Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Are we Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home ?

Two weeks ago, I argued here that the global ideological division between the pro-Western and anti-Western camps had superceded the ideological division between the Left and the Right. I am glad that some friends, such as Kirk Johnson of Americans for Bosnia, agree with me (Kirk is, like me, a Bosnia activist from a left-wing background who experienced a similar ideological shift to my own, and for very similar reasons). I am honoured that a whole entry in the marvellous Encyclopedia of Decency has been devoted to lampooning my article. But I have also received some intelligent criticism, from Peter Ryley, Bob from Brockley and New Centrist. One of the snappiest counter-arguments was Peter’s claim, that those who share my outlook are ‘Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home’, meaning that we are radical only in relation to foreign regimes, but conservative in relation to our own.

While I appreciate the quip, it is not one that I can accept. Edmund Burke was the father of modern conservatism, who developed his ideas in opposition to the French Revolution. I’ll admit to being, like Burke, someone who does not support revolution in my own country, but that’s all the common ground I share with him. He was a supporter of King and Church who upheld native tradition as an alternative to the universal Enlightenment values championed by the supporters of the French Revolution, and believed only in the most gradual, organic change to the domestic order, where absolutely necessary. By describing those of us on the centre-left as ‘Burkes’, Ryley is conflating all those outside the radical left with conservatism.

In fact, someone who is a Burke at home cannot be a Paine abroad, because Burke’s way of thinking, precisely, meant that the British traditional order could not be transplanted onto foreign countries. By contrast, I believe that the liberal democratic model of the kind we enjoy in Britain and Europe is equally valid for any part of the world, and should be promoted globally as an alternative to tyrannical or authoritarian regimes. And, unlike Burke, I believe the existing domestic order should be reformed according to the principles of reason. Our true affinity, therefore, is with Whigs like Burke’s great opponent, Charles James Fox, who supported revolution abroad and reform at home. This is partly because the revolution has already triumphed at home. I wonder whether a true Burke would ever feel comfortable supporting a National Health Service, or gender equality, or same-sex civil partnerships. I would also therefore claim a greater affinity with the more moderate Jacobins who, having carried out the Revolution in France, sought to prevent its degeneration into extremism at home while simultaneously promoting it across Europe.

I support the abolition of the monarchy, a democratically elected second chamber, the disestablishment of the Church of England, the abolition of faith-based and private education and the complete secularisation of public life. This is another area where a centre-leftist such as myself parts company with the latter-day Burkes, and even with the Blairites. These are not trivial issues; I believe that, if we are going to integrate our Muslim and immigrant population, we need a modern concept of homogenous citizenship to which all faith-based and class-based schools are anathema. I am a strong supporter of an ultra-liberal immigration policy, partly because immigration is a means to dissolve traditional society and hasten globalisation. And globalisation – anathema to Burkeans – is something I strongly support.

Ryley argues further:

So when Marco [sic] Attila Hoare recently wrote that “the principal ideological division in global politics today” is “pro-Western vs anti-WesternI think that he too was oversimplifying. For the left, it is not about being reflexively pro or anti-Western. It is about standing with the poor, the oppressed and the exploited. It is about being consistently pro-social justice.

I agree with Peter that social justice is crucial; however, liberal democracy is the fertile ground in which social justice grows. In Britain, universal suffrage came first, the welfare state second. Working class people needed to be able to vote in a free election, so that they could elect in 1945 the Labour government that established the welfare state. Earlier social reforms were carried out by the Liberal Party in the years before World War I, largely to meet the challenge posed by the rise of organised labour and the Labour Party. Conversely, the welfare states established by totalitarian regimes have tended to be less durable, which is why the working classes are better off in Western Europe today than they ever were under Communist regimes. While I strongly disagree with US Republican hawks such as George W. Bush on domestic social issues, I believe their support for democracy abroad offers the best chance for the prosperity of ordinary people globally in the long run. The West European model of welfare capitalism is preferable to the US model; but the US model is vastly, incomparably preferable even to left-wing totalitarianism, let alone to Islamist totalitarianism. And as I pointed out in my last two posts, Bush’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Eastern Europe is simply more progressive than that of most, and probably all, of the present governments of Western Europe.

Bob from Brockley questions whether the West can be upheld as a positive model, given the murderous record of Western colonialism, and Western support for murderous dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Pinochet. As I made clear in my original article, the dichotomy ‘Western vs anti-Western’ cannot be projected back in time and equated with the Cold War divide between the Western and Communist blocs, let alone with the divide between the Western colonial powers and the colonised world. The ‘Western vs anti-Western’ dichotomy is a new one; the end of colonialism and of the Cold War has enabled both Western values and the Western alliance to assume a more unambiguously positive character that they did not possess before. As a historian of the Yugoslav Revolution, I can safely say I view the Communist-led sides in the Yugoslav, Greek and Albanian civil wars of the 1940s as the positive ones. I would not have supported the Americans in Vietnam or the Contras in Nicaragua. But these are yesterday’s wars that took place in yesterday’s world. I fear that Bob’s argument dangerously resembles the moral relativist one: that the geopolitical West is wrong today because it can never shed its guilt for past crimes. The ‘Western camp’ that I support is one that, as I made clear, embraces both former Cold Warriors and former Marxists, irrespective of whether they once held correct or incorrect views on Pinochet or Mao, the Contras or the Khmer Rouge. The point is where they are now, not where they were then.

New Centrist argues (and both Peter and Bob seem to agree):

Hoare also ignores the existence of ultra-leftists, anarchists, and other self-styled revolutionaries who advocate a third perspective that is classically “anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” while also critical of Jihadist terrorism. I’m referring here to Three Way Fight, World War 4 Report, etc.

In fact, the radical leftists of this kind appear on my diagram in the far left, equidistant between the pro-Western and anti-Western camps. I had not previously heard of Three Way Fight, but I am familiar with World War 4 Report, as well as other blogs in this category such as the Drink-Soaked Trots. The problem with leftists of this variety is that they tend to be obsessed with their own ‘radical-left’ identity, with ideological purity and with loyalty to the anachronistic ‘revolutionary’ principles of yesteryear (In reality, to talk about ‘proletarian revolution’ or ‘world socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ today is no more ‘revolutionary’ than are the steam engine or the gramophone in today’s technological age). At best, comrades of this kind can set aside their antiquated shibboleths enough to be able to unite behind progressive causes alongside those further to the right, in which case their ‘revolutionary socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ may add a bit of diversity and harmless exoticism to the movement. And, joking aside, diversity and exoticism are good things. But at worst, leftists of this kind simply retreat into their own ideological foxholes, from which they write off %99.9999 of the rest of the world as heretical and Satanic, thereby consigning themselves to political irrelevance and sectarian oblivion.

In practice, if you want to avoid irrelevance and oblivion, you have to take sides in the struggle that really matters. And in that case, you can only be so left-wing, before you end up flipping round to the side of the far right.

Update: Francis Sedgemore (aka ‘Jura Watchmaker’) of Drink-Soaked Trots has responded to this article, arguing ‘One thing that stands out in Hoare’s post is his use of the term “homogenous citizenship”, when defending his vision of an egalitarian society. Homogenous? Hoare’s support for an “ultra-liberal immigration policy” aside, this reeks of the aculturalism that I associate with Burkean liberal-conservatism. The last thing I want to see is a homogeneous society. It would be the social equivalent of thermodynamic heat death.’

Leaving aside Sedgemore’s inability to understand the difference between ‘citizenship’ and ‘society’, to associate Burke with ‘aculturalism’ and with ‘homogenous citizenship’ is a bit like associating Karl Marx with support for the maintenance of aristocratic privilege. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote:

The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue, it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it), are the natural securities for this transmission. With us the House of Peers is formed upon this principle. It is wholly composed of hereditary property and hereditary distinction, and made, therefore, the third of the legislature and, in the last event, the sole judge of all property in all its subdivisions. The House of Commons, too, though not necessarily, yet in fact, is always so composed, in the far greater part. Let those large proprietors be what they will — and they have their chance of being amongst the best — they are, at the very worst, the ballast in the vessel of the commonwealth. For though hereditary wealth and the rank which goes with it are too much idolized by creeping sycophants and the blind, abject admirers of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy. Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth is neither unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic.

It is said that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second; to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many and their interest must very often differ, and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice.


We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater.

In other words, both with regard to religion and with regard to class, Burke was about as far from supporting ‘homogenous citizenship’ as it was possible to be. He upheld a parliamentary system that privileged the propertied classes, and in particular the aristocracy, and that was underpinned by the established church – in opposition to the emerging French secular republic based on universal, equal citizenship.

In other words, Sedgemore is throwing around accusations of Burkeanism without having a clue about what Burkeanism is.

Thursday, 10 April 2008 Posted by | Political correctness, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left | 1 Comment