Who Was Edmund Burke?

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke

by Conor Cruise O'Brien
University of Chicago Press, 692 pp., $34.95


Edmund Burke died 195 years ago, but he remains the most appealing of conservative writers—not least because it is unclear whether he is a conservative at all. He supported Catholic Emancipation in his native Ireland, he was revered in revolutionary America for his defense of the colonists’ rights, he was a ferocious critic of the Crown’s meddling in British politics, and an anticolonialist before his time. Isaac Kramnick’s interesting study, The Rage of Edmund Burke,* describes him as “an ambivalent conservative,” which is one way of putting it. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s new book reminds us that it is as plausible to regard him as essentially a liberal—pluralist and antitotalitarian, but neither reactionary nor authoritarian.

That is contestable, too. The Burke of 1790, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France urge the British not to emulate the French, is a good deal less authoritarian than the Burke of 1796, whose Letters on a Regicide Peace demand a Holy War abroad and repression in Britain to extirpate the revolutionary infection wherever it is found. The description of Burke’s deepest allegiances is more than a matter of taste; the difference between liberal hostility to revolutionary violence and the conservative or imperialist defense of the status quo has preoccupied American intellectuals for the past half century. The Burke of the Letters on a Regicide Peace was invoked by conservatives like Russell Kirk to argue in favor of “rolling back communism” in the 1950s and 1960s; while in 1969 Conor Cruise O’Brien challenged the idea that Burke would have welcomed US intervention in Vietnam and argued that Senator William Fulbright could “claim descent from Burke with just as much validity as the practitioners of counter-revolutionary containment.”

However they disagree about his lessons for the twentieth century, nobody has ever denied that Burke was a uniquely eloquent critic of schemes and projects for the wholesale remodeling of society sprung from the brains of philosophers, literary intellectuals, and dissenting clerics. His insistence that society is essentially organic and unamenable to rationalistic social engineering made him the founding father of the sociological tradition that condemns all forms of individualism as simplistic and inadequate. Indeed, an attachment to that organic vision unites one kind of conservative with radicals who find themselves more at home with Burke than with Jeremy Bentham or J.S. Mill. The alliance extends only to social analysis, of course. Radicals—Marx is a good example—deny Burke’s inference that since everything is organically connected with everything else we must proceed delicately and cautiously; they conclude that to change anything we must change everything.

But that is enough to explain why there were conservatives for whom Burke’s vision of society had no appeal. The French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre read him without enthusiasm. Burke’s Reflections claimed it was habitual allegiance and affection—what he called “prejudice”—that held society together and allowed government to exercise authority over willing subjects. It was prejudice that he feared the rationalists and revolutionaries would undermine. But de Maistre thought the basis of…

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