Adam's Reviews > Reflections on the Revolution in France

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
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Sep 08, 2011

really liked it
Read in April, 2016

Well, I'm really not interested in writing much about this here because I've spent a torturous stop-and-start month writing about it as part of my surely valuable and important and not at all worthless academic work and reading much associated material. I mostly wanted to offer something in place of the profoundly embarrassing nonsense I'd written here as an uneducated skimmer four or five years ago, in which I dismissed Edmund Burke (on politics and on the Revolution in France) as akin to contemporary "conservative" TV loons raving and ranting. That view, which is not too uncommon still among those of us who refused to take Burke seriously (which it is sometimes hard to do--take him seriously--when he's at his speechifying raving best/worst), is best described by that wonderful word "twaddle." Indeed, twaddle is mostly what you'll find in discussions about Burke, regardless of which circles discuss him, whether "left Burkean" or that bizarre species of neoliberal we now call "conservative" or old school British Tories who ignore that Burke was a Whig and miss the point by some margin or charmingly furious leftists insisting that there's somehow a direct line between Burke and Hitler.

The book is a genuine classic. Burke was prophetic in more respects than are generally acknowledged (re: the shitshow the Revolution would become and so on) and though not a systematic political thinker was far more sophisticated and intelligent and perceptive than most of his peers and philosophical contemporaries.

Much less disputable than those claims, of course, is the claim that Burke was a true master of rhetoric. But that claim has become so common as to constitute a sort of easy dismissal of the substance of Burke's work. I don't wish to go into it in detail, but it surely says something that even the often ignored bits towards the end on political economy contain some remarkable insights. Hey, guess who figured out well before Marx or any campus agitators that the French Revolution constituted the birth of bourgeois civil society? Guess who figured out that the "enlightened" atomistic individualism of liberal ideology was not the only philosophical conclusion available to intelligent minds and that beneath the "unassailable logic" of abstract natural rights and universalist humanism lay the potential for something real dark and fucking unpleasant? Burke also deserves notice for being a Gael sensitive to the colonial violence done by the English to Ireland and to the ability of colonizing peoples to institutionalize difference, to think subhuman a subjugated population while enjoying a flourishing civilization dependent on that subjugation. Burke ended up taking an admirable if not entirely sufficient stance on the colonial violence in India and elsewhere and anticipating many of the points later made by 20th and 21st-century anti-colonial voices, often with respect to exactly those ostensibly cuddly abstractions Burke saw through and often with respect to issues of community and kinship and feeling and sentiment and belonging and the importance of political and social institutions, etc.

My taking a liking to this book does not mean that I am now going to go around calling myself a "Burkean" or that I am going to go around campaigning for the aristocracy to gain renewed powers. Then again, neither would Burke himself. Still, my temperament is more aligned with the Wollstonecraft of the Letters Written During a Short Residence. One may acknowledge that "the tyranny of wealth is far more galling and debasing than that of rank" while refraining from excruciating passages of praise for Marie fucking Antoinette and rants about the death of chivalry.
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