Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: much better than the hype — November 9, 2017

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: much better than the hype

Just the author, the title, and the publisher (Hackett) on a boring grey background with white text The standard hype around this book, at least as I’ve consumed such hype, is that Burke is kind of the arch-conservative, ever on the lookout for ways to crush the rabble. After reading his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the worst I’m willing to say is that I need more information.

Burke was writing from the opposite side of the English Channel as the French Revolution was just warming up. The king’s head hadn’t yet been separated from the king’s body, but there were extremely alarming signs. From October 5 through 6 of 1789, the masses had force-marched the king from Versailles to Paris. The revolutionaries had seized church lands, and had constructed a new currency whose value derived from that of the seized lands. The French, it seemed, had begun an experiment in widespread social engineering (as we’d call it today) on the basis of what a few Enlightenment philosophers had taught. They had thrown out, at one go, much of what the French had learned about government over the previous centuries.

How was Burke supposed to perceive this? To my eye, the French Revolution seems to differ from English history in degree but not in type. A century and change before Burke wrote, the English had chopped off their king’s head and had spent time under the protectorship of Puritan extremists. They had been overtaken with, to my eye, anti-Catholic hysteria, which had led them to require that any future British monarch be protestant. This resulted in a German man taking the crown. That German man’s right to rule was so contested that the country had been under violent authoritarian censorship for a decade.

Maybe none of this was all that revolutionary or destructive, but of course that would have to be argued. Burke is not a fool, so he spends some time arguing that the British had not actually been all that revolutionary during the 17th century; much of Reflections is, in fact, an argument over the meaning of British history as much as it is over contemporary France. He’s at pains to argue throughout Reflections that French philosophical revolution is an entirely different beast than the (by stipulation) slow, methodical British method of revolution. Oddly, the American Revolution comes up not even once in Burke’s book. In any case, this part of the argument falls flat for me. I’m not convinced that there are so many differences between the British and French forms of revolution, or he looked the freshest example of revolution that was ready to hand (namely the American) square in the face.

If I were arguing, contra Burke, that the French Revolution had to happen as it did — that it couldn’t have happened in a slow, methodical way — I would want to have facts on hand about the French peasantry. The French king seemed like a lovely guy to Burke, but it certainly seems as though the Revolution was a people’s revolution. (Though I understand that there’s been some dispute about this over the last century or so. Perhaps it was a revolution of the bourgeois? I don’t know enough to adjudicate this dispute, which is my whole leitmotif here.) Was the French economy so backwards, and was medieval government so baked into the cake, that you couldn’t remove one piece without destroying the whole thing? This is a factual question, and I don’t know enough to weigh in. Burke certainly seems to think that there was nothing so badly rotten about French government that it couldn’t have been fixed in a piecemeal fashion. But then, his priors are pretty clearly anti-democratic to begin with, and it’s not clear to me that he had much of an idea of how the other 99% lived.

It seems likely that we care about Burke today because he’s been grafted into a story about the origins of conservatism. His ideas, as laid out in this book, fit nicely into a conservative hatred of social engineering, and specifically of the “unintended consequences” that conservatives like to wag their fingers at. Don’t sweep away all existing institutions en masse, says Burke; they encode more expertise than any of the particular philosophers who are tasked with rebuilding a republic from scratch. Institutions are greater than people, in other words, no matter the people. It wouldn’t be hard to align this with, say, Karl Popper, who advocates for continuous social experimentation at scales that make that scientific inference possible. As much as possible, change one variable (in your society), see what happens, revise your experiment, change, scale up, and continue. I see an even clearer connection with Joel Spolsky’s essay on the one mistake software developers should never, ever make, namely throwing out all their existing code and starting over from scratch. Your existing code, no matter how much you think it resembles spaghetti, encodes hard-won expertise from years of experimentation and of actually shipping software.

This all seems hard to object to. The idea that there’s a direct line of descent, however, connecting Burke to, say, National Review, is more far-fetched, and seems like opportunistic hindsight. J. G. A. Pocock’s excellent introduction to Burke’s book affirms as much.

If there’s any line of descent connecting them, it may be the thread that Corey Robin pulls on in The Reactionary Mind: that conservatism has always defined itself as the negation of something else, and in particular that it has always been about stopping the “lowest orders” from gaining power.

I’m willing to believe this about conservatism as it’s practiced today. In the specific case of Burke, I’d need more information. I don’t really believe that Burke opposed the French Revolution because he believed that the poor deserve to remain in their station, and that the hereditary monarchy should remain in power until the sun goes dark. The French Revolution feels like a genuine moral quandary. The British 17th century, also, feels like a genuine moral quandary. Neither of these things can be judged by how they eventually turned out, so it doesn’t much matter how I perceive the French or British revolutions two-hundred-plus years later. What matters, to my mind, is how an ordinary Frenchman would have — or should have — felt about it in 1789. And I need to read more before I can make up my mind on that.

Next up on the reading list: Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Somewhere further along in the list: Lefebvre, Twelve Who Ruled, and Carlyle’s thing which I could even begin to penetrate the last time I tried. The goal is to understand the world as Burke, Paine, and co. might have.