Books · Philosophy · Politics

Thomas Paine over Edmund Burke – The origin of modern politics

Modern politics begins with the French revolution and the literary clash of Edmund Burke with Thomas Paine. Though the American republic had already a decade of lifetime in it, it is only since June 1789 and the unilateral constitution of the National Assembly in Versailles that a great European nation begins its push for genuine representative governance and that distinctions of political idea acquire their modern relevance. By November 1790 the new governing parliament of France had begun abolishing the legal privileges of nobility and clergy, introduced a new system of regional administration and taxation, declared the fundamental rights of the citizen and nationalised clerical lands. In November 1790 the Reflections on the Revolution in France of Edmund Burke are published in London to great public interest. Within four months the first part of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man follows, in direct rebuttal to Burke’s argument and to even greater success of its own.

To call Edmund Burke a reactionary is simple and yet unsatisfying. While on most days lachrymosity over fallen aristocracy is rather unlikely to reach the heart of the modern man in quite the manner that it used to coddle the heart and mind of his ancestor, the torrent of Burke’s remonstrations against the fledgling Assembly carried, enwrapped in the fineries of outrage and hyperbole, a series of objections to the French revolutionary project which failed to catch the minds d’outre-Manche only to their worst disadvantage.

Thomas Paine’s defence of the French nation and the general principle of a people’s right to demolish usurped (because assumed) power and replace it with constitutional governments has to the most perfunctory survey stood the test of time and enjoyed the blessing of overall validation by history (so far as the West is considered). A certain strain in common thought, aligned mostly with the occasionally named Whig conception of history, would have it that the liberal and democratic pursuits eventually triumphed, in France as elsewhere, and that inherited privilege and unelected parliaments saw the beginning of their eclipse in the summer of 1789. But, as anyone aware of French post-revolutionary history must immediately detect, such triumphs of the human spirit, when they came, arrived only after France had amply shown in practice all the fallacies of its 1789’s agitated self. Maximilien Robespierre and the Terror followed, and then the gravedigger of the revolution himself, Napoleon Bonaparte; after him the Congress of Berlin. Had not Mr Burke then, in his emphatic opposition, something important to warn against?

The main concern of Edmund Burke is to stymie the progress of certain novel assumptions about government that had sprung in the field of popular ideas in France and were threatening to reach England by contagion. The chief of these assumptions was the notion that government arose out of the people’s delegation of their individual prerogatives to it. In other words, out of a contract between the people and the power they set above themselves. This could imply the people’s right to revoke that concession and undo the government whenever it pleased them. Connected and in continuation to this first assumption was the equally noxious idea that governments are to be held accountable to the people to such an extent that the people may hold some persistent power of chastisement over them, as in the form of election for every state office.

Government did not arise out of the formalities of an agreement between people and monarch, Burke rebuts. People accepted the rightful claim of the monarchy to power and everything that ensued has been in logical harmony with that origin. Revolutions should only occur as reformations, to correct the malfunction of a specific government, but no situation can confer legitimacy to demolish the system of monarchy which is sacred. Its sacredness is due to its being inherited from ancestral times by generation after generation. It is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” It is, Burke adds elsewhere, a product of reason and nature.

A sonorous dismissal by Mr Paine on this crucial point of his adversary’s reasoning could not but come. “There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time’.” Burke had indeed said “for ever”, free of any qualification. And there was in fact no reason for Burke to shrink from this supreme conclusion. He explains that after the Norman Conquest the English found themselves with a king and their choice-not-choice became in that instant binding for their heirs in perpetuity, minimal change admitted. For this argument Burke claims the Revolution of 1688 as an entirely reactionary move back to tradition and away from the tyranny of corrupt monarchs and invasive parliaments. When the parliament called William of Orange to collect the vacant throne they reconfirmed the eternal law of monarchic succession: his wife Mary was daughter to James II and thus in line to the throne once the precedents had been killed or excluded because Catholics. And observe the language of parliamentary deliberations when William and Mary were being enthroned, says Burke. It is the language of the old fundamental laws of the crown. This shows that in form as much as substance the monarchy reestablished by the Glorious Revolution was the traditional English monarchy. It wasn’t elected and power was not ceded to it. It is even true to say, insists Burke, that Parliament did nothing but accept William’s kingship, which would have always been legitimate.

So far is it from being true that we acquired a right by the Revolution to elect our kings; that if we had possessed it before, the English nation did at that time most solemnly renounce and abdicate it, for themselves, and for all their posterity, for ever.

(Fancy tempts me here to wonder whether the English actually came to convince themselves of this point and whether that be the reason why they are even presently styled ‘subjects’.)

As to that, Mr Paine: “The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.”

Nothing more demands to be said to counter Burke’s claim that monarchy is eternal. Paine has no trouble in doing away with the immediate sense of absurdity it inspires. But he then finds a moment to also remark that Burke’s monarchy clearly and admittedly appeared in history out of a collective resolution (or acceptance) within a nation. That one generation of men clearly claimed (or implied) their own right to establish governments. Mr Burke has to explain where that right went. To claim the creation of government a mystical exception in human history is laughable, more so for being left unargued.

Where then do Burke’s merits lie, if he is so ostensibly uninterested in John Locke and the American Declaration of Independence?

Burke is swift to register that the principle animating the mobs which took over the Bastille and then roused the royal family from their residence and forced them to remove back to Paris, is the principle of violent upheaval, or mob power. (He is resistant to the notion that the monarchy of France, or its aristocracy, or its clergy, may be culpable of gross misdemeanours, historical or occasional, legalised or accustomed. Simply, whatever demerit any Frenchman might have had to his personal account, all of it could have been redressed by cautious reform and with reverence to godgiven institutions.) Such activism through violence and coercion is patently illegal and immoral. (Burke is found invoking legality all throughout his book, perhaps for rhetorical advantage. A revolution could be said to be by definition a refusal of a standard of legality.) And who gave these people the virulent ideas they proclaim? A very specific class of men, says Burke: the French intellectuals. They threw promises at the people of the kind that they had no power to realise. It was the philosophes again who eroded public confidence in the clergy and the monarchy. Their own belief is in fact atheism. Fortunately, such men never held sway in the merry kingdom of England because the English know by reason and instinct that atheism is no foundation to construct society upon. (It is perhaps fit to remind ourselves here of the name of Thomas Hobbes, whose beliefs on monarchy Burke is happy to pursue without acknowledgement and whose strict materialism no doubt displeased him generously.)

With this reliance upon the power of armed citizenry, the new French government will always be under threat of embarrassing contradiction should the people catch a fancy for a new champion of their desires. That government’s dependence upon the power of its military to preserve order is another deadly contingency. Should the military desert this faceless and multifarious new government, what will happen? “In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.”

This astounding premonition of Bonapartism passed unnoticed, or rather dismissed. Burke did not live to see the ascent of the general and the great wars in Europe which followed. Paine lived to see most of it. He died five years before Napoleon’s defeat and exile. But he was also arrested, imprisoned and listed for execution not two years after the Part Second of The Rights of Man had been released. The revolution in France was about to murder him shortly after insulting him on the floor of its National Assembly. Sheer luck spared him death but a score of disappointments were yet to strike him, proceeding from his support of the soon discredited revolution as well as from other, pettier sources. (Burke, it is equally important to remark, also forewarned the National Assembly that they will soon find be sending armies to massacre their peasants, whenever these choose to emulate the burghers and rise rebellions of their own.)

Cristopher Hitchens pondered the ambiguous merits of Edmund Burke (Reactionary Prophet) in 2004. Conor Cruise O’Brien had found a crucial juncture of Burke’s political interests which would explain his support for American independence, his defence of Catholics and his belligerent hostility to the revolution in France. He might have held hopes for his land of birth, Ireland, and might as well have been a secret Catholic. He might on top of that have had something of the opportunist in him. It is nonetheless challenging to accept him as anything other than a reactionary on the matter of republican democracy. By his choice not to respond to Paine’s attack on his position – while choosing to quote occasionally and sarcastically extracts from the text – he also made it possible to think of him as a merely satisfied monarchist. His fault of not acknowledging thriftless aristocratic privilege and monarchic incompetence and despotism can then be seen coalescing into an overall semblance of dull-mindedness. (Hitchens evokes the intriguing question of what Burke would have thought of the Haitian rebellion against Napoleon, led by black slaves and in the name of revolutionary ideals.)

In their argumentative opposition Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine have unintentionally impressed the form of what was to become the elementary distinction within parliamentary democracies between the left and the right wing. The two sides sat opposed and self-conscious for the first time in the National Assembly of France. On that occasion though there was no one sat to defend the dignity of the throne and the altar in the spirit of Edmund Burke.

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