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New Left Review 102, November-December 2016

Francis Mulhern


The name of Edmund Burke has long been a byword for political reaction. [1] David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA 2014, $39.75, hardback 512 pp, 978 0 674 72970 4In 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.

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Francis Mulhern, ‘Burke’s Way’, NLR 102: £3

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