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06 May

Reactionary Prophet

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The astonishment Paine expresses in Rights of Man at Burke’s refusal to criticize or even to enumerate the crimes and cruelties of the ancien régime is clearly genuine. So is his scorn at Burke’s concept of the franchise as a reward for property and piety. (Until Paine tried to salvage it, the term “democracy”—like the words “Tory” and, later, “suffragette” and “impressionist”—had been deployed only as an insult.) Paine was a Newtonian and a believer in economic growth and modern technique; Burke was a prisoner of the feudal and the landed conception of society, who employed the words “innovation” and “despotism” as virtual twins. Notice, for example, how the word “economist” in the Marie Antoinette passage is used as a synonym for knavery. Paine was for a written constitution and a carefully designed welfare state (adumbrated in the second half of Rights of Man), whereas Burke was for the semi-mystical “unwritten constitution” of a Crowned Parliament, and spared few thoughts even for the deserving poor.

However often one awards the winning of the longer-term argument to Paine, the fact remains that he and Jefferson and Lafayette never even dreamed of the advent of Bonapartism. They all believed, at the time that the argument was actually taking place, that France would become a constitutional monarchy, or had actually become one already. It was Burke who took this romantic delusion—a delusion shared by Charles James Fox and the leaders of Burke’s own Whig party, and even for a time by William Pitt and the more pragmatic Tories—and mercilessly exploded it. He also showed that the outcome of the French Revolution would be war on a continental scale. The tremendous power of the Reflections lies in this, the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.

From Reactionary Prophet, a 2004 book review of “Reflections on the French Revolution” by Christopher Hitchens in Atlantic.

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