Review by Howard Cincotta
Edmund Burke: The First Conservative by Jesse Norman, Basic Books, 2013, Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-465-05897-6, E-Book ISBN: 978-0-465-04494-8, pp. 325, $19 Hardcover, $15/$16 E-Book (Kindle/Nook).
British Member of Parliament Jesse Norman has written an engaging and accessible biography of the great foundational philosopher of Anglo-American conservatism, Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Biographies of their forebears appears to be something of an avocation among Conservative politicians: William Hague, Britain’s foreign minister, wrote a well-received study of Burke’s Tory rival, William Pitt the Younger, in 2007.
Burke’s intellectual heft remains widely acknowledged, but in the United States the rightwing surge in the Republican Party has reduced him to a few battered redoubts manned by commentators like David Brooks and scattered survivors of William F. Buckley’s National Review. With the exception of a few citations from Reflections on the French Revolution, Burke is little read here outside academic circles. That’s too bad, because as Norman makes clear, Burke was a thinker of fascinating complexity and scope, and a stalwart defender of the critical role that political parties play in any democracy worthy of its name at a time when such parties languish in often richly deserved disrepute.
One problem is that Burke, ironically a great champion of America, is an uncomfortable fit in the U.S. political context, with its heavy emphasis on individual rights and autonomy a stance that Burke criticized as a fundamental error which, along with an over-emphasis on rationality, inevitably led to the horrors of the French Revolution. Society, with its time-tested relationships, inheritances, and traditions, was the essence of the nation, in Burke’s view, not autonomous individuals or the chimera of Rousseau’s “natural rights,” which he detested.
The essence of good government, for Burke, was not the need to protect the individual, but to defend a society anchored in customary practice, and to work incremental change, although he was a champion of two revolutions: America’s in 1776 and Britain’s own Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Burke lived and clubbed with the giants of the 18th century Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and David Hume and he became the most influential political thinker of his time. But his time in government was fleeting, in large part because he had the misfortune of competing with lesser intellects but far more consummate politicians. The first was Pitt the Younger, who became Tory prime minister at the incredible age of 24, with little more in the way of qualifications than an aristocratic family and an education in the classics. The other was the unscrupulous but nimble Charles James Fox, nominally part of the proto-Whig party that Burke belonged to but willing to make deals and adjust his scruples, when he could tear himself away from the card table and horse racing.
Inevitably, Burke and Fox fell out, and just as inevitably, the obstinate and often self-righteous Burke came out on the losing end. But if Burke lost the immediate scramble for power, he won the long war with his eloquent and sophisticated defense of the baggy, custom-built British Constitution, with its accretions of tradition and common law and slow, often agonizingly slow change.
There is a Candide-like quality to some of Burke’s appeals to the genius of established society and the sacredness of private property as somehow being the best of all possible worlds: this was, after all, an era of deep political corruption, rotten parliamentary boroughs, and entrenched aristocratic power.
On the other hand, Burke was an outspoken opponent of the abuse of power, especially by monarchs like George III, but also of discriminatory laws against Catholics in Ireland, British policy in the American colonies, and imperial abuses in India. With the coming of the French Revolution, Burke found his greatest theme in his condemnation of absolutist ideology and the ravaging of society that occurs when contempt for tradition combines with messianic utopianism. Robespierre may have proclaimed France a “Republic of Virtue,” but it was a republic that ended up beheading itself.
Burke’s rhetoric can often seem overblown except for one inconvenient fact. He was right in almost every respect about the course that the French Revolution would take, from the Jacobin terror to the ultimate rise of a military leader, which he predicted well before anyone in England had even heard the name Napoleon Bonaparte.
Burke’s defense of tradition and critique of “liberal individualism” are central to his legacy, in Norman’s view and one that Republicans might wish to rediscover as they contemplate the toxic brew that Tea Party ideologues and libertarian fundamentalists have made of their party. I’m on the other side of the political fence, but I still long for a genuinely conservative Republican party that aspires to the principled, expansive vision of Edmund Burke.