by Murray N. Rothbard
as "A Note on Burke’s Vindication
of Natural Society" in the Journal of the
History of Ideas, 19, 1 (January 1958), pp. 114118.
1756 Edmund Burke published his first work: Vindication
of Natural Society. Curiously enough it has been almost
completely ignored in the current Burke revival. This work contrasts
sharply with Burke’s other writings, for it is hardly in keeping
with the current image of the Father of the New Conservatism. A
less conservative work could hardly be imagined; in fact, Burke’s
Vindication was perhaps the first modern expression of rationalistic
and individualistic anarchism.
Embarrassing Work for Conservatives
is well known that Burke spent the rest of his career battling for
views diametrically opposite to those of his Vindication.
His own belated explanation was that the Vindication was
a satire on the views of rationalist Deists like Lord Bolingbroke,
demonstrating that a devotion to reason and an attack on revealed
religion can logically eventuate in a subversive attack on the principle
of government itself. Burke’s host of biographers and followers
have tended to adopt his explanation uncritically. Yet they hurry
on and rarely mention his Vindication in their discussions
of Burke, and with good reason. For the work is a most embarrassing
one. Careful reading reveals hardly a trace of irony or satire.
In fact, it is a very sober and earnest treatise, written in his
characteristic style. Indeed, Burke’s biographers have commented
on the failure of the work as irony, without raising the fundamental
question whether it was really meant to be irony at all.
own explanation, in fact, is not a very plausible one. He was not
given to satire, and rarely attempted such writing in later years.
The Vindication was published anonymously when Burke was
27 years old. Nine years later, after his authorship had been discovered,
Burke found himself about to embark on his famous Parliamentary
career. To admit that he had seriously held such views in earlier
years would have been politically disastrous. His only way out was
to brush it off as a satire, thereby vindicating himself as an eternal
enemy of rationalism and subversion.
begins the Vindication by establishing the aim of his inquiry:
to investigate with the light of truth the general nature of political
institutions or "political society." He rejects at the
outset the typically conservative reluctance to tamper with prevalent
beliefs and ancient traditions. He upholds that noble tenet of eighteenth-century
rationalism: that happiness, in the long run, rests on truth and
truth alone. And that truth is the natural law of human activity
and human relations. Positive law imposed by the State injures man
whenever it strays from the path that we know to be the law of man’s
nature. How is the natural law to be discovered? Not by Revelation,
but by the use of man’s reason.
Empires Are Cemented in Blood'
is characteristic of Burke that he develops his examination of the
State through historical inquiry. First, there are the external
relations among States. He finds the typical relation is war.
War is practically the only external face of the State; and Burke
points out that Machiavelli’s emphasis on war for the study of his
Prince applies to all forms of States and not just to monarchies.
Burke, in obvious disgust, goes on to chronicle some of the notable
"butcheries" in which States have indulged. "All
empires have been cemented in blood" and in mutual attempts
at destruction. And Burke wittily deduces that Hobbes’ appalling
view of mankind in the state of nature was derived, not from Hobbes’
observations of ordinary human action, but from his study of the
actions of men when banded together into states.
catalog of murders is impressive enough; and Burke estimates that,
from ancient times, thirty-six million people have been slaughtered
by governments. But Burke is not content to stop there. Why, he
asks, why does evil center in States? He finds the answer in the
nature of the State itself. All "political society" rests
on subordination on the one hand, and tyranny on the other.
Violate the Law of Nature
examines the nature of the State. He points to the familiar fact
that governments do things "for reasons of state" which
individuals could not justly do. But he adds that these injustices
are grounded on the very nature of the State itself, i.e., on the
fact that the State is necessarily supported by violence:
prove that these sorts of political societies are a violation
offered to nature, and a constraint upon the human mind, it needs
only to look upon the sanguinary measures, and instruments of
violence, which are everywhere used to support them. Let us take
a review of the dungeons, whips, chains, racks, gibbets, with
which every society is abundantly stored . . . . I acknowledge,
indeed, the necessity of such a proceeding in such institutions;
but I must have a very mean opinion of institutions where such
proceedings are necessary.1
proceeds to a discussion of the famous Aristotelian types of government:
despotism, aristocracy, democracy. Each is taken up, examined, and
found wanting. Despotism is obviously evil; but aristocracy is not
better. In fact, an aristocracy is apt to be worse, since its rule
is more permanent and does not depend on the whims of one man. And
what of democracy? Here Burke draws on his store of knowledge of
ancient Greece. Democracy is not only tyrannical, but bound to succumb
to hatred of superior individuals. The rule of the people tends
to be warlike and despotic, and to make heavy use of taxes and subsidies.
Form of Government Despotic Too
Burke takes up the "mixed" form of government, the form
particularly admired by republican theorists in modern times. By
a division and balance of powers, republican government is supposed
to blend all three of these forms, so that each can check and balance
the excesses of the other. Burke, confessing a former adherence
to this system, plunges into an analysis of it, pursuing truth wherever
it may lead. First, he says this intricate balance must necessarily
be very delicate, and easily upset by one power or another. Second,
overlapping spheres of powers create a constant source of confusion
and argument. Third, the effect of the conflict between the various
powers is that first one, and then the other, segment achieves dominant
power in the endless struggle, and alternately tyrannizes over the
people. Whichever party achieves power, tyranny is the result:
. . the balance is overset, now upon one side, now upon the other.
The government is, one day, arbitrary power in a single person;
another, a juggling confederacy of a few to cheat the prince,
and enslave the people, and the third, a frantic and unmanageable
democracy. The great instrument of all these changes . . . is
party . . . ; the spirit which actuates all parties is the same;
the spirit of ambition, of self-interest, of oppression, and treachery.2
Vindication contains much rhetoric about inequality between
the rich and the poor. Close examination reveals, however, that
Burke is writing not about social classes but about social castes,
i.e., he is referring to the artificial inequalities of wealth resulting
from state actions and not to the inequalities resulting from free
action. Burke is denouncing the slavery, poverty, and vices introduced
by "political society."
should be clear from this work that by "political society,"
Burke did not signify "society" in general. This is no
Rousseauan call for a return to the jungle, either earnestly or
satirically. Burke’s attack is levelled not against society
the framework of peaceful human interrelations and exchanges,
but against States those uniquely coercive elements
in human relations. His argument rests on a belief that when we
observe the nature of man, we find that States are anti-social
Was an Anarchist
is an extreme term, but no other can adequately describe Burke’s
thesis. Again and again, he emphatically denounces any and all
government, and not just specific forms of government. Summing up
his views on government, he declares:
several species of government vie with each other in the absurdity
of their constitutions, and the oppression which they make their
subjects endure. Take them under what form you please, they are
in effect but a despotism ....
in religion and politics make sufficient discoveries concerning
each other, to give a sober man proper caution against them all.
The monarchist, and aristocratical, and popular partisans have
been jointly laying their axes to the root of all government,
and have in their turns proved each other absurd and inconvenient.
In vain you tell me that artificial government is good, but that
I fall out only with the abuse. The thing! The thing itself is
government, Burke adds, is founded on one "grand error."
It was observed that men sometimes commit violence against one another,
and that it is therefore necessary to guard against such violence.
As a result, men appoint governors among them. But who is to defend
the people against the governors?
Burke a Private-Property Anarchist?
anarchism of Burke’s Vindication is negative, rather than
positive. It consists of an attack on the State rather than a positive
blueprint of the type of society which Burke would regard as ideal.
Consequently, both the communist and the individualist wings of
anarchism have drawn sustenance from this work. William Godwin,
the late eighteenth-century English founder of communist anarchism,
hailed the Vindication as a precursor of his own viewpoint.
On the other hand, an English disciple of Josiah Warren’s individualist
anarchism reprinted the Vindication in 1858, with appropriate
marginal comment, and it was highly praised and reprinted by Benjamin
R. Tucker in Liberty in 1885. On balance, it would be fair,
though inconclusive, to place the Vindication in the individualist
camp, since there is no sign of enmity to private property as such
in this work.
are many internal indications that this is a sober work by Burke,
and not a satire. In the first place, there is his treatment of
reason. One of Burke’s most characteristic views in his later years,
and one that particularly endears him to the New Conservatives,
is his distrust of reason. In particular, the rationalists who wish
to plan the lives of people in the way an engineer builds a machine,
are contrasted with conservatives who rely on spontaneous and unplanned
change. It would seem, therefore, that Burke’s reliance on reason
in the Vindication is simply a satire on these rationalist
views. But this is not the case at all. In upholding reason as the
bulwark of his extreme libertarian views, Burke also attacks those
rationalists who wish to plan and tyrannize over society. But he
attacks them not because they are rationalists, but precisely
because they are false to reason. They are not rationalist enough
to realize the rationality of liberty. They engage in "artificial
reason" instead of "natural reason":
the course of my inquiry you may have observed a very material
difference between my manner of reasoning and that which is in
use among the abetters of artificial society. They form their
plans upon what seems most eligible to their imaginations, for
the ordering of mankind. I discover the mistakes in those plans,
from the real known consequences which have resulted from them.
They have enlisted reason to fight against itself . . . in proportion
as we have deviated from the plain rule of our nature, and turned
our reason against itself, in that proportion have we increased
the follies and miseries of mankind.4
if Burke had meant to impugn Bolingbroke’s Deist views, he would
have denounced "artificial religion" equally or more than
he denounces government. But, on the contrary, Burke explicitly
states that government is a far greater evil.5
Hated Lawyers, Of Course
piece of evidence for the seriousness of the Vindication
is its bitter denunciation of lawyers and legal procedures. We know
that Burke, in this period, was an unhappy law student, fed up with
law and eagerly turning to literature and literary companions, His
bitter passages on Law in the Vindication fit perfectly with
what we know of his feelings in this period.6
But if these passages are faithful to Burke’s genuine opinions,
why not the rest of the work as well?
have stressed that the Vindication was written in imitation
of the style of the recently dead Bolingbroke, and have taken this
as proof of its satiric bent. Yet these same biographers of Burke
admit that, in his later writings, he continued to write in a similar
style! Is it, in fact, surprising that young Burke should try to
imitate the style of the man universally acknowledged as the greatest
stylist and orator of his day? Burke’s elaborate efforts to shield
his identity from the public, to give the impression that this was
a posthumous work of Bolingbroke’s, hint at a different explanation.
This is his realization that the kind of views expressed in the
Vindication would be bitterly reviled and denounced. Let
us remember that this work was the first expression of anarchism,
perhaps the most "radical," the least "conservative"
of creeds. The whole tone of the Vindication, indeed, is
that of a man who fears the personal consequences of publishing
his views, who even attempts to hold them back, but is impelled
onwards by the force of his conviction that a new and great truth
has been discovered. Burke discloses:
and many more points, I am far from spreading to their full extent.
You are sensible that I do not put forth half my strength; and
you cannot be at a loss for the reason. A man is allowed sufficient
freedom of thought, provided he knows how to choose his subjects
properly. You may criticize freely upon the Chinese constitution,
and observe with as much severity as you please upon the absurd
tricks or destructive bigotry of the bonzees. But the scene is
changed as you come homeward, and atheism or treason may be names
given in Britain, to what would be reason and truth if asserted
following passage is particularly striking:
the world is in a fitter temper than it is at present to hear
truth, or when I shall be more indifferent about its temper, my
thoughts may become more public. In the meantime, let them repose
in my own bosom, and in the bosoms of such men as are fit to be
initiated in the sober mysteries of truth and reason.8
these words provide the clue to the mystery of the Vindication.
If the work were really a satire, why only proclaim it as such when
a rising political career was at stake? Why not announce it shortly
after publication? And if the Burke of Vindication was in
deadly earnest, did he really change his earlier views, or did this
great advocate of prudence bow prudently to the public temper?
(London, 1900), I, 21.
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