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Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

by Edmund Burke, Edmund Burke (Author)

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How decayed is contemporary political discourse? So decayed that libertarians and small market conservatives consider Burke to be their forebear, and Marx to be the forebear of Democrats. I imagine that Marx and Burke would much rather have a beer with each other than with any of their lilliputian, soi-disant followers.

So, just to be clear. Burke claims that a society functions best when it has a completely stable set of institutions as its base: civil society, landed property, and a state/church marriage. Only if these persist will liberty give us worthwhile projects, rather than muck; only if they persist is capitalism and financial speculation anything other than a casino in which the rich get richer and the poor get shafted.

These institutions necessarily require what today we think of as 'government intervention.' The poor should be cared for; the benefits of social life should accrue to all, and not just the rich; the profits of the wealthy should be re-invested in productive enterprise and not frittered away on luxury or the aforementioned casino.

Burke is no more compatible with contemporary, so-called 'conservatism' than Marx is. They both saw the dangers of unrestrained capitalism. They both saw the dangers of 'utopian' revolutionary planning (although neither conservatives nor Marxist read those bits of Marx, for obvious reasons). Admittedly, Burke was a sycophantic, power-hungry hack; and Marx went from being a lunatic pamphleteer to an impressive but ineffectual research academic. Neither of them are role-models. But at least they were willing and able to think - actually *think* - about politics, rather than just spouting party line drivel.

All that aside, Burke's analysis of the French Revolution's violence is tendentious, sometimes slipping over into yellow journalism rather than convincing critique. He's not always wrong, but he is always hyper-polemical, and that's never very constructive. His praise of English political institutions is far more interesting, as is his defense of landed property, although it's hard to distinguish the philosophical claims (need for stability in society) from the class-based ideology (stability is produced by Whig aristocrats). And his rhetoric with regard to the dangers of democracy (and, therefore, the libertarianism of the contemporary right) needs to be taken on board by anyone who cares that we're about to destroy our economic, social and environmental heritage: "The will of the many and their interest must very often differ, and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice… government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions." "The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints… liberty, when men act in bodies, is power."

The solution for the problems of democracy is not, alas, more democracy, as nice as it would be to think so.

Also, the introduction to this Hackett edition is great, although Pocock doesn't really *show* that Burke wasn't in a rage against a proto-bourgeoisie. He does state it over and over again, but it doesn't seem important enough a point to make, considering that Burke most certainly was in a rage against some people an awful lot like the bourgeoisie of the later nineteenth century. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Edmund Burke does NOT like what he sees in Paris-be warned there are graphic descriptions of horrific atrocities being meted out on the Citizens; the phrase 'reign of terror' is a apt description'. He hits out at the political instruments of the Jacobins in the most searing of ways. One to read alongside others happening at that time like Mary Wollestonecraft, Thomas Paine Rights of Man (both need to be read by me) ( )
  wonderperson | Mar 30, 2013 |
Ur-text of modern conservatism. Well, he has a good writing style. I'll give him that.

For all of his self-righteous condemnations, which are so often repeated by conservatives and reactionaries today, I note how so very few of them tend to notice his conspiratorial wailing about international finance and the Jews. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
I cannot wait till I have finished this book: Burke's style is horrible, and his reflections are boring. Cannot say more. ( )
  Pepys | Oct 1, 2012 |
"Paine’s answer to Burke’s pamphlet begins to produce some squibs in our public papers. In Fenno’s paper they are Burkites, in the others Painites." — Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, May 8, 1791

"The Revolution of France does not astonish me so much as the Revolution of Mr. Burke. I wish I could believe the latter proceeded from as pure motives as the former. But what demonstration could scarcely have established before, less than the hints of Dr. Priestly and Mr. Paine establish firmly now. How mortifying that this evidence of the rotteness of his mind must oblige us now to ascribe to wicked motives those actions of his life which wore the mask of virtue and patriotism. To judge from what we see published, we must believe that the spirit of toryism has gained nearly the whole of the nation: that the whig principles are utterly extinguished except in the breasts of certain descriptions of dissenters. This sudden change in the principles of a nation would be a curious morsel in the history of man.—We have some names of note here who have apostatised from the true faith: but they are few indeed, and the body of our citizens are pure and insusceptible of taint in their republicanism. Mr. Paine’s answer to Burke will be a refreshing shower to their minds. It would bring England itself to reason and revolution if it was permitted to be read there. However the same things will be said in milder forms, will make their way among the people, and you must reform at last." — Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, May 11, 1791

"Burke’s pamphlet and the answers to him occupy much attention there [i.e. Europe] and here [Philadelphia]. Payne’s and Priestly’s are excellent." — Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Sumter, May 14, 1791

"You will observe by the inclosed and preceding papers, that I am mentioned on the subject of Paine’s pamphlet on the rights of man: and you will have seen a note of mine prefixed to that pamphlet, whence it has been inferred that I furnished the pamphlet to the printer and procured it’s publication. This is not true. The fact was this. Mr. Beckley had the only copy of that pamphlet in town. He lent it to Mr. Madison, who lent it to me under the injunction to return it to Beckley within the day. Beckley came for it before I had finished reading it, and desired, as soon as I had done, I would send it to a Mr. Jonathan B. Smith whose brother was to reprint it. Being an utter stranger to Mr. J. B. Smith, I explained to him in a note that I sent the pamphlet to him by order of Mr. Beckley and, to take off somewhat of the dryness of the note, I added ‘that I was glad to find it was to be reprinted here &c. as you have seen in the printed note. I thought so little of this note, that I did not even retain a copy of it: and without the least information or suspicion that it would be published, out it comes the next week at the head of the pamphlet. I knew immediately that it would give displeasure to some gentlemen, fast by the chair of government, who were in sentiment with Burke, and as much opposed to the sentiments of Paine. I could not disavow my note, because I had written it: I could not disavow my approbation of the pamphlet, because I was fully in sentiment with it: and it would have been trifling to have disavowed merely the publication of the note, approving at the same time of the pamphlet. I determined therefore to be utterly silent, except so far as verbal explanations could be made." — Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, July 3, 1791

For details, see editorial note in PTJ 20: 268-312 on The Rights of Man: The "Contest of Burke and Paine . . . in America."
  ThomasJefferson | Jul 21, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (37 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edmund Burkeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Burke, EdmundAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Mahoney, Thomas H. D.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dear Sir,
You are pleased to call again, and with some earnestness, for my thoughts on the late proceedings in France.
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"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles. . . "
"The age of chivalry is gone."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140432043, Paperback)

‘To make a revolution is to subvert the ancient state of our country; and no common reasons are called for to justify so violent a proceeding’

Burke’s seminal work was written during the early months of the French Revolution, and it predicted with uncanny accuracy many of its worst excesses, including the Reign of Terror. A scathing attack on the revolution’s attitudes to existing institutions, property and religion, it makes a cogent case for upholding inherited rights and established customs, argues for piecemeal reform rather than revolutionary change – and deplores the influence Burke feared the revolution might have in Britain. Reflections on the Revolution in France is now widely regarded as a classic statement of conservative political thought, and is one of the eighteenth century’s great works of political rhetoric.

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s introduction examines the contemporary political situation in England and Ireland and its influence on Burke’s point of view. He highlights Burke’s brilliant grasp of social and political forces and discusses why the book has remained so significant for over two centuries.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:08 -0400)

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But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tradition or restraint." Edmund Burke Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is the undisputed foundation of modern conservatism. It is a brilliant pamphlet against the French Revolution, one rooted in the solid ground of a practical political philosophy. Burke's central argument is that the French Revolution was driven by a utopian egalitarianism, which was dangerously disconnected from the actual experience of politics. A conservative, he grants centrality to the practical rationality of existing socio-political traditions and institutions, criticizes radical changes at all costs, and advocates gradual political reforms.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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Yale University Press

Two editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300099797, 0300099789

Liberty Fund, Inc

An edition of this book was published by Liberty Fund, Inc.

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