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Over My Shoulder #10: Andrea Dworkin’s Preface to the British Edition of Right-wing Women

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Andrea Dworkin’s Preface to the British edition of Right-wing Women (1983). It’s reprinted for American readers in Letters from a War Zone, pp. 185-194. I re-read the essay (along with a great deal of Andrea Dworkin’s stuff) in the process of following citations and culling material for expansions to WikiPedia: Andrea Dworkin — partly on its own merits, and partly because I’ve had to spend some time on it dealing with crusading anti-Dworkin editor / vandals. This is unrelated to anything that was under discussion in the article, but it caught my eye as I was flipping through, so I slowed down to re-read it in full:

The political concepts of Right and Left could not have originated in England or the United States; they come out of the specificity of the French experience. They were born in the chaos of the first fully modern revolution, the French Revolution, in reaction to which all Europe subsequently redefined itself. As a direct result of the French Revolution, the political face of Europe changed and so did the political discourse of Europeans. One fundamental change was the formal division of values, parties, and programs into Right and Left–modern alliances and allegiances emerged, heralded by new, modern categories of organized political thought. What had started in France’s National Assembly as perhaps an expedient seating arrangement from right to left became a nearly metaphysical political construction that swept Western political consciousness and practice.

In part this astonishing development was accomplished through the extreme reaction against the French Revolution embodied especially in vitriolic denunciations of it by politicians in England and elsewhere committed to monarchy, the class system, and the values implicit in feudalism. Their arguments against the French Revolution and in behalf of monarchy form the basis for modern right-wing politics, or conservatism. The principles of organized conservatism, in social, economic, and moral values, were enunciated in a great body of reactionary polemic, most instrumentally in the English Whig Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written in 1789 before the ascendancy of the Jacobins–and therefore not in response to the Terror or to Jacobin ideological absolutism–Burke’s Reflections is suffused with fury at the audacity of the Revolution itself because this revolution uniquely insisted that political freedom required some measure of civil, economic, and social equality. The linking of freedom with equality philosophically or programmatically remains anathema to conservatives today. Freedom, according to Burke, required hierarchy and order. That was his enduring theme.

I flatter myself, Burke wrote, that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty. Manly liberty is bold, not effeminate or timorous (following a dictionary definition of the adjective manly). Manly liberty (following Burke) has a king. Manly liberty is authoritarian: the authority of the king–his sovereignty–presumably guarantees the liberty of everyone else by arcane analogy. Moral liberty is the worship of God and property, especially as they merge in the institutional church. Moral liberty means respect for the authority of God and king, especially as it manifests in feudal hierarchy. Regulated liberty is limited liberty: whateveri s left over once the king is obeyed, God is worshipped, property is respected, hierarchy is honored, and the taxes or tributes that support all these institutions are paid. The liberty Burke loved particularly depended on the willingness of persons not just to accept but to love the social circumstances into which they were born: To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and mankind. The French rabble had noticeably violated this first principle of public affections.

To Burke, history showed that monarchy and the rights of Englishmen were completely intertwined so that the one required the other. Because certain rights had been exercised under monarchy, Burke held that monarchy was essential to the exercise of those rights. England had no proof, according to Burke, that rights could exist and be exercised without monarchy. Burke indicted political theorists who claimed that there were natural rights of men that superseded in importance the rights of existing governments. These theorists have wrought under-ground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament. They have rights of men. Against these there can be no prescription… I have nothing to say to the clumsy subtility of their political metaphysicks. In Burke’s more agile metaphysics, hereditary rights were transmitted through a hereditary crown because they had been before and so would continue to be. Burke provided no basis for evaluating the quality or fairness of the rights of the little platoon we belong to in society as opposed to the rights of other little platoons: to admit such a necessity would not be loving our little platoon enough. The hereditary crown, Burke suggests, restrains dictatorship because it gives the king obeisance without making him fight for it. It also inhibits civil conflict over who the ruler will be. This is as close as Burke gets to a substantive explanation of why rights and monarchy are inextricably linked.

–Andrea Dworkin (1983), Preface to the British Edition of Right-wing Women, reprinted in Letters from a War Zone, 187–189.

For some similar points, partly influenced by Dworkin’s comments here and elsewhere in the preface, see GT 2005-02-03: By George, I think he’s got it!

2 replies to Over My Shoulder #10: Andrea Dworkin’s Preface to the British Edition of Right-wing Women Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Roderick T. Long

    A quick bibliographical addendum (which won’t come as much news to RadGeek, but which might be of interest to his readers):

    Two years before she wrote her more famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman, feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a reply to Burke titled Vindication of the Rights of Men. Hers was the first of many replies from the liberal side; a later one was Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man — a title which both drew inspiration from the title of Wollstonecraft’s first Vindication and gave inspiration to the title of her second.

    The best book I’ve read on Burke is Isaac Kramnick’s The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative, which does a good job of tracing the tension between libertarian and conservative strands in Burke’s thought. Burke’s first book, A Vindication of Natural Society (that word “Vindication” again) was notoriously anarchistic, egalitarian, and anti-traditionalist. Burke later said he’d written it only as a parody. Most historians accept that interpretation, though some, including Rothbard, have argued that the early work was sincere and that Burke later changed his mind. I’m convinced by Kramnick’s argument that the truth is somewhere in-between.

  2. Perfidy

    You are “”Right”” about the liberty thing. Andrea, … do you smoke pot by any chance? What kind of music do you like,…please tell….

    Perfidy. … Be seeing you …

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