A Vindication of Edmund Burke

Conor Cruise O'Brien, "A Vindication of Edmund Burke," National Review (December 17, 1990).


NationalRev-1990dec17What we have been witnessing in 1989-90, in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, is the bankruptcy of the greatest experiment in social and political innovation ever made. What stronger vindication could there be of the principles laid down, and the warning contained, in Reflections on the Revolution in France?

Modern British society is widely different from the British society that Burke knew, but there is a clear continuity between the two. The society changed, politically and socially, not through any burst of innovation, but through a series of partial reforms, as Burke hoped it would do. The heritage of the great French innovative effort was not so happy. The Revolution and its consequences left the French a deeply divided people throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. After 1917, those of the French who felt themselves to be in the tradition of their own great Revolution flocked to the French Communist Party. In the Second World War, the fact that the party of the working-class (as the French Communist Party then still was) was opposed to the war-effort — because of the Stalin-Hitler pact — was among the reasons for the fall of France.

From 1970 on, however, the Revolutionary heritage, which had bedeviled the French for so long, went into decline, as did the French Communist Party. The 1989 celebration of the bicentenary was essentially a gorgeous farewell party — a sort of wake — for a Revolution which is at last over, though it took nearly two centuries for it to die.

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