and Burke vs. the Cold War Burkeans
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 the abuse! ~ Edmund
weeks ago, LRC ran the late Murray
Rothbard’s "A Note on Burke’s Vindication
of Natural Society" (originally published in the Journal
of the History of Ideas in January 19581)
under the provocative title "Edmund Burke, Anarchist."
In this essay, Rothbard argued that the Vindication, Burke’s
first important publication, was a serious and rationalistic analysis
of the evils of "artificial society" that is, political
government and was thus perhaps the first statement of modern
anarchism. It was an anarchism that grew naturally out of 18th-century
liberalism with its commitment to natural rights and natural law.
Vindication was so radical that the young Burke published it
anonymously. The style and manner of argument were based on those
of the late Tory publicist Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke.
Burke later added a preface to the work, claiming the Vindication
had been a "satire" on Bolingbroke’s deistic notions of
short order, Rothbard’s thesis drew forth a response from John C.
Weston, Jr. in the same journal.2
Weston asserted that Rothbard’s bold argument had forced him into
an otherwise "gratuitous demonstration" of the satirical
character of the Vindication. He brought forward four long
quotes from the Vindication in aid of his reassertion of
the conventional pro-satire position. He next sought to score a
number of points against Rothbard’s case, claiming Burke’s critique
of wars and forms of government as witnesses for the satire interpretation,
wrapping the whole package up with assertions of Burke’s lifelong
consistency in his views.
there the matter might have come to an end.
June 1960, Rothbard wrote to a close friend and colleague that he
intended to reënter the fray soon. There is, in fact, an eight-page
answer to Weston in Rothbard’s papers: "The Alleged Irony of
Burke’s Vindication: A Reply."3
Here Rothbard disposes rather quickly of three of the long quotations
brought forth by Weston. Of the fourth, containing Burke’s views
on Rousseau, Rothbard said that his opponent’s use of it only revealed
"Professor Weston’s confusion on the nature of the libertarian
tradition." Hostility to Rousseau proved little because an
"individualist anarchist" would oppose him: "for
the Vindication was not opposed to ‘civilized society’....
On the contrary, as I pointed out, Burke, in the libertarian tradition,
champions ‘natural society’ as against the depredations of the State."4
Rothbard addressed Weston’s claim that irony shines forth as Burke
"lays the blame to government" for mass-murder through
warfare "‘in four amusing arguments.’" Rothbard wanted
to know just where the amusement might be. Among other things, Burke
said that political organization and improved instruments of war
together had brought about far more slaughter than could ever otherwise
have been the case. Burke wrote that citizens "engage under
[rulers’] banners with a fury greater than if they were animated
by revenge for their own proper wrongs." Rothbard called this
"a brilliant, not an absurd, observation on the workings of
the spirit of patriotism."5
the Vindication was merely a reductio ad absurdum
of Bolingbroke’s arguments for deism, Rothbard wanted to see a few
of the supposed absurda. Burke’s text seemed entirely straightforward
(non-ironic) with regard to lawyers and Weston maintained that,
there, some of Burke’s real views leaked out. In those passages
the "satire" was not fully sustained. Rothbard found "this
singularly unconvincing, especially when we consider that distrust
of lawyers and their alleged vested interest in tyranny, was part-and-parcel
of the very libertarian tradition of the eighteenth century that
Burke is said to be satirizing."6
are many such "leakages" in conventional readings of the
book. At some point in his research, Rothbard acquired a copy of
Joseph Cressman’s dissertation, which was dedicated to sustaining
the satire theory.7 Rothbard’s extensive
underlining and marginal comments flag every case where Cressman
discussed passages that clashed with the satire theory. Once again,
Burke’s "real views" were spotted bubbling up through
the sham-Bolingbrokeanism. Cressman was especially sure of this
in passages where Burke spoke of the plight of the poor. He may
well be right but how many cases of Burke’s real views can
there be before the whole satire business topples over? Rothbard
saw all such weaknesses as evidence for his own reading.8
Burke literature of the time generally suffered from a tendency
to confine treatment of Burke’s ideas within certain highly artificial,
twofold oppositions. 18th-century figures were thus either
"for nature" or "for civilization." Rousseau
or the Bank of England, take your choice. Primitivism or statism!
versus Art" Was Not the Only 18th-Century Game in
knowledge grows at its own speed. In the United States it seems
to proceed dialectically through endless series of twenty-year debates
over false alternatives. The now-dwindling war between the republican
school and the so-called neo-Lockeans comes to mind. Happily, this
is not the only thing that happens. Sometimes there are surprises.
Thus in 1977, Isaac Kramnick, in the course of explaining the bourgeois
radicalism of the 18th century, provided much support
for Rothbard’s reading of Burke’s Vindication.
looking at Kramnick’s contributions to our specific question, there
are some other things to clear away.
was at issue in the quarrel over Edmund Burke’s authorial "voice"?
Was there more to it than a mere academic debate over his consistency
of thought or his literary style? Indeed, there was.
Kramnick sees it, American conservatives of a certain kind clasped
Burke to their bosoms and reinvented him as a Cold War prophet.
Thus, "the Burke packaged in the 1950s and 1960s as a natural
law theorist was less the result of a philosophical reading than
a political one."9 The Cold Warriors’
Burke would be much more convincing if his ideas had undergone no
change from his first writings to his last. This position was fraught
Official Burkeans held that Burke’s reading of natural law was a
traditionalist one having little (perhaps no) links with such later
heresies as rights inherent in mere individuals. No, indeed. Burke’s
outlook rested on such happy notions as hierarchy, subordination,
consecrated and mysterious authority, prejudice, long-standing usage,
corporate bodies, and the like. If rights existed at all, they were
chartered ones and existed only as part of the above-mentioned mysterious,
that’s as may be, but it was the prescriptive, concrete, anti-abstract,
empiricist, and pragmatic Burke who said a good many things that
do not fit very well the theory of an unchanging Burke modeled solely
on his later writings. Murray Rothbard, who had not forgotten about
Burke, highlighted some of them in his work on American history.
volume three of his Conceived
in Liberty, Rothbard zeroed in on Burke’s appreciation for
Americans’ near-anarchist state of freedom, as revealed in his famous
Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies. Writes Rothbard: "Burke
saluted American achievements and economic development" and
"harked back to the crucial distinction he had made in his
first work, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), between
the benefits of natural voluntary actions in society (‘natural government’),
and the mischievous effects of the coercive intervention of the
state (‘artificial government’)."
"Burke hailed the ‘fierce spirit of liberty’ that had grown
up among the Americans" and "saw with acute perception
the radically new nature of what the Americans had recently been
doing. He saw that they had been creating, in their network of local
and provincial committees of correspondence, of enforcement, and
conventions of delegates, both provincial and continental, an approach
to a state of anarchism. For here were revolutionary institutions
completely illegal and outside the legal framework, created spontaneously
by the people building from the grassroots."10
here is what Rothbard quotes from Burke himself: "We thought,
Sir, that the utmost which the discontented colonists would do,
was to disturb authority; we never dreamt they could of themselves
supply it." As for conditions in Massachusetts, Burke said:
"we were confident that the first feeling, if not the very
prospect of anarchy, would instantly enforce a complete submission.
The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things
appeared. Anarchy is now found tolerable. A vast province
has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health
and vigor, for near a twelvemonth, without governor, without public
council, without judges, without executive magistrates."11
the sober, unchanging Burke. That he should have made such empirical
observations as a warning to Parliament to mend its policies, or
become irrelevant in British North America, is rather interesting.
Evidently, empiricism and practicality are not always to be reckoned
on the side of the Cold War Burke.
Burke’s down-to-earth, unworried comments on Massachusetts bear
comparing with Murray Rothbard’s discussion, in the first volume
of his American history, of actually-existing anarchism in colonial
Pennsylvania from 1684 to 1688.12
Thomas Paine’s argument in Common
Sense against so-called balanced government, Rothbard sees
it as "reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s blast against the idea
of mixed and balanced government in his anarchistic work, The
Vindication of Natural Society." Here is part of Burke’s
salvo: "[T]his junction of regal, aristocratic, and popular
power, must form a very complex, nice, and intricate machine...
liable on every accident to be disordered." Hence, this "system
is like a city, where trades that require constant fires are much
exercised, where the houses are built of combustible materials,
and where they stand extremely close."13
Hoppe might well agree. (Professor Weston, who could not imagine
a radical young Burke making a case against political government
as such, construed Burke’s serial rejection of all forms of government
as part of his high wit.)
a parallel jape about fires and mixed government, we turn to the
poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: "If a man was accused of setting
fire to a house, which house never existed, and from the nature
of things could not have existed, it is impossible that a jury in
their senses would find him guilty of arson. The English constitution,
then, could not be offended by the principles of virtue and freedom."14
and Shelley together again on our show (with apologies to
Ed Sullivan). What can that mean? It seems to mean that there was
in the late 18th century a spectrum of bourgeois liberalism.
Burke moved from its radical pole to the conservative one, while
Shelley did the opposite.
is another Burkean observation: "He that deliberately views
the machine of human society, will even in his speculations approach
it with awe. He will recollect with alarm, that in this scene ‘fools
rush in, where angels fear to tread.’ The fabric that we contemplate
is sort of a fairy edifice, and though it consists of innumerable
parts, and hides its head among the clouds, the hand of a child
almost, if suffered with neglect, may shake it into ruins."15
wait! This is not Burke, but William
Godwin, whom everyone credits with outright anarchism
but whose views on strategy were deeply gradualist, making him an
"ally," in effect, of Burke in criticizing the so-called
what happened with Burke? Was he, all his life, an anarcho-gradualist
like Godwin, but under deep cover? Probably not.
Rothbard saw it, as early as 1770 a split was arising within English
liberalism between libertarian, radical Whigs and moderate Whigs.16
During the debates over the American secession, Rothbard noted,
"Burke, who habitually dealt in terms of utility and expediency,
or else tradition, now acknowledged in part the validity of the
Americans’ stress on their rights. Yet he was gradually being
outflanked on his left."17 As
the gap widened, Burke chose to go with the moderates.
even in the 1780s, in his speeches impeaching Warren Hastings for
abuses committed in India (and modeled on Cicero’s impeachment of
Verres), the prescriptive, expedient Burke could still say things
of this sort:
rights of men that is to say, the natural rights of
mankind are indeed sacred things; and if any public measure
is proved mischievously to affect them, the objection ought to be
fatal to that measure, even if no charter at all could be set up
against it.... Indeed... formal recognition, by the sovereign power,
of an original right in the subject, can never be subverted, but
by rooting up the holding radical principles of government, and
even of society itself."18
Vindication of Rothbard
can be grateful to Professor Kramnick, whose views I have promised
to canvass, for setting Burke outside the Cold War. Kramnick has
a certain objectivity and perspective, partly because he rather
frowns on bourgeois thought. From his angle, he can treat laissez
faire liberalism-to-radicalism with less partisanship that do some,
who might be "within" that outlook. That Murray Rothbard,
who embraced bourgeois radicalism, came to similar conclusions is
not altogether shocking.
specifically refers to Rothbard’s 1958 essay in a chapter in which
he heaps up evidence for a radical reading of the early Burke. I
cannot summarize it all here, but Kramnick resorts to Burke’s early
writings in Ireland, his fragment on English history, and an early
essay on the law, and finds therein radical bourgeois liberalism
fully consistent with the content of the Vindication. The
views Burke allegedly set forth there as irony and satire, Kramnick
says, are ones "Burke happens to have repeated... in a large
number of ‘serious’ contexts."19
approach strikes me as far superior to that of a certain outside
agitator and sometime Irish Senator, who likes to lecture us – this
side of the water – on whether or not we may find anything admirable
in Thomas Jefferson, and who has made Burke a sort of conservative
hero for modern social democrats.
the standard view, then, the young Burke addressed the late Viscount
Bolingbroke thus: "Sir, you argued thus and so regarding artificial
religion and its outgrowths, but are not the results of artificial
government far, far worse?" and, bang, Henry St. John’s
ideas on deism are out the window. But if, on the facts, the effects
of political government had been grievous not exactly an
unknown proposition it makes more sense to say with Rothbard
and Kramnick that Burke aped Bolingbroke’s style and employed his
religious argument for the entirely different project of airing
his (Burke’s) radical bourgeois views on the state.
own religious views hardly need come into it at all.
What of the Later, Counter-Revolutionary Burke?
for the later Burke, who clearly had shifted ground, there is much
worth reading even in the Reflections
on the Revolution in France. For all the high-toned feudal-sounding
rhetoric that crops up, there is much wisdom and not a little classical
liberalism. A certain Reverend Fawcett went about in the 1790s with
Burke’s Reflections and Tom Paine’s Rights
of Man bound in one cover, because, he said, together "they
made a good book."
Godwin personally profited from the satire theory of the Vindication.
Acceptance of that view made Godwin, and not Burke, the first liberal
anarchist. Despite his gradualism, he and the later Burke were indeed
miles apart. His view of Burke was this: "He... sought wealth
and plunged in expense, instead of cultivating the simplicity of
independence; and he entangled himself with a petty combination
of political men, instead of reserving his illustrious talents unwarped,
for the advancement of intellect, and the service of mankind."20
may be something in that. On the other hand, Burke might well have
made the prudential, empirical judgment that the French Revolution
in fact differed in important ways from the American. Looking about
him at the English radicals, he might have wagered that their programs
could not have been put into practice at an acceptable cost. He
might even have made that judgment without changing the views he
had in 1756, although it seems certain that he had changed them.
all, in the Reflections Burke reasoned as follows about political
projectors: "They form their plans upon what seems most eligible
to their imaginations, for the orderly of mankind. I discover the
mistakes in those plans, from the real known consequences which
have resulted from them."21
had you there! Burke does reason along such lines in the Reflections;
but this quotation comes from the Vindication and
his chosen target was "the abettors of artificial society."22
Burke had a healthy interest in how things work; hence his reading
of political economy. He suspected ethical theories that could not
be put into practice. In this respect, some of his later
work calls to mind Rothbard’s praxeological critique of ethics in
needs saving from the Cold War Burkeans. Whatever his actual shifts
and turns, at least he took some time to realize them, as his new-found
celebrity and political connections softened (or corrupted) his
views. In contrast, how long would it take a Cold War Burkean to
trample the "cake of custom" underfoot when offered a
federal grant or a lucrative berth in the warfare state? Under five
minutes, I’d say, and anyway just for the record the
sophisters and calculators of the war party look very much like
the real chirping sectaries of this or any other age.
warmongering, imperial "Burkeans" ought to wipe the cake
of custom off their faces; they didn’t bake it and they have long
since forgotten the recipe.
N. Rothbard, "A Note on Burke's Vindication of Natural
Society," Journal of the History of Ideas, 19,
1 (January 1958), pp. 114-118.
John C. Weston, Jr., "The Ironic Purpose of Burke's Vindication
Vindicated," ibid., 19, 3 (June 1958), pp. 435-441.
Murray N. Rothbard, "The Alleged Irony of Burke's Vindication:
A Reply," Rothbard Papers, Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Ibid., p. 7.
Joseph Boyd Cressman, "Burke's Satire on Bolingbroke in
A Vindication of Natural Society," Ph.D. Diss.,
University of Michigan, 1956.
Cressman, "Burke's Satire," see especially pp. 155-159,
216, 221, 229, 258, 280, and 288.
Murray N. Rothbard Conceived in Liberty, III (New Rochelle,
NY: Arlington House, 1976), pp. 312-313).
Ibid., pp. 313-314, my italics.
Cf. Conceived in Liberty, I (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington
House, 1975), pp. 406-411.
Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, IV, 1979, p.
139; Edmund Burke, "A Vindication of Natural Society,"
I (London: George Bell & Sons, 1901), p. 34.
Writings, ed. Roland A. Duerksen (New York: Appleton-Century
Crofts, 1970), p. 45.
Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, III, p. 334.
Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, IV (New Rochelle,
NY: 1979), p. 118; and p. 236, for Burke's attack on the radical
libertarian Whigs in his Letter
to the Sheriffs of Bristol.
Kramnick, Rage of Edmund Burke, p. 91; for the whole
discussion, pp. 88-93.
Godwin, Enquiry, p. 789.
Burke, "Vindication," p.37.
Rothbard noted this parallel in "A Note on Burke's Vindication,"
R. Stromberg [send him mail]
is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
© 2002 LewRockwell.com
needs your help. Please donate.