Founding anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard claimed that founding conservative Edmund Burke wasn’t joking back in the mid-eighteenth century when he wrote A Vindication of Natural Society, that the book was a real defense of abolishing government. Most scholars disagreed, saying Burke was just parodying the agnostic musings of Lord Bolingbroke in Letters on the Study and Use of History (as an older and more conservative Burke himself claimed).
So I had no choice but to read both books and see. The late Ray Bradbury would have been pleased I was reading old books.
(This project seems fitting for the week of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Yesterday was also World Environment Day, but that’s not the kind of “natural” society Burke had in mind. He meant one shaped by voluntary, organic-in-a-social-sense, non-violent arrangements – which is not wholly at odds with his mature views on tradition. Speaking of the natural and the monarchical, above are two panels from a 1939 DC Comics story noted by BleedingCool featuring a same-sex kiss – and a wedding-like alliance of two queens – long before Green Lantern turned gay.)
Not that many political activist types have had much incentive to check the plausibility of young-Burke-as-anarchist, since most self-proclaimed “anarchists” (sadly) don’t care what Burke says, and most “conservatives” (sadly) are quite eager to ignore Burke’s apparent anarchist indiscretions from youth, since so many conservatives lean at heart more toward the throne-and-altar authoritarianism of figures like Joseph de Maistre (about whom I’ll also blog this week). Not even most of my fellow libertarians care that much about the (extra-inclusive) fusionist mission of showing anarchism and conservatism to have common roots. They have their own, much more up-to-date and respectable arguments. But an awareness of common ancestry can have a big impact on people’s self-conception and what sort of arguments they’ll comfortably listen to.
I always try to keep in mind how fleeting our era is (and how tiny our civilization) in the grand scheme of things. Preposterous as an anarchism-conservatism tie might seem to most of today’s partisans, history students of the distant future will probably have to be in the top of their class (if there are still students and classes in the future) to know the difference between anarchism and conservatism, different as they appear to us (try taking a look at the once-divisive strains of pre-Socratic philosophy or Enlightenment-era thought some time and telling me that once-intense battles can’t end up half-forgotten centuries later).
There’s no denying that whether he was joking or not, Burke’s Vindication is often regarded as the first book-length anarchist argument. Having now read both his book and his target’s, I’m prepared to say Burke made an anarchist argument that bears almost no resemblance to his purported parodic target, Lord Bolingbroke’s Letters.
Interestingly, reading both with an open mind leads one to the conclusion, I think, that there are important ancestral ties (and similarities) not just between conservatism and anarchism but between conservatism, anarchism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism, and religious traditionalism as it is conceived of in the modern era. I think this bodes well for the grand fusionist project (or at least my grand fusionist project) of hybridizing these philosophies into something everyone can learn from without fighting.
(Having the founding conservative in the mix thus becomes of greater strategic interest than, say, tracing the very direct ties between the founding of anarchism, feminism, sci-fi, and Romanticism that the family of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, respectively, makes possible, astoundingly fertile though that particular nexus was – with the trashy films Gothic and Frankenstein Unbound by Ken Russell and Roger Corman, of all people, perhaps the closest popular culture has come to acknowledging that nexus in recent decades.)
On a similar note: I hope everyone who attends our June 21 Dionysium – 8pm at Muchmore’s at 2 Havemeyer St. in Williamsburg – to see our Catholic conservative guest of honor Dawn Eden will get something out of my conversation with her even if you disagree with her religious beliefs. (There’ll also be the comedy of Daniel Somarriba and the music of Hannah Meyers.)
But on to the intriguing details of the Bolingbroke and Burke books:
Both men were odder hybrids than is sometimes remembered, Bolingbroke an agnostic Tory prone to activities such as drunken streaking – who wrote skeptically about Biblical literalism in Letters – and Burke, let us not forget, the revered English explicator of traditionalism in the wake of the French Revolution but still a Whig (and a defender of the American Revolution).
The standard argument is that solidly-conservative Burke was so offended by the incipient anarchism in Bolingbroke that he parodied it at length. But there is virtually no resemblance between Bolingbroke’s musings and Burke’s, and I dare say – on behalf of writers, editors, and humorists across the centuries, no matter what the historians may claim – that you simply do not write something as unique, internally coherent, humorless, and long as Vindication if parodying Letters is your only goal. I’d be delighted to have scholars better informed than I weigh in on the matter, of course, but sometimes you have to trust your sense of kindred psyches across the ages.
For one thing, Letters, or at least the parts that would have been deemed philosophically controversial in its day, mainly examines the Bible and tries to pare away the likely-inaccurate or superstitious parts from the useful and likely historically-rooted parts (a goal not so different from the one undertaken by Thomas Jefferson with his Deistic Bible-abbreviating project, the American Founding having been more ecumenical than either fundamentalist or anti-theist – and here’s a nice overview of Deism for those needing one). In fact, though, it’s interesting how conservative (Tory) Bolingbroke sounded even while engaged in that heretical project, cautiously stressing that we ought to learn from history (a point Burke should have appreciated) rather than just repeating old stories by rote.
The declinist rant preceding Bolingbroke’s final Letter is a great and classically conservative lament:
Thus the Church...is become an useless burden on the State: and the State is become...a new and undefinable monster; composed of a king without monarchical splendor, a senate of nobles without aristocratical independency, and a senate of commons without democratical freedom. In the mean time, my lord, the very idea of wit, and all that can be called taste, has been lost among the great; arts and sciences are scarce alive; luxury has been increased but not refined; corruption has been established, and is avowed.
(Except in my facsimile edition, the s’es become f’s so that there is the added amusement of phrases like “fects that have fprouted, like fuckers, from the fame great roots.” He was quite at home in the long, pedantic writing style of the eighteenth century – which I perhaps love a bit too much myself, though I wonder if it will be remembered as the nerdiest century.)
To believe that Burke’s very focused and protractedly antiwar, anti-violence Vindication was merely a parody of Bolingbroke’s ranging, largely theological and pro-monarchical lament, we would have to believe that Burke was so hidebound a traditionalist even in his early adulthood that upon reading Letters, his strange and complex reaction was to think, “If people start analyzing the Bible, next they will start analyzing governments and find them wanting – and to demonstrate how easily they might find all governments wanting, let me now enumerate in lengthy, gory, and humorless fashion the countless mass-murders and war crimes committed by regimes around the globe.” And that’s what he does, in a fashion that would make the most ardent antiwar Ron Paul fan today say, “Now that’s my kind of non-violent conservative!”
Strange that Burke – who in his better-known, more definitive, later work Reflections on the Revolution in France warns that atheism may lead to cannibalism and scalping – didn’t simply mock Bolingbroke’s religious agnosticism directly, if he was really so offended by it. I’m not suggesting that Burke believed every word of Vindication – and there is a Swiftian rhetorical flourish here or there, almost entirely at the start and finish, that sounds as if he had Bolingbroke’s oversimplifications in mind. It really does seem, though, that he consciously used the occasion of the Bolingbroke book to pursue in lengthy and serious fashion some analogous thoughts of his own about government in general, not (as in Bolingbroke) God or the relationship between King and Parliament.
I’m even willing to concede that Burke probably found the whole exercise embarrassing decades later when he was in Parliament – and will not pretend the work is more of a piece with what we think of as Burkean reasoning if taken literally than if interpreted as parodic. And yet it still just isn’t plausible that it’s merely parodic.
Similarly, if you found a humorless and detailed fifty-page essay of mine from when I was eight years old expressing belief in extraterrestrials (not that I actually wrote such an essay), you might well be tempted to view the whole thing as an exercise in parody to make it better jibe with my adult skepticism – and there might even have been a slightly-parodic tone to it that hinted at the likelihood of me later becoming a skeptic. But I wasn’t one when I was eight.
And I contend Burke was no lover of government when he wrote Vindication – even if on some level, quite likely, he feared his reasoning was leading him to forbidden places. Would that he had maintained his courage. The political world might now be a very different place – a hybrid traditionalist-anarchist-liberal place, even. As it should be.
In keeping with my comments above about how history often pivoted on battles that no longer resonate with us enough for us to take sides, I should note again how complicated a figure Bolingbroke becomes for anyone wanting to place him on today’s “right” or “left”: Though a Deist/agnostic, he was also a Jacobite – meaning in essence he had opposed the English Revolution of 1688, which had ousted a Catholic monarch and asserted the primacy of Parliament over both the monarchy and papist influences.
So this Bolingrboke/Burke clash may end up looking sort of like Catholicism-Deism-agnosticism-monarchy/conservatism (Bolingbroke) vs. “overly convincing parodic anarchism”-Whig-parliament/Locke-traditionalism/conservatism (Burke).
But it’s quite relevant to our own history: Bolingbroke and the unofficial Country Party of which he was a part – seeking landed gentry dominance as opposed to the dominance of either crown alone or urban entrepreneurs – were apparently a big influence on thinking in the Colonies.
Given the greater reverence today for Burke, though, it’s his true intellectual history that most interests me, and I think we might even have to declare him an inadvertent agnostic and anarchist in his youth. Burke was basically saying in Vindication, “Well, sure, if you look at things rationally, you end up an atheist – but then, if you look at things rationally, you also end up an anarchist!” Well...yeah, precisely.
It turns out that the father of conservatism had it right all along: Reason leads to the rejection of both religion and government – and well it should. Let’s face it, half the bad political arguments in the world are made possible by one side saying, “Why shouldn’t I have faith in government when you have faith in a ridiculous God?” and the other side replying, in juvenile fashion, “Why shouldn’t I have faith in God when you have faith in an inefficient and intrusive government?” So how about dropping both simultaneously? We have nothing to lose and civilization to gain.
P.S. And what happens if you look at things irrationally? Well, if radio host Alex Jones is any indication, you might still end up some sort of anarchist, and at least you may exhibit a healthy and amusingly intense skepticism of monarchy. And lest people think I’ve begun taking too seriously the man who thinks the Bilderbergers literally eat babies, here’s a nice parody – and this we can be sure is a parody – of conspiracy theorists, albeit more of the David Icke type.
P.P.S. For real anarchy, of course, C-SPAN2 is the place to go, and this Sunday at 7am Eastern, you’ll find Brian Doherty there, discussing his book Ron Paul’s Revolution, which he discussed at last month’s Dionysium.
If you need fluffier – and more anglophilic – TV reporting, here’s a short clip of the woman recently judged the most beautiful in England. I have to say, she looks a bit like the U.S.’s Debbie Harry – which is no surprise, really. In other New Wave news, Heather Sparks pointed out this clip of (sixty-four year-old) Grace Jones singing “Slave to the Rhythm” at the Queen’s Jubilee – hula-hooping the entire time.