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Edmund Burke v. Thomas Paine
Yuval Levin traces the modern Left and Right to the debate over the French Revolution.

Thomas Paine (left) and Edmund Burke

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Today’s politics, we are repeatedly told, is more polarized than ever. But the break between Right and Left didn’t happen in 2013, or 2008, or 1980. In fact, the fracture happened centuries ago, on another continent. Then, as now, the question that divides us is: What role should the past play in determining our political future? This question arose during the French Revolution and was articulated most clearly in the disagreement between two of the greatest political thinkers of their (or any) age: the British Whig statesman Edmund Burke and the Anglo-American radical Thomas Paine. In his forthcoming book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Yuval Levin, the founding editor of National Affairs and an NR contributing editor, gives the definitive intellectual history of an argument so powerful that it echoes to the present day.

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Burke argued in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that that revolution had brought about an unprecedented destruction of a nation’s social fabric and risked devolving into barbarism and tyranny. Paine countered in Rights of Man that the revolution was the natural continuation of a markedly new era of human history, one in which men applied newly discovered Enlightenment values to their systems of government. This era, Paine declared, began with the American Revolution. “What you find,” Levin says, “when you peel back the layers of that kind of debate is that it really goes to the bottom of a lot of important questions in political philosophy, and, therefore, also in political practice. I just found it to be a fascinating way to think about where Right and Left come from.”

For all their future disagreements, the two men came from surprisingly similar backgrounds. Both were children of religiously mixed marriages (Burke, an Anglican like his father, had a Catholic mother, while Paine, an Anglican like his mother, had a Quaker father), an unusual situation at the time. Yet their backgrounds led them to radically different conclusions.

For Burke, the religious tolerance of the Dublin of his youth meant that the fabric of social bonds in society could trump abstract principles. “He always thought that society was more than the sum of its parts and more than the sum of the theories that existed to explain it,” Levin says. “Things that shouldn’t have been possible in practice, like such close links between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, were possible because these were human beings — they weren’t just Protestants and Catholics.”

For Paine, however, his upbringing eventually led to the belief that organized religion was essentially irrelevant to morality (he would later famously say that his only religion was “to do good”), though his specific morals may have owed more to Quakerism than he would publicly admit. In Levin’s view, Paine “had a very stark and sharp and simple kind of moral vision. He really thought that morality was a set of very straightforward rules that existed to protect the weak against the strong. He was deeply outraged at the injustice of the abuse of the weak by the strong, and I think that’s certainly traceable to the kind of Quaker teachings that he heard as a child, much as he didn’t claim those teachings for himself later.”

Paine believed that government should originate in the political principles of the Enlightenment in order to protect equality and individual liberty. Burke, however, was skeptical of abstract principles as a guarantor of liberty. He saw humans as shaped by communities and institutions, and so he rejected the sort of radical individualism advanced by Paine.

“Burke had a lot of respect for evolved institutions,” Levin explains. “Even if they began in principles that we might reject, if they’ve evolved to serve the end of public happiness, of the public good, he thought they were legitimate and should be protected.” He differs from Paine in placing the greatest importance not on a nation’s founding, but on the development of its institutions and their effectiveness in preserving ordered liberty over time.

That is why the destructiveness of the French Revolution so disturbed Burke. He feared that, having eliminated the institutions on which French society had been based, the revolution “would unmoor people from their moral restraints, set off a wave of terror, and really break society apart.”

For all their disagreements, Levin contends that both men defended what we would call “liberal democracy,” though they understood it to mean different things. “For Burke, liberal democracy is an achievement of Western civilization, refined and improved gradually over many generations until in the Enlightenment period, especially in Britain, you arrive at a society with an extraordinary ability to balance freedom and order. For Paine, liberal democracy is the application of principles discovered in the Enlightenment. It’s a break, a sharp break, from everything that preceded the Enlightenment, and the purpose of politics is to further apply those principles so that you can come closer and closer to the ideal that they imply. And so where Burke’s politics are about gradual improvement and preserving a great achievement, Paine’s politics are about progress toward an ideal. And there you have the foundation of conservatism on the one hand and progressivism on the other.”

Levin points to several lessons conservatives should learn from Burke. First, to reject those who would classify President Obama and the Left as somehow “Burkean” in their concern for “community.” Actually, Levin sees Obama and the modern Left as descended from Paine’s radical individualism. “What we think of as the communitarianism of the Left is actually a kind of statism, which is a very different thing,” he tells me. “Much like Paine, progressives today think that a lot of the institutions that exist between the individual and the state are basically corrosive and oppressive institutions. And so the Left wants to clear those institutions out, and to leave nothing between the individual and the state.

Levin also urges caution.“Conservatives I think often make a mistake when we talk about the welfare state. We talk in terms of it creating ‘dependency.’ In fact, dependence is the human condition. Everybody is utterly dependent on others. The question is: are you dependent on people near you who are also dependent on you, and who therefore can help you develop certain kinds of habits of responsibility, or are you dependent on a distant provider of material benefits that asks nothing of you in return? The latter is not so much dependence as a kind of false independence.”

Levin’s greater goal is to reconnect American conservatism with its Burkean roots: “We take ourselves to be vindicating the most radical version of Thomas Jefferson, and what we’ve lost is that other liberalism, the more Burkean liberalism that says, ‘This kind of society is an achievement of civilization, and its perpetuation requires a conservative disposition, gradual improvement, and an appreciation of our traditions.’”

— Nat Brown is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation.



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