”

From his reading, Burke knew what French mobs had been capable of in the past, once their passions were exited, the St. Bartholomew massacre providing a scary precedent. And just a few days after the storming of the Bastille, two Parisian officials had their heads cut off and put on pikes. Heads on pikes are always a bad portent. Burke’s intimations were only strengthened by the march on Versailles, where the queen’s bedroom was attacked and the royal family ignominiously transported back to Paris.

Burke himself had briefly experienced mob rule during the Gordon riots of 1780, when adherents of the Protestant fanatic Lord George Gordon attacked the houses of those who had voted for the Catholic Relief Act for Ireland, and Burke had been forced to remove his furniture, an incident he never forgot, according to Lock. His great fear now was that the French disease would spread to England though its British sympathizers.

The French Enlightenment philosophers bore a heavy responsibility in having paved the way for all this with their hatred of religion, their overweening faith in man’s rationality, and their fondness for abstract theory rather than past experience. Burke saw religion as the very foundation of society, and the revolution had confiscated church property and destroyed all manner of traditional hierarchies. Thus, Burke laid bare the rationalist madness of the revolutionaries, pouncing on “the geometrick folly” of their initial scheme to divide France into squares, ignoring local bonds and loyalties.

The social contract, he warned, could not just be cancelled like some trading contract on coffee, as it also involved past and future generations; the present generation therefore should not be allowed simply to follow its whims.

Again, Burke recommended taking a hard look at the people involved. As he warned Chames-Jean-Francois de Pont, the young gentleman referred to on the title page of the Reflections, “Never wholly separate in your mind the merits of any political question from the men who are concerned in it.” What Burke saw here was a bunch of restless lawyers “of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds” leading along hairdressers, tallow-chandlers, and “a handful of country clowns,” illiterates to boot. In the Assembly, he noted, there were not 50 men of property worth £100 a year, and hence there was nothing to keep its radicalism in check.

The views expressed in the Reflections led to Burke’s break with the Fox faction. The two had a great clash in the House of Commons. Fox, reminding Burke of his speeches on America, accused him of having reversed himself; Burke, in reply, proclaimed them friends no longer, reducing Fox to tears. Among those who approved of the Reflections was George III, whom Burke had fought tooth and nail earlier: “I know that there is no Man who calls himself a Gentleman that must not think himself obliged to you, for you have supported the cause of the Gentlemen.”

Picking up from Fox’s clue, Burke’s critics, including Thomas Paine, accused him of having gone from being a champion of Liberty to being a supporter of the reactionary ancien regime in France. A Gillray cartoon entitled “A Uniform Whig” shows him holding his Reflections, his left side in tatters, while the right side is spiffily dressed, with the clear implication that he had been bought off. Any such notion Lock dismisses out of hand: Burke’s acceptance of a pension came at a later stage.

Burke hit back with his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs of 1791, in which he set out to demonstrate that his views were entirely at one with his support for the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and in which he defined true Whiggism as “a rational and sober liberty upon the plan of our existing constitution,” a very different thing from the mindless uprooting in France. And as proof that he was not against reform per se, as long as it was gradual and organic, he cited his support for the revolution in Poland.

In his remaining years, he urged Britain to take a leading role in the fight against revolutionary France. William Pitt had first been unwilling to interfere in what he saw as France’s internal affairs, but when France declared war on England and Holland on February 1, 1793, this was moot. Yet Pitt still fought the war as a traditional war, rather than as a war against an ideology. Instead of marching on Paris, the center of evil, the allied army allowed itself to be sidetracked into besieging Dunkirk. And when Britain’s Prussian allies made peace with France in 1795, and the Pitt administration was putting out peace-feelers, Burke in his fury produced his Letters on a Regicide Peace.

In Burke’s view, though still the only man capable of saving Britain, Pitt had failed to provide the inspired leadership the contest required. In words aimed squarely at Pitt, he noted, “They never entered into the peculiar and distinctive character of the war. They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal.”

As for Pitt’s qualms about interfering in the internal affairs of another nation, Burke was rejecting the notion that those in charge of a country were entitled to act as they pleased on their own territory: “Men are never in a state of total independence of each other.” In Burke’s view, a messianic, expansionist regime like the French was simply incompatible with Britain’s national security.

Lock painstakingly demonstrates how Burke’s writing on the French Revolution grew out of his earlier writings. By 1789, the threat to Britain’s well-being no longer came from the king. It now came from the other end of the spectrum, the Parisian mob. Evil had transmigrated, to use Burke’s own term. And as the nature of the threat changed, so did Burke’s focus, but the principles of his arguments remained consistent throughout, making him a true conviction politician.

Perhaps Churchill put it best: “His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt court and parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watchwords of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the ideals of society and government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2008 8:07 AM
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