Edmund Burke’s Defense of the Established Order Was Racist and Antisemitic
Right-wingers often hail Edmund Burke as a founding father of modern conservatism. His Reflections on the Revolution in France is based on fear of the mob — and a racialized worldview that blames Jews for upsetting the “natural” social order.
In 1789, Charles-Jean-François Depont, an aristocratic French liberal, wrote to the Irish-born British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, asking him his views of the emerging revolution in France. Burke had been a cautious sympathizer of the American Revolution a decade earlier, and Depont hoped that he would now also lend his support to the French Revolution. Depont was to be sorely disappointed.
Even before Depont’s letter, Burke was becoming increasingly uneasy about the events of the French Revolution. He was especially disturbed by the looming threat that Jacobinism would cross the English Channel and upset the supposed social harmonies of Britain. When the radical preacher Richard Price used a public meeting at the Old Jewry Meeting House in London in November 1789 to welcome this importation of French radicalism, Burke was truly horrified (an emotional response that only intensified when Price’s speech began to circulate nationally as a pamphlet). As he drafted his increasingly long response to Depont, Burke began to zero in on the “Jewish” location of Richard Price’s speech.
By November 1790, Burke’s response had expanded into a book-length work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written as an extended letter to his French correspondent, Burke’s polemic found a receptive audience; in its first seventeen days, 5,500 copies of the book were sold, with a total of twelve thousand in the first month. King George III is said to have seen in Burke’s Reflections “a good book, a very good book; every gentleman ought to read it.” At the University of Oxford there were debates about awarding an honorary degree to Burke, “in consideration of his very able Representations of the True Principles of our Constitution Ecclesiastical and Civil.” The Times praised the book as an antidote to “all those dark insidious minds” who would wish to “level” the “manly” British constitutional order. The popular historian Edward Gibbon tasted in the Reflections “a most admirable medicine against the French disease.” Even Pope Pius VI praised Burke. Reflections on the Revolution in France has since come to be seen as the founding text of modern conservatism. It is also a markedly racist and antisemitic text.
There is a free-flowing thrust to the text, and it requires some reconstruction to identify Burke’s central concerns about the Jacobin mob and about the looming collapse of private property. Much of the book is taken up with a quasi-sociological claim that the class structure of France had irreparably changed, with a new class of financiers leading the revolution, according to Burke, and undermining an older, landed aristocracy, whom Burke takes for the natural rulers of the country.
Riffing again and again on the “Jewish” location of Richard Price’s original speech, Burke makes a repeated series of claims that the revolutionaries are “Jews,” a word that for him seems to mean those who make their money from usury and do not have the requisite respect for landed property.
People like Price, Burke claims, are “[w]holly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling.” They are inexperienced and overly excited. In addition, Price does not expound properly British political values. Rather, he speaks only “the confused jargon” of “Babylonian pulpits.”
This is a trope that resurfaces throughout the text (and throughout conservatism more broadly): radical politics cannot trace its roots back to native soil. Rather, it is always foreign and dangerous. Radical politics, a threat to private property, is a product of Babylon, not of Britain. Price’s ideas are nothing but “delusive gypsey [sic] predictions”. Burke makes much of the location of Price’s sermon, Old Jewry. He talks of Richard Price speaking “from the Pisgah of his pulpit”, Pisgah being the name traditionally given to the mountain from which Moses first viewed the Promised Land, suggesting this “Jew” is gazing longingly upon the Promised Land of Jacobin France.
So, as well as being a Babylonian fomenting alien ideas, Price is a “Jew” who disrespects private property and kings. In February 1790, as Burke was finishing the Reflections, he wrote in a private letter that both the Revolution Society and the newly formed French National Assembly were “calumniators, hypocrites, sowers of sedition, and approvers of murder and all its triumphs” and had “wicked principles” and “black hearts”. They were “Indian delinquents” who “darken the air with their arrows.” The sermon at Old Jewry was “a spectacle more resembling a procession of American savages.” As a paragon of conservatism, Burke sees all opponents of private property as uncivilized and barbaric, with the language and imagery easily slipping into racism.
Burke repeated such vocabulary when he looked at the revolution itself. He compared the new leaders in France to “a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage.” Like ex-slaves, they supposedly displayed no ability to exercise liberty in a “responsible” manner. And slaves, like Jacobins, are ignorant of the dignity of private property. Burke said of one landed aristocrat killed by his tenants during the revolution: “I am persuaded that the sands of Africa and the wilds of America would not have shewn [sic] any thing so barbarous and perfectly savage”. He claimed to be ashamed to have “the same form and nature with such wretches.” With Burke racializing the Jacobins, their politics placed them outside the boundaries of normative humanity.
Burke’s conception of propertied and rational citizenship existed alongside racial stereotypes about anyone that supposedly rejected his conservative definition of citizenship. Since the threat to the social order was simultaneously imagined in terms of property and racial outsiders, to reject private property, as Burke wrongly believed the Jacobins were doing, was therefore to become a racialized outsider.
The leaders of the revolution, by seizing property and replacing gold with paper money, were, “like Jew brokers,” Burke said, who bring “wretchedness and ruin” on their country. In this he sees an upset to the “natural” social order, a disturbance in the regimes of property ownership, and unnerving changes in the monetary system. And he understood all this in racial and antisemitic terms: “The next generation of the nobility will resemble the artificers and clowns, and money-jobbers, usurers, and Jews, who will be always their fellows, sometimes their masters.”
Like many on the Right since then, Burke criticizes some of the effects of financial capitalism (even as he valorizes the private-propertied underpinnings of capitalism). He labels these negative effects “Jewish” so as to further condemn them and distance himself from them.
Following in Burke’s Footsteps
It is a mistake to think that conservatives are always pro-capitalist. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted how the rise of capitalism “batters down all Chinese walls”: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Conservatives, who are already prone to venerating a traditional and romantically stable social order, are themselves often disturbed by the instability of life under capitalism. But conservative anxiety about rapid political or economic change never leads to a truly radical or incisive critique of the social order. Conservatism, as Burke shows, is much more likely to scapegoat a cast of racialized outsiders as the villains who are allegedly causing these changes. Conservatism often displays a kind of status-quo anti-capitalism that names the problem while simultaneously offering no real solutions.
Burke initially had few followers. Thomas Jefferson, a staunch liberal, a slaveowner, and American ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789, took Burke’s condemnation of the Jacobins to be evidence of the “rottenness of his mind.” William Pitt, Tory prime minister through the 1790s, was dismissive, finding nothing to agree with in Burke’s warnings (notwithstanding that Pitt later led a crackdown on English Jacobins). Burke’s Irish background, and the regular accusations of crypto-Catholicism that had dogged him in life, continued to cast an odor on him in death. His public rehabilitation was not forthcoming until after the rise of Chartism and early English socialism in the 1830s, when his defense of tradition and property became obviously useful. By the 1970s, he was being praised by Cold Warriors as a defender of Western values from Jacobins/Communists.
And today Burke is invoked almost ritualistically as the “Father of Conservatism.” It is rarely clear how many conservatives bother to read him anymore; they’re even less willing to acknowledge the overt anti-Jewish nature of his most famous work. But consciously or not, they are still following in his footsteps. From Pat Buchanan — who has railed against migrants, gay people, and secularism while still fearing capitalism and the transformation of people and nations into an uncontrolled mass of alienated consumers — to Tucker Carlson’s cant about “globalists” and “corporatism,” conservatives continue to be affected by the same anonymous socioeconomic forces as the rest of us, even if they always seek to direct that anxiety away from equitable social change.