Edmund Burke is frequently seen as the forerunner of the conservative movement, not least for his fierce critique of the French Revolution. But both his admirers and his detractors have too often ignored the complexity of his thought, which in important ways challenges the politics of the contemporary right. In addition to opposing revolutionary change, Burke was his era’s leading critic of colonial oppression.
No one who ignores Burke’s critique of empire can claim to be faithful to his legacy.
In the wake of the Seven Year War (1756-63), which secured British control of New France and the Indian subcontinent, Burke recognized the fact that the British Empire was neither predominantly Protestant nor Anglophone. It had come to include French Catholics in Quebec and millions of Asians who were neither Christian nor white. Burke was alone in asking how traditional British liberties could be reconciled with “that vast, heterogeneous, intricate Mass of Interests, which at this day forms the Body of the British Power.” He reflected with great acuity on what it meant to exercise power in the face of great cultural and racial diversity, contrasting civilizational unities, and alternative norms of political identity and legitimacy. These issues were neglected in 18th- and 19th-century British liberal thought. But Burke took seriously problems others ignored.
Burke not only understood the complexity of the empire, he also expressed sustained and deep reservations about it—whether in India, Ireland, or America. Here again, he was an exception. The left-wing critic Harold Laski rightly noted of Burke that on “Ireland, America, and India, he was at every point upon the side of the future,” and that “he was the first English statesman to fully understand the moral import of the problem of subject races.”
Like all his major contemporaries, he didn’t demand that the British dismantle the empire altogether. Nevertheless, no thinker or statesman of the 18th or 19th century expressed anything like the indignation that Burke did against the injustices, cruelty, greed, and moral sclerosis of the empire. Similarly, no thinker matched Burke’s clarity and depth in recognizing that the empire had already become an alibi for a narrow assertion of power. This, even as the empire’s only warrant was its potential to serve as a means of humble, and thus moral, engagement with strangers.
Burke opposed the injustice of the system of Protestant control in Ireland and recognized without regret the fated nature of American independence. He saw through the abusive distortions of civilizational hierarchies, racial superiority, and assumptions of cultural impoverishment by which British power justified its expansionism and avarice in India and elsewhere.
None of the well-known liberals or socialists of the 19th century expressed anything like Burke’s indignation and searching critique of the empire. The British Empire and its principal early instrument, the East India Company, certainly had their critics. But no such critic would have, as Burke did, pressed that criticism by calling into question the very possibility of “drawing up an indictment against a whole people.” Constructing such indictments, of entire peoples and continents, was a minor cottage industry among 18th- and 19th-century European intellectuals. None would have sensed, as Burke did, that in the distant and often exotic spectacle of the empire, there lurked an intimate internal threat: “In order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavoring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own.” And certainly none had the moral courage to express, as Burke did to his constituents in Bristol, a solidarity, with people who he admitted were strangers, but who nevertheless exercised a moral hold on his imagination and sympathies, “I confess to you freely, that the sufferings and distresses of the people of America in this cruel war, have at times affected me more deeply than I can express. … Yet the Americans are utter strangers to me.”
Notwithstanding its extent, longevity, and unmistakable domestic, and international significance, the British Empire was for most of its existence, a phenomenon without a commensurate theoretical elaboration and justification. This was especially true among political theorists, who were largely untroubled by the empire. Rather than think critically about the empire, they relied on an implicit social consensus that tacitly accepted it as a justified fact of domestic and international political life. This consensus was occasionally frayed at the edges, and in those instances provoked discussion of issues such as free trade, the precise relationship of the East India Company with Parliament, the balance of power among European states, and the moral and administrative probity of some officials. But for the most part, it was seldom questioned. By the second half of the 19th century, when this indifference began to abate in the writings of John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot, for example, the empire was still only a marginal concern. It was, in part, with an eye to this curious insouciance that the historian J.R. Seeley commented, “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” Burke’s writings and parliamentary career are a conspicuous and impressive exception to this tradition of neglect, presumption, and absent-mindedness.
Harold Laski rightly commented that, “the essential Burke is, no doubt, a great and generous man, the springs of whose compassion were as wide as they were deep.” Consider the following statement uttered in the House of Commons, where the very imperialists whom Burke indicted physically surrounded Burke:
This was the golden cup of abominations; this the chalice of the fornications of rapine, usury, and oppression, which was held out by the gorgeous eastern harlot; which so many people, so many of the nobles of this land, had drained to the very dregs. Do you think that no reckoning was to follow this lewd debauch? that no payment was to be demanded for this riot of public drunkenness and national prostitution? Here! you have it here before you.
The metaphor and imagery of the empire as a debased and coerced orgy is frequent in his writings, as are the sentiments with which Burke concluded this speech: “Whoever therefore shall at any time bring before you [i.e., the Commons] anything towards the relief of our distressed fellow-citizens in India, and towards a subversion of the present most corrupt and oppressive system for its government, in me shall find, ... a steady, earnest, and faithful assistant.”
It is an enduring tribute to Burke, the man and the thinker, that his sympathy and ire and ultimately his political thought, are anchored in thinking through and feeling with tactile intensity specific episodes, replete with proper nouns, imagined habitation of real but distant places, and an engagement with vital traditions of those who were often complete strangers. This is what Raymond Williams meant by his “style of thinking,” and it is essential to understanding Burke’s views on the empire. He was a rare and capacious political iconoclast, whose sympathies were always attentive to the concrete. So far from complacently ratifying present realities, he was always attentive to injustices committed in the name of his country.