Edmund Burke’s Anti-Ideology

Edmund Burke’s Anti-Ideology June 18, 2008

Reading Edmund Burke’s seminal work Reflections on the Revolution in France was an experience like reading Guardini or watching City of God: enthralled by content and craftsmanship, you don’t want it to end. The conservative principles of Russell Kirk are deeply rooted in Burke, the man once forgotten in the glitter of early Twentieth Century rationalist promise and discovered by Kirk as a graduate student at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Below the fold I offer the first part of an explanation as to why this Irishman who made his long parliamentary and literary career in England championing the cause of Catholics, American colonists, cautious Whig revolutionaries, parliamentarians, political parties, and the Indian subcontinent is a wise oracle for all political persuasions and the founder of modern conservative thought.

What is conservatism? I believe it to be an approach, a style, a sentiment, a bias: against efforts of utopianism, against ideology, and against the promise of a bright new future casting aside considerations of human nature. If a policy, a custom, a norm, a tradition, an institution does not violate the natural rights and has suited the past – if these belonged to your father and grandfather and great grandfather – it is to be granted, across the generations, a high status of received wisdom worthy of commitment against movements that would seek to alter them so as to pursue ideological aims.

There must be, in other words, no state organized “unity,” which was the calling card of Wilson’s adventurism and domestic collectivism, American progressivism (many of whom admired and studied Mussolini’s efforts for state-organized unity), socialism, and the totalitarian socialisms, national and international (Nazism and Communism, which appealed to very similar constituencies).
Although Kirk engaged in some furious intellectual battles with his allies over the meaning of American conservatism, such a generalization skeptical of “transformative government” is present in its threads of thought. Conservatism is opposition to all forms of political religion, a rejection of the idea that politics can be redemptive. It is the conviction that a properly ordered republic has a government of limited ambition, even as it may be used to influence behavior (such as the end to “no fault divorce” or the criminalization of certain drugs). Against the view that what is human should be measured in terms of wealth or power, conservatism originates in an attitude to civil society and its foundational moral order, and it is from a conception of civil society that various political thoughts are derived.

In speeches to Parliament such as his call for conciliation with America, delivered in March 1775, Burke put forward his view that it was foolish to insist upon abstract rights divorced from history and practicality.

“I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, not attempting to mark their boundaries, I do not enter into these meta-physical distinctions. I hate the very sound of them. This is the true touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of man: does it suit his nature in general? Does it suit his nature as modified by his habits?”

In Reflections, Burke wrote that the constitution of a state and the distribution of its coercive force require delicate and complicated skill – knowledge of human nature and the organization of human necessities.

“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is heir practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.”

His treatment of rights assumes that if civil society is an offspring of custom and convention, such conventions must appear in law and provide boundaries for the powers – legislative, judicial, or executive – that are its offspring. For Burke, “one of the first motives of civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is that no man should be judge in his own cause.”

The tradition-minded balance of individual rights with a social order respectful of long-standing community norms and institutions appealed to Kirk’s own sense that the traditions of a society are not easily reinvented and cannot be created from thin air without unpredictable and possibly disastrous consequences. These traditions are made by a collective wisdom developed over long periods of time. They are prejudices that are difficult to understand and articulate in any comprehensive way, even as they exist for the sake of social stability. There is no perfected past or perfectible future. Change – always necessary given the evils lurking within the human condition – should occur cautiously. This notion does not exclude rapid change, especially in cases of clear infringements upon human dignity, but opposes change based on sentimental theory. Likewise, tradition should not be maintained at all costs or for its own sake. But it should be accorded a high measure of deference and an assumption of validity.

The Rockingham Whigs to which Burke devoted his political career were characterized by Kirk as opposed to arbitrary monarchical power, dubious of many of England’s overseas colonial adventures, and persistent in its advocacy of internal governmental reform. When Burke spoke of the Glorious Revolution as a “revolution not made, but prevented,” he meant that James II, the last Stuart king overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1688, was by his attempts to increase royal prerogatives the true revolutionary. The American Revolution, in contrast, was guided by prudence and prescription. The colonists sought to preserve and continue the English institutions of representative government and private rights, while fanaticism and vain expectations guided the French forward into the void of uncertainty and terror. Burke argued at the outbreak of trouble on the American continent that colonists were trying to conserve, not destroy, natural rights and liberties codified in law and custom over centuries. They did not seek to claim fanciful liberties conjured up by closet philosophers; they were devoted to liberty according to English principles, without mere abstractions.

A “Burkean” philosophy of civil order, then, is not as devoted to particular policy outcomes as to the necessity of protection and a skeptical humility about the ability to effectuate change. A priori abstraction and reasoning are not to be trusted, given the possibility of unintended, unpredictable, and unforeseen consequence. If Kirk is correct that Burke is a founding father of both the political party and modern conservatism, it is important to grasp his idea of reform. Their conception of “reform conservatism” would seek to solve problems in a way to both avoid preventable harm and to prevent more radical reforms that might undermine the institutions, traditions, customs, norms, and practices developed in a free society. Such a society should be sustained, in other words, by responding to challenges with the aim of cautious, measured reform in concert with the history of its people. By instituting radical, sweeping, quick reform, the French revolutionaries assaulted intermediary bodies standing between the individual and the state. For Burke, the most genuine construct of society is eternal, joining the dead, the living, and the unborn. Ordained by God, all participate in this spiritual and social partnership; social harmony comes through a love of family and neighbor and a sense of duty.

Next, Burke’s response to the cultural and social shock provoked by the rise of industrial capitalism, science and ‘scientism,’ and mass communication.

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