[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner
In 1756, Edmund Burke published an anarchist tract titled A Vindication of Natural Society. Debate over the intention of the work has continued ever since.
Burke himself claimed that his defense of anarchism was meant satirically, as a reductio ad absurdum of “natural religion” (meaning, in this context, the deistic attempt to base religion purely on reason, without reliance on revelation, tradition, or ecclesiastical authority). According to Burke, the point of the book was to show that the principles by which natural religion was defended by deists such as Bolingbroke would lead, if transferred to the political sphere, to the abolition of the state. The overwhelming majority of Burke scholars have accepted Burke’s statement and interpreted the Vindication as a satire. After all, how could the great conservative, the upholder of tradition and hierarchy, the opponent of the French Revolution, have seriously endorsed such radical sentiments?
On the other hand, anarchists from William Godwin and the followers of Josiah Warren to Murray Rothbard have found Burke’s case for anarchism inspiring and persuasive; and Rothbard, at least, was convinced that Burke’s arguments were simply too good to have been intended satirically. On Rothbard’s interpretation, the Vindication represents the youthful Burke’s sincere opinions, and was subsequently presented as satire only for the sake of Burke’s political ambitions.
In his fascinating 1977 biography The Rage of Edmund Burke, Isaac Kramnick makes what seems to me a strong case for thinking the truth lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, the ironic reading of the Vindication as conservative satire coheres too well with Burke’s early writings to be entirely wrong; the mainstream Burke scholars are right about that. On the other hand, the Rothbardian interpretation of the Vindication as sincere likewise coheres too well with Burke’s early writings to be entirely wrong either. Kramnick reads Burke as a conflicted Irish upstart both resentful of and awed by the English establishment, torn between the urge to defy the ruling class and the urge to glamourise it and win its approval; in the Vindication, Kramnick suggests, Burke was giving free rein to the radical strand of his ideas without either attacking or endorsing it, and without worrying about reconciling it with the more conservative strand.
Some excerpts from Kramnick’s analysis:
During these years Burke was wrestling with his own ambivalent social views. A part of him did detest the established order, as we have seen. He had displayed it in The Reformer. … To be sure, another part of him sought to crawl the low path of his assigned place, to embrace the secure warmth of tradition. How better to express this anguished dilemma than via his Vindication. It was at one and the same time a radical manifesto and a conservative apologia. By claiming irony he could have his cake and eat it, too. …
Weston and Stanlis make the case for Burke not holding to the ideas as literally set forth in the Vindication by citing passages from Burke’s other writings during those years which in their conservatism and skepticism seem utterly at odds with the apparent radical and rationalist views of the Vindication. The problem with this method is that it can cut both ways. An equally strong case can be made for Burke quite literally and seriously holding certain of the views dismissed here as ironic by finding them repeated in his other writings, writings not usually regarded as satiric.
Take, for example, what seems to be the most un-Burkean aspect of his Vindication, and thus surely of no serious intent, its moving description of the grinding poverty of the poor and its radical assault on the oppression by the great and powerful who are responsible for the wretchedness of nine-tenths of humanity who “drudge through life” … But have we not, in fact, met this Burke before? It is, of course, the Burke of The Reformer, his Dublin journal of 1748. The passion is the same, the themes the same, the language very often the same. In number seven of The Reformer he had written of the poor in their wretched filth, living like swine and cattle and eating their miserable food. He had written there of “the natural equality of mankind,” and its degeneration into the rich in their gilded coaches and their velvet couches, “followed by the miserable wretches, whose labour supports them.” … Is The Reformer to be written off, then, as mere irony, too? Some of these social themes in the Vindication are also found in Burke’s early correspondence and in his private poetry and prose ….
Moving on to other themes in the Vindication one is forcefully struck by Burke’s “ironic” attack on the law and lawyers. … This, too, must be irony, Burke scholarship tells us … Unfortunately, the evidence is quite the contrary. Burke happens to have repeated these views in a large number of “serious” contexts. Leaving aside the anonymous reviews in the Annual Register which Copeland attributes to Burke and which ridicule lawyers, there are numerous cases of such easily attributable criticism. In the very serious Abridgment of English History, published after Burke’s death in 1811 but conventionally dated as having been written in 1757, Burke offered an assessment of law and lawyers strikingly similar to that of the Vindication. …
One final piece of evidence exists crucial to the claim that its interpretation as pure satire must be revised and that it must be seen if not necessarily as a radical tract at least as an important indication of Burke’s ideological ambivalence. In his Tracts Relative to the Laws Against Popery in Ireland, written, it is customarily assumed, around 1765, Burke would return to many of the themes and radical arguments that were found in the Vindication. The tracts, significantly enough, like his Abridgement [spelling variation sic] of English History were not published till after his death, but their “seriousness” has never been questioned. What is striking about The Tracts is its radical tone which, while it may seem surprising in Burke, is in fact quite consistent with the Burke of the Vindication. These anti-Catholic laws, Burke insists, are unjust and in terms of natural law doctrine not binding. … The laws are “null and void” because there is no right to make laws which violate God’s higher laws. Burke insist here in The Tracts in good Lockean language that “a conservative and secure enjoyment of our natural rights is the great and ultimate purpose of civil society.” It follows, he adds, that government is justified only to the extent that it achieves that purpose. At the foundation of society, he writes, is “the great rule of equality,” and what these laws do in Ireland is to “create an artificial inequality between men.” … This is a radicalism quite akin to that of the Vindication, which may well explain why Burke never published The Tracts in his lifetime. He is saying that men set up artificial institutions of government and law to protect the cherished rights of natural society. What happens, instead, at least in Ireland, is that the tendency of these artificial institutions is to demolish natural law and obliterate natural rights. This is a far cry from the Burke we are used to. … It is Burke the radical theorist of natural law, using the theory just as Locke and the bourgeois radicals did.
Burke’s Vindication reveals the basic ideological ambivalence which is at the core of his politics and his being. … He is fighting with himself in its pages and in its preface, as much as he is with “the philosophical works of Lord Bolingbroke.”
To Kramnick’s citations I would add just one more. In his 1775 speech on Conciliation With the Colonies, Burke commented (as Paine and Emerson would later) on the maintenance of social order without government during the American Revolution:
Pursuing the same plan of punishing by the denial of the exercise of government to still greater lengths, we [= the British parliament] wholly abrogated the ancient government of Massachusetts. 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 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. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture? Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be; or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles, which entirely overrule those we had considered as omnipotent. I am much against any further experiments, which tend to put to the proof any more of these allowed opinions, which contribute so much to the public tranquillity.
In short, nearly two decades after writing the Vindication, Burke was still convinced of the viability, though evidently no longer of the desirability, of society without government.
P.S. – I note that it seems to have been mainly the treatment of the Irish that roused Burke’s libertarian sentiments. I’m reminded of the medieval historian Gerald of Wales, who in recounting the English conquest of Ireland was all rah-rah for the English putting down those Irish savages, but when he discussed the English conquest of Wales his enthusiasm was much more muted, and he included a list of ways that the Welsh could more effectually resist!
Great quote by Burke on anarchy in Massachusetts. It nearly vindicates my calling my incipient rock band the Rockingham Whigs.
Excellent post! This changes my opinion of Burke completely. However, if he really was an anarchist, it’s almost worse knowing that he betrayed his principles.
It’s interesting to think about this as well as More’s “Utopia”. The scholars argue about whether or not they are satire or not, and the consensus seems to be that they are.
It’s interesting to note, then, that political satirist extraordinaire Stephen Colbert has admitted that some (though very few) of the things he says “satirically” are things he actually believes. He just doesnt’ feel his audience needs to know the difference.
I imagine Burke was doing the same thing- mixing a satirical attack on deism with some genuine political sentiments presented in a satirical fashion, allowing the reader just enough room for individual interpretation that Burke himself won’t get into trouble for expressing unpopular views. I imagine More’s “Utopia” was much the same.
Maybe Burke was floating an intellectual balloon to see what kind of attacks it would draw.
Perhaps something similar could be said for Etienne de la Boetie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.
See this follow-up.