Amid current attacks on social order, let’s reflect on the wisdom of Edmund Burke

In June 1968 the ancient buildings of the Sorbonne in Paris were covered with graffiti including: À bas l’État! (Down with the state!) Si tu veux être heureux pends ton propriétaire! (Happiness is hanging your landlord!) Ici, bientôt, de charmantes ruines! (Coming soon – charming ruins!) Il est interdit d’interdire! (No forbidding allowed!) Marx, Mao, Marcuse!

Fired up by the revolutionary sentiment of lecturers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, many students were convinced that violence must be used to overthrow the inequalities of bourgeois society.

Millions had perished in the Soviet gulags. Millions more were being brutalised during the Chinese cultural revolution. But privileged Western students regarded Marx and Mao as heroes! And they found Marcuse’s demand for the overthrow of conventional morality irresistible.

As French workers joined in sympathy strikes with the students, President de Gaulle temporarily fled the country. Despite burning, rioting and looting, the establishment stubbornly survived. Time would reveal the horribly abusive outworking of the ‘no forbidding’ dogma in the personal lives of many of the radicals.

Far from France, Sartre’s former students applied his ideology with deadly effect. A quarter of the population of Cambodia died between 1975 and 1977 as Pol Pot transformed his country into a vast slave-labour-state. Mao congratulated him: ‘You have scored a splendid victory! Just a single blow and no more classes!’

Revolution then and now

Just under two centuries earlier, the mob in Paris had succeeded in bringing down the established order.

Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! was their demand. But, as the Reign of Terror inexorably unfolded, thousands lost not only liberty, but life. Between 1793 and 1794, 17,000 people were tried and executed; 23,000 were killed without trial or died in prison.

Today, attacks on the social order are, once again, being fuelled by demands for equality of outcomes. Some activists call for the downfall of the very structures which create and protect freedom and prosperity.

   Smash the patriarchy! (aka the family)

   Smash capitalism! (aka wealth creation and private property)

   Smash the police! (aka law and order)

   Smash down the statutes! (aka our collective memory and history)

   Binary is bad: smash heteronormativity! (aka nature and science)

 At such a time as this, we can reflect on the wisdom of Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

Freedom, order and the moral law

Burke defended freedom and order, for he understood that real freedom only flourishes when there is a general understanding that there is a transcendent God who has placed his universal moral law on the human conscience. When people exercise personal moral restraint and a sense of responsibility towards others, then a society doesn’t need so much external authority. If that sense of individual moral restraint breaks down, anarchy eventually ensues. Fear of disorder then paves the way to acceptance of authoritarian rule.

Burke was passionate in the cause of reform: but he saw that to be effective, it had to be implemented in a way that worked in practice. As a politician, not a detached academic, he opposed grandiose ideologies which ignored or denied the realities of fallen human nature. He understood that personal and communal responsibility is nurtured in the context of family and community: ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.’ 

Burke opposed slavery, worked to reform the penal code, defended free trade, supported Catholic emancipation, campaigned against the abuse of power in India, and criticised the actions of the British government towards the American colonies. But when it came to the French Revolution, even before the Terror was unleashed, he rightly predicted that the demand for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ would fast unravel into anarchy: ‘Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.’

‘Good order is the basis of all good things’  he insisted. Effective and lasting reforms must take account of the accumulated wisdom of the past. Reform should repair, not tear down.

This article first appeared in TCW and is reproduced with permission.