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3 June 2023

The first reactionary

Edmund Burke may be the Conservatives’ philosopher king – but his thinking was more fickle than Tories seem to realise.

By Samuel Earle

On 16 May, at the National Conservatism conference in London, Daniel Hannan delivered a speech about Edmund Burke, titled “What would Edmund do?” While most of his co-speakers fretted and fumed about a coming woke revolution, Hannan reassured his audience that the proceedings had Burke’s blessing. “I have little doubt that Edmund Burke would have smiled on the endeavours of this convention,” he said. He hailed the 19th-century politician as “the great patriarch of Anglo-American conservatism”, a “patriot”, and “the original conservative”.

NatCon was organised and sponsored by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a Washington-based think tank launched by the Israeli conservative thinker Yoram Hazony in 2019. Hazony is the leading intellectual behind National Conservatism, a new movement that unites advocates of religious values, free markets and ethno-nationalism around the world. Its authoritarian undertones are captured by its website’s ten-point “statement of principles”, which include such themes as “race”, “immigration”, “public religion” and “rejection of globalism” – but not democracy.

None of this seems particularly Burkean, a term associated with moderation, level-headedness and pragmatism. But, like Hannan, Hazony insists that he has Burke’s blessing. In Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2022), Hazony argues that the popular conception of Burke – a figure who implausibly combined heroic courage with an unwavering commitment to caution and compromise – was always a “mistaken reading”. The true Burke, Hazony suggests, belongs with the National Conservatives – and through the foundation that takes his name, Burke is brought alongside the likes of Tucker Carlson, Viktor Orbán, Douglas Murray, Peter Thiel and other right-wing firebrands associated with the National Conservative movement.

Hazony may be right that the popular idea of Burke, revered by conservatives and liberals alike, was only ever a phantom construction through which moderate Conservatives could imagine themselves. But the Israeli thinker’s recasting of Burke as the proponent of a more muscular ideology, ready to wage culture war and obsess over immigration statistics to restore harmonious nation-states, is no less fanciful, and speaks to conservatism’s own mutations.

[See also: Inside the National Conservatism conference]

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Edmund Burke is the closest thing the Conservatives have to a philosopher king. He stands as an avatar for Conservatism in its finest form. But Burke was not born a Conservative, nor did he die one – he became one only posthumously. The political label “Conservative” wasn’t popularised until the 1830s, decades after Burke’s death in 1797. But by the start of the 1900s, Burke had become the unwitting “founder” of the Conservative creed: the patron saint of prudent reform, a stalwart supporter of the status quo, all too aware of the dangerous delusions of political tinkerers and radicals – the “greatest hero” of the Conservatives, according to Michael Gove.

Burke was born in Ireland in 1729 and moved to England as a young man. He became a Whig MP and forged his reputation in opposition to the French Revolution. Whereas many rejoiced at the fall of a broken regime, Burke was horrified: the revolution, fuelled by the violent fiction that you could create a new society from scratch forged of abstract principles like égalité and liberté, was “the most horrid, atrocious and affecting spectacle, that perhaps ever was exhibited to the pity and indignation of mankind”, he wrote in 1790. As the revolution descended into the Reign of Terror, Burke’s warnings were hailed as prophetic. His praise for the plodding quietness of England’s uncodified constitution – with its “strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind” – received new plaudits. “You have supported the cause of the Gentlemen,” King George III is reported to have said to Burke.

Even then, until the 19th century, Burke was arguably remembered more for his eloquence than any particular political philosophy. Yet in the 1880s, as the historian Emily Jones has shown, a combination of calls for Irish Home Rule and an expansion of the suffrage saw Conservatives rouse a more politicised Burke from the grave – as defender of the nation, weary of restless reformers and their perilous promises. The Conservatives needed a compelling political identity, a vision of society and good governance to champion. Burke provided it. By 1912, Arthur Baumann, a businessman, author and Conservative MP, could claim that “the writings of Burke contain the most complete body of Conservative doctrine, expressed in the most perfect language that has ever been given to the world”.

The transformation of Burke into Conservatism’s intellectual father assured his posthumous legacy, but he was excised from his time and place, and reduced to platitudes about careful reform and careless progressives. His maxims were repeated like incantations: “good order is the foundation of all good things”; “manners are of more importance than laws – upon them in a great measure the law depends”; “a state without the means for some change is without the means of its conservation”.

But Burke was a more complicated thinker – both more progressive and more reactionary – than Tories like to think. He attacked the East India Company and its imperial pillaging of India and elsewhere. He defended the right of American revolutionaries to take up arms against colonial rule. He rallied against the state-mandated oppression of his fellow Irishmen, supported Catholic emancipation and laid out an early (albeit prejudiced and piecemeal) plan for abolishing slavery. But despite such causes, Burke also felt an intense hostility towards social and economic equality – “that monstrous fiction”, as he called it. For society to function, Burke believed, people needed to know their place.

Burke’s paeans to the virtues of moderation thus sat alongside a profound sense of the inevitability, and even the desirability, of extreme inequalities: economic, social and political. Humans were fallible creatures, and that meant that any proposed reform – to lessen poverty, say, or to weaken the aristocracy – was bound to backfire. He loathed the idea of democracy, with its implication of an equal say for everyone.

Burke saw only two agents for acceptable social change: the laws of commerce and the Lord – and they were really the same thing. It was simply not “within the competence of Government, taken as Government”, he wrote, “or even of the rich, as rich, to supply to the poor, those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to withhold from them”. For Burke, the “laws of commerce” were “the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God”. Writing during a famine in England, Burke insisted that private charity was the only solution to people starving. Government, he said, “can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in anything else”.

Almost 200 years later, when Thatcher championed the free market along similar lines, some cast the fervency of her faith as a betrayal of Burkean moderation. But Burke’s own faith in the free market stood out even in his own day. As Hannan gleefully remarked in his speech at the National Conservatism conference, Burke was an admirer of Adam Smith, the grandfather of laissez-faire economics, and described The Wealth of Nations as “perhaps the most important book ever written”.

It’s easy to see why Burke’s ambivalent political philosophy offered a fitting origin story for modern Conservatism. All the major threads were there: a celebration of both national tradition and capitalism, a distrust of state intervention, an emphasis on the fallibility of human minds and the free market, a defence of inequality on the grounds of social stability, and a preference for the present and the past over “the fairyland of philosophy”. The infinite malleability of Burke’s own thought – with different “progressive” or “reactionary” Burkes often summoned against each other – only makes his founding status more apt, foreshadowing the elusive nature of Conservatism.

Burke also knew when to fight. He recognised that to defeat radicals, you sometimes needed to act like one. “To destroy that enemy,” he wrote, “the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.” Mary Wollstonecraft saw in the intensity of Burke’s thought, in his radical commitment to defending inequalities, a revolutionary in gentleman’s clothing. Her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a scathing polemic on inherited privilege, was officially a response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. “Reading your Reflections warily over,” she wrote, “it has continually and forcibly struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist.”

Burke’s standing as the sensible sage is also contradicted by his anti-Semitism, which rarely receives much attention outside of academic journals. His disdain for Jews surfaces throughout his work. One of Burke’s main foils in Reflections is the radical preacher Richard Price, who in 1789 made a famous speech exalting the English Revolution in 1688 and the more recent events in France, heralding them as portals to a happier future. Burke repeatedly riffs on the speech’s location: the Old Jewry Meeting House in London. As the critic Tom Paulin has noted, Burke “wants his readers to see reform and revolution as part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy an organic, hierarchical society”. Or as Burke himself put it: “The next generation of the nobility will resemble the artificers and clowns, and money-jobbers, usurers, and Jews, who will be always their fellows, sometimes their masters.”

[See also: Is “National Conservatism” a dead end for the Tories?]

It is ironic that, at the very moment Conservatives’ made Burke their mascot of moderation, the Conservative Party itself was becoming an unruly force. The Liberal landslide in 1906 unsettled Conservatives like never before. “They are always in a state of incipient political apoplexy,” the then-Liberal MP Winston Churchill remarked in 1909. A few years later, as the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law threatened a military insurrection in Ireland to oppose the Liberals’ plans for Irish Home Rule, the Economist noted the party’s growing revolutionary spirit: “We cannot escape from the one outstanding and extraordinary fact – that the leader of the Conservative party has definitely and repeatedly encouraged the outbreak of civil war.”

Conservatism is sometimes understood as the opposite as radicalism, but as Corey Robin showed in The Reactionary Mind (2011), radicalism is permitted – even encouraged – so long as it is in pursuit of restorative ends. What is unforgivable, in Conservative eyes, is radicalism motivated by the hope that a new, untested and usually more equal social order can be built. Radicalism to defend or restore an old social order is another matter entirely. Many Conservatives have no problem with people who show rage or fanaticism in pursuit of such ends – their ranks are filled with them.

This readiness to embrace radicalism in pursuit of restoration explains why Conservatives can seem so un-Conservative. The two most disruptive forces within it over the past half century, Thatcherism and Brexit, both expressed this tendency. Each movement saw their destructive project as a restoration, not a revolution, undoing disagreeable postwar trends: in Thatcher’s case, her target was an economic consensus that accepted the nationalisation of certain services and higher taxes on the wealthy; for the Brexiteers, it was European integration from the second half of the 20th century.

What marked both Thatcher and the Brexiteers from their fellow Conservatives was not so much their ideas but the conviction with which they held them. Thatcher’s self-certainty felt more befitting of a revolutionary than a Burkean. But this, too, she gave a traditional spin, tracing it back to the Bible. “I am a conviction politician,” she said in 1979, during her first election-winning campaign. “The Old Testament prophets didn’t say, ‘Brothers, I want a consensus.’ They said, ‘This is my faith, this is what I passionately believe. If you believe it too, then come with me.’” Brexiteers were similarly ready to adopt religious parallels. “It is time for the PM [then Theresa May] to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharaoh in Brussels – let my people go,” Boris Johnson declared in March 2019.

The mistake of political commentary has been to pick one element of Conservatism and stamp it as “true” Conservatism, and dismiss the others as aberrations. But any view of Conservatism that is singular – whether singularly sensible or singularly reactionary – can only ever be partial. The great skill of the Conservative Party has been deciding which side to show and when, bolstered by the dogma all Conservatives share: that Conservatives must hold on to as much power as they can.

[See also: The National Conservatives are a glimpse of the Tories’ grim future]

In a personal essay for the Atlantic in 2021 – “What Happened to American Conservatism?” – David Brooks recalled discovering Burke’s conservative vision for the first time as a student, being moved by the dignified lessons it imparted, and then watching conservatism’s collective debasement at the hands of Trump. “What passes for ‘conservatism’ now, however, is nearly the opposite of the Burkean conservatism I encountered then,” Brooks wrote. “Today, what passes for the worldview of ‘the right’ is a set of resentful animosities, a partisan attachment to Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson, a sort of mental brutalism. The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression.” In these conditions, Brooks wondered, “What’s a Burkean conservative to do?”

In Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony offers one possible answer to Brooks’s conundrum: conservatives should find a new Burke to fit the times – a Burke who loves Fox News and voter suppression. This is the Burke who exalted the nation, celebrated the magic of the market, hated progressives, scorned democracy, indulged anti-Semitic conspiracies, and sanctioned radicalism when necessary. Hazony didn’t have to invent this Burke: he just needed to pick selectively from the oeuvre. Burke’s ambiguity has long been the source of his fertility. In 1831, Robert Peel noted that whenever Burke’s words were quoted in parliament, “Sometimes in the next page, and more frequently in the same, a passage might be found, which, if taken separately, might be relied upon as an authority for opposite doctrines.”

Burke’s ghost is perhaps the main beneficiary of this intrinsic ambiguity: he can be summoned in all circumstances. But the real Burke, the Burke-who-once-existed, might be its greatest casualty. Mute and defenceless, Burke finds himself conscripted into all kinds of conflicting causes – most of which he could never even have conceived. The first and most lasting of these causes may well be the one called “conservatism”. But given Burke’s anti-Semitism, the most ironic appropriation might be by Yoram Hazony’s recent work via the Edmund Burke Foundation.

Born in 1964, Hazony grew up between Israel and the US. Returning to Israel after studying at Princeton, he became Benjamin Netanyahu’s aide and ghostwriter. In the 1990s, he was a pioneering settler in an illegal settlement in the West Bank. He was disconcerted by what he saw as growing liberal and secular trends: he believed that Israel had to be an explicitly Jewish state, or it would be no state at all.

Hazony realised early on that Israel’s nationalist expansion needed a reinvigorated intellectual movement behind it. “In most countries, the role of defending the idea of the nation… belongs to political conservatives,” he wrote in the inaugural issue of Azure, an Israeli conservative journal he founded in 1996. “What passes for a ‘national camp’ in Israel, the Likud and its sister parties, has no tradition of intellectual discourse to speak of. It has no colleges, no serious think tanks or publishing houses, no newspapers or broadcasting.”

Hazony made it his mission to change this. In 2000, having already set up a research institute in Jerusalem, he published a controversial book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul. The polemic decried the existential dangers of Israel’s post-Zionist future. Its aim was to show that the real enemy lay within, how “the idea of the Jewish state is under systematic attack from its own cultural and intellectual establishment”. His focus was on universities, the school system and the courts where, he lamented, “the values of Jewish culture”, “love of the homeland”, and “loyalty to the Jewish people”, had been supplanted by talk of “democratic values” and “human rights”. The “Jewish state” was becoming a “generic democracy”.

It is interesting to read the Jewish State in light of the recent National Conservative conference in London, and not least because the UK edition has a cover quote from Michael Gove. As Gove put it in a glowing review for the Times in 2000, Hazony’s book is relevant beyond Israel: insidious progressive forces are “uncannily replicated in our own state”. He quoted Hazony: “The state need not be defeated militarily to be defeated utterly. The entire job may be done on the battleground of ideas.” And for Gove, the “job is being done now, in Israel, Britain and throughout the West”. After tracing the problem back to the French Revolution, Gove ended his review with a warning. “Because Britain has not had to live with the mortal threat Israel has faced since its inception, the erosion of our national foundations seems less perilous to us than it must to Hazony,” Gove wrote almost enviously. “But when the next call on our national capacity for collective sacrifice is made, as it has been throughout history, what will we find?”

The book and the conference speeches share a set menu of nationalist neuroses: that a dangerous alliance between progressives and minorities is brainwashing the younger generation and enfeebling the nation-state, jeopardising the future of a magnificent past. Hazony has long wanted to reverse this perceived trend. In the book’s epilogue, he quotes Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism: “No man is strong or wealthy enough to move a people. Only an idea can do that.”

In National Conservatism, Hazony has found his idea. In 2018, the same year Netanyahu passed the notorious Jewish Nation State Law, Hazony published a book called The Virtue of Nationalism. By broadening his scope beyond Israel to nationalism in general, the country’s emergence as “the Jewish State” can be legitimised by extension. Indeed, one of the virtues of the National Conservative programme – which calls for nations to be defined along ethnically and/or religiously homogeneous lines, granting the majority group privileged status – is that it implicitly establishes modern Israel as an ideal. Israel becomes a cause that even anti-Semitic nationalists can get behind: buried in the support of Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro and co, who poke the finger at a global George Soros conspiracy with one hand and cradle Israel with the other, is the hope that they’ll have a Jerusalem of their own to call home soon.

What would Burke make of all this? In his Reflections, he parodies the Jews for imagining that they will return to a new Jerusalem. He mockingly accuses revolutionary supporters in England like Richard Price for falling into the same fallacy – “Viewing from the Pisgah of his pulpit, the free, moral, happy, flourishing and glorious state of France as in a bird-eye landscape of a promised land.” (Pisgah is the mountain upon which God tells Moses, seeing Israel in the distance: “This is the land I promised.”) But Hazony finds no contradiction in Burke, only consolation: in pursuit of restorative ends, Hazony’s Burke counsels, everything is permitted; to defeat radicals, you sometimes need to act like one; there is no more sacred bond than belonging to a nation-state. Reading Hazony’s reflections on nationalism warily over, pace Wollstonecraft, one is continuously forced to wonder what Hazony might have called for – what he might have considered legitimate – had he been born a Palestinian.

In Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony recalls setting up a conservative magazine as a freshman at Princeton in 1984, called the Princeton Tory. He was excited by the West’s burgeoning free-market faith and the “broad religious and nationalist revival” under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and he wanted to spread their gospel on campus. Seeking funding, he travels to Irving Kristol’s Institute for Educational Affairs, a conservative research institute in New York. “Once there, we were ushered into an office where a man behind a desk was looking over the paperwork we had sent him,” Hazony writes. “He smiled and said: ‘It looks like someone has been reading Burke.’” The Princeton Tory gets its funding. It isn’t for another few pages, however, that Hazony makes a confession: the man behind the desk was wrong – he hadn’t read a single page.

[See also: Death rattle conservatism]

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