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Edmund Burke for Socialists

by ARGeezer Wed May 25th, 2016 at 12:57:58 PM EST

I could never bring myself to read more than excerpts from Edmond Burke's "Notes On The Revolution in France" This was likely due to him being presented almost exclusively as a cudgel against the French Revolution while I could not but identify with the revolutionaries. Had I been more aware of his position on the American Revolution I might have been more sympathetic. But, as I can now see, my professors were, at best, social liberals or libertarians. But Burke was a defender of the value of tradition and of the wisdom of evolved and lived practical experience. Another take on Burke:

A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism John Michael Greer aka The (former) Archdruid

The foundation of Burkean conservatism is the recognition that human beings aren't half as smart as they like to think they are. One implication of this recognition is that when human beings insist that the tangled realities of politics and history can be reduced to some set of abstract principles simple enough for the human mind to understand, they're wrong. Another is that when human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience, the results will pretty reliably be disastrous.


Continuing from Greer:

What these imply, in turn, is that social change is not necessarily a good thing. It's always possible that a given change, however well-intentioned, will result in consequences that are worse than the problems that the change is supposed to fix. In fact, if social change is pursued in a sufficiently clueless fashion, the consequences can cascade out of control, plunging a nation into failed-state conditions, handing it over to a tyrant, or having some other equally unwanted result. What's more, the more firmly the eyes of would-be reformers are fixed on appealing abstractions, and the less attention they pay to the lessons of history, the more catastrophic the outcome will generally be.

That, in Burke's view, was what went wrong in the French Revolution. His thinking differed sharply from continental European conservatives, in that he saw no reason to object to the right of the French people to change a system of government that was as incompetent as it was despotic. It was, the way they went about it--tearing down the existing system of government root and branch, and replacing it with a shiny new system based on fashionable abstractions--that was problematic. What made that problematic, in turn, was that it simply didn't work  Instead of establishing an ideal republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the wholesale reforms pushed through by the National Assembly plunged France into chaos, handed the nation over to a pack of homicidal fanatics, and then dropped it into the waiting hands of an egomaniacal warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte.


Why things went wrong in the French Revolution:
Two specific bad ideas founded in abstractions helped feed the collapse of revolutionary France into chaos, massacre, tyranny, and pan-European war. The first was the conviction, all but universal among the philosophes whose ideas guided the revolution, that human nature is entirely a product of the social order. According to this belief, the only reason people don't act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should. Because they held this belief, in turn, the National Assembly did nothing to protect their shiny up-to-date system against such old-fashioned vices as lust for power and partisan hatred, with results that made the streets of Paris run with blood.

The second bad idea had the same effect as the first. This was the conviction, also all but universal among the philosophes, that history moved inevitably in the direction they wanted: from superstition to reason, from tyranny to liberty, from privilege to equality, and so on. According to this belief, all the revolution had to do to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity was to get rid of the old order, and voila--liberty, equality, and fraternity would pop up on cue. Once again, things didn't work that way. Where the philosophes insisted that history moves ever upward toward a golden age in the future, and the European conservatives who opposed them argued that history slides ever downward from a golden age in the past, Burke's thesis--and the evidence of history--implies that history has no direction at all.

The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society's history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don't have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there's a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.

I don't think I even heard the name Karl Polanyi while I was getting my Masters in History,(1965), but, fifteen years later, when I was handed a copy of "The Great Transformation" by an economist friend I saw the great power of tradition through the eyes of a socialist. Polanyi was very Burkian in his criticism of the reform of the Poor Laws in England in i834 and the entire transition of England from a traditional feudal culture to a laissez faire, market oriented economy, calling it, to paraphrase, "the largest and longest running utopian social experiment in history", and not in a good way. This last bit by Greer would certainly be endorsed by Polanyi:
The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society's history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don't have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there's a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.
Of course this overlooks the role of the dynamics of a revolution as so lucidly laid out by Historian Crane Brinton in "Anatomy of Revolution" almost 80 years ago. It could be argued that, regardless of the ideals of a revolution, once started it will be driven by inherent internal dynamics to a course similar to what Brinton described for the English, French and Russian Revolutions. Certainly a strong case was made for that thesis by Zbigniew Brzezinski to Carter for the Iranian Revolution. The case Brinton makes offers a cautionary tale for Sanders' 'Political Revolution' (from Wiki):
Brinton summarizes the revolutionary process as moving from "financial breakdown, [to] organization of the discontented to remedy this breakdown ... revolutionary demands on the part of these organized discontented, demands which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing, attempted use of force by the government, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists. These revolutionists have hitherto been acting as an organized and nearly unanimous group, but with the attainment of power it is clear that they are not united. The group which dominates these first stages we call the moderates .... power passes by violent ... methods from Right to Left."

Peaceful change is more than a desideratum.

 

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As Edmund O. Wilson noted in his classic "To The Finland Station" The Bolsheviks were well aware of the dynamic Brinton described. They particularly feared a Thermadorian Reaction. It has been argued that, by guarding against Thermador, they got Stalin and Stalinism. I don't want either a Bonaparte or a Thermador to come out of any 'Political Revolution'. Nor do I thing such a development is inevitable. But it has to be a concern. The status quo is unsustainable - politically, economically, socially and ecologically. So we have no real choice but to try to change it.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed May 25th, 2016 at 01:14:26 PM EST
Burke was strongly against metaphysical abstractions, but any consistent hold onto a set of principles is an abstracted conduct. So I wonder, how the Burkean philosophy applies to itself when it is more a zeal than an organic spread.

Burkean conservatism applies ironically to the American Independence and Civil wars. The government was certainly based on abstract principles. Bitter partisanship developed right away, originally between the (progressive, pro-capital) Federalists and (conservative, agrarian) Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans. When Jefferson became the president in 1801, he was compelled soon to compromise own congruent conservatism and keep many "overreaching but working" Federalist institutions, policies. And when the US approached the Civil War, a compromise on slavery was not a sound resolution.

Transformations have their own aesthetics, and not all of them are visibly bloody. The libertarian, pro-capital revolutions and shock doctrines (as in Naomi Klein's book) tend to have much better appearances. Revolutions "from below" might be easily discredited by hacking. In any case, making a revolution means taking unapologetic leadership.

It is clear that the Left has essentially conservative aspirations (to preserve the socially progressive institutions) for a while now. Yet they are loosing ground continuously. Isn't some change inevitable,  after all? Or even inevitably desirable, like CO2 emissions?

by das monde on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 05:08:46 AM EST
The only philosophical propositions of which I am aware that are fully self consistent are tautologies.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 10:35:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
second assertion.

Certainly Robespierre would not agree with the proposition that "all the revolution had to do to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity was to get rid of the old order, and voilà--liberty, equality, and fraternity would pop up on cue," and as seen by his final speech of 8 Thermidor Year 2, he clearly saw the challenges for the Revolution, and of the necessity of the imposition of virtue, without any compunction as to the violence that would be required (indeed, in his view, this violence was part and parcel of revolutionary justice). Of note is that Robespierre very most likely spoke these words fearlessly, in front of an audience who he was accusing, in the full knowledge he was to die by these very same words, so these were not idle words.

I cannot figure out how to link to the sppech, but here it is in French, I am sure the English can also be easily found: http://www.legrandsoir.info/ultime-discours-du-citoyen-robespierre.html

The terror was an integral part of the Revolution, fully assumed by its leader, as one can see from this final speech, the day before it all came down on him.

One sees similar sentiments expressed at other times in subsequent history - the Paris Commune of 1870, the events on 1917, of 1949 (and earlier in free China in the 1930's) and even the Iranian revolution. This terror, violent in various degrees, also is each time accompanied by an explosion of participative committees; these citizens committees generally consited of attempts to recreate new and better institutions and ways of doing things all the while the old was being thrown out. This is something which pervaded the political environment in every case, including the Iranian revolution, which is most likely why Michel Foucault was such a proponent of it, as incongruous as that may seem today given how the Iranian revolution devolved (and it was of course not alone in such devolutions, which Zizek would chalk up to, and I am surely simplifying here, the collapse of the revolutionary fervor and the devolution of its remains into the cultural substrata from which it sprung.)

So Burke is clearly wrong when he accuses revolutionaries of simplistic and magical thinking. Which is normal, as he was in his day the leading conservative ideologue in the anglophone world.

As for the revolution of 1789 and its aftermath, the corrupt elements of which Robespierre speaks (and they were indeed corrupt, their self-interested actions led more or less directly to Napoléon) have, in my view, their clear successor - the modern day Parti Socialiste of dear virtuous François Hollande and his firebrand sidekick Manuel Valls.

So, there is no irony, by this same view, in stating the Burke would be for the Socialists, he certainly would be for today's socialists.

by John Redmond (Ladybeaterz@NolesAD.com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 09:39:25 AM EST
Given Burke's earlier support of the American Revolution, even in practice as it developed, I don't think he was staunchly opposed to violence per se. What changed in the intervening 15-20 years? Well, obviously he got older, perhaps more conservative and he died during The Directory, but, IMO, national, political and cultural identity played a bigger part. He was a Whig while the Tory Party was controlling England's response, and saw the American Colonies as being populated with people who showed the best of the English character. He hated the popular  authoritarian turn of the English towards the American Revolution, didn't like the fact that German mercenaries were employed by an English king of German descent to suppress the revolution and had proposed a different, more conciliatory approach before hostilities broke out, only to be ignored. He identified with the American revolutionaries as much as he did with the English who had carried off the 'Glorious Revolution'. And then there was the perception and the fact that the Terror executed far more French, proportionately, than Cromwell and the Roundheads ever executed in England. Deputies on Mission purging opponents of the Revolution with the Guillotine and even stuffing barges with opponents and sinking them in the rivers.

My own view is that such excesses are to be expected in any violent revolution, which is why it is preferable to avoid violence. But the right has always been comfortable with violence when it serves their purpose. And change must come and it needs to be profound. It is now less a question of how we save the world for future generations but if we can do so. And my answer to means vs. ends controversies is that means can only be justified by both the intent and the result.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 10:33:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
was more to his liking for a number of reasons, first of which would be that it was, at root, a bourgeois "revolution," in that it was, as Robespierre might say, a revolt against a king so as to put into its place a new king (or, as would finally evolve, a new president) drawn from the same overarching elite. Zinn's People's History is a good place to see just how the American "Revolution" was very much a revolt of the elite, and as is usual in American history, the elite's interests are served with the blood of the poor and paid for by the lesser gentry, middle classes or whatever the historical equivalent is in context. And, Burke was not the only Conservative to have such sympathies, certainly Louis XVI, in deed, shared them, of course prior to being subject to Robespierre's divine Justice.

1789 Paris was a completely different matter, Robespierre himself distinguishes this revolt not as one to replace a tyrant with another, but to replace it with Virtue. And here, what is meant by Virtue to Robespierre (and others) is the starting point, though it is of no interest to an Edmund Burke or other Conservative commentators of the time (and there were many).

Speaking, of course, as a mere enthusiast of history, of course.

 

by John Redmond (Ladybeaterz@NolesAD.com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 10:55:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
At that time the American Revolution could hardly have been other than a rebellion of the elites. While the American Colonies may have been among the most widely literate places of its time a systematic education was still the almost sole province of the elite. If even half of the total population was minimally literate, it was mostly due to parents, usually wives, teaching the children to read and the most common, usually the only book in the house was the Bible.

The French Revolution was, initially, led by elites, including some from the 1st and 2nd Estates. And the vast majority of delegates to the National Assembly of the Estates General were business and professional people such as Robspierre and Danton, while Mirabeau was a count and Sant Just was descended from a noble family. Even Les Enragés were well educated. I don't know the circumstances from which Jacques Roux came, but he was a priest. Probably the closest to a lower class origin was the actress Claire Lacombe, as actresses then were often considered to be little better than prostitutes.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 12:10:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As regards 1789-1794, I would agree that most of the leaders were from higher social strata; underneath, there was insurrection though, bubbling through, and the sans culottes made their voices heard, to simplify, ultimately via Robespierre and his early allies Danton Marat and Saint Just among a few others.

But the power base of the Revolution at that time was from below, especially from 1792 forward. The Girondins, the initial power base of lower local gentry and city bourgeoisie, were defeated and then arrested with this popular support, and the Revolution really got interesting, speaking again of course as an enthusiast of history.

by John Redmond (Ladybeaterz@NolesAD.com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 12:22:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...speaking again of course as an enthusiast of history.

John, I am much more an enthusiast of history than a professional historian. As a beginning grad student I was concerned about my lack of breadth and I was fortunate enough to have been chosen as the graduate reader for the new French History Professor's series of courses in French History, which consisted of six courses of three semester hours each. For those I read an average of six books each, took the course myself and graded the undergraduates according to the professor's key. I probably retained as much from the lectures as I got from the readings.

Similarly with English history and Russian history. It was the National Schools period of American college curriculum, with all of the attendant problems. For Russian History I had already had an excellent series by a much better Yale educated professor while an undergrad in physics, as accompaniment to two years of Russian language. The Russian history professor was a Stanford educated neo-con who also graded the athletes' papers himself. He was a cold warrior and I was advised that declining to grade his courses would be bad for my career. It turned out that the history department as a whole was bad for my career.

I don't regret any of it, but wish I had had the sense to transfer to a better university, one more open to alternative views. The attitudes of the Russian and English History professors at the U. of Arizona were that the only thing worse than the total incomprehension most students displayed for ideas from the left was that I not only understood them immediately but actually embraced them. They considered themselves guardians at the gate of academe.

So I hardly consider myself a professional historian and I made my way in the world based on my Physics B.S. and attitude. For the next twenty years of so I spent more effort on anthropology and psychology than on history, but resumed my reading in the early '80s.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 01:11:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I only insist on the "enthusiast of history" line in order to dispel (whatever for?) any doubts one might have regarding political sympathies, partisanship and the like...
by John Redmond (Ladybeaterz@NolesAD.com) on Fri May 27th, 2016 at 09:45:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There were quite a few "commoners" involved in the US Revolution from the start, whether in the Sons of Liberty, the Green Mountain Boys, or the militias (especially in the Carolinas and the western parts of Pennsylvania and New York), and word of what the Revolution was about spread pretty readily, but when these folks tried to make the Revolution actually apply to themselves, the elites smacked them down hard.
by rifek on Fri May 27th, 2016 at 02:24:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But all the leaders were and had to be literate. Basic literacy was adequate to be the leader of a platoon, but it was important to be able to read written dispatches. The higher we go up the ranks the more important a good education became. That is why the leaders came from families that could afford to send them to school - for the most part. That could include a prosperous farmer, but, unless they had moved further onto the frontier after growing up in a more settled area and took their education with them, the frontiersmen were less likely to be 'well educated'. That said, they may will have valuable skills and knowledge that cannot be gained in school. And there were a number of self educated who had read widely in available books, but they had to be able to get the books somehow.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 27th, 2016 at 03:01:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Power disparity in the American colonies grew slowly, because land was cheap and labour dearly expensive. Hence the outright slavery and sensitivity to tea or stamp taxes. So the colonial societies were rather egalitarian, ignoring slavery. The founding religious and social projects were hard to manage, hardly anything went according to intentions.
by das monde on Tue May 31st, 2016 at 02:02:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Violence is a symptom, not a cause.

Revolutions remove the usual social checks and balances. This creates a breeding ground for ambitious sociopaths and psychopaths, who can now use violence of all kinds for entertainment and self-advancement.

The same thing happens if the usual social checks and balances break down for any other reason. Sometimes the sociopaths are already in the Establishment; this is happening now in the UK, where a vicious regime is trying to undermine the usual contract of decency and law in order to attack the poor and disabled.

If you can create regime change without allowing the sociopaths to breed, a reign of terror becomes unlikely.

This can happen by luck rather than judgement, but a response to Burke is that it's absolutely fine to break the established order, especially if it glories in violence of its own. The problem is creating a civil revolution which excludes careerists, chancers, and crazies.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 30th, 2016 at 10:45:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Unconscious violence is a symptom. A conscious decision not to live by present conditions must be better viewed as a causal force.

Checks and balances are a luxury of prosperous times. The historical norm is more Hobbesian: whoever gets the Mandate of Heaven sets the ethics and a comfortable Burkean convention.

by das monde on Tue May 31st, 2016 at 01:45:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would also note that there is a time and place for everything. Burke is certainly a poor guide to how to conduct a revolution, but once the revolution is won and it come time to lock in the results of that revolution, many of the things Burke has to say and that the founding fathers of the USA did become highly relevant. At that point we want something that can endure the test of time.

Notable here are issues of money and banking, corporations, of fictitious bodies, the entire realm of publicly granted monopolies, pros and cons, and the social, economic, and ecological obligations of a government that is to serve all. That needs to be thought through and argued very carefully before final language is selected. In the case of the USA this would properly take the form of constitutional amendments.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 06:07:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Although it should be noted that in the USA, Constitutional Amendments are notoriously difficult to enact, and so few amendments have been passed in the last century.  This was intentionally and understandably so when the priority was to lock in revolutionary gains. It may be more problematic now when constitutional reforms are urgently needed,  Gun control, anyone?

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 06:14:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Corporate person-hood? Corporate liability? The legal obligation of the President and Department of Justice to provide equal justice for all? Limits to the ability of the wealthy to bury the population with practically uncontested, self serving bullshit? The diminution of the role of the 'free press' by consolidation and ownership by the incumbent economic elites? On and on.

The general public has been served so poorly by the existing public education system that most cannot make heads or tails of what has happened to them and they have been the target of deliberately confusing and distracting propaganda designed to keep the agitated and focused on things that don't matter to the elites. Right now I would not want to even try constitutional amendments. I think we need to wait until the present millennial generation has fully moved into adulthood.

With Donald Trump now having clinched the Republican nomination I think that the election in November will give us a good read on whether we have gathered enough support to contemplate making real changes and how long that might take. And I hope Sanders keeps his organization intact and functioning to continue to build support, starting Nov. 3, for more progressives in the congress in 2018.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 07:55:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Economic and social conditions in the US are nowhere near bad enough to spark a revolution.  In Brinton's analysis the precondition for revolt is: things have to get really bad, then get better, and then get really bad again.  While not disputing the anger old white men have, in the US most people have a roof over their heads, enough food to eat, and enough toys to keep them amused.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 12:05:59 PM EST
I agree. But things have been bad especially 2008-9, have gotten better and will likely get even worse soon. Which is why I think we may have a chance to bring about substantial change in the USA by peaceful means. This is, essentially, what FDR did. And while there is no real spectre such as the Bolsheviks with which to frighten the elites, many are concerned about the percieved decline of US power and our decline in or loss of even critical defense manufacturing capabilities.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 12:16:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
" ... enough food to eat ..."

For now. Prez/Emperor Trump games the system and that ends. Hungry people will pay a lot more for food than well fed ones.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 12:26:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That is already happening! Don't shop in supermarkets in low income areas. If the market has a substantial number of customers who lack access to transportation it is likely to be taking advantage of that by marking up the items such customers buy the most.


"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 26th, 2016 at 12:46:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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