20 JANUARY 1950, Page 20


66 Praktizismus " The Debate on the American Revolution 1761-1783. Edited by Max Beloit..

The Debate on the French Revolution i789-1799. Edited by

Alfred Cobban. (Nicholas Kaye. 12s. 6d. each)

I LEARN from The Times that a new heresy, " Praktizismus," has been discovered and denounced in the Soviet Zone of Germany. It consists `' in paying too much attention to the job in hand and not enough to Communist ideology." If one leaves out the adjective, this describes most English political thought and con- troversy, and it is the object of this most promising series to illustrate the English approach to political problems in a number of volumes. If the successors to these two come up to their standards, the series should be a great success. The general editors (Messrs. Alan Bullock and F. W. Deakin) point out that " one of the unique contributions the English people have made to civilisa- tion has been the discussion of political issues which has been going on in Britain continuously since the sixteenth century. . . . This debate has never been of an academic character." As they proceed to illustrate from the case of Hobbes, " never " is putting it too strongly, but they are firm that the " riches of British political thought are to be found less in the philosophers' discussions of terms like The State,' freedom ' and obligation '—important though these are—than in the writings and speeches on contem- porary political issues of men like Lilburne, Locke, Bolingbroke, Burke, Tom Paine, Fox, the Mills, Cobden, Disraeli, Gladstone and the Fabians." As King Louis Philippe once said to Disraeli, " he attributed the great success of the British nation in political life to their talking politics after dinner."

It might be argued (and some publicists as well as some pro- fessors would so argue) that there is no point in encouraging a nation to go on doing what it will do anyway, in this case ignoring theory, refusing to believe that if you do this you must, sooner or later, do that. It may be that the great merits of the English tradition are quite well enough appreciated at home ; that these books should be exported to France, Germany, Russia ; and that here the good student and the good citizen should be encouraged to read his Hegel or his Marx, the systematic reflections of acute minds outside if not above the battle of actual politics. But they won't do it. And they should, in fact, be encouraged to see how varied an impression a great historical event can make on com- petent and honest observers ; to learn from Soane Jenyns that it was possible to make a case for George III against George Washington ; to appreciate that the disillusionment with the Russian Revolution that is now so common, so fashionable, so right, has its ancestor, and that Wordsworth and Coleridge had gone the way of Messrs. Spender and Koestler before them (though no very useful lesson can be drawn from the ineffable preachments of Hannah More or the loyal but possibly rather venal sentiments of John Reeves).

Of the two books, Mr. Beloff's inevitably is the more interesting. The great debate on the French Revolution took place in France, while the American Revolution (inside the dates chosen by the editor) was part of English history, too. So Mr. Beloff can give the " Declaration of Independence," cite Dickinson, Dulany, James Wilson, while Mr. Cobban has to rely on " noises off," on the echoes across the Channel. On the other hand, Mr. Cobban can quote the best of Burke, for nothing he wrote or said on the American Revolution—not even the speech on conciliation or " The Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol "—approaches, in passion or wisdom, the best of his strokes against the French Revolution. The two Revolutions were, of course, closely connected. The American was one of the parents of the French. Burke was too deeply involved to see this. His inconsistency was not in turning from the French Revolution after having supported the American ; he was no Clovis burning what he had adored. For he should not have supported, and did not really support, the American Revolution.

Indeed, as Mr. Beloff acutely and wisely insists, Burke, after the earlier legalistic controversies, was less capable of understanding the American Revolution than Chatham his conservatism was already immobile, and had he been Prime Minister he would, in all probability, have lost the Empire a little later than George III and North did, for America was on the move and Burke's England was not. Nor did he notice, or wish to notice, the doctrinaire character of the American Revolution. Acton, sixty years ago, put it, as was his style, in too dramatic and heightened a fashion, blit- he was not far wrong when he wrote of the American revolutionary leaders: " Here or nowhere we have the broken chain, the rejected past, precedent and statute superseded by unwritten law, sons wiser than their fathers, ideas rooted in the future, reason cutting as clean as Atropos." The Declaration of Independence is a more radical, revolutionary document than the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Why, then, were the Revolutions so different ?

There were the immense material differences in the situation and the grievances of the two peoples ; there were the immense differences in political education between the French and the Americans.; there was the intense psychological conflict (as it has been recently argued) involved in breaking the bonds that bound the French people to the King. The Atlantic, a new world environment, immigration, a score of forces made casting-off George III easier. For Jefferson, leading actor in one, actor and spectator in the other, the difference in political sagacity was the main consideration, that made him cautious, only semi-revolutionary in France. And that difference, after all, came from the political education got from election sermons, stump speeches, caucuses, resolutions in colonial legislatures, a free Press and a habit of critical if not profound discussions. We come back to the editors' point ; if politics are about States, their health and illness, and not about concepts, this is the way to discuss them.

In the discussion there are many good things. Burke cannot help dominating the scene, but that is partly an error of literary proportion that we introduce, for Burke, in a sense, is the true doctrinaire of both controversies. But there are Thomas Paine, Shelburne, Dr. Price, both Pitts, Fox, Priestley, Coleridge, Words- worth, Southey, Blake. Then there are the eccentrics. How many specimens of the aristocratic radical we meet here from " Citizen ' Stanhope to the fifth Duke of Bedford, " the noble lord " of Burke's great tract! There are the agitators and the cranks ; " squirradicals " and Tories not far removed from Squire Western. There is good reading and good politics in abundance. The editors have been a little sparing in their notes ; not all the allusions will be followed, and there are some obvious misprints. But north of the Border only two will cause distress, the reference to " Herbert Dundas " and to " Lord Justice Braxfield." Readers of Stevenson wilt. remember how Lord Hermiston insisted on the dignity of a Sen1tor of the College of Justice. What would he have said to the Lord Justice Clerk being reduced to a " Lord Justice " ? It would take Braxfield's own energetic but doubtfully printable language to answer that insult. Fox and all good Radicals, however, will think it mild enough punishment. D. W. BROGAN.