Burke’s Commitment to Social Freedom

Edmund Burke is often considered the father of modern conservatism, the man who blended classical liberal politics—and its emphasis on the rule of law and parliamentary procedure—with conservative moral values and virtues that considered religion and individual duty to be a necessary part of socio-political life. Burke is remembered for his writings on the sublime and beautiful and especially his criticism of the French Revolution. While an energetic and active writer and statesman, his final decade of writing turned out to be his most fruitful. While an influence over the young Romantics in aesthetics, most people remember Burke for his political treatise Reflections on the Revolution in France and his defense of what Russell Kirk would call “ordered liberty” or what Burke himself called “social freedom.”

Concerns over the decline of society and the new march of tyranny have brought Burke back into the intellectual spotlight. Over the last decade, there has been a flourishing of Burkean scholarship. Now, more than ever, Burke seems to be an essential antidote to the problems we’re facing today.

“Any good insight in the humanities will be relevant for a long time,” Daniel Klein and Dominic Pino write in their introduction to Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797. Having compiled an anthology of Burke’s political writings, Klein and Pino do an excellent job in their introduction offering a defense of Burke’s continued relevance and a description of his political writings. Because Burke was a student of human nature and his writings reflect his wrestling with human nature, the Anglo-Irish statesman’s writings and ruminations retain their relevance.

We live in an age where the rejection of nature is widespread. What is a woman? What is a man? The prevailing answer of the zeitgeist is simply sophistry: whoever identifies as a woman or a man. And how dare we only limit humans to those identities! The language games played by the intellectual and power elite today divorce human nature from an understanding of reality. Luckily, some people still have good common sense (a quintessential Burkean virtue) to see through the fog of lies foisted by our elites, be they journalists, professors, or politicians.

Klein and Pino explicitly return us to the question of human nature when addressing the political considerations of Burke. “Burke devoted the last years of his life to fighting against radicalism, dogmatism, and stubborn, foolish instincts. The radicalism we see today is not the product of left-wing universities, socialist intellectuals, or the Frankfurt School. It is not the product of any one country or any one culture. It is the product of human nature, and that hasn’t changed since Burke put pen to paper,” our authors state. That might only be partially true; sure, human nature and its lust for despotism and control haven’t changed, but ideas have, and ideas have influenced our darker desires for things despotic and tyrannical. And the ideas propagated by leftwing universities, socialist intellectuals, and the Frankfurt School have all aided and abetted the disintegration of social freedom and the new tyranny.

Part of the purpose of this collection of Burke’s political writings is to reorient the debate over Burke’s “conservatism” to the perennial question of liberty. Burke’s primary concern was freedom. Freedom for the human race. Freedom for countries, especially his own. Freedom for individuals to live in social harmony with each other—what Burke would call “social freedom.” In doing so, Klein and Pino remind us of the gift of Burkean conservatism: it is the conservatism of liberty with an emphasis on social harmony instead of the rigid autocratic and clerical traditionalism of continental conservatism in France or Russia.

Another aspect of Burke’s considerations that draw our attention is his teasing out the distinction between reform and revolution, or “change” in the language of today’s Western revolutionaries. Reform is premised on Burke’s commitment to natural rights. Reform is premised on Burke’s commitment to democratic procedure and the necessity of reason and persuasion in society if it is to avoid a dog-eat-dog style of political and social organization. It is premised on Burke’s belief that discerning motives are important to life and politics—reform aims at benignity while revolutionary change masks those dark totalitarian lusts for complete power hidden in the recesses of the human nature that we’re told by our enlightened guardians doesn’t exist. For Burke, reform is modest and procedural, working through legislative compromise, whereas revolutionaries clamor for immediate change wrapped up in a rhetoric of virtuous expediency.

Klein and Pino’s introduction sets the foundation for reading their selection of writings gathered together from Burke’s pen. They offer a brief sketch arguing that Burke belongs to the same strand of political liberty and natural rights as Adam Smith and David Hume. In truth, though, Burke transcends Smith and Hume, and he is equally, if not more, indebted to classical authors like Aristotle and Cicero, especially the latter, who appears over and over again in Burke’s many writings, including his political ones, which emphasize the need for social harmony as the basis of liberty just as Cicero had written in De re Publica.

Our editors’ emphasis on Burke and social freedom, however, is worthwhile and important for readers to grapple with. It shows that humans thrive by living in harmony with each other, which enhances liberty and personality (something very different from the misanthropic anthropologies of classical liberal philosophers like Hobbes and Locke). It is also a basis for Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and his final writings explaining the need for an alliance of European powers to liberate the French people from Jacobin tyranny. According to Burke, the French revolutionaries showed themselves to be unqualified or unfit for liberty, since liberty is something delicate (an aesthetic quality Burke outlined in his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful) and can easily be lost in the zealotry of revolutionary fervor which ends in destruction and is not conducive to the spirit of social freedom.

The French Revolution, from this insight, threatens social harmony and, therefore, the social freedom of all (not just in France). The Terror and the passions induced in it bring war where there is peace and despotism where there is freedom; as social creatures, the freedom we enjoy through social relationships would be destroyed. Given the subsequent three decades of near endless war, Burke was certainly prescient in foreseeing revolutionary “behavior… as a threat to the continent at large.”

Radical and totalitarian movements ultimately seek to eradicate these social relationships because in their top-down politics of control, the vibrancy and strength of social freedom must be destroyed for the totalitarian blueprint to emerge.

Burke’s commitment to a freedom rooted in our social nature is what helps explain his seemingly radical defense of Indians against the exploitation of the East India Company, his commitment to Catholic emancipation, and his condemnation of the slave trade. Far from abandoning his principles of liberty when he critiqued the French Revolution, as Charles Fox and other radical Whigs lamentingly insisted, Burke remained committed to a social freedom that was threatened by the Revolution which misanthropic liberals like Fox and other Whigs were incapable of realizing. As Burke himself wrote in his letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont:

[Freedom] is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty; as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is the state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint… This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

Social freedom is anathema to various strands of Enlightenment misanthropy, be they Hobbesian, Lockean, Rousseauian, or Marxist. What unites these traditions, even if they go by the names “liberal” or “socialist” or “communist,” is an underpinning animus against sociality and an endorsement of a liberty that is “solitary, unconnected, individual” and, ultimately, “selfish.” Burke is ultimately no friend of the misanthropic individualism of collectivist and statist ideologies.

It is eminently appropriate, then, given that Burke’s social liberty is the reoriented foundation that Klein and Pino lay out in their introduction, that the first writing of Burke in this volume is his letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont. This is followed by selections from his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, along with other letters written in the aftermath of the Storming of the Bastille. The volume concludes with selections from the “Letters on a Regicide Peace.” The inclusion of Burke’s letters on the French Revolution allows the reader to see more than just the Burke of Reflections, and it also reveals to readers that Burke was intimately involved in analyzing all the events of the French Revolution and its implications.

While it is true that Burke’s battle against radicalism was a battle against a certain, darker, misanthropic side to human nature—what Christianity has long called “sin”—it is also undeniably the case that certain ideas that emanate from leftwing intellectuals, university circles, and the Frankfurt School compound the irascible radicalism running amok today. It is not merely the Foucauldian veil of confronting power structures that undergird these radical movements but a genuine hatred of humanity, a despising of social nature, an antagonism to the complexities of the human heart. Burke’s apologia for social freedom, scattered throughout his various writings, is a defense of observable human nature: we are freest and flourish best in relationships, especially relationships of love.

Radical and totalitarian movements ultimately seek to eradicate these social relationships because in their top-down politics of control, the vibrancy and strength of social freedom must be destroyed for the totalitarian blueprint to emerge. The best of post-1789 art and literature has been attuned to this reality. The anti-revolutionary and anti-utopian literature of the twentieth century, in particular, reveal to us the depths of the attempt of totalitarian movements to destroy those social relationships and the spirit of love (Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is one of the finest examples of this).

Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797, is a nice selection of Burke’s last decade of writing. Daniel Klein and Dominic Pino have a commendable introduction that sets the tone and directs the readers on how to engage with Burke more fruitfully. And after reading through this slim volume of Burke’s writings, one can graduate to his fuller collected writings to dive more deeply into a perennial thinker.