Today Edmund Burke is often hailed as the father of British, if not Western, conservatism. Although he never formulated a complete, cogent set of views1, he was remarkably consistent in his beliefs throughout his life and much of what he says still resonates with us today. Burke was born on January 12, 1729 in Dublin, son of a well-to-do Protestant lawyer and his Catholic wife. Although he received an excellent and strongly classical education at Trinity College, Dublin, his Irishness always made him something of an outsider in British political life. It was in Ireland that he first developed his ambivalence towards the aristocracy, of which he himself was not a part. British rule of Ireland was often brutal and the peasantry lived in abject poverty, and this subject appears to be the first to have politicised the young Burke. He and several friends published a paper known as The Reformer out of Trinity, attacking British policies in Ireland, and it enjoyed satisfactory sales.
Burke was starting to develop the maxim that would stay with him throughout his life: property was to be respected, but the duty of the propertied was to improve the lot of the propertyless. Government had to be responsible to the governed. It has been suggested that his acceptance of the propertied, established order was due to a realisation on his part that as an Irishman he could never make headway in the British establishment without accepting its values.2 But an Irishman he remained, although his father soon sent him to London to learn jurisprudence. Burke applied himself well to the subject, but was not wholly taken with it. He rather had the taste for literature, and at the age of 27 he released A Vindication of Natural Society, a satire on the political thought of Henry St John Bolingbroke. This was the most abstract piece of political work he produced, for in his later life he spurned a priori theorising and made a principle of not deriving policy from principle.
His next work was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which was released several months later. He had by now brought himself fully to the attention of literary circles in London, having released two remarkable books for someone so young. But by 1757 he was reaching the conclusion that a literary career could not allow him to support the wife he took that year, nor their soon-to-arrive children. In 1758 he took up the job of writing a 500 page yearly review of history, politics and literature known as the Annual Register, which he continued to do until about 1776. But in 1759 he found his real calling when he staged his entrance into British politics. He was taken up by the chief secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and travelled there as his private secretary. This lasted for four years, at which point Burke returned and soon became the chief secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, who was just about to become Prime Minister. He was found a rotten borough in Wendover and won the seat of Bristol on his own merits in 1775. In 1780 he lost the Bristol seat for refusing to act as an instructed delegate of his constituents, but was easily found another one.
Burke and domestic politics prior to 1789
It has often been suggested that Burke was an inconsistent figure (which Marx ascribed to him being in the pay of different groups during his life), but in fact a proper reading of Burke's work reveals no such problem. Burke may be defined by how he interpreted various Revolutions which had a bearing on his life - he derived his values from the Glorious Revolution, tacitly supported the American Revolution, and opposed the French Revolution vehemently. What is often confusing to observers is that prior to 1789 Burke seemed to be a reforming Whig, but when the French Revolution appeared on the international stage he appeared to suddenly turn into a violent reactionary. Such a misunderstanding derives, I would suggest, from a misunderstanding of just how radical the French Revolution was.3 We shall trace Burke's political thought prior to the Revolution, and then seek to explain why his reaction to it was perfectly consistent with his earlier views.
Burke appeared to enter his career in politics with many of the beliefs that characterised his later thought firmly in place. He demonstrated these in his early publications, such as his Tract on the Popery Laws (c. 1761, unpublished) which argued that there existed a natural law to which the laws of nations were subordinate. The Tract was a polemic against laws enacted against Irish Catholics denying them basic rights of citizenship, which Burke said were invalid because they contradicted the basic foundation of all law: equity and utility. Not only were the laws unjust because they were unfair, they were not expedient either - the sovereign could hope to achieve nothing by restricting the freedom of people for no good reason. To do so, especially when interfering with their property, was inimical to national prosperity. He was taking the bourgeois rationalist view of human motivation that pervades conservatism to this day, and was more fully set out in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and The Thoughts and Details of Scarcity (1795). This is a consistent line of thought which runs through his pre-Revolution and post-Revolution writings. This view holds that man is motivated by avarice, and that by allowing it to take its course in a market economy, the good of all will be served.
Burke's fight against inujustice and corruption in British politics continued. Although he always addressed himself to concrete problems of the day, along the way he made empirical generalisations and appeals to principle that remain of interest to us today. In a pamphlet published in 1769 he attacked the idea of deriving constitutional change from abstract principle, arguing instead that empirical observation was more important. Furthermore -
"politicks ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings, but to human nature, of which reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part."
His next pamphlet was entitled Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) and attacked a specific problem - encroachment by the Crown on the independence of Parliament. He charged that a Court cabal was persuading Parliament to vote the Crown extra revenue, which was then used to bribe M.Ps to support malignant Court policies. He claimed that political parties were the solution to the problem, for groups of men committed to stand and fall together would be less easy to pick off by bribery. This would allow politicians to focus on their principles. But, characteristically, he did not say exactly what principles. For -
"It is the business of the speculative philosopher to mark the proper ends of government. It is the business of the politician, who is the philosopher in action, to find out proper means towards these ends, and to employ them with effect."
In 1775, Burke's position on Ireland (he wanted to relieve commercial and religious discrimination), cost him his seat in Bristol. In a speech to the electors he set out one of his famous principles - that an M.P. is not a representative delegate of his constitutents, but should be allowed to exercise independent judgement. He argued that government was a matter of reason and judgement, not inclination, and that it was absurd to have people hundreds of miles from the debate in Parliament deciding the outcome. An M.P., he said, betrays his constituents if he does not take the best course of action for the nation. For the M.P. should not be there to represent the local prejudices of his constituency, but to seek the best course of action for the nation as a whole. When chosen, Burke had become "not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament".
In 1780, Burke's Speech on Economical Reform showed that he was not blindly loyal to all old institutions. He attacked redudent feudal offices which were used by the Crown to reward Members of Parliament. The offices might have made sense when the King's household was the primary seat of government, but now they required reform - for "peope will bear an old establishment when its excess is corrected, who will revolt at a new one". The criterion for good institutions was broadly utilitarian, which is why he venerated much of the establishment - but if an institution had become anti-utilitarian, it should be removed. It was the duty of the politician to seek out such things and use his reason to correct them.
On the colonies
Burke said that he wanted to be remembered for his work to help the people of India escape the near-total authority of the East India Company over their lives. He was also concerned that the "breakers of law in India" would become the "makers of law for England".4 Throughout the 1780s he dedicated most of his time to the India problem. Although he felt that India was a proper white man's burden for England, he hated the way the East India Company went about the business. His belief that government should be responsible to the governed was violated by the actions of the East India Company, which had he said violated all principles of fairness and honesty. Although he knew he couldn't prove that their actions were unlawful, he claimed they violated a higher natural law. They exercised arbitrary power over the domain of India which, he said, it was not within the power of Parliament - nor any human - to award to them. He led impeachment proceedings against the colonial administer Warren Hastings, who he held personally responsible for the crimes committed by the Company. The impeachment failed, and was marred on Burke's part by excessive zeal and personal hatred.
As for America, Burke had always supported the repeal of the Stamp Act and supported the repeal of the tax on tea. This was not because he didn't think Britain had the legal right to impose whatever taxes it wished on the American colonies - it was just anti-utilitarian to do so. He said that government was based on barter, and when an entire populace opposed the policies of a government then it was clearly not being responsible to them, and compromise was needed: "I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people". Utility is upheld over legal right, and he again appeals to natural justice - the spirit of the laws - over them being pushed to their logical conclusion.
1688 vs. 1789
The French Revolution did not make Burke change his course - but it did lead him to put down on paper his most cogent set of views on the British constitution. This was approached in Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, and done more fully in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791). Burke didn't derive his principles logically from first principles of human nature like John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, but rather from bourgeois rationalist assumptions.
Burke's worldview is based around inheritance. The English constitution, he said, was based on this principle. Men inherited their rights and liberties from their forefathers, and transmitted them to posterity. There was thus a unity about the English people, for they all shared this in common - from the King down to the lowest freeman. This gave people a proper veneration of the past and a national dignity (the English being a sort of nobility among nations), which would guard against greed and ambition driving people to mess with the system. "Inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement."5 Nations grow strong because they assume existing, stable institutions to be favourable to untried projects - this does not at all exclude the principle of reform, just of radical breaks with the past.
The Glorious Revolution had been just such a reform. It did not make reference to prior or more general rights than the Charters established throughout the ages which gave the English people their rights. It was simply returning to an earlier time to restore rights that had been endangered. And had the French Revolution been a similar thing, then Burke would have had little problem with it (he did refrain from judgement for a while after it begun). But when the Estates-General was liquidated and the Constituent Assembly formed, something else was happening - a radical break with the past was been made. The modern era began when the French people broke the ancient trinity of religion, authority and tradition that had ruled over Europe since Roman times. I do not mean to hold Burke up as a prophet. But he realised that this reference to prior rights - the Rights of Man - necessarily entailed the breaking down of hierarchical society, and radical attacks on the property divison that supported it.
A fuller understanding will be attained by examining Burke's views on property and, more specifically, capitalism. Burke was a laissez-faire capitalist. Furthermore, he believed that the capitalist order was divinely ordained, which is why he used Natural Law to defend this aspect of the ancien regime of Europe. Students of Early Modern political economy may find this contradictory, for Natural Law had always been used to defend the moral economy of Early Modern Europe. But since the 17th century the structure of English society had changed, and the content had become capitalist - but Burke could still use Natural Law to his advantage, because the form had stayed the same, i.e. society was still hierarchical. He invoked not only utilitarian economic theory but also classic paternalism to justify the capitalist order. His main tenet was that capital accumulation was necessary for the advancement of civilization, and this depended on the continued existence of the wage-labour/capital relationship which left the entrepreneur with a profit. This entrepreneur's interest was to keep his workers well-fed and merry of mind so they would complete their work well, and thus the worker was well-served as well.
The Natural Law argument was simpler. The capitalist order was divinely-ordained (because it existed naturally), and whatever was divinely-ordained must be equitable. It was not the business of the state to interfere in the economic sphere and alleviate suffering (the utilitarian argument held that suffering was best alleviated by leaving the economic sphere alone anyway), because God had decided that things should be how they were. The chain of subordination (the Medieval Great Chain of Being) passed from the capitalist down to his worker, through the animals he worked with and finally into his tools. The capitalist was responsible for his workers and should furnish them well with food and a comfortable life, and thus society revolved around paternalism and the need for subordination. Levelling instincts would only harm this unity, as they were doing in France. By re-asserting this principle the Glorious Revolution had been the key to England's national prosperity - the destruction of it and unlimited power of the new Assembly in France would be their ruin.
1. Thus Thomas Paine, Burke's nemesis, chided: "It is not from his prejudices only, but from the disorderly cast of his genius, that he is unfitted for the task he writes upon.": The Rights of Man in Thomas Paine: Political Writings (Cambridge), p. 85.
2. Marx called Burke a "sycophant" who was, he alleged, "in the pay of the English oligarchy" for his acquiescence to a class to which he did not belong: in Capital (Penguin Classics, 1990), pp. 925 - 26f.
3. Hannah Arendt is perhaps only the most illustrious political philosopher to have often argued that the French Revolution inaugurated the modern age, and Simon Schama remarks that it may still "be too soon, or possibly, too late" to tell what its true significance was (Preface to Citizens, 1989).
4. Reflections on the Revolution in France, (1790), p. 310.
5. Ibid., pp. 119 - 20.
C.B. Macpherson, Burke
Karl Marx, Capital
Thomas Paine, Political Writings
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France; idem, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents; idem, The Thoughts and Details of Scarcity; idem, Tract on the Popery Laws
Simon Schama, Citizens