Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Revolutionary Mr. Burke

Edmond Burke is known for his opposition to the French Revolution; in a series of shockingly accurate predictions, he pointed out that it was designed to end in massive bloodshed, political chaos, and social ruin. But Burke wasn't opposed to all revolutions: he specifically applauded the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution of 1776. Connor O'Brien, professor at the University of Dublin, describes Burke's reasoning:

The second English revolution, of 1688, known to its heirs as the Glorious Revolution, was not Utopian at all, but deliberately limited, pragmatic, and pluralist. The double objective was to end the arbitrary and Romanist rule of James II, without reviving the [anti-Romanist trends of Cromwell's first English revolution].

Burke approved of the Glorious Revolution because it was pragmatic: it did not seek to overthrow or change society, but merely the government. It was limited, because it did not seek to change all aspects of government, but merely some of them. And it was pluralist, because in encouraged the Christian concept of religious tolerance.

The American Revolution began out of quite limited grievances and objectives, and certainly without any Utopian agenda. As soon as definite revolutionary purpose emerged, the model was England's Glorious Revolution, with George III cast in the role of James II.

In Burke's mind, the American Revolution was a replay of the Glorious Revolution. The key was limited change to a few aspects of government, rather than smashing both government and society entirely.

The Glorious Revolution was essentially a dynastic and sectarian adjustment. The American Revolution was essentially the secession of colonists from an empire. The first real full-blooded secular revolution, the first large and determined attempt to construct a secular Utopia, after a wholesale destruction of existing arrangements - together with the people who were seen to represent and defend these arrangements, was the French Revolution.

Burke's view could be summarized as: fix it, reform it, don't destroy it. But the French Revolution was an attempt to destroy one civilization and create another in its place. Some historians see the French Revolution as the birth of Fascism.

Because Burke had supported the American Revolution, some people expected him to also support the French Revolution.

In Burke's view, however, the colonists had deserved support, not because they had asserted abstract rights ... but for resisting the withdrawal of liberties which they had long enjoyed as British subjects.

In this understanding of the American Revolution, George Washington and the other Founding Fathers were defending an established social order, while George III of England was attempting to introduce something new and different. The Founding Fathers were defending their traditional rights under the Magna Charta, but King George III was trying to institute a new system in which those rights would be taken away.

By contrast, the French Revolution was attacking a long-standing society; Burke saw this in its reliance on the writings of Rousseau. Burke wrote:

Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action ... True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing in the appearance, they have totally discarded.

Burke goes on to examine Rousseau's life: fathering many illegitimate children, and refusing to support them or their mothers in any way, he sent these infants to squalid orphanages, where they would soon die of childhood diseases. Burke equates Rousseau's personal failings with the institutional failure of the French Revolutionary government, which would execute thousands of unarmed innocent citizens.