March 22, 2004

Reactionary Prophet

Christopher Hitchens on Burke's Reflections On The Revolution In France:

Three questions will occur to anybody reconsidering the Reflections today. Was it a grand and prophetic indictment of revolutionary excess? Was it the disdainful shudder of a man who despised or feared what at one stage he described as the "swinish multitude"? And did it contain what we would now term a "hidden agenda"? The answer to all three questions, it seems to me, is a firm yes.

(...)

However often one awards the winning of the longer-term argument to Paine, the fact remains that he and Jefferson and Lafayette never even dreamed of the advent of Bonapartism. They all believed, at the time that the argument was actually taking place, that France would become a constitutional monarchy, or had actually become one already. It was Burke who took this romantic delusion - a delusion shared by Charles James Fox and the leaders of Burke's own Whig party, and even for a time by William Pitt and the more pragmatic Tories - and mercilessly exploded it. He also showed that the outcome of the French Revolution would be war on a continental scale. The tremendous power of the Reflections lies in this, the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.

(...)

If modern conservatism can be held to derive from Burke, it is not just because he appealed to property owners in behalf of stability but also because he appealed to an everyday interest in the preservation of the ancestral and the immemorial. And the abolition of memory, as we have come to know in our own time, is an aspect of the totalitarian that spares neither right nor left. In the cult of "now," just as in the making of Reason into an idol, the writhings of nihilism are to be detected.