One can measure the influence of Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman and philosopher, by his having been claimed as an original or classical liberal as well as the archetypal conservative. “It has always been with me,” wrote William Hazlitt, the English essayist and Burke’s near-contemporary, “a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” Here, being great would mean capaciousness, containing multitudes – and inevitable contradictions.
In 1774, in a speech in the House of Commons on American taxation, Burke said, “Again and again, revert to your old principles – seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it.”
It was a persuasive argument, not for independence but in fact for the rights of the colonists. It was also true that at this time, not entirely coincidentally, he had been retained as a lobbyist for the colony of New York. Does knowing this weaken his argument? Not a whit if you are receptive.
Burke is perhaps best remembered for his opposition to the French Revolution. Initially, he applauded what he saw as a French struggle for liberty, but by the end of 1789, he espied monsters across the channel. In 1790, in Parliament, he said the French had shown themselves “the ablest architects of ruin” in the world’s history. At the same time, Burke had accepted a small pension from the British government as a reward for services.
In 1791, in a letter, Thomas Jefferson said, “The Revolution of France does not astonish me so much as the revolution of Mr. Burke. I wish I could believe the latter proceeded from as pure motives as the former ... How mortifying that this evidence of the rottenness of his mind must oblige us now to ascribe to wicked motives those actions of his life which wore the mark of virtue and patriotism.”
It was Jefferson’s original radical purity test. More than half a century later, Karl Marx, in a footnote to the first volume of Das Kapital, said of Burke: “The sycophant – who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies he played the liberal against the English oligarchy – was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.”
Sound familiar? It should. The vice of radical polemic, as the journalist Christopher Hitchens observed (and knew all too well), is to believe “that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one.”
We see this often in our politics now. It is not a diagnosis but a recipe for cynicism.
President Trump has claimed everything is rigged and his supporters also posit a deep state that does the rigging – although Trump is not so much a radical or a reactionary, but merely a force of nature like a hurricane, or more likely, the slow sea- rise.
We hear it most loudly from the more authentic radical in our midst, the socialist from Vermont who wants to be president, to lead his revolution against all of the forces that have been bought – which include, he says, the political establishments of both parties. It includes, in other words, everyone but him and his supporters.
Everyone else has been bought.
This is no way to measure commerce or principles, pure as anyone may wish to be.