• Edmund Burke, Anarchist

    Email Print
    Share

     

     
     

    Published
    as "A Note on Burke's Vindication
    of Natural Society
    " in the Journal of the
    History of Ideas, 19, 1 (January 1958), pp. 114–118.

    In
    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.

    An
    Embarrassing Work for Conservatives

    It
    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.

    Burke's
    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.

    Burke
    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.

    ‘All
    Empires Are Cemented in Blood’

    It
    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.

    The
    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.

    States
    Violate the Law of Nature

    Burke
    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:

    To
    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

    Burke
    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.

    US
    Form of Government Despotic Too

    Finally,
    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

    Burkean
    Caste Analysis

    The
    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."

    It
    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
    institutions.

    He
    Was an Anarchist

    "Anarchism"
    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:

    The
    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 ….

    Parties
    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
    the abuse!3

    All
    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?

    Was
    Burke a Private-Property Anarchist?

    The
    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.

    A
    Sober Work

    There
    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":

    During
    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

    Secondly,
    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

    He
    Hated Lawyers, Of Course

    Another
    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?

    Historians
    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:

    These
    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
    of China.7

    The
    following passage is particularly striking:

    When
    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

    No
    Satire

    Perhaps
    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?

    Notes

    1. Edmund
      Burke, Works
      (London, 1900), I, 21.
    2. Ibid.,
      35.
    3. Ibid.,
      46, 32-33.
    4. Ibid.,
      37.
    5. Ibid.,
      46-47.
    6. Ibid.,
      38-41.
    7. Ibid.,
      36.
    8. Ibid.,
      32.

    Reprinted
    from Mises.org.

    Murray
    N. Rothbard
    (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
    School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice
    president of the Mises Institute.
    He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
    Rothbard-Rockwell Report
    , and appointed Lew as his
    literary executor. See
    his books.

    The
    Best of Murray Rothbard

    Email Print
    Share