‘Democracy & the Legacy of Revolutionary Violence’

Posted on: 11 October 2022

Democracy and the Legacy of Revolutionary Violence was the theme of the sixth Annual Edmund Burke Lecture delivered by Canadian writer, historian and former politician Michael Ignatieff.

From American independence in 1776 to Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising, many of the world’s democracies have their origins in moments of revolutionary violence.  This was the subject of the 2022 Trinity Long Room Hub Annual Edmund Burke Lecture, delivered by Professor Michael Ignatieff, the acclaimed Canadian writer, historian and former politician, to a packed audience in Trinity College’s Burke Theatre.

“Revolutions have given us the democracies we cherish, but their birth was always bloody”, Ignatieff observed in his talk. “Revolutions, then and now, may also be unavoidable, even necessary—a last resort when all else fails, especially when democratic leadership fails to respond to the challenges of change.”   

A leading public intellectual, Michael Ignatieff has held many titles throughout his distinguished career. In the mid-2000s, he ran to be Canada’s Prime Minister as the leader of the country’s Liberal Party. Between 2016 and 2021 he served as President and Rector of the Central European University (CEU) and was obliged to oversee his institution’s expulsion from its home in Budapest and its re-establishment in Vienna. As an author, he has written about everything from philosophy and ethics to human rights and revolutions, addressing, in his most recent book, the subject of finding consolation in the classical and biblical literature of the past. 

In his lecture, titled Democracy and the Legacy of Revolutionary Violence, Ignatieff discussed the works and theories of Edmund Burke in relation to liberalism today, and tackled the question of how democracies with a revolutionary heritage manage their historical memory of foundational violence.

“With January 6, 2021, we’re reminded, once again, that history never ends. We’ve returned to a problem that the great thinkers of the 18th century regarded as a central issue of politics”, Ignatieff said, referring to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol following the 2020 Presidential election. “Whether from the left or the right, populist movements are moving from the edges of the political spectrum into power, and the question is whether they continue to play by the constitutional rules or overturn them to consolidate authoritarian rule.”

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1748. As a student he founded what would later become the College Historical Society, the oldest student society in the world. Burke entered Parliament in 1765 and quickly became a champion for political emancipation. After 1789, he directed his attention to the French Revolution and its immediate ramifications for political stability in England.

One of Burke’s central and life-long concerns was what moral codes should underpin the social order, constrain the use of power, and inform our behaviour as responsible citizens. The Edmund Burke lectures provide a prominent forum for engaging with his legacy by contributing to conversations about the traditions, perspectives and values on which we need to draw in the shaping of our future.

“Michael Ignatieff has been a leading force in helping us to think about the condition of a post-revolutionary Europe, and in illuminating the complexities of a modern global political culture”, said Professor Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute. “His chosen topic for the Burke Lecture was entirely apposite for an Ireland currently reflecting on the violent cradling of the modern Irish state a century ago, and pertinent to numerous crises across the contemporary world landscape.”

In a time of increasing polarisation, Ignatieff believes that Burke’s writings on revolutions are relevant to how we think about and preserve democratic institutions and processes. 

“No one who takes seriously Burke’s lessons about revolutions past will greet revolutions to come with anything but deep concern—especially for the way in which democratic principles themselves, whether advanced by left or right, can be used to justify violence, cruelty and the destruction of democracy itself”, he said, asking, by way of conclusion “whether we are, once again, as Burke was in his lifetime, in an age of revolution”? 

The Edmund Burke lecture series is hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and is supported the Fallon family in honour of Trinity graduate Padraic Fallon (1946-2012). Previous lectures in the series were delivered by former President of Ireland, Professor Mary McAleese; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon; distinguished historian Margaret MacMillan; award-winning writer and journalist, Robert Fisk; Professor Roy Foster, Chair of Irish History, University of Oxford, and Baroness Onora O’Neill, former chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.


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