In his new biography, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, David Bromwich claims that “no historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.” Jonathan Green unpacks how Bromwich defends that assertion:
After a rich discussion of Burke the philosopher, Bromwich considers his entry into politics. Here we see Burke as the British Parliament’s foremost critic of royal prerogative, as a steadfast defender of American Independence, and as an important strategist for the Rockingham wing of the Whig party. Along the way Bromwich unpacks Burke’s Thoughts on the Present Discontents, in which he defended organized parties as an essential check on executive power, and gives us a sympathetic account of Burke’s intransigent, oft-maligned opposition to George III. …
Throughout his narrative Bromwich keeps the Reflections on the Revolution in France in view, but he is keen to re-situate Burke’s critique of the revolutionaries’ ideology within the context of his earlier writings and speeches. The result is a Burke that is significantly more liberal—and more republican—than recent interpreters have acknowledged.
Samuel Moyn, in a long assessment of Bromwich’s hopes for a “Burkean left,” notes that after 9/11 he’s especially picked up on the British statesman’s criticisms of imperialism – which cuts across today’s party lines:
[This] led Bromwich, in perhaps the most revealing instance of his activism, to reach out to the audience of The American Conservative, a paleoconservative magazine founded in 2002 to oppose the ascendant neocons. True to form, Bromwich invoked Burke in his coalitional plea for a cross-party force to reject strong states and imperial war-making alike.
In an age when Rand Paul speaks out more forcefully than most Democratic politicians against the national surveillance state, Bromwich’s impulse is not unfounded.
But his concern about the overweening state and its imperial outcomes, and his desire to seek common cause with libertarians, is a risky gambit. “It would be hard to say whether statist liberals or statist conservatives are more seduced by love of the state,” he writes. That both have been prone to imperial misadventures seemed to be what mattered most to him—and opened him to making strange bedfellows on the right.
Actually, deepest in Burke, according to Bromwich (and perhaps in Bromwich himself), is an anti-political streak that treats the government as a mere necessary evil. People “want to be left alone with their families and enterprises, affairs of person and neighborhood,” Bromwich summarizes. No wonder that, across his whole career, Burke “seldom mounts a campaign for anything.” It is a deep but troubling insight—one that Bromwich knows is inimical to democracy. On this theory, it is not for us to take control of our society, but merely to ensure that our regrettably necessary government is kept within bounds. Especially after 2001, Bromwich’s affection for Burke insensibly passed from a liberal reformer’s to that of a libertarian anti-statist’s. “Power, in whatever hands, is rarely guilty of too strict limitations on itself” has become his favorite saying from Burke, a much-cited new credo that risks displacing the old one. Indeed, Bromwich chose it as the single epigraph for his biography.
Previous Dish on Bromwich’s Burke here.
(Image: Joshua Reynold’s portrait of Burke, circa 1767-69, via Wikimedia Commons)