Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke by Richard Bourke

This is a lengthy, thorough, well-written and impressive achievement of a book. Richard Bourke’s greatest force lies maybe in the fact that he takes Burke seriously, and that he tries to re-construct the coherence behind his political thinking (from the advocate of the American rebellion to the defender of the Indians’ rights against Hastings and the East India Company to the counter-revolutionary author of the Reflections on the Revolution of France) and in so doing provides us with a heretofore missing insight into the mind of what was perhaps the greatest political thinker of his generation. Bourke’s bibliography is extensive and seemingly exhaustive.

My reservations come from two directions. First, Bourke is clearly trying to rehabilitate Burke as a representative of the Enlightenment, which he certainly was, but he also tries, in the process, to make him appear as a progressive and refutes the accusation of conservatism, explaining that they have no sense in Burke’s context. But what Bourke purposefully pretends to miss is that precisely Burke invented this alliance of liberal whiggism and societal conservatism, with the defence of property as the link between the two, inventing a new political tradition which we can name conservative, and which is so potent, still today, in Britain and elsewhere.

The second is that this is a book of the history of ideas, and it would have been better if Bourke had tried to replace Burke in a more systematic manner in his political networks. He does it a little bit, especially at the beginning (although in a classical vein along the lines of explaining Burke’s early influence) and at the end to explain his break with Fox and Sheridan, but had he done it more systematically we would have gained a deeper insight in the complex interplay between political thinking and theory and political machinations and intrigues. Burke’s lifelong commitment to liberal capitalism seems clearly to be the result of his own career.

This is a very important book none the less, but one that does not mean that the life and character of Edmund Burke is entirely rendered intelligible.


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