Yuval Levin, The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine,
And the Birth of Right and Left
Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, And the Birth of Right and Left took me back to an old friend from college, Edmund Burke, probably Britain’s leading 18th century conservative political thinker, although a Whig not a Tory. I remember writing two term papers on Burke: one compared him to the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre, the other to Montesquieu. I was fascinated by Burke’s approach and his conservative disposition, his support for gradual reform, his aversion to abstract natural rights principles, and his view of society as an intricate web of interactions which, if you tinkered with it too much, would likely make matters worse, not better. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there might have been some conflict between these views of Burke and the dramatic changes students my age were calling for across North America and Europe. Levin’s book compares the thought of Burke to that of Thomas Paine, among the English-speaking world’s most radical 18th century thinkers, a strong proponent of both the American and French Revolutions, and an unwavering advocate of the natural rights theories which Burke abhorred.
In his introduction, Levin describes his book as a “case study in how ideas move history and in where some of the key ideas that have moved, and still move, our history came from” (p.xi). He indicates that he hopes to demonstrate how the Burke-Paine split presages contemporary America’s conservative-liberal divide. This goes beyond the promise of his sub-title, which suggests rather that the thinking of the two reveals the 18th century “birth” of modern conceptions of Right and Left. Throughout the book’s seven substantive chapters, Levin hints at how he will deliver on the more ambitious promise of his introduction, but by and large that is reserved for the book’s conclusion.
The seven substantive chapters compare the thinking of the two men on those matters that divided them and much of Europe in the 18th century: revolution versus reform and gradual change; the role in politics of reason, tradition, natural and inherited rights; the debt, if any, which each generation owes to previous and future generations (Paine made each generation debt free, while Burke loaded each generation with massive debts to previous and future ones). Levin once worked for former Congressman and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and writes for The National Review and The Weekly Standard, giving him solid conservative credentials. But as I read his book, it became clear that Levin is no polemicist but rather a scrupulously careful and objective scholar who strives to do justice to both Burke and Paine. At the outset, I surmised that Levin’s personal sympathies had to lie with Burke. By the time I finished, I was less sure.
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Born in Ireland in 1729 to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, Burke served in Parliament for more than 30 years, where he was no reactionary. He was a leader in almost every reform effort undertaken in Parliament during his time in elected office, a reformer of “financial policy and trade policy, of laws restricting freedom of Catholics and Protestant dissenters, and of the criminal law. He also opposed the slave trade as inhuman and unjust and resisted the undue intervention of the Crown in politics” (p.192-93). Burke supported the American Revolution, finding that Britain had imposed an “unprecedented regime of taxation and limits on commerce in America,” based on what Burke considered to be the dangerous premise that “Parliament had unlimited authority to govern colonial affairs directly” (p.171).
In Burke’s view, as Levin summarizes it, the “old and tried model will not always work, of course.” But when it fails, “societies would be wise to fix it by gradually building on what does work about it rather than by starting fresh with an untried idea. Burke thus offers a model of gradual change – of evolution rather than revolution” (p.66-67). Levin describes Burke as a forward-looking rather than backward looking traditionalist who believed that the present is better than the past and was “committed to sustaining the means by which it has become better, to facilitate further improvement” (p.78).
Paine, born in England in 1737, was self-educated, and part polemicist and part political theorist. He disclaimed being well-read and, later in life, appeared to boast when he said, “I neither read books, nor studied other people’s opinions. I thought for myself” (p.xviii). Levin characterizes Paine’s thinking as “not highly original” but “fairly representative of the Enlightenment-liberal (or radical) views of his day” (p.15). Paine spoke for many, but “far more effectively than most” (p.15). His “great rhetorical power came from his ability to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions and to give those questions an immediacy and intensity that few political thinkers could match” (p. xviii).
Paine’s full acceptance of the natural equality of man — the “crucial premise of Enlightenment thought” – led him to the “politics of individualism and individual reason. If men are equal, then none can simply command the assent of another and none will accept on faith the superior wisdom of others” (p.151). Human reason, once empowered, allows for a “continuing series of good judgments and choices” which can lead to a “great forward motion in history – a future that will get better and better as improvements build on one another” (p.167). Rather than look backward to history and tradition for guidance, as Burke counseled, Paine contended that we must “look to reason and, with its help, move forward” (p.167).
The French Revolution prompted both men to write the texts for which they are best known today, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s Rights of Man, an explicit rejoinder to Burke’s Reflections. The appearance of Rights of Man in 1791 marked the moment when the “two giants of the age of revolutions were set clearly against one another and when the great debate they had launched truly came into its own” (p.32-33). Burke’s Reflections was a “masterpiece of rhetoric. . . [and] the first sustained assessment and dissection of the claims of liberal radicalism in the age of revolutions” (p.30). What worried Burke about events across the channel was the “combination of philosophical pretensions and applied savagery of the revolution – mob rule making its case in metaphysical abstractions” (p.27). In Burke’s view, the revolutionaries had “far too much faith in the ability of reason alone to govern [the] other elements [of human character] – and especially the passions and sentiments” (p.57). But Burke’s deepest objections to the revolutionaries and their approach to political change involved their “attitudes about the past and their relation to it – their assertion that political change must overcome the past, rather than build on it” (p.191).
Paine’s Rights of Man responded to Burke’s Reflections with a “logical, sustained, focused and powerful argument, delivered with astonishing force” (p.32). The Rights of Man was Paine’s “most expressly theoretical work” (p.32), revealing his “resolute confidence in the efficacy of reason in political life” (p.33). For Paine, revolution was, at its core, a “return to the distant pasts to begin again, and better” (p.48). Inherited social status was a “recipe for an unjust society that could never be well governed. . . The idea that social standing or the right to rule, like property, should somehow be transmitted through the generations therefore strikes Paine as a profound misunderstanding of the nature of man and of political life” (p.88), Levin writes. Hereditary monarchy and aristocracy were not only “unjust impositions on the liberty of the individual” but also “unjust impositions by the past on the present”(p.209).
Levin summarizes Paine’s outlook as “assertive, confident, rationalistic, technocratic, and progressive” (p.222). His commitment to reason led him to an optimistic if not utopian vision of man as capable of reshaping his world to “end the long-standing scourge of injustice, war and suffering” (p.222). Burke, by contrast, was “grateful, protective, cautious, pious, gradualist and reformist” (p.222). Politics is not an application of abstract theory, but rather the search for “good practical outcomes” (p.147). For Burke, man could “only hope to improve his circumstances if he understood his own limits, built on the achievements of those who came before him to repair their errors, and realized that some profound human miseries and vices are permanent functions of our nature – and that pretending otherwise would only make them worse” (p.222).
After reading and digesting Levin’s seven comparative chapters, I found that I came down much more frequently on Paine’s side than that of my old friend Burke. With the passage of several decades since I last read Burke and wrote those undergraduate term papers, Burke’s thinking about human limits and the risks of idealistic overreaching, while still deeply-nuanced and subtle, reappeared to me as an anachronistic apologia for monarchy and inherited privilege. Paine was much more homespun and even simplistic in some of his thinking. His faith in reason to resolve all questions facing a democracy seems, at best, quixotic. But Paine’s radical views about the importance of individual autonomy, choice, and equality of opportunity have had far more staying power in the democratic world than Burke’s broad defense of the 18th century status quo, subject to small amounts of gradual tinkering on the edges.
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In his conclusion, Levin jumps to 21st America and argues backwards, seeking to show how the wide political divide in the United States today has its roots in the thought of Burke and Paine, with Republicans and political conservatives tracing their thinking to Burke, while Democrats and liberals lay claim to the tradition of Paine. Each of the two American political parties “plainly fits the profile that emerges from our study of the great debate” in the 18th century between Burke and Paine (p.231), Levin argues. Each captures a form of modern liberalism: “progressive liberalism,” a “politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal” and “conservative liberalism,” a “politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance” (p.227). The contrasting approaches of Burke and Paine, Levin asserts, still represent “two broad and fundamental dispositions toward political life and political change in our liberal age” (p.225).
Levin acknowledges that because American conservatives seek to conserve a political tradition that began in revolution, the American Right has been “more inclined . . . to appeal to individualism than Burke was” (p.228). The tradition of conservative liberalism, with its emphasis upon the “gradual accumulation of practices and institutions of freedom and order” has “only rarely been articulated in American terms. For this reason, it is not often heard on the lips of today’s conservatives” (p.229). Levin goes on to chastise contemporary American conservatives as “too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyper individualism . . . They could benefit from adopting Burke’s focus on the social character of man, from Burke’s thoroughgoing gradualism, and from his innovative liberal alternative to Enlightenment radicalism” (p.229).
While American conservatives may seem at times to wrap themselves in Paine’s individualism, American liberals no longer fully embrace Paine. They may share his general utopian commitment to ameliorate society and the lives of individuals. But to do so, Levin argues, progressive American liberalism has adopted what he considers a social democratic vision of the state as a “direct provider of basic necessities and largely unencumbered by the restraints of Paine’s Enlightenment liberalism” (p.227), combining “material collectivism and moral individualism” (p.228). Consequently, contemporary American liberals are “left philosophically adrift and far too open to the cold logic of utilitarianism – they could learn from Paine’s insistence on limits to the use of power and the role of government” (p.229).
An amalgam of “material collectivism” and “moral individualism” seems to be a fair way to describe the contemporary “progressive liberalism” that is embodied, however imperfectly, in today’s Democratic Party. Further, Levin is not far off in arguing that, at a superficial level, there is not much that sounds Burkean in the rhetoric of today’s American conservatives. Neither the Tea Party faithful who appear from my vantage point to have commandeered today’s Republican Party nor the disquisitions of such oracles of contemporary conservatism as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentators sounds to my ears to be speaking Burke’s language of temperate and gradual reform.
Yet, at another level, Levin finds today’s American conservatives almost unanimously Burkean, even if they don’t always use the language of Burke or recognize his influence. Burke’s vision lurks in the background when conservatives:
defend traditional social institutions and the family, seek to make our culture more hospitable to children . . . rail against attempts at technocratic expert government . . . insist on allegiance to our forefathers’ constitutional forms, warn of the dangers of burdening our children with debt to fund our own consumption, or insist that the sheer scope and ambition of our government makes it untenable (p.229).
Levin could have gone further in finding a Burkean “politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance” in much of contemporary conservative argument, but to do so would have pushed him into the darker ramifications of Burke. The weakness in Burke, which I missed entirely as a college undergraduate, is that Burkean arguments can too easily be marshaled to defend a status quo becoming less and less defensible—for example, the institutions of monarchy and inherited privilege for Paine in the 18th century. Today, one frequently hears Burkean arguments in opposition to same-sex marriage, on the ground that such arrangements undermine the traditional social institution of marriage and threaten the family. Levin might argue that this is a misappropriation of Burke’s conservative liberalism and would likely go on to point out that many Republicans and conservatives now recognize same-sex marriage as an “idea whose time has come.” Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine Burke evolving on the issue of such marriage – President Obama did! – and crafting an eloquent and elaborate defense of this form of equality based upon an extension of time-tested liberties.
But the search for “what-would-Burke-say” about our 21st century issues can lead just about anywhere and highlights why Levin’s attempt to fit contemporary political tendencies into one of the two 18th century molds struck me as forced. Today’s liberals and conservatives draw upon many antecedents, and connections between our 21st century divisions and this very 18th century debate are, at best, attenuated. Levin could have stopped after his seven judicious substantive chapters, where he ably assists his readers in understanding the momentous Burke-Paine debate in 18th century terms, as it should be understood.
Thomas H. Peebles
May 9, 2015