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Edmund Burke's Legacy By Andrew Webster

A Tribute on the 200th Anniversary of his Death

ON 9th JULY 1797 the statesman and the philosopher Edmund Burke died, after having contracted stomach cancer. He was buried in Beaconsfield Church near his Buckinghamshire home. Burke had been a distinguished Member of Parliament but never attained high office. His political career must be judged a failure.
  However, Edmund Burke's true legacy was contained in his extensive writings. In letters,pamphlets and books he expounded a coherent system of ideas about human nature;the organic state; the benefits of prejudice;the dangers of government by secret consensus and the role of political parties.
  Two hundred years on, most scholars would agree that Burke had a gift for deep analysis conveyed in stylish English prose.Yet the content of his work though remains controversial. Supporters included the poet William Wordsworth, who called Burke: "the most sagacious politician of his age". Karl Marx, on the other hand, complained in Das Kapital that Burke was a bourgeois stooge of the English ruling class. Marxists took particular offence at Burke's critique of egalitarianism, perhaps realising the radical threat which this presented to their own vision of a future society.
  Modern liberals and conservatives still acclaim some of Burke's ideas, but their interest is largely rhetorical. Burke's liberal tendencies would almost certainly not go far enough for today's liberals. His support for the abolition of slavery was only gradualist, his religious toleration did not extend to atheists (whom he saw as dangerous criminals) and, whilst in favour of curbing royal patronage, Burke supported monarchy and aristocracy. Meanwhile, his conservative defence of Parliament, the nation and the Anglican Church would presumably be a sheer embarrassment to today's Conservative Party, which has embraced European Union and a secular, free market ideology.
  This two-part article will outline some of Edmund Burke's key ideas and assess their relevance to nationalism. His contribution is an important one. Sadly, Burke's clarity and complete lack of political correctness must limit his appeal in the modern age. In 1997 and beyond Burke seems destined to become a forgotten prophet except to those who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. 1.THE NATURE OF MAN
  All societies are based on a particular view of human nature. Today's view, springing from Enlightenment philosophy, is that people are equal, interchangeable units of production and consumption. Differences of race, nationality, culture, gender and ability are seen as obstacles to social harmony which must be removed.Burke witnessed the emergence of this fallacy and condemned it.The intellectuals of his age blamed "special ties" for causing conflict and injustice. A typical example of such thinking was Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789). Dr. Price argued that patriotism was "a blind and narrow principle,producing a contempt of other countries" and he called upon people to become "citizens of the world". Burke's most famous tract,Reflections on the Revolution in France,strongly attacked Price.
  Instead of forcing people to conform to a model of an "ideal society", Burke started by studying man's true nature. He observed that real people were not abstract "men" but Englishmen, Frenchmen, Indians and the like.Burke wrote: "We begin our public affections in our families... we pass on to our neighbourhoods". He accepted that human beings have distinctive identities, that we love our kin above strangers and that this must affect the type of society we create. It is not morally bad, it is simply the way we are. "To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind". (1)
In defending the family, locality and nation,Burke stood for a natural, organic state as opposed to an artificial one based on planning. At a time when machines like steam engines were transforming the economy,many argued that society could also be planned and precision engineered. The French Revolution was an attempt to redesign a country in this way.
  However, advances in botany and zoology showed that, whereas machines were rigid, repetitive and tended to break down, organic life is flexible, adaptable and self-perpetuating. Burke, along with the Romantic poets, preferred to base society on evolutionary nature, making it "a permanent body composed of transitory parts". Today's world is dominated by artificial empires, multinational firms and bureaucracies, which treat human beings as components. If Burke was right, the future will belong not to these, but to human scale structures which have grown over hundreds of years.
  "People will not look forward to posterity", Burke wrote, "who never look backward to their ancestors" (2). His famous definition of society was that it was a contract between the living, the dead and those who are yet to be born. Each individual is merely a cell in a larger body. The individual dies, but the body carries on. Therefore it is the body that matters.If we accept that we are citizens in an "eternal society",we must never turn our backs on tradition because this age-old wisdom is the experience of our race.Tradition is a better guide to action than is abstract reason. This is because "the individual is foolish. The multitude is foolish; but the species is a species it almost always acts right' (3).
  Modern society embraces a dynamic change and sees the past as obsolete.It destroys the old to build the new. Burke called this "a liberal descent" and warned "unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos". He urged respect for institutions on the same grounds as for men: "on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended".
  History, claimed Burke's biographer, "was always central to his thought. A nation's manners and morals, its religions and political institutions, its social structure, were all prescribed by its past....the outlines of the "script" were already written" (4). Now we must ask ourselves: is government from Brussels,economic control by multinationals,US cultural imperialism and Afro-Asian colonization prescribed by our past?And is it fair to our children.
  Burke's desire to make Britain into "one family, one body, one heart and soul" had important moral implications. Are we obliged to put our nation first, as we do with our families, even when outsiders and foreigners are more in need of our help? Must we stand by our own and related people in every conflict even when `world opinion' decrees that they are wrong? Burke's answer to both questions was yes. He denounced Britons who befriended foreigners whilst oppressing their fellow countrymen. "To transfer humanity from its natural basis, our legitimate and homebred connexions, to lose all feeling for those who have grown up by our sides....and to hunt abroad after foreign affections is a disarrangement of the whole system of our duties." Such "displaced benevolence" was "fatal to society" and worse than bigotry (5).
  Charity should begin at home. Of course it does not have to end there. If people wish to donate money to foreign causes they should be allowed to do so. But in cases where outsiders are supported against our own kind this is clearly a moral evil.
  As a Christian, Burke acknowledged a certain moral equality of mankind "that is to be found by virtue in all conditions". But egalitarianism as a political programme he opposed on two grounds. Firstly it was unjust,as it relied upon compulsion, encouraged envy and inevitably levelled people down since levelling them up is impossible. (We know it is impossible because people are genetically unequal; Burke, unaware of genetics, used a `scarcity of resources' argument. For example: dividing a chocolate bar among 100 people leaves each person effectively nothing). Secondly, equality undermined the natural order of things, nature being hierarchical. Burke believed that: "Political equality is against nature. Social equality is against nature. Economic equality is against nature. The idea of equality is subversive of order"(6).
  Since defying nature is unworkable, equality is "a monstrous fiction" (7). At worst, ambitious elites use equality as a pretext to reallocate resources to themselves. At best,well-intentioned people see equality as no more than a benign aspiration. They think it would be just in theory but of course not when applied to themselves in practice, lest this endanger their own privileges. This is perhaps the greater error. "Abstract principles,however appealing, cannot be applied directly to solve real political problems. Any attempt to do so will have futile or harmful results. There is no such thing as a political principle which is good in itself, but not practicable. If it is not practicable then it is not good.
  In Part II of `Edmund Burke's Legacy' the focus will be on other pertinent aspects of Burke's thought. These include his views on:prejudice as being a form of wisdom; "human rights" as being rooted in a specific culture rather than inherited by all people; the dangers of a dual system of government (open and secret) and Burke's belief that political parties should be ideological and that their ideologies should involved "pursuing the national interest'.


1. Reflections on the French Revolution,Edmund Burke, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd,1955,
(Everyman edition), p 44.
2. Reflections, p 31.
3. Edmund Burke's Works and Correspondence, vol X, (1852), p 97.
4. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions,Stanley Ayling, John Murray Publishers
(1988), p 152.
5. Works and Correspondence, vo) VI, p 21.
6. Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism, Michael Freeman, Blackwell
(1980), p 21.