The Conservatism of Edmund Burke

Historian Richard Bourke on the French Revolution, Marxism-Leninism, and the defense of liberty

videos | July 27, 2017

What role did Great Britain play on the political stage in the 18th-century world? Why did Burke think that the French Revolution was a great step backward? Is any modern ideology based on a tradition?

Burke himself was both a statesman and a thinker writing in the 18th century. He was obliged as a statesman to take up positions in relation to basically British domestic politics. Great Britain at the time was both an imperial power and a world power, as a result of which Burke necessarily had to take up positions in relation to international trade, the British colonies, and the European balance of power. It’s a result of this last issue the European balance of power that the French Revolution became important to him. Because anything that happened in France, which was a leading power in the 18th century, affected Britain. So as a result of that, as soon as the revolution broke in France he was obliged in some ways to make a response.

He associated the revolution not with progress, but with retrogression. In other words, he thought it was a step back in history, not a move forward. That’s sort of difficult for modern commentators to understand, because it’s so fundamental to modern thinking both in Europe and in the United States, and of course, in Russia especially also, it’s so fundamental to think of the French Revolution was a progressive moment in history.

Historian Peter McPhee on the Robespierre problem, historical controversies, and Robespierre's legacy

Burke defended Authority as having two component elements. First of all, Authority was legitimate, insofar it was supported by popular consent. That’s number one, that’s rather straightforward. At the same time, Authority was more entrenched insofar as it was supported by what we might call tradition. So for that reason, especially in the book he wrote called ‘Reflections on the revolution of France’ which was published in November 1790, Burke launched himself upon a defense of a particular notion of authority as supported by tradition. But readers of that work therefore associate Burke with a defense of authority, as it were, no matter what. I think it’s important to realize that that is definitely a misinterpretation of what he is saying. Of course, he’s defending some species of tradition, but it wouldn’t take long to recognize that every modern ideology that one can think of is supported by some vision of tradition.

Professor of the History of Political Thought Fellow of King's College, University of Cambridge
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