biography nurtured subjugation. This is critical to the Burkean vision of the British Empire. Where assimilation is an abiding principle, the empire generates loyalty and affection.
That principle also operated domestically, since an alliance between king and the Houses of Lords and Commons was the most effective means of securing the liberty of the people; the Commons in particular bore ‘some stamp of the actual disposition of the people at large’. The coordination between Burke’s view of the political ‘party’, which, by mediating between nobility and common people, exemplified amicitia, the Roman idea of friendship (through which hereditary power was infused with the energy of ‘new men’ – like Burke himself ), and his general concept of subordination and alliance in the imperial system is so sweetly analysed by Bourke that it illuminates a basic simplicity of conviction. The trouble is, though, that such coordination has to be applied in so many contingent circumstances that it can sometimes seem to lose its structuring functions.
Many careful misreadings of Burke produce the charge that he is incoherent – that this so-called ‘liberal’ never applied to Ireland the same principles that he applied to America or India (this was one of Lord Acton’s assertions). Or, as Joseph Priestley said in 1791, ‘That an avowed friend of the American revolution should be an enemy of the French is to me unaccountable.’ One of Bourke’s achievements here is to refute this charge, not just by laying bare its inadequacies but also by demonstrating how easy it is to misconstrue the subtle shift in Burke’s positions. His manner of being a political man of ‘party’ was the active dimension of his being a political philosopher; they can be distinct modes without being oppositional. And yet the American and the French revolutions were not merely to him distinct; they formed a fatal contrast – the first assimilable to traditional politics, the other so abominable that the only possible response was all-out war. The conventional assumption, then and since, has been that one led to the other. Burke rejected such a view. If we consider the two revolutions to be episodes in a continuum, we may be right or wrong, but we are unambiguously light years from understanding Burke.
Some of Burke’s critics correctly claim that he was opposed to ‘natural rights’. His opposition became more pronounced and ultimately uncontrolled in its fury in his last years. There were for him no political rights that were ‘natural’ because all such rights derived from civil society, which was artificial: ‘Art is man’s nature’, he wrote. This crucial distinction has been blurred in the general, almost demagogic accusation – often presented as a compliment by both conservative and liberal commentators – that Burke opposed ‘theory’ and attended only to the contingent and circumstantial nature of political (or any other) events. The version of Burke that thus emerges from an early commentator like the gifted bigot John Wilson Croker, or a more recent (though less gifted) one like Harvey Mansfield Jr, is usually allied to a general anti-intellectual assault. The false antinomy is not just limited to commentators on Burke; it became so standard in the 20th century that it featured as an Anglo-Saxon Attitude, often in vapid tirades against (usually French) theory. This is only one consequence of the concentration on Burke’s writings on the French Revolution, as if they comprise an autonomous body of thought, rather than being an extension of his great analysis of the American Revolution and his account of the criminal assault by Warren Hastings and the East India Company on the ‘moral community’ that constituted the British Empire.
Burke’s civic humanism and his sense of its long development in contingent circumstances over the broad spectrum of European history, along with his admiration for the traditions of jurisprudence (in which lay the prime example of the reconciliation of theory with practice), give you the sense when reading him of listening to his singing in unison with the voices of his great contemporaries and predecessors – Hume, Robertson, Smith, Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Vattel and Montesquieu. It is, then, all the more effective, even shocking, when he begins to refer to some people as monstrous – as warped physical or moral specimens in whom the humane traditions of the past and present are perverted. Of Hastings’s claim to be heroic, Burke said in his speech on the impeachment of the former governor general, ‘We never said he was a tiger and a lion; no, we have said he was a weasel and a rat.’ (Later an ‘insect’, ‘a swarm of locusts’.) His Letters on a Regicide Peace of 1795–6 (shortly before his death in 1797) bristles with hatred. The war with France was ‘between partisans of the ancient civil, moral and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all’; any capitulation would be a ‘peace which, like Scylla, has a thousand barking monsters of a thousand wars in its womb’.
Power, embedded in the matrix of tradition, prescription, prejudice, reverence and awe, needs all of those things if it is not to become corrupt and corrupting. When it does, resistance to it is not only right but even obligatory. When such resistance becomes revolutionary, we have to contend with the spirit of conquest yet again. In Burke’s view, the Americans were right to resist the arbitrary power of George III, the Indians to resist the atrocities of the Hastings regime, and the Irish Catholics to resist the vicious policies of the Protestant Ascendancy. Such forms of resistance were within the acknowledged system of civilisation. Reform would always be preferable to revolution, yet the right to rebel was unquestionable. But not in the French case. Their revolution, the result of a conspiratorial faction to usurp rather than reform a weak state, grew into a crusade against the very idea of civilisation itself. (Interestingly, the word civilisation does not appear in the plural form in French until 1819.) Bourke shows how Burke’s writing and enterprises were in themselves exemplary of the civilisation he wanted to repair and save.
This book is a truly outstanding achievement, a brilliant flowering of the Cambridge School (to which Richard Bourke obliquely belongs), which sees texts as elements in an ambient political discourse. It is the finest of all books on Edmund Burke. It vindicates the power of scholarship and analysis to allow us to see our present in the past and our past in the present. To order this book through our partner bookshop, Heywood Hill, see page 28
october 2015 | Literary Review 9