Burke, Modernity, and Conservative Extremism
In his book, Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss argues that “Burke was satisfied that the French Revolution was thoroughly evil. He condemned it as strongly and as unqualifiedly as we today condemn the Communist revolution.” [p. 317] Could it be that “we” and Burke make the same mistake? Perhaps.
Burke embraced the basis of modern political philosophy, viz., that human beings are radically malleable, that what we call “human nature” is the result of centuries of “development,” or of accidents that occurred in the course of human history. Hence, it is possible, Burke thought, that the French Revolution could radically change humans and the human condition because humans are radically malleable. As we would say today, the French Revolution represented “an existential threat.”
But what if humans aren’t radically malleable? What if we humans have a nature, that that nature is in part political, and that that nature leads humans to resist tyranny or attempts to radically remake them? If looked at through this lens, what would the French Revolution look like? Would it look like an existential threat or just another in a long line of attempts to tyrannize over human beings, an attempt that is, inevitably, bound to fail? Of course, it would still look horrible under the latter lens but that its horror was bound to end as it came into increasing opposition to human nature.
So, because “we,” like Burke, embrace the arguments of modern political philosophers like Rousseau, “we” see the Communist revolution as an existential threat to our way of life. It must be opposed by any means necessary so that it doesn’t overwhelm the way we are now. And this threat is not only real but “a clear and present danger” because the way we are now is, in reality, accidental. That is, the way we are now is the result of our history and the accidents we met as that history unfolded. The way we are now is not a reflection of any nature we might think we possess. Conversely, as Strauss puts it, Burke “regarded it as possible that the French Revolution, which conducted ‘a war against all sects and all religions,’ might be victorious and thus that the revolutionary state might exist ‘as a nuisance on earth for several hundred years,’” [317-18] which is what I was taught about the Communist revolution in college.
Burke’s conservativism, like ours, is bottomed on, is as much a part of “modernity” as those endorsing the French Revolution. And, in fact, it is as extreme as the forces behind the French Revolution. It feeds the forces of imperialism insofar as the world appears as being malleable, as being controllable, as being susceptible to radical change if enough power is applied. After all, referring to the situation today, in the modern dispensation, Islam is just as much the result of accidents as Burke’s vaunted British constitution or its monarchy. Islam is not the result of the “flourishing of human nature,” as it were, drawing its strength from its attempts to satisfy natural human desires. So, it too may be, should be changed, even undermined, by the appropriate applications of power and persuasion. The battle for their hearts and minds can and should be won.