Politics & Policy

A Vindication of Edmund Burke

EDITOR’S NOTE: Edmund Burke biographer Conor Cruise O’Brien died this past weekend at the age of 91. The O’Brien piece below was the cover story in the December 17, 1990, issue of National Review.


On November 1, 1790, Edmund Burke’s most famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, was published. It is important to get the title right. The book is often referred to as Reflections on the French Revolution. The book’s real title adequately reveals Burke’s intentions. Burke’s point, in wording the title as he did, was that this was not just a “French Revolution” but a general revolution begun in France but likely to spread to other countries, as indeed it began to do, through military expansion, less than two years after the publication of the Reflections.

But already well before the period of military expansion, and before Burke began to write his Reflections, the revolution that began in France was beginning to expand in another way. This was an expansion through the movement of ideas, and through the strong sympathy, admiration, and spirit of emulation which various revolutionary transactions and declarations in France had aroused in certain circles in other countries, including Britain, by the end of 1789. Burke’s Reflections was written with the deliberate aim of sounding the alarm against this form of revolutionary expansion. The Reflections resembles George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four in two important ways. Both books were written about a revolution in another country and its consequences, and both were directed against British sympathizers with that revolution, and intended to isolate them.

Philosophically, the origins of Burke’s opposition to French Revolutionary ideas go back a long way: to his first book, A Vindication of Natural Society, published in 1756 — 34 years before the publication of the Reflections.

A Vindication was a prophetic work. In it, Burke set out to show — in an ironic mode — that an attempt to substitute “natural religion” for revealed religion would have revolutionary consequences for civil society. Burke’s immediate target was Henry Bolingbroke, an English Voltairean of the early eighteenth century and a spiritual ancestor of the English sympathizers with the French Revolution, who are Burke’s targets in the Reflections. There is an impressive continuity of thought and perception between these two books, separated as they are by more than 30 eventful years. It is a continuity that refutes the superficial contention of so many of Burke’s detractors that he “changed his principles” over the French Revolution. He didn’t change his principles. He held to them with fierce tenacity in the Reflections, and in the rest of his writings and speeches against the French Revolution.

A Vindication of Natural Society, that remote predecessor, or ancestor, of the Reflections, is not a treatise against the Enlightenment as a whole. Burke was himself a child of the Enlightenment: a child, that is, of the early, English or English-inspired, phase of the Enlightenment. This was the Enlightenment of Locke and Montesquieu, an Enlightenment that was compatible with a tolerant version of Christianity. This was Burke’s Enlightenment. But from the second quarter of the eighteenth century on, a different strain of Enlightenment emerged, and became dominant in France by the mid 1760s. This was the Voltairean Enlightenment, radically hostile to all forms of revealed religion, and contemptuously rejecting the entire Judaeo-Christian heritage. Burke, who was a deeply religious man — although there is some doubt about what his religion actually was — attacked the anti-religious strain of the Enlightenment with A Vindication, just as with the Reflections he would attack what he saw as the results of that strain in the French Revolution.

As Burke had foreseen (in general terms) in A Vindication, the discrediting of religion had the effect of condemning the established social and political system in that country where the discredit of religion was pushed to the greatest lengths. That country was France. The discredit of religion automatically discredited the monarchy, since reverence for the monarch — His Most Christian Majesty — rested essentially on the theory that the monarch was God’s anointed. If there was no God — at least no God Who personally intervened in human politics — then the monarchy was a fraud. The monarch was delegitimized by being desacralized, and the way was laid open for his deposition and execution. Edmund Burke opposed that whole process, or project, from near its beginning, with A Vindication, to near its end, with the Reflections.

Philosophically, then, the Reflections has deep roots in Burke’s thought. Politically it is also in strict accordance with a principle that he had laid down as early as December 1783, explaining his initial — and protracted — unwillingness to attack the system of government of the East India Company. Burke, in that context, explained his “insuperable reluctance to destroy any established system of government, upon a theory.” That reluctance is at the root of the Reflections, politically speaking. And Burke had given expression to that reluctance nearly six years before the Revolution in France began. Those who seek to cast doubt on Burke’s sincerity and consistency over the French Revolution have a very poor case.

Burke had had serious qualms about the Revolution from the very beginning. His earliest known thoughts about it are contained in a letter to Lord Charlemont, dated August 9, 1789:

Our thoughts of everything at home are suspended by our astonishment at the wonderful Spectacle which is exhibited in a Neighbouring and rival Country — what Spectators and what actors. England gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud! The thing indeed, though I thought I saw something like it in progress for several years, has still something in it paradoxical and Mysterious. The spirit it is impossible not to admire; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner. It is true this may be no more than a sudden explosion. . . . But if it should be character rather than accident, then that people are not fit for Liberty, and must have a Strong hand like that of their former masters to coerce them.

Burke did not, at any time, approve of the French Revolution, but he did not, during 1789, experience any need to combat it. Burke’s decision that he must sound the alarm against the English sympathizers with the Revolution in France was reached in the third week of January 1790, when he read a pamphlet containing the proceedings of the Revolution Society on November 4 of the previous year. The Revolution Society was an old established body, consisting mainly of Dissenters, which existed to commemorate the English Revolution of 1688. The Society met annually on November 4, that being the birthday of William III. The 1789 meeting was the first since the fall of the Bastille, and the participants used the occasion to celebrate and extol the French Revolution. The proceedings consisted of a sermon by a well-known Dissenting minister, the Reverend Richard Price; a resolution carried by the Society; a dinner at the London Tavern; and an address to the National Assembly. In the Reflections, the part of the proceedings which Burke concentrates on is the Price sermon. But it was the pamphlet as a whole that inflamed Burke and set him to composing the Reflections. The pamphlet firmly placed the British welcome for the French Revolution in a context of anti-Popery. The resolution carried by the Revolution Society at the London Tavern on the evening following Price’s sermon ran as follows:

This Society, sensible of the important advantages arising to this Country by its deliverance from Popery and Arbitrary Power, and conscious that, under God, we owe that signal blessing to the Revolution, which seated our Deliverer, King William the Third, on the Throne; do hereby declare our firm attachment to the civil and religious principles which were recognised and established by that glorious event and which have preserved the succession in the Protestant line; and our determined resolution to maintain and, to the utmost of our power, to perpetuate those blessings to the latest posterity.

On the same occasion, Price moved the Congratulatory Address to the National Assembly in Paris, which was duly carried, conveyed to the Assembly, and warmly welcomed there.

Thus, a society set up to celebrate the Revolution of 1688 was emphasizing the anti-Catholic character of that Revolution, while welcoming the French Revolution, which had already assumed an anti-Catholic character, notably through the annexation of Church property (November 1789).

This combination hurt Burke deeply, for it hit him along a fault-line in his political personality. Politically, Burke was a Whig, and thus ex officio committed to the principles of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But he was disqualified from sharing the feelings of normal English Whigs toward that Revolution. Burke needed to play down its anti-Catholic elements, and when the Revolution Society played them up, Burke suffered, and needed to strike back.

Burke’s mother was, and remained all her life, a practicing Catholic, as were her people, the Nagles, a family of Catholic gentry in the Blackwater Valley, County Cork. Burke spent six years of his childhood among the Nagles, and he shared their feelings about the anti-Catholic Penal Code, which unfavorably governed so many aspects of their lives.

Edmund Burke’s father, Richard Burke, was, at least outwardly, a member of the Established Church of Ireland, of which Edmund was brought up as a member. But Richard Burke, too, may have been a victim of the Penal Laws, though in a more insidious way. I have reason to believe that Richard had been a Catholic, but conformed to the Established Church in order to safeguard his career as an attorney.

Burke’s problem with the Glorious Revolution was that he was committed to its general principles, which had brought great benefits to Britain, but that he detested that Revolution’s most conspicuous and oppressive monument in Ireland, the Penal Code.

In his political career, Burke dealt with this problem by seeking to extend the benefits of the Glorious Revolution — the civil and religious liberty that it promised — to Roman Catholics, in Britain and in Ireland. In this effort, Burke had been assisted by the more liberal Zeitgeist of the late eighteenth century — the progress of the Enlightenment. Aided by this tendency, Burke had succeeded in masterminding the first measure of Catholic Emancipation — the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. He had paid for that, by losing his parliamentary seat for Bristol in the general election of 1780, as a result of the anti-Catholic reaction which followed that Act and found its most dramatic expression in the Gordon Riots of the summer of that year, in which Lord George Gordon publicly blamed Burke for the measure of relief against which the rioters were protesting.

We can see, therefore, why the proceedings of the English Revolution Society of November 4, 1789, were so repugnant to Edmund Burke. But let me not be misunderstood here. The anti-Catholic elements in the English welcome for the French Revolution do not constitute “the reason why” Burke was against that Revolution. Burke was against it, on rational grounds, from the beginning, because of his objection to radical social innovations made on grounds of theory. What the proceedings of the Revolution Society accomplished was to enlist Burke’s emotions, in addition to his reasoning power, against the French Revolution. The Reflections is the fruit of that alliance.

Burke, while already at work on what would become the Reflections, was headed toward a break with his old friend, now the leader of his party, Charles James Fox. This became apparent in a debate in the House of Commons, on the Army Estimates Bill, on February 9, 1790. Fox had spoken with enthusiasm of various revolutionary developments in France. Burke fired a warning shot:

The House must perceive from my coming forward to mark an expression or two of my best friend, how anxious I am to keep the distemper of France from the least countenance in England. . . . I am so strongly opposed to any the least tendency towards the means of introducing a democracy like theirs . . . that much as it would afflict me, if such a thing could be attempted, and that any friend of mine could concur in such measures (I am far, very far, from believing they could) I would abandon my best friends and join with my worst enemies to oppose either the means or the end, and to resist all violent exertions of the spirit of innovation, so distinct from all principles of true and safe reformation: a spirit well calculated to overturn States, but perfectly unfit to amend them.

Fox rose to reply, according to the Parliamentary History, “with a concern of mind which it was impossible to describe.” He acknowledged his deep intellectual indebtedness to Burke, and explicitly disavowed any attempt “to introduce any dangerous element into our excellent Constitution.” Burke immediately and gracefully accepted the amende honorable, but the parliamentary episode did not end there. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, then the most prominent member of the Whigs after Burke and Fox, marred the reconciliation scene by declaring that he “differed decidedly from Burke” in “almost every word that he had uttered respecting the French Revolution.” Burke curtly replied that “henceforward” Sheridan and he “are separated in politics.”

The rift between the leading Whigs did not force itself on the attention of Parliament again until April-May of 1791. In the meantime (November), the Reflections had been published, widening the rift. This was a quiet period in the history of the Revolution in France, and to most Whigs, Burke and his book appeared extravagantly alarmist. Fox, under Sheridan’s influence, was becoming extravagant on the other side.

On April 15, Fox declared, in the course of a parliamentary debate, that the new French Constitution was “the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty which had been erected on the foundation of human liberty in any place or country.” According to the Parliamentary History, “as soon as Mr. Fox sat down, Mr. Burke rose, mid visible emotion,” but was shouted down by the Whigs. He did not get a chance of taking the matter up until April 21, which saw a sort of preliminary round between Fox and Burke, each man indicating that he was not prepared to back away.

On May 6, the storm broke. Burke began with a long speech in the spirit of the Reflections. He ended with a direct attack upon the French Constitution which Fox so venerated: “I regard the French Constitution, not with approbation but with horror, as involving every principle to be detested, and pregnant with every consequence to be dreaded and abominated.”

Fox replied with heavy sarcasm, certain to raise the temperature. When Burke rose again, his speech was interrupted by frequent calls for order coming from his own benches. Burke took these calls to be organized by Fox. He was probably mistaken in that — though Fox could have discouraged these demonstrations had he wished to do so. However that may be, it was Burke’s belief that Fox was encouraging the chorus of his former friends against him that led to the final break: An attempt is being made by one who was formerly my friend to bring down upon me the censure of the House. In the course of our long acquaintance, no one difference of opinion has ever before for a single moment interrupted our friendship.” Fox is here recorded as whispering: “There was no loss of friends.”

Burke: Yes, there is a loss of friends. I know the price of my conduct. I have done my duty at the price of my friend. Our friendship is at an end.” At this point, the Parliamentary History goes on:

Mr. Fox rose to reply: but his mind was so much agitated, and his heart so much affected by what had fallen from Mr. Burke, that it was some minutes before he could proceed. Tears trickled down his cheeks, and he strove in vain to give utterance to feelings that dignified and exalted his nature. The sensibility of every member of the House appeared uncommonly exalted upon that occasion.

The opening part of Fox’s speech to which this was the prelude was kind and respectful to Burke, and it seemed for a moment as if the reconciliation of February 1790 might be repeated. But then Fox bethought himself of the Reflections, and opened his mind on that subject: “As soon as that book was published, I condemned it, both in public and in private, and every one of the doctrines which it contained.”

That tore it.

Edmund Burke could not possibly remain a member of a party whose leader, in Burke’s presence and on the floor of the House of Commons, had totally condemned all the doctrines contained in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Burke replied coldly — referring to “pretenses of friendship” — and the quarrel between Burke and Fox became irreparable.

As it happened, the break with Burke came at a bad time for the Whigs. In the month following the quarrel between Burke and Fox, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette attempted their flight to Varennes and were brought back to Paris as prisoners. The French Revolution accelerated until it vindicated — fully by 1792-93 — what had been regarded as the alarmist picture which Burke had painted in the Reflections. The Whigs, who had rejected the author of the Reflections, had cut themselves off from British public opinion because of their enthusiasm for the Revolution in France.


I have considered, so far, the genesis of the Reflections and its immediate consequences in British politics. I shall now consider the content of the work itself.

The book began as a letter, addressed to “a very young gentleman” in Paris, who had asked Burke for reassurance regarding the future course of the French Revolution. Burke’s original reply, forwarded by him to Paris toward the end of 1789, explains, calmly and courteously, why he cannot provide the desired reassurance. Burke tells his French correspondent: You may have subverted Monarchy, but not recover’d freedom. . . . You are now to live in a new order of things; under a plan of Government of which no Man can speak from experience. . . . The French may be yet to go through more transmigrations.”

Those three sentences are developed at length in the Reflections, which is also still, in form, a letter to the same correspondent. But the Reflections is in other respects very different, in character and tone, from the original letter. In the interim, from mid January 1790 on, Burke had learned of those “proceedings of certain societies” in London, in which unrestricted admiration for the French Revolution was expressed and a desire to emulate it in England was implied.

Burke felt great alarm and anger at those proceedings, and having denounced them, from his place in the House of Commons, in February 1790 he set out to write a tract to warn the British public against the dangers of any such tendencies. That tract, in the form of a letter, is the Reflections.

Burke’s passionate indignation against the French Revolution — and above all against any attempt to imitate it in the British Isles — is evident in the Reflections, sustains it, and is the source of a part of its power. But a part only. The text of the Reflections takes up nearly three hundred pages. I reckon that 90 percent of that consists of argument and analysis. There is an emotional undercurrent throughout, but it breaks through to the surface only rarely. When it does the resultant rhetoric is spectacular. The most spectacular — that about the Queen of France, as Burke saw her in 1773 — has been quoted far more often than anything else in the book. Repetition of this quotation has created the misleading impression that the Reflections is mostly gorgeous rhetoric. In reality, most of the book is made up of plain and cogent argument. Passion is present, but Burke keeps it well under control, except on the rare occasions when he decides not to do so.

The grand distinguishing feature of the Reflections is the power of Burke’s insight into the character of the French Revolution, then at an early stage. This insight is so acute as to endow him with prophetic power. He sees what way the Revolution is heading. No one else seems to have done so at the time. The spring and summer of 1790 — the period in which Burke wrote the Reflections — was the most tranquil stage, in appearance, in the history of the Revolution. It was a period of constitution-making, of benevolent rhetoric, and of peaceful jubilation, as in the Déclaration de Paix au Monde on May 21, 1790, or the Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1790, celebrating the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.

Contemplating that attractive scene, in the spring and summer of 1790, most people seem to have assumed that the French Revolution had already taken place, and that all that remained was to reap its benign consequences. Burke sensed that the Revolution was only beginning. In the penultimate paragraph of the Reflections, Burke warned that the French “commonwealth” could hardly remain in the form it had taken in 1790: “But before its final settlement it may be obliged to pass, as one of our poets says, ‘through great varieties of untried being,’ and in all its transmigrations to be purified by fire and blood.”

Reading the Reflections with an undergraduate class in New York in the 1960s, I found that my students assumed that the direst events of the Revolution — the September Massacres, the Terror, the executions of the King and Queen — had already taken place when the Reflections was written. In reality, those events all lay in the future. And yet there is a sense in which those events are already present in the Reflections. They are present in the sense that the ferocious dynamic which Burke ascribes to the Revolution, even in 1790, became visible to the world through those events of 1792-94.

Burke foresaw not merely “transmigrations, fire, and blood.” In a remarkable passage — on page 342 of the Penguin Classics edition — Burke foresaw how those transmigrations would end up, in military despotism:

It is known, that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is to have only a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration, the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find, that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders, whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any) must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.

The seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte — the event predicted in this remarkable passage occurred on 18 brumaire 1799, nine years after the publication of the Reflections, and more than two years after the death of the author.

Burke’s astonishing capacity to see into the ways in which events were moving derived, not from any mystical intuition, but from penetrating powers of observation, judicious inference from what was observed, and thorough analysis of what was discerned by observation and inference. Burke had immense respect for circumstances, and observed them with proportionate attentiveness. There is a passage about circumstances in relation to liberty which occurs very near the beginning of the Reflections (pages 89-91 in the Penguin Classics edition), and is fundamental to Burke’s political thinking, not alone in the Reflections, but generally. In this passage Burke is referring to the congratulations conveyed by the English Revolution Society to the French National Assembly, in November 1789, on France’s achievement of liberty. The passage runs:

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of the Revolution Society; be he who he will; and perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause, in the whole course of my public conduct. I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands, stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without enquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty, in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate an highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the gallies, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.

When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. 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 risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate insulated private men; but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power. Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions, they have little or no experience, and in situations where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers.


I now consider the relation of the Reflections to our own time. 1990 was like 1790 in an important way.

Both years were aftermaths of epochal changes. 1790 saw the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. 1990 saw the first anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The 1990 anniversary was celebrated, as the 1790 anniversary was (but not by Burke), as a feast of liberation. But the two versions of liberation are diametrically opposed. In July 1790, what was being celebrated was the beginning of the Revolution in France. In November 1990, what was celebrated was the undoing of the Communist Revolution.

In July 1790, while France was celebrating the Feast of the Federation, and British friends of the French Revolution were celebrating in sympathy, Edmund Burke was at work on the great counter-revolutionary tract which was the Reflections on the Revolution in France. From the principles laid down in the Reflections, we know that Burke would have rejoiced at the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the comprehensive discredit of the Communist Revolution.

There is a real continuity between the Revolution in France and the Revolution in Russia. That continuity is often denied — especially by French anti-Communists. Last year’s bicentenary celebrations in Paris were organized around the theme of universal liberation, supposedly inspired by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. As pageantry, the celebration was brilliantly successful. As history, it was nonsense. The edifying sentiments expressed in the Declaration had no influence over the conduct of the French Revolutionaries themselves, or of anybody else, anywhere. What that document influenced was other documents: principally, the constitutions of a number of Latin American countries, whose governments were, in practice, no more influenced by the edifying sentiments in question than the original French Revolutionaries had allowed themselves to be.

The true heirs to the French Revolution — and specifically to the Jacobin tradition — were the Communists. We can see this particularly clearly when we apply Burkean categories. What Burke most detested, and dreaded, about the French Revolutionaries was their commitment to radical social and political innovation: the transformation of an established order in accordance with theoretical prescriptions. In all that, Marx and Lenin are clearly heirs to the Jacobins. The only difference is that the commitment of the Marxists, in these respects, outdid that of the Jacobins. In every phase of the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries left private property intact, with just one great exception, bitterly denounced by Burke. That exception was the nationalization of the property of the Church, in November 1789. What the Jacobins did to Church property, the Marxists did to almost all property. The result was the command economy, whose abject failure is now acknowledged in all the European lands which were unlucky enough to have been subjected to it.

What we have been witnessing in 1989-90, in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, is the bankruptcy of the greatest experiment in social and political innovation ever made. What stronger vindication could there be of the principles laid down, and the warning contained, in Reflections on the Revolution in France?

Modern British society is widely different from the British society that Burke knew, but there is a clear continuity between the two. The society changed, politically and socially, not through any burst of innovation, but through a series of partial reforms, as Burke hoped it would do. The heritage of the great French innovative effort was not so happy. The Revolution and its consequences left the French a deeply divided people throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. After 1917, those of the French who felt themselves to be in the tradition of their own great Revolution flocked to the French Communist Party. In the Second World War, the fact that the party of the working-class (as the French Communist Party then still was) was opposed to the war-effort — because of the Stalin-Hitler pact — was among the reasons for the fall of France.

From 1970 on, however, the Revolutionary heritage, which had bedeviled the French for so long, went into decline, as did the French Communist Party. The 1989 celebration of the bicentenary was essentially a gorgeous farewell party — a sort of wake — for a Revolution which is at last over, though it took nearly two centuries for it to die.

One of the consequences of the decline of the cult of the French Revolution in France itself has been the emergence of a new respect for Edmund Burke, and for the Reflections in particular, among French historians. For many years the dominant school of French historians were really the priests of a cult of the great Revolution. As long as that was the case, the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Francece livre infame, as Michelet called it — was necessarily anathema. French historians of today take quite a different view. The monumental Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf and published in 1988, contains an entry on Burke by Gérard Gengembre which concludes with a tribute to his “penetrating clairvoyance, revealing the depths of what was at stake in the Revolution.” There are many other references to Burke, and his name is cross-listed in at least 16 of the Dictionary’s entries. Last year saw the publication of a new French translation of the Reflections — together with a selection of Burke’s other writings on the Revolution — with a weighty and profoundly respectful preface by Philippe Raynaud (who was also a contributor to the Critical Dictionary). Raynaud describes the author of the Reflections as “liberal and counter-revolutionary,” which is exactly right.

British scholarship is less respectful toward the author of the Reflections than French scholarship now is. At least that is the conclusion toward which one would be impelled by comparing Raynaud’s edition with the corresponding English publication of the same year: Volume VIII (The French Revolution, 1790-1794) of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Clarendon Press, Oxford); Volume VIII is edited by L. G. Mitchell. Raynaud’s preface provides 105 pages of respectful interpretation and comment, ending with a tribute to Burke’s “incomparable art.” Mitchell gives us 51 pages of disparagement and depreciation, interspersed with a veritable anthology of sneers directed at Burke by his numerous enemies. If Mitchell is aware that Burke’s writings on the Revolution have any merit, he nowhere reveals this. He thinks of Burke as a failure. His preface ends with the words: “For him there was only the bitterness of the dishonored prophet.”

A quirky introduction might be excused if the edition were otherwise satisfactory. It is in fact lamentably defective. It is hard to believe, but this volume of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke contains no speeches at all; only writings. Yet some of Burke’s most important speeches were made on the subject — the French Revolution — with which Volume VIII is supposed to be concerned, and fall within its chronological limits: 1790-1794. The relevant speeches omitted include the series which culminated in the breach between Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox (referred to above). It seems almost inconceivable that these speeches could be omitted from the relevant volume of a scholarly series entitled The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. The two volumes previously published in this series gave their readers what those readers were entitled to expect: the writings and the speeches; including — quite rightly — a number of speeches which are of little importance compared with a number of those omitted from Volume VIII. This miserable edition also omits one of Burke’s major writings on the French Revolution, the great Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, which is the sequel and justification of the Reflections.

If this series is to retain its previously high reputation, Volume VIII should be withdrawn from circulation, and a new Volume VIII prepared, to the same standards as were followed in Volumes II and V.

Turning away, with relief, from Volume VIII, let me conclude with one of the most remarkable passages in the Reflections. It is a passage which is highly relevant to the present scene in the former empire of Communism, and to some of the forces which are trying to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Communism. It is, in effect, a treatise on the versatility of evil:

We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same troubled storms that toss the private state, and render life unsweet.

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition, by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out every thing that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving, that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigour of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad; it continues its ravages; whilst you are gibbeting the carcass, or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourself with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers. It is thus with all those, who attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under colour of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.

Those last four words should be borne in mind as we contemplate some of the patterns emerging in the disintegrating empire of ruined Communism: the aftermath of the most ambitious and sustained innovative effort in human history.