There’s a trend in conservative writing towards using a certain Edmund Burke quote. The 18th-century thinker has long been considered the grandfather of modern conservatism, yet his entire output has been largely reduced to two words: “little platoons.” Yes, Burke is important. But c’mon already. Is there a quota somewhere? A quick 30-second internet search shows the platoons quote here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and just a few days ago here. No other Burkean formulation is used so prominently. Is it picking nits to be annoyed by this constant regurgitation? Maybe. Yet it seems indicative of something important.
“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.”
That’s the full quote from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. As popularly understood, it refers to the links between our local communities (or platoons) and the larger state or culture. Though “little platoons” never appears therein, Robert Nisbet’s 1953 classic The Quest for Community helped popularize this line of thinking among conservatives. More recently, Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic uses the quote as a guiding principle.
“Little platoons” often appears unidentified and unexplained, under the assumption that the audience will recognize its origins and implications. It’s become a symbol meant to show membership in the inner sanctum of intellectual conservatism. Writers who use it aren’t like those conservatives. They quote Burke. This has turned “little platoons” into a signifier stripped of any concrete meaning.
In one of the articles linked above, George Will attacks lesser conservatives who would dare tax Ivy League endowments, before invoking Burke and declaring that Princeton is one of these famous platoons. So Ivy League campuses are the civic structures that conservatives champion? This seems suspicious.
David French says that “volunteer groups” are the “little platoons that make America great.” This is what Immanuel Kant might call an analytical argument. It is only true because there are pre-packed connotations in French’s terms. Volunteering is only good in the service of good. Presumably, French does not want people volunteering at their local Ku Klux Klan. He thus makes a hidden value judgment. Our polarized nation does not permit us to assume that everyone agrees on which volunteer groups are a boon to society.
Since “platoon” is never substantively defined, the reader must presume the term includes any loose assortment of individuals. Like lunatics on the subway, conservative writers ramble to themselves in their own language. Meanwhile, everyone else inches away from the weirdos who use military terminology to refer to their book clubs. Those who throw the platoons quote around obscure their own meaning. More importantly, they lose Burke’s original point.
The passage in Reflections on the Revolution in France where “little platoons” appears is about French aristocrats who led the Third Estate against other aristocrats. “Platoon” doesn’t reference local government. It doesn’t reference volunteer organizations. It doesn’t even directly reference community. It references class. Yuval Levin, who helped popularize the term in our time, made this point in his book The Great Debate: “Burke’s famous reference to the little platoon…is often cited as an example of a case for local government or allegiance to place, but in its context in the Reflections the passage is very clearly a reference to social class.”
It might sound pedantic to say that community-focused conservatives misuse the quote. They are, after all, expressing the same essential idea as Burke: society depends on intermediary institutions between the individual and the state. However, when Burke is distanced from the aristocracy to which he referred and interpreted through a modern liberal lens, we arrive at the conclusion that any self-chosen association is a boon to society. It is important to acknowledge the origins of the phrase because it implies that part of the significance of the platoon is precisely that it is not chosen.
The aristocratic element of “little platoons” is obscured because many conservatives read Burke through Russell Kirk, specifically Kirk’s influential The Conservative Mind, which helped launch the modern conservative movement. In many ways, Kirk surpassed his idol as a political thinker, but he often hid his own ideas in his interpretations of others. In a speech to Hillsdale College in 1977, Kirk stated that family is the origin of Burke’s platoons, slightly reappropriating the phrase to make the family the “germ of public affection” and not social class. This was not a total revision because aristocracy was based on blood and because Burke discusses the importance of family elsewhere. Kirk also made sure to define family as more than just the nuclear household. This differentiates Burke and Kirk from Hegel. Hegel also criticized the French Revolution. He also argued that family and civil society were mediating institutions between the individual and state. But Hegel defined family as a household that’s dissolved when children grow up. Kirk defined family as ever-expanding blood lines. Kirk’s family is permanent.
Kirk thus affirmed the original meaning of the “platoons” quote, but transformed it to meet modern needs. This imaginative reading influenced further generations. It would not have happened had he spent all his time repeating stock phrases. Conservatives ought to follow his examples today, even if that means just using different Burke quotes. For example, in reference to Rousseau’s influence on the leaders of the French Revolution, Burke wrote: “His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners…him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day, or the debauches of the night.” Burke is often characterized as a passionless moderate; this quote shows how fiery he could be. At a time when no one agrees on first principles, this Burke is more applicable than gentleman aristocrat Burke.
Prior to President Donald Trump, conservatism had devolved into a series of boring platitudes, speaking only to those who already agreed. Trump busted through the 2016 Republican primaries in part because 16 other politicians mistook saying “my hero, Ronald Reagan” for actual solutions to modern-day problems. Conservative writers are now making a similar mistake with “little platoons.” Conservatism’s renewed interest in community is a welcome change from the Cold War right’s inert inability to adapt to today’s challenges. But Burkean conservatism is itself in danger of ossifying. As the sands shift in Trump’s wake, there is an exciting opportunity to bust up old talking points. Rather than repeat the same phrase ad nauseum, conservative writers ought to take a cue from Russell Kirk and use their imagination.
James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.