The Conservative Anarchist

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
By Paul Martin

Edmund Burke, Anarchist

by Murray N. Rothbard

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.

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