Books April 2004

Reactionary Prophet

Edmund Burke understood before anyone else that revolutions devour their young—and turn into their opposites

"It has always been with me," William Hazlitt wrote, "a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man." Not all radicals have been so generous. In a footnote to Volume One of Das Kapital, Karl Marx wrote with contempt of Burke,

The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.

The old bruiser of the British Museum would not have known that he was echoing a remark by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter written to Benjamin Vaughan in May of 1791.

The Revolution of France does not astonish me so much as the revolution of Mr. Burke. I wish I could believe the latter proceeded from as pure motives as the former ... How mortifying that this evidence of the rottenness of his mind must oblige us now to ascribe to wicked motives those actions of his life which wore the mark of virtue and patriotism.

This attribution of mercenariness to Burke (who had in fact accepted a small pension from the British government for services rendered, and who had also been the London lobbyist or representative of the colony of New York during his defense of the rights of the American colonists) is also to be found in the work of Thomas Paine and Dr. Joseph Priestley. It is a frequent vice of radical polemic to assert, and even to believe, that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one. And such reductionism makes a sort of rough partnership with the simplistic view that Burke was the founder or father of modern conservatism in general, and of its English Tory form in particular.

In point of fact Edmund Burke was neither an Englishman nor a Tory. He was an Irishman, probably a Catholic Irishman at that (even if perhaps a secret sympathizer), and for the greater part of his life he upheld the more liberal principles of the Whig faction. He was an advanced opponent of the slave trade, whose "Sketch of a Negro Code" was written in the early 1780s, and who before that had opposed the seating of American slaveholders at Westminster. His epic parliamentary campaign for the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the arraignment of the East India Company was the finest example in its day of a battle against pelf and perks and privilege. His writings on revolution and counter-revolution, and on empire, are ripe for a "Straussian" or Machiavellian reading that seeks to discover the arcane or occluded message contained within an ostensibly straightforward text.

This is most particularly true of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which has seldom if ever been better analyzed and, so to speak, "decoded" than in this excellent companion edition. One might begin by giving this imperishable book its full name. The original 1790 title page read "Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event: In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris." The gentleman in question was Charles-Jean-François Depont, a young man of Burke's acquaintance who had become a member of the French National Assembly and had written to him in the fall of 1789. Burke owed him a reply, which turned into a very long letter indeed after its author had been further inspired to put pen to paper. The further inspiration was supplied by two meetings in London, of the Constitutional Society and of the Revolution Society, at which were passed warm resolutions welcoming the fall of the Bastille. It was, more than anything else, the alarm he felt at these latter developments that impelled Burke to his response. Please note, then, that Burke chose to stress not the French Revolution but "The Revolution in France." He seems to have intended, here, to speak of the phenomenon of revolution as it applied to French affairs, and as it might be made to apply to English ones. Hence the emphatic mention of "certain societies in London."

The Revolution Society was not as insurgent or incendiary as its name might suggest. It was a rather respectable sodality, dedicated to celebrating the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, a relatively bloodless coup that installed William and Mary of the House of Orange on the English throne, and established Protestantism as the state religion. One of the society's leaders was the Reverend Richard Price, a great friend to the American Revolution and a staunch Unitarian clergyman. His resolution, carried by the same meeting that had forwarded a "Congratulatory Address" to the National Assembly in Paris, read in part, "This Society, sensible of the important advantages arising to this Country by its deliverance from Popery and Arbitrary Power ..."

It was made immediately plain to Burke that those who had enthused over revolution across the Channel were also interested in undermining and discrediting the same Church that he—an Irishman brought up under anti-Catholic penal laws—felt so obliged to defend. (This deep connection has been established by Conor Cruise O'Brien in a masterly series of studies that began with his own edition of the Reflections in 1968.) But the point is not a merely sectarian one. In 1780 London had been convulsed and shamed by the hysterical anti-Papist Gordon Riots, in which a crazed aristocratic demagogue had led a mob against supposedly subversive Catholics. (The best evocation of the fury and cruelty of that episode is to be found in Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.) This memory was very vivid in Burke's mind, and goes far to explain his visceral detestation of crowd violence. No less to the point, some emulators of Jacobinism—the United Irishmen, with many Protestants among their leaders—were at work in Ireland trying to bring off a rebellion that would compromise all parliamentary "moderates." And several of the pro-Jacobin activists and spokesmen in England, not excluding the rather humane Price himself, had had political connections with Lord George Gordon. As between the Jacobite and the Jacobin, Burke could not be neutral for an instant; he might give up the Jacobite cause out of loyalty to the British crown, but he was profoundly stirred when he saw old-fashioned anti-Catholicism renascent under potentially republican colors. So one does well to keep Barnaby Rudge in mind along with A Tale of Two Cities.

Three questions will occur to anybody reconsidering the Reflections today. Was it a grand and prophetic indictment of revolutionary excess? Was it the disdainful shudder of a man who despised or feared what at one stage he described as the "swinish multitude"? And did it contain what we would now term a "hidden agenda"? The answer to all three questions, it seems to me, is a firm yes. Let us take the two most celebrated excerpts of Burke's extraordinary prose. The first is the prescient one.

It is known; that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration, the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders; whose military policy, and the genius of whose command, (if they should have any,) must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.

This is almost eerily exact. Even in the solitary detail in which it does not body forth the actual coming of Napoleon Bonaparte (who did not emerge until well after the execution of King Louis), it takes care to state that the subordination of existing monarchy would be the least of it. There is only one comparably Cassandra-like prediction that I can call to mind, and that is Rosa Luxemburg's warning to Lenin that revolution can move swiftly from the dictatorship of a class to the dictatorship of a party, to be followed by the dictatorship of a committee of that party and eventually by the rule of a single man who will soon enough dispense with that committee.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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