The name of Edmund Burke has long been a byword for political reaction. In the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) the young Whig James Mackintosh was quick to see and reject ‘the manifesto of a counter-revolution’—a consciously propagandist tract in which Burke summoned his uncommon rhetorical powers for an assault on the principles and policies of the French revolutionaries, to be followed, as he soon came to urge, by actual warfare, wholehearted and prolonged, against the country that had given birth to the ‘armed doctrine’ of Jacobinism. That episode alone would have won Burke a place in the pantheon of conservative thought. However, with the October Revolution in 1917, his polemic against democracy was recharged for a new era. Just rewrite ‘France’ as ‘Russia’, the English jurist A. V. Dicey suggested within a year of the Bolshevik victory, and Burke’s insights would shine forth in all their enduring truth. In the Cold War conditions of the mid-20th century, then, the appropriation was solemnized: Burke was elevated to the status of political philosopher, a prophet of the ‘new crusade’ against communism. (Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody (1992) concluded with a late exercise in this genre, notable as a surrender to an orthodoxy its author had fought against twenty years before.) In this and in his defence of custom, trans-generational obligation and ‘prudent’, piecemeal change, Burke was indeed a conservative for modern times.
’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’
By the same author:
William Empson, Nonesuch
Francis Mulhern on Michael Wood, On Empson. Reclaiming the heterodox thinker for literary criticism.
A Tory Tribune?
Francis Mulhern on Ferdinand Mount, English Voices: Lives, Landscapes, Laments. The literary and political sensibility of Britain’s most independent-minded Conservative thinker, aide to Margaret Thatcher, admirer of Virginia Woolf, and devotee of William Gladstone.
Afterlives of the Commune
Francis Mulhern on Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury. Political imaginary and afterlives of the Paris Commune.
A Party of Latecomers
Over the past decade the American political-intellectual scene has undergone a significant change with the emergence of a lively nexus of journals, ideas and activities, constituting a new kind of cultural left. Francis Mulhern etches the portrait of the Brooklyn-based n+1, which has been both forerunner and intellectual flagship of this effervescence.
Francis Mulhern on Rob Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel. The protean cult of Eric Blair finds its latest iteration.
Francis Mulhern on Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times. Considerations on the fates of bourgeois high culture, avant-gardes and mass art, in the ‘age of extremes’ and beyond.
Culture and Society, Then and Now
The idea of culture in Raymond Williams’s classic work, and discrepant readings of it, fifty years on. Gestation amid CP debates on the English tradition, hidden affinities with the Frankfurt School, and counterposition to the verities of today’s liberal multiculturalism.
Conrad’s Inconceivable History
The fascination of Joseph Conrad’s novels with the transformative pressures of capitalist modernity threatens a revelation so intolerable, Mulhern suggests, that it can only be contained within dense narrative strategies of deferral and disavowal.
What is Cultural Criticism?
Meanings of culture, the place of politics and role of intellectuals in the practice of criticism, as conceived since Arnold. Replying to Stefan Collini in NLR 18, Francis Mulhern asks how far the arts of a conversible portraiture bear on a critical agenda.
Replying to Stefan Collini in NLR 7, Francis Mulhern extends his critique of the pretensions of culture to general social authority, to the Marxist versions of Kulturkritik in the Frankfurt School. What defines the difference between politics and culture as practices?