Posted: February 7, 2014
"It would be an invidious thing," Edmund Burke once said, "to remark the errors into which the authority of great names has brought the nation, without doing justice, at the same time, to the great qualities whence that authority arose." In these remarks, taken from a 1774 speech to the House of Commons against the Tea Act, Burke attacked the last remaining element of the Townshend Acts, but was careful not to attack Charles Townshend himself. Though he was not above invective at the proper time, Burke understood the difference between honoring the man and attacking his legacy. Two recent interpretations of Burke offer examples of each approach.
Drew Maciag and Jesse Norman approach Burke in quite disparate ways. Maciag, an intellectual historian, chronicles the use and abuse of Burke's authority throughout American history, with an eye toward criticizing the conservative appropriation of Burke. Norman, a Conservative member of the British Parliament and a trained philosopher, gives us a sparkling biography of Burke and a distillation of his main political principles. Norman wants to make Burke available to conservative thinkers once again, while Maciag thinks that that approach is always flawed.
For Maciag, Burke's reception in America is a story of the ideological exploitation of Burke's authority on behalf of causes that he never could have known. By showing the twists and turns of the American Burke, he hopes to pave the way for a progressive reading of the good Burke, the pre-French Revolution Burke, freed from the concerns of American conservatism.
Maciag constructs his own 16-page "Burke in Brief," a yardstick by which to measure Burke's American readers. Maciag's Burke is a Janus-faced "progressive-traditionalist," initially opposed to many elements of the "archconservative power structure" of his day, but then turning toward their defense. Prior to 1790, Burke was "a Whig reformer and progressive thinker." After 1790, Burke appears to Maciag "obsessively single-minded and narrowly focused." The Burke who opposed the French Revolution was motivated, as Maciag says in a later chapter, by "fear rather than conservatism." The reformist thinking which should have been Burke's legacy was overshadowed by the dour visage of reaction.
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Americans have tried and failed to understand Burke, in Maciag's reading. When John Adams was called "the American Burke," it was myth-making; an attempt to search for respectable antecedents that would justify America's self-image. When the Jacksonians and the transcendentalists read Burke, only the reformist Burke appeared. Maciag has little patience for admirers of the later anti-revolutionary Burke, like the Whigs Rufus Choate and Edward Everett. He faults them for using Burke to make a myth about America, but then he says that Whig conservatism "failed to link its worldview with American ideals." It seems that everyone was a failure. Only Joseph Story is close to "the Burkean core," as Maciag sees it, because Story embraced Burke's "progressive-conservative philosophy" rather than his mysticism.
According to Maciag, then, Burke was a man of two -isms, progressivism and traditionalism, or liberalism and conservatism. A form of the Whig interpretation of history, now largely passé among academic historians, undergirds Maciag's account. Those who are on board with the known direction of history are progressives. Those who fail to adjust (as Maciag says of John Adams) are traditionalists. Since Burke was "always shifting from one side of the vessel to the other," efforts to make him face port or starboard necessarily fail.
Maciag's peculiar approach frequently leads to bizarre and unhelpful generalizations. Speaking of Joseph Story and Burke, Maciag wagers that "perhaps he and Burke were both ahead of and behind their own times, depending on the circumstance." Every age features a contest of -isms, such as the "irreconcilable tug of war between traditionalism and exceptionalism" that marked the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In one breath, Maciag mocks Burke's overreaction to the French Revolution, and in the next asserts that the French Revolution was an epochal change. Was Burke ahead of his time or behind it?
It is remarkable that Maciag ascribes the Whig interpretation of history to Burke, even though British historian Sir Herbert Butterfield didn't coin the term until 1931. For Maciag, Whiggism means taking all changes as faits accomplis, and so Burke's shift toward reaction in the 1790s was a failure to follow his own principles. Yet this approach doesn't even make sense of the prerevolutionary Burke. Was British misrule in Ireland, America, or India not already a fait accompli to which Burke should have adjusted?
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In this sort of framework, it's a foregone conclusion that Maciag would have no use for postwar American conservatives, whom he prefers to psychologize rather than understand. Strangely, he treats Russell Kirk, Peter Stanlis, and the "Austrian-born" Leo Strauss (who was actually born in Germany) without reference to the Cold War, as though their interest in Burke reflected the down-and-out status of conservatives, desperately longing for what Maciag calls "the legitimacy of a respected father."
Writing intellectual history in this manner tends to lead to condescension, and Maciag treats postwar conservative interest in "the natural law" with gentle mockery. Most scholars agree that Burke tied human laws to some grounding in nature. However, he rejected the use of nature or natural right as a trump to overthrow existing institutions. The dispute between Strauss and Burke's Catholic interpreters concerned the status of political foundings, which Burke tended to view organically. In one place Maciag criticizes the "use of ‘right reason' as a moral trump card"; in another, he says Burke had an "almost irrational fear of rationalism." Which is it?
For Maciag, doubts about progress are basically irrational, and the forgotten early Burke was a progressive. Maciag, who does a brisk trade in -isms, claims that exceptionalism, egalitarianism, equalitarianism, individualism, liberalism, environmentalism, and so forth have all left Burke behind. Well-adjusted people get with the program. Those who follow Burke's "monarchism, mysticism, Old World traditionalism" have got the wrong -isms. To be sure, in Maciag's view few Americans actually follow the Burke of mysticism. But if any did, he would surely blame them.
Because of the opposition Maciag imposes on the pre- and post-revolutionary Burke, he doesn't attempt to explain why a supporter of reform shifted to being an opponent of revolution. Yet the change isn't so strange. Burke thought that the British constitution encouraged a politically fecund debate about the value of reform. In opposing the French Revolution, he opposed the loss of the political context in which reform could occur by its usual means.
Maciag uses a later, more radical distinction between liberalism and conservatism in order to assert Burke's incoherence and the incoherence of any attempt to interpret Burke. Since one can't consistently follow someone who was inconsistent, Burke's American readers always fall into one or the other extreme of Maciag's pincer strategy.
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Jesse Norman's book eschews the simplistic dichotomies on which Maciag depends. Instead he weaves a colorful tapestry of Burke's career, drawing out the threads that unite Burke's apparently opposed stands. Norman's biographical reading of Burke dominates the first half of his book, and it has the effect of making Burke's reactionary shift of the 1790s take a more natural place in the context of Burke's practices of reform. Though Norman's Burke disliked dry scholastic reasoning from an early age, his decision to go into politics wasn't a departure from learning. Burke instead looked for knowledge of the human things in the place where he was likely to find it.
In Norman's interpretation Burke's early works introduce themes that remain important to him later. By way of satire, his Vindication of Natural Society (1756) emphasizes the organic growth of societies over time in the absence of rational planning. His Account of the European Settlements in America (1757) brings out the general, shared character of human nature as well as the particular elements that distinguished each political culture.
Norman finds the same combination of the general and the particular in Burke's first mature political works. His detailed 1769 Observations on economic policy concludes with a statement on the heterogeneous character of the British constitution, which human reason in rationalizing would ruin. Burke's more famous Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) begins his exposition of party government in opposition to the king's rule through the use and abuse of personal favorites.
In Burke's attempts at conciliation with the American colonies, and his pleas for liberalization of trade with Ireland (even at the expense of the Bristol merchants whom he represented), Maciag finds proof of a softer-hearted Burke. Norman's Burke is instead "filled with a profound hatred of injustice and of the abuse of power," which animated his response to injustices in Ireland, India, and France. Indeed, Burke's disgust at the Irish Penal Acts contains language as fierce as anything found in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. When popular resistance to the perceived accommodation of Catholics brought riots all the way to Burke's door in 1780, he witnessed a "rapid and near-total collapse of society" that would later come to mind as he studied the revolution in France.
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Norman takes the view that Burke's Reflections "refines and extends ideas with which Burke had been working for almost thirty years." The debate over whether he had a reactionary turn after 1790 was already a live one when Burke wrote his apologia, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Burke's work of the 1780s also continued into the 1790s, as he pressed his impeachment of Warren Hastings, a government official who had corruptly misruled India-Burke's last effort from an era in which reform was possible.
The key insight of Norman's Burke is that membership in human society shapes men before being shaped by them. The reformist spirit accepts both of these aspects, seeking to preserve what is best in what is given and to improve it where possible. Many social institutions store and transmit the knowledge that becomes a reference point for human activity.
Norman's exposition of Burke brings together the themes of reform and conservation, for the parliamentary institutions dear to Burke, including political parties, were sites of debate. The party system should preserve the viewpoints out of which genuine reform can arise. At their best, parties offer stability, openness, moderation, leadership, and discussion. The political designs that Burke lambastes as "abstract" had no use for partisan dispute. Though France's National Assembly made "Left" and "Right" into political terms, the Right was progressively expunged—culminating in the purge of the moderate republicans in 1793. The revolution had divided Left and Right only in order to wipe out one of the two parties.
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Edmund Burke appears in Norman's book as the exponent of a well-functioning party system, led by statesmen distinguished for their virtue. Though Burke died before the advent of liberal individualism, his thought "carries within it a devastating analysis and critique" of the attempt to found policy only in the social sciences. The "simplifying assumptions" which animate modern economics ignore man's social nature, and cannot grasp the transgenerational character of human society. Political judgments involve trade-offs that social science cannot always resolve. Statesmen must preserve the particular moral community in which judgments about shared goods are possible—not viewing human beings as analytical archetypes but considering them in the variety of their motivations.
Norman calls Burke "the first conservative," but admits that he "would have rejected" some elements of modern market-based conservatism, and even the more strident tones of religious conservatism. The varied uses of Burke which so gall Drew Maciag come in part from Burke's own wish to preserve the space within which political leadership may grow and exercise itself.
True, it's never quite clear where Burke's temperament is going to cash out in the modern setting. Jesse Norman's book provides the guideposts, and leaves it to his readers to exercise their own judgment. Perhaps that's just how Burke would have wanted it.