by Samuel Harrison
One of the more contentious developments in the Cambridge School of intellectual history, as that school has entered what we might think of as its middle years, has been the question of what can be done with ideas that we excavate from the past. As Richard Bourke observes, the second generation of the school has somewhat moved on from Quentin Skinner’s initial injunction against uprooting ideas from their context and replanting them in the present day. Istvan Hont and Richard Tuck have both, in their ways, argued that ideas from the past can shed light on the circumstances of the present. This is, at base, also the principle that lies behind the idea of ‘intellectual traditions,’ the work of placing historical thinkers in a chain of descent that explains – and perhaps also produces – a modern philosophy. To understand what liberalism ‘is’ or ‘means,’ our instinct is to go back to John Locke or J. S. Mill. For feminism, we return to one of the Maries, Astell, or Wollstonecraft. Socialism can whisk us back as far as Thomas More if we are not detained by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henri de Saint-Simon, or Charles Fourier.
But these thinkers were not just bundles of “unit ideas”, as Arthur Oncken Lovejoy put it. Their ideas were bound, in complex and intimate ways, both to each other and to the circumstances in which they wrote. What this means is that changes in material reality can bring historical thinkers’ philosophies into conflict with themselves and render their thought as a whole untenable. The risk for us is that by placing ourselves in a line of descent from those thinkers, we end up trapped in the same contradictions.
Few thinkers exemplify this idea better than the man commonly cited as the founder of the conservative tradition: Edmund Burke. Burke remains one of the few thinkers admired by all sides in a deeply divided conservative movement. He is looked upon fondly by moderate conservatives, neo-conservatives, and even the populist right. Today, he is the doyen of the annual National Conservative conference, where speakers fulminate against globalists and liberal élites, but his strange appeal for the far right goes back much further than this. In the 1960s and 1970s, the “Burkers” of the Toronto Edmund Burke Society even fought street battles with anti-war groups – an interesting afterlife for a thinker suspicious of all mass politics.
Yet it is difficult to find much in common between Burke’s thought and the positions taken by modern conservatives of all stripes. Burke insisted that all change must be measured, necessary, and organic, building on the past instead of sweeping it away. In economic matters, modern conservatives have embraced the ideology of ‘move fast and break things.’ The conservative attitude to history is likewise instructive. Although certainly very far from being an anti-imperialist, Burke nonetheless recognized that India had its own history that, just like any other state, conditioned how it ought to be governed. He railed against British administrators who were tearing up this history. Today, many conservatives deride academics looking to undo those acts of historical vandalism and excavate pre-colonial histories and defend European empires on grounds of the economic development that they supposedly brought to their colonies, exactly the kind of argument Burke most despised: he might have seen in them the equivalent of the “sophisters, economists and calculators” that he decries in Reflections on the Revolution in France, the people who rip up beautiful old things and replace them with cold rationalism and base financial motives.
So how has modern conservatism ended up so far from Burkean principles while lauding him as their forefather? We can find an answer by comparing Burke with one of his near-contemporaries: Thomas Malthus. It has been said of Malthus that what he wrote about the mechanics of population growth was entirely true more or less until the moment at which he wrote it. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and revised frequently until the last edition in 1826, he claimed that population growth expanded geometrically while cultivation expanded arithmetically, with the result that in time, the yield of the land falls far short of the demands of the human beings who lived off it. In fact, as A. E. Wrigley has shown, this was indeed the case in pre-industrial economies, where land had to be used to produce both agricultural goods and raw materials for production: textile fibers, straw and skins, and above all, wood for fuel. Trying to grow food at a pace that could keep up with population growth would mean sacrificing industrial production, with negative consequences for wages. Yet, although he did not know it, at the exact time at which Malthus wrote, Britain was breaking out of this population trap, largely through coal, a fuel that produced much greater energy for negligible land use compared to wood. Malthus’s ideas were thus invalidated at the exact moment of writing by the rise of fossil fuels.
Modern conservatism’s divergence from Burke has a similar source: industrial capitalism. It would be meaningless to speak of Burke’s “views on capitalism,” because the vocabulary of capitalism was not yet part of political language: his was still the era of what István Hont called “commercial society.” He was devoted to the cause of private property when this was associated with the rule of law and social stability rather than free exchange. He strongly favored commerce at a time when commerce was primarily understood not as synonymous with private enterprise but as a vehicle of national enrichment and a means of softening men’s manners. At the end of his life, he wrote approvingly of the “desire for accumulation,” but he thought of this accumulation in terms of individual luxury, not in its capitalist sense as a means of reinvestment for the sake of further expansion. In other words, while he was supportive of the individual ingredients of what we now call capitalism, the concept itself was beyond his horizon.
Later thinkers, however, would recognize in capitalism a force that operates like a revolution. Not just Marx and Engels, at once somber and invigorated in their observation that “all that is solid melts into air”; also Max Weber and, later, Joseph Schumpeter, who observed a “process of industrial mutation … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” Capitalism is, in other words, a state of permanent revolution.
Thus, it only became clear after Burke’s own lifetime that the economic system whose foundations – private property, commerce, enlightened self-interest – he had endorsed was also fundamentally opposed to his other great political aim of opposing radical, instantaneous political and social change. This is not a contradiction with which Burke himself had to grapple, but it has posed a problem for those who have come after him. It is notable that, for the most part, the only people since Burke who have really advocated his ideas have ended up, like G. K. Chesterton, arguing for dramatic changes in the distribution and nature of property that would effectively abolish capitalism. Chesterton’s eclectic philosophy of ‘distributism’ was consciously put forward as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism: in essence, he chose conservatism over property, and as a result, he looks like a radical. Others, such as Russell Kirk, only maintained their Burkean flavor by refusing to engage with economics.
Charles III is probably the last Burkean in Britain today, whose evident distaste for capitalist modernity long saw him branded a secret left-winger. The British political magazine, The New Statesman claimed about the infamous meeting between Liz Truss and King Charles at the bitter end of her short tenure last year: “Truss is a freewheeling whig; Charles is a romantic traditionalist and might be the very last reactionary in public life.” Here is the rift in Burkeanism personified: Truss bears Burke’s commitment to private property aloft above all other values, while Charles, in his love of the small, of the organic, of beauty for its own sake, necessarily takes a jaundiced view of the global market forces that have rendered all those things quixotic. No one person could honestly hold both attitudes because the conditions in which one could be a Burkean conservative, committed to both anti-revolutionary politics and the sanctity of property, effectively died with Burke.
In short, Burke devised the principles of what would become conservatism at exactly the moment those principles ceased to be tenable. After his time, private property would itself become the engine of the greatest revolutionary upheaval that humanity has ever experienced. No more after his death could a person be consistent in committing to the sanctity of private property and opposing revolutionary change. In this sense, I contend that if Burke was the first conservative, he was also the last.
This is important because it suggests that Burke represents a contradiction at the heart of modern conservative thought. Their inability to break with either Burke or capitalism means conservatives find themselves in a position where society is constantly being revolutionized in ways that defy conservative instincts by the very force that they most firmly believe in. They cannot recognize that their project is self-defeating, so they do what every movement does when it lacks a political analysis: turn to conspiracy theories. The “cultural Marxists” lurking in every school and university, the woke “new élite” marching lengthily through the institutions – all these specters have been conjured up by a conservative mind that cannot explain why, no matter what they do, their vision of an ideal society will not come into being. And they cannot explain it because that would mean confronting their Freudian original sin: the slaughter of the father of conservatism on the altar of capital.
And this gets to the heart of the problem with trying to construct “intellectual traditions” at all. It is worth noting that Burke was not always seen as a conservative. In the nineteenth century, he was generally understood as a kind of utilitarian liberal. According to Emily Jones, this shifted in the early twentieth century, not because conservatism changed but because liberalism did. As the Liberal Party took on a more populist flavor and the Conservatives adopted certain liberal values, such as individualism, to fill the gap, nineteenth-century liberal devotees of Burke, like Matthew Arnold and James Fitzjames Stephen, were retrospectively designated conservative thinkers. It made sense then to see Burke as the father of this modern, liberalized conservatism. He later gained a transatlantic following, Jones claims, when American conservatives like Kirk began to see his ideas as a bulwark against both foreign communism and domestic liberalism – perhaps taking their inspiration from the handsome statue of Burke that stands on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC. His placement at the head of a conservative intellectual tradition is historically entirely contingent.
Yet, despite the best efforts of Burke scholars – like David Bromwich, who writes that “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism” – we still find ourselves placing Burke in relation to something called ‘conservative’ thought. This is perhaps because there is an important political imperative behind the fashioning of intellectual traditions: they lend a certain gravitas, and perhaps an authority, to modern ideas. Indeed, Drew Maciag has suggested that the elevation of Burke to his position as ‘founder’ of conservatism in the US was, in part, a response to the liberal canon, from Locke through Jefferson into Mill, that seemed to render it weightier and more respectable than conservatism. Yet the result of this choice has been a continued fealty to a set of ideas that, as we saw above, are simply irreconcilable both with other conservative commitments and material reality.
Conservatives are hardly the only ones suffering from this problem. David Armitage and others have shown how Locke’s ideas about property were dependent on the existence of the New World, and on the claim that the indigenous population did not productively cultivate the land there. This is not merely an embarrassment for those modern liberals who still put him in the vanguard of their intellectual lineage. It calls into question how just the distribution of property can be; perhaps even how just property rights themselves can be. This is a contradiction with which liberals who want to place themselves downstream of Locke have to contend, one that potentially leads them into all kinds of contradictions – although, at present, they seem better able to manage them than do conservatives. What the example of Burke suggests is that as material conditions change, so can entire philosophies become untenable. Prior intellectual commitments can lead us into all kinds of contradictions. Yet it is not easy for us to renounce the idea that we belong to an intellectual heritage. It is perhaps one of the tasks of intellectual historians, not merely to excavate historical philosophies, but to show how changing conditions can pull the rug from underneath their feet.
Samuel Harrison is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge, the holder of the Derek Brewer Studentship at Emmanuel College, and currently a visiting researcher at Sciences Po. He is writing his thesis on the concept of citizenship in the French Revolution.
Edited by Thomas Furse
Featured image: Smelling Out a Rat; or the Atheistical-Revolutionist Disturbed in His Midnight “Calculations.” France, 1790. [London: Pubd. by H. Humphrey No. 18 Old Bond Street, Dec. 3d] Photograph, Library of Congress.