Top positive review
Fascinating historical work
9 July 2008
To begin with: this book is a pamphlet, not a treatise. It is a call to action about a specific event, not a political programme. Burke enthusiasts may maintain it is; but let's not forget he remained a Foxite still, when he wrote this. Yes this was addressed to English, not French audiences, and was a warning to revolutionary sympathisers, but Burke had yet to cross the floor and would not do so for several years. Nor does this read stylistically, anyhow, like a treatise, even like Locke's highly contextual Two Treatises. Readers expecting a statement of the conservative creed may be disappointed. Hence the 4, not 5 stars.
As a historical document, however, the Reflections are invaluable. Burke published his point-by-point assault on the French Revolution in 1790, when the revolution was still widely popular in Britain. He was an English MP and his public, even if the Reflections are formulated as two letters to a French aristocrat, was British political opinion.
First, his book contrasts admirably the gradual, and ultimately more successful, British path to democracy to the French. Indeed the core of his argument is that the revolution laid waste to tradition, depriving its end system of the essential legitimacy that stems from it. Second, Burke was the first to warn - years before the 'terror' - that radical change, once initiated, would be exceedingly difficult to stop. Third, he makes penetrating (and scathing) observations on the role of class renegades; his dissection of their motivations is striking and finds application in all situations of political upheaval. Burke's warning on radical change was vindicated not just in France, but repeatedly in Europe through the 19th and early 20th centuries. With respect to the French Revolution, he understood that any stabilisation depended on solving the question of church property, which the revolutionaries were already bungling (one smiles at a British MP springing in defence of the catholic church in the still popular days of `no popery!', but the analysis has to be cold-bloodedly correct).
The only rebuttal to Burke's argument is that the status quo was not an option either. His picture of pre-revolutionary France is on the rosy side; unlike the British, the French monarchy was in deep crisis. Nevertheless, I strongly believe this should be taught in France alongside the more hagiographical stuff. I am French, by the way, and an admirer of the events of 1789.