‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe’ by Christopher Caldwell

When an author with Christopher Caldwell’s impeccable conservative credentials glosses Edmund Burke in his book’s title, it’s a safe bet that he’s engaged a question whose implications he believes are absolutely fundamental.

Burke’s great masterpiece of political criticism -- “Reflections on the Revolution in France” -- is, after all, both the foundational text of contemporary conservatism and a continuing inspiration to classical liberals. Caldwell’s closely argued thesis in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West” is that the massive migration of Muslim immigrants into Western Europe now represents as much of a consequential break with Europe’s cultural traditions as the utopian rationalism of revolutionary France did for Burke.

Wherever a reader may fall on the political spectrum, those familiar with Caldwell’s work as a senior editor for the Weekly Standard and, particularly, as a columnist for the Financial Times, know him as an opinionated but fair-minded writer of impressive range and bracing clarity. “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” does not disappoint, though many may find its essentially despairing conclusion debatable, if sobering.

Those familiar with Western Europe’s current social tensions won’t find much new information here, but the author’s synthesis and analysis are hard-eyed and bracing. A relatively weak, self-doubting Europe, he argues, has allowed mass immigration from a fundamentally alien, basically antagonistic culture on such a scale that the continent’s future is no longer its to decide. Caldwell’s Cassandra is the brilliant anti-immigrant Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell, who sacrificed a promising career to this issue. In fact, this book can be read as an extended apologia for Powell’s views, which became more extreme over time.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Caldwell accepts Samuel P. Huntington’s concept of the “clash of civilizations” and puts Western Europe on what the Harvard scholar characterized as Islam’s perpetually “bloody borders.” Caldwell’s assessment of what’s at stake can also be adduced from his approving citation of philosopher Jürgen Habermas, an atheist, who after a dialogue with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) declared: “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy. . . . To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

For his part, Caldwell does a particularly deft job of sorting through the ways that fumbling accommodation of Europe’s assertive new Muslim minorities has accelerated the transmutation of an intellectually fashionable anti-Zionism into a virulent new form of anti-Semitism that, according to French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, “will be for the 21st century what communism was for the 20th century: a source of violence.”

Though he’s at pains to point out that most Americans oppose continued large-scale immigration into this country, Caldwell also argues that the issues raised by the mass movement of Muslims into Europe are nothing like those connected to mostly Latino migration into the United States. Latinos, he writes, simply speak another European language and bring with them a culture “that is like the American working-class white culture of 40 years ago. It is perfectly intelligible to any American who has ever had a conversation about the past with their parents. . . . [I]t requires no fundamental reform of American cultural practices or institutions. On balance, it may strengthen them.”

The U.S. experience

On the other hand, he argues, even America’s past experience with immigration has been more dislocating: "[T]he arrival of the Irish in Boston destroyed the Protestant culture of one of the most important cities in the history of Protestantism. The destruction occurred not only because the Irish arrived but also because New England Yankees chose not to live in an Irish-run city that was increasingly violent and corrupt.” Caldwell cites historian Oscar Handlin’s conclusion that “only half the descendants of the Bostonians of 1820 still lived in the city 30 years later.” Caldwell is fond of that sort of epic -- and iconoclastic -- generalization. The problem is that history -- like God -- is in the details, and their accumulation seems to undercut the author’s intention. One can bemoan the passing of Massachusetts’ Protestant culture, but for all their turbulence, it wasn’t New England’s Irish immigrants who executed “witches,” nor did the Puritan stock surrender without a fight and simply slink away. Boston was a center of violent mid-19th century nativism -- the place where “no Irish need apply” ubiquitously accompanied announcements of vacant situations.

More to the point, despite the fact that Boston’s eligible voters of Irish descent increased by 197% over the period Caldwell describes, the city didn’t elect its first Irish Catholic mayor, Hugh O’Brien, until 1885 -- a quarter of a century later. O’Brien was a pillar of the city’s business establishment, enjoyed the support of Catholic and Protestant constituents and would serve four terms over a city government renowned for honesty in an era of endemic civic corruption.

While these may seem like quibbles beside the larger, urgently contemporary points Caldwell makes, the fact is that the past is complicated but knowable -- while the future is complex and unforeseeable as often as it’s predictable.

Moreover, while authors are entitled to their arguments, it’s slightly disappointing that a commentator of Caldwell’s breadth and fair-mindedness neglects one of the inconsistencies in the “clash of civilizations” argument to which he subscribes. Caldwell is rightly hard on what he calls “the mediocrity of Muslim societies worldwide,” the violent malice of contemporary political Islam and the dissembling of its covert apologists like the dubious Tariq Ramadan. The fact remains, however, that as deadly as the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005 were, Europe’s worst post-World War II violence was visited on the European Muslims of Bosnia by the Orthodox European Christians of Serbia. Similarly, the body counts involved in the London bus and Madrid rail outrages pale beside those accumulated by the utterly indigenous, deeply traditional European fanatics of the IRA or the Basque ETA. Somehow, that all needs to be taken into account by a writer of Caldwell’s breadth and seriousness.

Unspoken authority

As a good Burkean, Caldwell believes in what the great man called “prejudices,” which is to say the unspoken authority of tradition, habit, family and shared cultural predilections. In that sense, he believes the clash of civilizations already has been lost in Europe. He also believes that its native peoples must now choose between what Powell called “the tragedy” of American-style cultural pluralism or a kind of quasi-Ottoman order in which religious communities essentially are self-governing within national borders.

History, though, has a way of confounding both Western historical determinism and its not-so-distant intellectual cousin, the resignation of Islamic fatalism.