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“Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke
This is perhaps the seminal text of traditional British conservatism. First published in 1790, it
is the best known attack in the English language on the French Revolution and the principles
that motivated it.
Burke was writing early on in the revolutionary period, before the worst excesses had yet
come to pass. The reign of terror lay several years in the future, and Napoleon Bonaparte was
still an obscure artillery officer in Corsica. Nevertheless, Burke was horrified by what had
happened on the other side of the Channel:
All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has
hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about, in many
instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous, in the most ridiculous modes, and
apparently by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this
strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts
of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragicomic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily
succeed and sometimes mix with each other in the mind: alternate contempt and indignation,
alternate laughter and tears, alternate scorn and horror.
The old French monarchy and aristocracy had had their faults, Burke conceded, but they
really hadn’t been so bad, and carrying out a revolution against them had been a terrible
mistake. As it was, the “degraded king” had been stripped of real power and replaced with “a
despotic democracy”, and the people’s representatives in the National Assembly – which had
no Senate to balance it – were nothing more than a bunch of country lawyers and members of
the lower clergy.
As well as being barbarous and destructive, Burke argued, the revolution had been pointless
and counter-productive. The revolutionaries had risen up against a relatively liberal king, and
their actions would simply result in other kings becoming paranoid and tyrannical. Louis
XVI’s regime had been reforming – if anything, it had been doing so too hastily – and the
French constitution had been evolving in the direction of the British constitution.
Burke intended this as a compliment. He was very keen indeed on the British
constitution. His own favourite revolution was Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, which
had been undertaken “to preserve our ancient, indisputable laws and liberties and that ancient
constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty”. He revered the
1689 Bill of Rights and the great English tradition of Magna Carta, Coke and Blackstone. He
admired “the firm but cautious and deliberate spirit” of the British system of government, and
“the fixed form of a constitution whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long
experience and an increasing public strength and national prosperity”. True, the unreformed
House of Commons was elected on an eccentric and somewhat corrupt basis. But that didn’t
matter: the system worked quite well in practice. Anyway, if one started questioning the
legitimacy of the Commons, where would it end? With the abolition of the Lords? Of the
Burke favoured neither democracy nor absolute monarchy. Rather, he advocated the British
model of “a monarchy directed by laws, controlled and balanced by the great hereditary
wealth and hereditary dignity of a nation, and both again controlled by a judicious check from
the reason and feeling of the people at large acting by a suitable and permanent organ”. He
subscribed to the view that the British constitution was a balanced combination of rule by the
king, the nobility and the common people: “We are resolved to keep… an established
monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it
exists, and in no greater.”
Burke thought that democracy would on occasion be an appropriate form of government, but
feared the consequences of a tyranny of the majority. He dismissed the liberal idea that the
British people had the right to choose their rulers and to dismiss them for misconduct. On the
contrary, he affirmed, the King of Great Britain reigned not because he had been elected to his
position but because he had inherited the throne in accordance with the law. True, James II
had been deposed in 1688, but that had been a exception to the general rule, a reluctant
necessity occasioned by that monarch’s extraordinary crimes. Burke was also relaxed about
social inequality, and did not favour too high a degree of meritocracy. It was quite fitting that
the House of Lords – and, in practice, the House of Commons as well – should be composed of
the landed gentry. “Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive
appropriation) given to birth is neither unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic.” After all, the
mass of the people did not necessarily know what was good for them.
Burke laments not only the passing of the old French monarchy, but also more generally the
age of romance, honour and chivalry, which was being replaced by the “barbarous
philosophy” of rationalism:
[The age] of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is
extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and
sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which
kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of
life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is
gone!… All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which
harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into
politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this
new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn
off. All the super-added ideas… which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as
necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature… are to be exploded as a
ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Stop the world, I want to get off…. The problem, according to Burke, was that the bloodless
reason of the Enlightenment was unequal to the task of keeping society together. The naive
endeavours of the liberal reformers would bring not freedom and justice but only tyranny.
It was not that Burke was a friend of monarchic absolutism or an enemy of freedom. He liked
freedom, or, at any rate, a “rational and manly freedom”. He described himself as “one almost
the whole of whose public exertion has been a struggle for the liberty of others”. However,
liberty could not be regarded as a sole and absolute good: it had to be combined with public
order, effective governance, morality, respect for property, and “civil and social manners”. He
wrote: “I shall always… consider that liberty as very equivocal in her appearance which has
not wisdom and justice for her companions and does not lead prosperity and plenty in her
Burke’s philosophy of the state was predictably romantic. For liberals, the state was a device
for protecting and enforcing individual rights. For Burke, it was an organic entity ordained by
It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all
perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it
becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are
living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
For an Irishman, Burke had a quintessentially British pragmatism, and an impatience with
idealistic projects to remake humanity. It is for this element of his political thought that he
tends to be remembered today. He rejected what he saw as the French revolutionaries’ naive
liberal blueprint. Their error had been “to despise the ancient, permanent sense of mankind
and to set up a scheme of society on new principles”. He asked:
What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon
the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to
call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.
The problem with Enlightenment liberals, he said, was that they “are so taken up with their
theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature”.
Burke was quite a different sort of conservative from the ‘clerical philosophers’ of the
reactionary school like our old friend Joseph de Maistre (though de Maistre read and admired
the Reflections). Whereas de Maistre was preoccupied with absolute power as a bulwark
against primaeval anarchy, Burke had a more level-headed and British concern with order,
stability and tradition. When he writes of “those exploded fanatics of slavery…. [those] old
fanatics of single arbitrary power dogmatised as if hereditary royalty was the only lawful
government in the world”, it is difficult not to apply his words to de Maistre and his legitimist
friends. Burke was, after all, a Whig rather than a Tory.
Nor, in the final analysis, was Burke a diehard anti-reformer. He famously wrote that “[a]
state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”. He may
have been a conservative, but he recognised the “two principles of conservation and
correction” – “in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never
wholly obsolete”. His ideal politician was a cautious reformer rather than a well-meaning
A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than
he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the
most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to
improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.
All the same, the striking fact is that Burke was on the wrong side of history. He was right
about the violence and instability at the heart of the French Revolution, but his own precious
British constitution was looking a bit peaky and would be fundamentally reformed over the
Why it’s so much harder to think like a
We are accused of offering only the status quo, with all its injustices. But the survival of our
way of life really is at stake
The Guardian, Wednesday 10 September 2014 19.09 BST
‘If we look at the big issues today – Islamic extremism; or the environment – we will see that
the Conservative view rightly identifies what is now at stake.’ Photograph: Stringer/Reuters
Politics is a matter of day-to-day improvisation, and it often seems as though the major parties
are guided only by the desire to stay in office and not by any philosophy that might justify
their doing so. Whatever the truth in that observation, however, we know that the Labour
party grew from a distinct outlook on society, and that it can still lean on ideas of equality and
social justice in order to justify what it is trying to do. Can the Tory party do the same? Is
there a political philosophy that encapsulates the aims and aspirations of those we call
“Conservative”, and does the party still conform to it?
My own view is that there is such a philosophy, and that the party would conform to it, were it
in the habit of thinking things through. However, thinking is an unusual and precarious
exercise for Conservatives.
This is not because they are more stupid than their socialist or liberal rivals, although John
Stuart Mill famously declared them to be so. It is because they believe that good government
is not grounded in abstract ideas but in concrete situations, and that concrete situations are
hard to grasp. Abstract ideas like equality and liberty have a spurious transparency, and can be
used to derive pleasing theorems in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Rawls. But
applying them raises the question: to what or to whom? Which group of people is to be made
more equal, and who is to be made more free?
Those are not questions to be answered in the abstract. They are questions of identity: who we
are, and why we are entitled to use that very pronoun – “we” – to describe us.
For Conservatives, all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and
existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is attachment – the motive in human
beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people who are theirs.
When socialists promise a more equal society they are talking about us; when liberals offer to
expand the list of human rights, they mean the rights that we enjoy.
The language of politics is spoken in the first-person plural, and for Conservatives, the duty of
the politician is to maintain that first-person plural in being. Without it, law becomes an alien
imposition, not ours but theirs, like the laws imposed by a conquering power. Conservatives
are not reactionaries. As Edmund Burke said, “we must reform in order to conserve” – or, in
more modern idiom: we must adapt. But adaptation means survival, and survival means
a maintained identity.
It is very easy to dismiss Conservatism in the name of the universal ideals of the
Enlightenment. But governments are elected by a specific people in a specific place, and must
meet the people’s needs – including the most important of their needs, which is the need to be
bound to their neighbours in a relation of trust. If we cease to maintain a “specific people in a
specific place”, then all political principles will be pointless, since there will be no community
with an interest in obeying them. That is why, in all the post-war political debates in our
country, Conservatives have emphasised the defence of the realm, the maintenance of national
borders, and the unity of the nation. It is why they are now entering a period of self-doubt, as
the nation disintegrates into its historically established segments, while European regulations
dissolve our boundaries.
Conservatism does not fit easily with abstract ideals. And for many of its defenders that is all
that Conservatism amounts to – the suspicion of ideals. After all, the socialist ideal of equality
has led to the belief that patriotism is racism, and that the attachment to an established way of
life is merely unjust discrimination against those who do not share it. The result has been a
cantonisation of society in the name of “multiculturalism”. And the liberal ideal of universal
human rights has likewise led to a downgrading of attachment, since attachment is a form of
discrimination and therefore a way of giving preference to those who already belong.
Abstract ideals, Conservatives argue, are inevitably disruptive, since they undermine the slow,
steady work of real politics, which is a work of negotiation and compromise between people
whose interests will never coincide.
Seeing politics in that way, however, Conservatives are exposed to the complaint that they
have no positive vision, and nothing to offer us, save the status quo – with all its injustices
and inequalities, and all its entrenched corruption. It is precisely in facing this charge that the
real thinking must be done. In How to Be a Conservative, I offer a response to this ongoing
complaint, and in doing so distance Conservatism from what its leftist critics call
“neoliberalism”. Conservatism, I argue, is not a matter of defending global capitalism at all
costs, or securing the privileges of the few against the many. It is a matter of defending civil
society, maintaining autonomous institutions, and defending the citizen against the abuse of
power. Its underlying motive is not greed or the lust for power but simply attachment to a way
If we look at the big issues facing us today – the EU, mass immigration, the union, Islamic
extremism, the environment – we will surely see that the Conservative view rightly identifies
what is now at stake: namely the survival of our way of life. Conservatives are not very good
at articulating the point, and left-liberal censorship intimidates those who attempt to do so.
But it is a fault in the socialist and liberal ideas that they can be so easily articulated – a proof
that they avoid the real, hard philosophical task, which is that of seeing civil society as it is,
and recognising that it is easier to destroy good things in the name of an ideal than to maintain
them as a reality.
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson: Revolt in Cairo (1810)
The first cogent expression of conservative ideas was Edmund Burke’s essay Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he claimed that revolutions lead to destruction, mass murder and new
upheavals. This painting depicts the Revolt of Cairo of 1798 against the French conquerors, led by
Napoleon. It is said that after the Muslims saw that the rebellion would not succeed, they begged
God for mercy, but Napoleon replied: “For God is too late – you started this and I will finish it.” It is
exactly this tendency of revolutionaries to think of themselves as godlike that conservatives dislike.
Conservatism is a unique way of looking at the world. Unlike liberalism,
socialism, communism and even, to an extent, Christian democracy, conservatism does not spring from a philosophical foundation. It is, rather, a response
– a project of resistance – against the ideas of radical reform and of total revolution sweeping the continent of Europe from the end of the 18th century.
But it is not a philosophical response, because it does not present the public
with a coherent framework, based on explicit principles and constructed by the
exercise of reason. Conservatism is notoriously difficult to explain in terms of reason and principle, let alone in terms of human rights or even – elementary logic.
This is why conservatives, as a rule, avoid philosophical discussions; and
only feel the need to explain themselves philosophically when ways of life,
which they hold dear, are placed in immediate danger. The first conservative,
Edmund Burke, was provoked into writing about conservatism by the 1789
revolution in France. Friedrich Hayek stepped into the battle of ideas when,
in the 1940s, state intervention into the economy moved in the direction of
socialist control, threatening freedom and initiative. Roger Scruton felt the
need to clarify conservative ideas, when confronted with the 1968 revolution
in France and its impact on the intellectual world of England. And Margaret
Thatcher was provoked to explain her principles when, taking over as Prime
Minister in 1979, she confronted a virtually bankrupt, socialistically-minded,
dependent and frightened British society.
Conservatism is a feeling – a certain sensitivity to the world and people.
Unlike socialists and liberals, conservatives do not believe that human
beings can be perfect if they attain more freedom. Conservatives see people
as full of deficiencies, being the product of the Original Sin.
People, conservatives believe, are weak, avaricious, corruptible, cruel and
selfish. If, on top of this, people were to come to believe in the infallibility of
their thoughts – which is something socialists and liberals appeal to – then
more than likely people would shed all restraints and begin doing terrible
things to each other. This is why, conservatives believe, people must live in
limitations; going beyond their limits would lead to catastrophe.
Where liberals, socialists, anarchists and communists talk about achieving
complete freedom, absolute rights and total independence, conservatives talk
about authority, the need to be modest and to respect the society and institutions we have inherited – be …
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