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Edmund Burke, Progressive Coalitions and – yet again – passionate pragmatism.

April 26, 2017


Now that I’m an Irish citizen, I’m allowed to celebrate Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke at one and the same time.

What I miss about Burke, or rather, miss about Burkeian thinking (Burke’s been dead since 1797 and I’m over it) is not a set of political positions, or even a framework of political belief.  No, I miss an ethical methodology for political decision making.  I miss passionate pragmatism, needed now more than ever.

I’m repeating myself.  I’ve said this before, and I’ve written this before, but right now the case for passionate pragmatism becomes more and more urgent.  And passionate pragmatism isn’t about being more or less radical and it certainly isn’t about being “centrist”.  I have no time for people who are instinctively “centrist”.

Burke was, even in his lifetime, accused of being a “turncoat” because he was sympathetic to the rebellious American colonists but hostile to the French Revolution. He was in fact motivated by a version of pragmatism in both cases.  in both cases he opposed what he saw as the tyranny of absolutes and abstractions.  In the French case, he objected to long-standing traditions of governance being overturned in the name of a spanking new abstract theory.  In the American case, it was the British who were rallying to abstractions, claiming an absolute right of sovereignty while ignoring the practical realities of governance.  Even if the British were to “win” the war with the colonists, were they prepared to spend millions of pounds maintaining a standing army in the Americas with the idea that these growing colonies could be placed under permanent military subjugation by a smaller country thousands of miles away?

Burke’s pragmatism was, however, passionate.  Having done the difficult logistical research and decided upon the lesser of two evils, he did not promote this lesser evil with a sigh and a shrug.  For Burke, the space between two unequal evils was a place where many people might live or die.  Once he had decided on the least worst possible option, this option became the best possible outcome deserving of his most passionate rhetorical efforts.

You’ve heard the expression “the lesser of two evils is still an evil”.  I prefer the maxim “a choice of two evils is still a choice”.  And possession of choice implies a moral obligation.  And a refusal to exercise choice is itself a choice and therefore charged with moral consequences.

I’m fed up with hearing that “they’re all as bad as each other” or “they’re all part of the Establishment” etc. etc. etc.   No two individuals and no two political causes are ever as “bad as one another” if you’re prepared to do the research properly.  “They’re all as bad as one another” is the defeatist whimper of the morally lazy.  “Hilary’s as bad as Trump” say the stay at home Bernie fans.   But she wasn’t and she isn’t.   She was (and is) a very fallible politician with a checkered political past.   You could have voted for her in preference to Trump and then spent the next four years holding her to rigid account and finding someone better than her to run in 2020.  Burke didn’t think there was anything morally contaminating about choosing the best option on the table at a given time and neither should you.

The Corbynites who would rather their party was led by George Lansbury than Clement Attlee are another case in point.  Those people who feel that punishing the LibDems for going into government with the Tories is more important than the future welfare of the people of the bits and pieces left over from Britain are pretty much the same people.

Some people say “I’ll hold my nose and vote for…”   but no nose holding is required.  When you put a vote on a ballot paper you’re not joining a political party.  When you put a vote on a ballot paper, you are not pledging your immortal soul.   You are making a choice between flawed alternatives – a choice which you are empowered to make and which you are morally obligated to make.   If you can’t choose between flawed alternative then you’re not really an adult at all.  A “reality principle” has yet to kick in, as Freud would say.

This is not about being a “middle of the road” pragmatist, still less a “centrist”.  You can be the most utopian socialist in the world and still decide that right now in the here and now, it’s important that a dull technocrat defeats a deranged fascist.  Indeed, I think you’re obligated to decide precisely that.

Here’s the latest on Melenchon’s inability to back Macron:


It’s been pointed out to me that there’s a deal of overlap between Melenchon’s programme and Le Pen’s.  They are both economic nationalists who are hostile to the present workings of the EU.  They both claim to be anti-austerity.

It is estimated that up to 19% of Melenchon’s supporters may vote for Le Pen.

But this is all the more reason why Melenchon should advise people to vote for Macron.  Le Pen’s nationalism competes far more directly with Melenchon’s socialist populism.  Melenchon can tell people to vote for Macron and pledge to spend the next five years opposing Macron.  There’s nothing morally dubious about so doing.  All he has to say is that two names are on the ballot and one outcome is plainly preferable to the other.  Of course, Fillon has already declared precisely this – which may make it seem harder for Melenchon to do so.

There’s a critical moral authority that you gain (and deserve) when you stand up to fascism in a time of crisis.  If Melenchon can channel some Burkeian passionate pragmatism, this moral and political capital can accrue to his political movement. Support for the candidate that isn’t Le Pen shouldn’t be rueful and shame-faced but upbeat, loud and energised.

It’s what Clement Attlee would have done.  It’s what he did to.  And it’s Attlee who delivered on socialist promises.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    On the sad occasion of the 220th anniversary of Edmund Burke’death, I’m going to reblog everything I have with “Burke” in the title…

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