The Scholarly Abuse of Edmund Burke

Drew Maciag’s Edmund Burke in America is a historiographical essay. After a brief introduction, the author proceeds to a short chapter laying out his interpretation of Burke’s thought, then reviews and characterizes various interpretations of Burke’s work by Americans, beginning in the late eighteenth century and proceeding more or less chronologically through to the present day.

Historiographical essays can be quite interesting and helpful for examining the preoccupations and prominent points of view of intellectuals over time. All thinkers of any real stature have within their work a set of assumptions, concerns, and goals that may receive varying emphases depending on the characters and intentions of those reading them. There is plenty for Maciag to work with in Edmund Burke, the philosopher in action who defended old Whig principles as he founded modern conservatism.

As Maciag notes, Burke had a very practical side, for example rejecting abstract claims of right along with abstract claims of sovereignty or the right to dominate in Britain’s conflict with America. At the same time, Burke also had an almost mystical aesthetic sensibility, especially manifest in his discussions of the importance of tradition and the need for a kind of spiritual binding to maintain any decent, ordered society. These very real aspects of Burke’s thought have allowed some interpreters to paint him as a kind of utilitarian, concerned only with practical issues or material well-being, or even simply with the power and influence of his own political party. They have allowed other interpreters to see him as a kind of romantic reactionary, harking back to an idealized, medieval past. And they have allowed still other interpreters—including Maciag—to see him as a conflicted, ambivalent figure caught between a concern to ameliorate the sufferings of misgoverned people and the fear of mass revolution.

Properly introduced and modulated, discussion of partial and mis-interpretations such as these can be highly useful in understanding the interpreters and the social context in which they wrote. The prevalence of utilitarianism among intellectuals in the United States in the nineteenth century is often overlooked, in part because here, unlike in Britain, it so manifestly had to deal with, and in many ways incorporate, more spiritual concerns and elements, for example within populism and various reform movements. The more Romantic reading of Burke, with its clear linkage to American transcendentalism, shows up the quaint marginalism of so much of intellectual life in the United States, given the American faith in progress and the people’s innate (religiously-based) virtue. And the smart, often condescending view of Burke as a conflicted pragmatist, or “ambivalent” conservative, torn between his higher, progressive self and his fear of the masses, generally shows the ideological narrowness of its supposedly sophisticated proponents. The seminal work of this last genre is Isaac Kramnick’s The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative, a psycho-sexual treatment of Burke as a latent homosexual playing out his internal conflicts on the stage of politics; Maciag credits Kramnick’s book with influencing his own interpretation, while both minimizing and seeking to distance himself from its semi-Freudian methodology.

The dangers of a historiographical essay are many and serious. To begin with, it may be written with its own, often unannounced program in mind. There also is the danger that the subject thinker’s work will become distorted or, worse, lost altogether amidst the many “voices” and “readings” under review. Perhaps more dangerous, however, is the possibility that the author will use his own particular reading of the figure as a rod against which to measure the readings of others—and with which to strike them for their failings. This last danger is particularly acute, and damaging, when the author has not laid out a full and accurate, or at least balanced, interpretation of the author himself. The real, constant, and frequently realized danger is that an historiographical essay will allow commentary on commentary—in essence, superficial and rather journalistic reporting of changes in rhetoric over time—as a substitute for serious analysis of the figures and topics under discussion. Sadly, this is precisely what happens with Maciag’s book.

Maciag is admirably forthright in his intentions—to trace, not so much interpretations of Burke in America, as uses of Burke by conservatives in America. On the first page of his introduction, Maciag makes clear that Burke, for him, is the creature of “esoteric codes of ideological discourse.” His name is ritualistically mentioned by conservatives; not used in substantive argument, but “as a standard rhetorical ploy.”

Given his assumptions, Maciag’s book can best be understood as a kind of primer for liberals on the use and abuse of Burke by conservatives. On Maciag’s reading, interpretations of Burke in America always have been about American issues and politics, not the actual, historical Burke and his body of thought. And, in the hands of ideological conservatives, he argues, Burke has been a convenient apologist for everything from a hidebound opposition to “progress” to “cold war hysteria.”

In a rather facile first chapter, “Burke in Brief: A ‘Philosophical’ Primer,” Maciag goes further, dismissing Burke as a political philosopher by asserting that “whatever ‘philosophy’ Burke expounded was extracted by others from his pamphlets, letters, and orations, which were produced in the heat of political battle.” Minimizing Burke’s explicitly philosophical and aesthetic works, Maciag also eschews engagement with the substantial literature on the philosophical underpinnings of prudence and the commitment to tradition (one need only mention Michael Oakeshott in this context). Thus, Maciag allows himself to forego any search for a deeper consistency when he comes across seemingly contradictory positions in Burke’s work, further allowing himself to treat all of Burke’s interpreters as more or less self-serving or “entrepreneurial.”

If one accepts Maciag’s (not uncommon) ideological take on political philosophy as a “bridge between culture and ideology,” then his treatment of Burke as the tool of frightened, somewhat conflicted and foolish conservatives in their doomed bid for power in liberal America can be seen as entirely reasonable. Indeed, this kind of reading has appeared before, most prominently in Clinton Rossiter’s more friendly Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion. But the use of these assumptions as a prism through which to read interpretations of Burke by American conservatives distorts both Burke and his conservative interpreters.

According to Maciag, a “right wing constituency during the early Cold War” succeeded, with the acquiescence of liberal and “neutral” scholars, in classifying Burke as “a narrow defender of outdated beliefs.” He sets out to debunk such a reading, highlighting Burke’s “progressive” stands against executive corruption, slavery, and oppression of Britain’s subjects in America and India. He further contrasts Burke’s “humane” positions with the authoritarian attachment to unbridled political power he ascribes to conservatives. The humane Burke, then, must be contrasted with the “fearful” Burke who opposed the French Revolutionary Jacobins. Burke’s thought must, in this light, reflect a conflicted character caught between a liberal commitment to “the essential spirit of democracy” and a fearful reactionary impulse seeking political order and balance through the “ballast” of aristocracy.

In seeking to “save” Burke from conservatives, Maciag ends up wondering why conservatives would have chosen him as their patron saint in the first place. According to Maciag, conservatives, presumably concerned with power, nonetheless reject mass politics even as they fail to recognize that America is irretrievably liberal and/or progressive. Thus they foolishly choose to cloak conservatism’s reactionary love of hierarchy, tradition, state oppression, and support for plutocratic forces with an equally unappealing, illiberal use of Burke’s dark side.

Maciag pieces together something of a rationale for conservatives’ use of Burke in the Cold War thesis—put forward before him by, among others, Kramnick. On this view, conservatives encouraged anti-communist hysteria beginning in the 1950s as a political ploy to win popular support for their anti-democratic policies and found in Burke’s anti-revolutionary writing a good stock of useful quotations. The same can be argued regarding anti-Islamist rhetoric and action in more recent decades. The problem with this reading is that so many conservatives were labeled “isolationists” for opposing foreign entanglements in the post-war era and many conservatives openly criticized the various wars in the Middle East during recent years.

There is a disconnect in Maciag’s book between the rhetoric of political parties, on which he bases his assumptions concerning conservative goals, and the interpretations of Burke in more highbrow writings that are the putative subject of his book. Maciag seems unaware that the latter often flatly contradict the former, though he would have seen this had he examined the policy positions of the authors he cites. Conservative scholars are not, and seldom have been, Republican Party animals. Indeed, whether wisely or foolishly, conservatives often reject the pursuit of power altogether, seeing themselves as a “remnant” defending what is left of Western Civilization in hostile times. And this defense is primarily literary and spiritual, not political in the literal sense.

Ironically, the most troubling flaw in Maciag’s book is the most intellectual. The philosophical content of Burke’s writings is deeply rooted in the tradition of Christian humanism and its reading of natural law. Burke’s emphasis on the limits of human perfectibility, his rejection of radicalism in all its forms, his insistence on order as the first need for all societies, and his recognition of what he called “the real rights of man” in family, faith, and freedom—including the economic freedom to what one has earned by the sweat of one’s brow—all are rooted in a vision of human dignity and the order of existence that are a Christian development of the natural law tradition begun most powerfully by Cicero. But Maciag provides no substantive discussion of Cicero. For him, natural law (and, oddly, at some points “natural right”—a term he recognizes in the anti-Burkean Leo Strauss) is “a religious ideology” and “an abstract theoretical construct” that should demand systemic action aimed at eliminating evils and promoting a political program. Natural law’s “rules” are “universal and timeless” according to Maciag. And this means that natural law cannot be consistent with actual, imperfect traditions, let alone with what he asserts is the conservative desire to maintain particular traditions at almost any cost.

It is not surprising, then, that Maciag dismisses natural law interpretations of Burke as more ideological entrepreneurship, this time with the goal of resurrecting an outdated Christian humanism to combat secular modernity. Again, the practical utility of the project seems uncertain even to Maciag, but he ascribes recklessness and even intentional misinterpretation to figures such as Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis because, on his view, Burke’s thought, while it might be consistent with, cannot be said to necessarily belong within the natural law tradition. Instead, according to Maciag, what natural law interpreters of Burke give us are empty platitudes that do more to tie Burke to the religious dogma of the interpreters than to set forward a coherent plan of political action.

It is here that we see the essential flaw in Maciag’s analysis, for where he seeks to discern the ideology behind conservatism, and the place of Burke within that ideology, conservatism by nature eschews ideology. Maciag, of course, cannot accept such a statement as accurate; for him all political thought is ideological—aimed at making society over in a given image. Here one may note his incredulity at Richard Weaver’s conviction that the nominalism of William of Occam, which denied the existence of universals, was catastrophic for western civilization. If our view of the world—our acceptance that beauty and virtue, for example, are real things to which we should seek to conform—changed in the 14th century, should we not “recalibrate” our “yardstick of wisdom?”

This throw-away line is at the heart of Maciag’s misunderstanding of conservatism. For natural law, on Cicero’s reading in particular, is neither an abstract universal all societies must copy nor a set of “rules” dictating all our proper actions. It is, for the natural law thinker (and, today, this almost uniformly means the conservative) the reality of existence, the set of universals against which we ought to measure our conduct and our products, not as a blueprint, but as ethical norms (e.g. the Golden Rule, conceptions of virtue, etc.). Given the differing circumstances of societies and people, we cannot look for a specific recipe or formula for virtue, but the rejection of the idea of an innate goodness in the order of existence, and a drive toward this good in each of us, is the source and indeed the essence of our current, for the conservative corrupt, state. The conservative is no ideologue because he rejects the very worldview Maciag insists all of us by nature have—that of a purpose-driven search for power.

Maciag has a picture in his mind of conservatism as a reactionary love of hierarchy, irrational religious dogma to be imposed on everyone, and political power to be used to support oppressive traditions and economic power. He is correct, to be sure, that Burke was no conservative of this sort. But then neither are most thinkers who call themselves conservative. Conservatives may well be wrong, and certainly are out of step with the times, but their rejection of modern presuppositions does not constitute an ideology in the contemporary sense, and recognition of that fact is necessary for a historiography of conservative thought to enlighten readers as to its essential nature—or even the more practical goals of its adherents as played out in political discourse.