Edmund Burke is the political thinker most central to shaping my own political views. Regarded as the founder of modern conservatism, Burke was an odd mixture of idealistic philosopher and practical politician. Although he presents his ideas in luminous prose, he has often been caricatured as a mere reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth. Burke realized that societies change all the time, just as individuals change as they proceed through life. How the change occurred in the political realm was to Burke of the greatest moment.
Rather than a reactionary, Burke was actually a reformer, fighting against abuses in his time, for example the penal laws which treated Irish Catholics as helots in their own land, and English Catholics as foreigners in theirs’. When the colonists in America carried on a decade long struggle against the colonial policies of the government of George III before rising in revolt, Burke ever spoke on their behalf in a hostile Parliament, and defended his stance before a hostile electorate. He prosecuted the first British Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, for crimes committed against the native population.
One of the things that has always struck me about Burke is his consistency, whether defending the rights of Irish and English Catholics, of the American colonists, of the Indians under British rule or attacking the tyranny of the French revolutionaries. He was always against arbitrary power and held that government could not simply uproot societies.
The best summary I can think of regarding Burke and how he looked at government and society and change is this statement from Reflections on the Revolution in France: “A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.”
Burke was neither a reactionary nor a revolutionary, but a man who wanted to preserve the good in societies while reforming the bad. It sounds trite, but some of the strongest political currents of the past two centuries have been opposed to such a reformist view. Karl Marx can perhaps be thought of as the political thinker most opposite of Burke’s position, with his idea of a Communist revolution that would transform Man and society and lead to a utopia where the State would wither away. I think Marx understood that the beliefs of Burke were a deadly threat to his own. In Volume One, Chapter 31, footnote 13, of Das Kapital, Marx has this acidic comment about Burke: After this, one can judge of the good faith of the “execrable political cant-monger,” Edmund Burke, when he called the expression, “labouring poor,” — “execrable political cant.” This sycophant who, in the pay of the English oligarchy, played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution, just as, in the pay of the North American Colonies, at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the Liberal against the English oligarchy, was an out and out vulgar bourgeois.“The laws of commerce are the laws of Nature, and therefore the laws of God.” (E. Burke, l. c., pp. 31, 32.) No wonder that, true to the laws of God and of Nature, he always sold himself in the best market. A very good portrait of this Edmund Burke, during his liberal time, is to be found in the writings of the Rev. Mr. Tucker. Tucker was a parson and a Tory, but, for the rest, an honourable man and a competent political economist. In face of the infamous cowardice of character that reigns today, and believes most devoutly in “the laws of commerce,” it is our bounden duty again and again to brand the Burkes, who only differ from their successors in one thing — talent. As was often the case, Marx was as poor a historian as he was an economist. ( His flinging his chief insult against Burke, accusing him of being a “vulgar bourgeois”, I find worthy of a Monty Python skit!) Burke defended the American Revolution, albeit he regretted the separation from Great Britain of the colonies, just as he attacked the French Revolution, not because he was bribed, an absurd charge worthy of the mendacious Marx, but out of the same opposition to arbitrary power and a concern that governments seek to reform their societies rather than to shut them off from their past development over the centuries. Burke is the founding father of modern conservatism because he alloyed a respect for the past with a desire for reforming abuses, not simply replacing old enormities with new ones.