Why did Edmund Burke call the French Revolution a Democratic Revolution?

By Salih Emre Gercek

Democracy’s fiercest opponents are responsible for its revival as a modern idea. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France,[1] in the autumn of 1790, Edmund Burke declared that the French Revolution was bringing democracy back for modern times. For Burke, this was an alarming development. He called this “new democracy”(71) a “monstrous tragicomic scene”(9) – monstrous because it was deforming the body politic, tragicomic because in its attempts to establish democracy it was undermining democracy’s own principles.[2]

Related imageHistorians of the French Revolution and democracy might object to Burke’s portrayal of the Revolution as a democratic revolution. By the time the Reflections was published, Revolutionaries had abolished aristocratic privileges, but constitutional monarchy was still a likely option. They did not call themselves “democrats,” using instead other terms such as “patriots,” “nationals,” and “republicans.”[3] It was not until Robespierre’s speech in 1794 that the Revolutionary government declared itself to be a “republican or democratic government” in some official form, but even in this case Robespierre used democracy not to refer to people’s direct involvement in self-government but to the election of representatives.[4]

Why, then, did Burke identify the French Revolution as a democratic revolution? At first, Burke seems to claim that the revolutionary government is democratic only in facade. “I do not know under what description to class the present ruling authority in France… It affects to be a pure democracy, though I think it is in a direct train of becoming shortly a mischievous and ignoble oligarchy.”(109) Burke here seems to suggest that democracy is a cover for an oligarchic class rule in France. Yet, he immediately goes on to say that democracy is emerging in France, and it is quickly on its way to degenerating into a tyrannical government of the masses. “If I recollect rightly, Aristotle observes that a democracy has many striking points of resemblance with a tyranny. Of this I am certain, that in a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity.”(109-10) Thus, Burke presents the revolutionary government as, on the one hand, an oligarchy pretending to be a democracy, and, on the other hand, a true democracy, in which the masses exercise tyranny through “popular persecution.”(110)

How to reconcile these two claims? How does the rule of the masses turn into the rule of the wealthy? This perplexing picture is precisely what Burke aims to present. With his association of democracy with an inherent tendency toward “oligarchy,” Burke advances a particular criticism: that democracies in modern times would, ultimately, surrender political power to “new monied interest.”(96)

Burke’s first targets are the masses and the “political men of the letters.”(97) He starts with reiterating one of the oldest criticisms against democracies – that democracy is the rule of the “swinish multitude.”(69) By disseminating political power to everyone, democracy diminishes the force of feelings and mores that serve as checks on the abuse of political power. Burke writes: “The share of infamy that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts” is inversely related to number of people who exercise power.(82) However, the problem is not only one of numbers. It is also a matter of which social class gets a share in political power. To the Chancellor of France’s proclamation that “all occupations are honorable,” Burke notoriously responds that “the occupation of a hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person.”(43) These classes, “wholly unacquainted with the [political] world,” have “nothing of politics but the passions they excite” – passions that are destructive, contemptuous, and misguided.(11) With this opinion, Burke goes so far as to say that the power of the masses renders democracy “the most shameless thing in the world.”(82)

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“The knight of the woeful countenance going to extirpate the National Assembly” London, 1790. 

The power of the masses means the power of the public opinion, and the power of the individuals or parties who can muster and direct public opinion. This takes Burke to his next target – the “political men of letters.” In France, these “men of letters” “became a sort of demagogues,” leading the popular insurgency with their propagation of principles such as natural rights, equality, and popular sovereignty.(98) Many times, Burke attempts to discredit these principles as abstract, devoid of practical wisdom, excessive, and uncompromising. For example, against the abstract principle of the “rights of men,” he poses the “real rights of men” which spring from conventions, manners, and historically accumulated wisdom.(51-3, original emphasis)

The danger with the “abstract” principles of the Revolution is that they can easily be misdirected in the hands of leading classes. For Burke, this is precisely where the political rise of the “new monied interest” lies: “By the vast debt of France, a great monied interest had insensibly grown up, and with it a great power.”(95) Burke here locates an emerging source of socio-economic power that is in direct conflict with landed property: credit. Burke laments: “Everything human and divine was sacrificed to the idol of public credit.”(34) Since the nobility and its exclusive “power of perpetuating” the landed property represented the orderly permanence of the ancien régime(45), the creditors could ally themselves with the revolutionaries. The alliance of the dissident “men of letters” and creditors not only brought together “obnoxious wealth” and “desperate and restless poverty”(98) but also directed the popular “envy against wealth and power” against the landed nobility and ecclesiastical corporations.(99)

This ironical combination demonstrates how modern democracies are vulnerable, if not accommodating, to the preponderant influence of capital. For this reason, Burke was ready to declare as early as 1790 that the democratic revolution in France would lead to its own demise towards a corrupt oligarchy. After the abolition of feudal rights in August 1789, he saw no collective social power such as the church or nobility to obstruct and balance the power of, first, the masses, and later, the monied class. Tragicomically, democracies end up undermining their own egalitarian imperatives.

In a further historical irony, many of things that Burke criticized about democracy later became means of demanding or defending it. Against Burke’s criticism that democracy breeds popular contempt towards upper classes, Mary Wollstonecraft defended such contempt against those who owe their position to arbitrary social hierarchies.[5] In the hands of démocrates such as Jean-François Varlet and Gracchus Babeuf, Burke’s denunciation of the new monied interest and their political power turned into a demand for, respectively, direct democracy and “de facto equality.”[6] Conversely, in the early nineteenth-century, when this short-lived democratic radicalism was suppressed and democracy came to be associated with representative government, Benjamin Constant went completely against Burke by celebrating credit as the best restraint against the power of governments.[7] These examples illustrate one point: While Burke’s Reflections aimed to thwart preemptively any possible enthusiasm for the idea of democracy, it became one of the most perceptive works on the subject. This is one of the most peculiar aspects of the history of democracy: its revival as a modern idea was pioneered by its fiercest opponents as much as its supporters.


Salih Emre Gercek is a doctoral candidate in political theory at Northwestern University. His dissertation considers how the idea of democracy emerged and evolved against the background of the “social question” in nineteenth century political thought.

Title image: Frontispiece to Reflections on the French revolution. France, 1790. London: Pubd. by Willm. Holland No. 50 Oxford St., in whose rooms may be seen the largest collection in Europe of caricatures, admit 1 sh., November. the 2. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004669854/.

Further Readings:

Bourke, Richard. “Enlightenment, Revolution and Democracy,” Constellations 15.1 (2008): 10–32

Dunn, John. Democracy: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005).

Hampsher-Monk, Iain. “Rhetoric and Opinion in the Politics of Edmund Burke,” History of Political Thought 9.3 (1988): 455-484.

Innes, Joanna and Philp, Mark (eds). Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, and Ireland, 1750-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Menke, Christoph. Reflections of Equality, trans. H. Rouse and A. Denejkine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), Chapter 5.

Palmer, R.R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Pocock, J.G.A. “The Political Economy of Burke’s Analysis of the French Revolution,” The Historical Journal, 25.2 (1982): 331-349

Endnotes:

[1] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1987). In text references indicate the page numbers.

[2]  On the polemical nature of the word democracy in America, see Matthew Rainbow Hale’s post on this blog: https://ageofrevolutions.com/2018/07/16/defining-democracy-challenging-democrats/

[3] R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); Pierre Rosanvallon, “The History of the Word ‘Democracy’ in France,” Journal of Democracy, 6.4 (1995): 140-54.

[4] Maximilien Robespierre, Sur le principe de morale politique qui doivent guider la convention nationale dans l’administration intérieure de la république, Textes Choisis, Tome Troisième, ed. Jean Poperen (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1974).  On Robespierre’s redefinition of democracy as a representative government, see Kathlyn Marie Carter’s post on this blog:  https://ageofrevolutions.com/2018/07/23/the-invention-of-representative-democracy/

[5] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Man, ed. Janet Todd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[6] Jean-François Varlet, Du Plessis. Le Malheur, Quelle École ! Ce Que j’écris La Nuit, à La Lueur Obscure d’une Lampe de Prison En Est Peut-Être Une Preuve. Tyrans Ou Ambitieux, Lisez… (Paris, 1794); Philippe Buanorroti, Histoire de La Conspiration Pour l’égalité Dite de Babeuf, Suive Du Procès Auquel Elle Donna Lieu (Paris: Chez G. Chavaray Jeune, 1850).

[7] Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients compared with that of the Moderns,” Political Writings ed. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 309-28.

One thought on “Why did Edmund Burke call the French Revolution a Democratic Revolution?

  1. Interesting piece – you might like to read my chapter on Burke in Amanda Goodrich ‘Debating England’s Aristocracy in the 1790s: pamphlets, polemics and political ideas’ (Boydell and Brewer, 2005).

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