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Conservation versus Correction: I have Burke on My Mind

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The outbreaks of political turbulence around the world have prompted me to re-visit Edmund Burke's masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France ( 1790). In the work, Burke attacks the French Revolution. I remember that when I had to write a term paper about the work in a class on the History of Political Thought in graduate school, I fully expected to hate the Reflections and to debunk it. But it amazed me, and impressed me. First, its eloquence is overpowering. Even now as I leaf through my old copy, the grandeur of the language still moves the spirit. Second, you cannot but be impressed by the prophetic power of Burke's analysis of the French Revolution. For he wrote the Reflections in the early days of the Revolution, yet he was able to correctly predict its path - the deepening violence, the collapse into dictatorship. Now, as a school-boy fan of the French Revolution that got my attention.

But the third reason is why Burke's insights still speak to us today. Although the Reflections  is often attacked as a manifesto of counter-revolution, the work is not the wayward eloquence of a reactionary. What Burke argues for is piecemeal reform rather than revolutionary upheaval based on abstract principles. No political community, he argues, is a blank slate upon which you can write whatever you want on the basis of some theory. In order to move a political community in a different direction you have to take account of what it is, where it is, and, above all, the facts of experience. He urges statesmanship rather than revolutionary zeal.

But what critics of the Reflections often forget is that Burke actually makes the case for constant reform of governance arrangements. He says trenchantly:

A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risque  the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.

Think about those two sentences for a minute and then contemplate, if you will, the instances of political turbulence in our world today. Burke says two principles must be at work all the time: conservation and correction. You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system. Pressures build up to a dangerous level. In my view, this is why wise leaders always take public opinion seriously, and push for governance reform before things spiral out of control.  Asinine leaders, on the other hand, ignore public opinion and oppose all pressures for governance reform. When that happens,you can rest assured that  someday they are going to wish they had read Burke and listened to him. As they say, he who has ears, let him hear.


Photo Credit: Flickr user kimberlyfaye


Submitted by lawrence Arrington on
It strikes me that Burke was an early proponent of the theory of sustainability as applied to governance, with its requirement that societies must adapt to challenges intelligently to sustain themselves through time. Democracy is required of sustainability because the participation of all members of society holding diverse points of view and forming some conensus together best discerns the realities being faced. This grip on reality is demanded if intelligent responses to challenges are to be forged. Burke understood that the capacity to adapt is linked to the capacity to sustain the essential vitality of what exists. By definition this requires a willingness and ability to change as practicality and necessity demand. No ideology possesses these characteristics. Only democracy, practiced well, does the trick. Sustainability becomes the end; democracy the means.

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