History and Historiography

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

In the battle between left and right, we need both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, both of whom are ironically recognized as proto-anarchists by the anarchist historian Peter Marshall.

By Yuval Levin, The Independent

Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were late-eighteenth-century political thinkers and prolific writers who disagreed fundamentally, both in private and in public, about the relationship between the individual and the state. Burke was an Irishman who spent the bulk of his career as a socially conservative and nominally religious member of Britain’s Parliament. Paine, by contrast, was a child of the Enlightenment, a freethinker who was born in England (which subsequently convicted him in absentia of treason), and a proselytizer for political revolution in America and France (both countries granted him citizenship—America also granted him ownership of a farm that had been confiscated from an English loyalist). Burke is perhaps best known as the father of modern political conservatism, arguing (mostly consistently) for the importance of tradition and for the gradual improvement of a nation’s social and political life. He also is remembered for having pronounced the death of European chivalry and for denouncing the succession of “sophisters, calculators, and economists.” Paine, by comparison, is remembered as a pamphleteer who spurred Americans to revolution with talk about “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” and later as a champion of the French Revolution’s radical social and political ideals. Both men favored American independence, albeit for fundamentally different reasons owing to their differing political faiths. Otherwise, the two men’s philosophical differences could not have been greater.

In The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, the scholar Yuval Levin develops these differences in sharp and comprehensive contrast. Burke is the gradualist who believed in the necessity of maintaining and perpetuating more or less intact those social traditions that had emerged over the ages. Whereas John Locke had argued that removing God would dissolve all, Burke saw God and religion as merely one segment of a continuing thread that, if pulled, eventually would unravel society’s fabric. Burke, a tireless social reformer, believed that society should be continually mended rather than ripped apart and discarded. He believed individuals owed a duty of support to those social institutions, however imperfect, that showered them with benefits. Once this duty was satisfied, the individual became the residual claimant to the fruits of effort and sacrifice. Burke accordingly opposed the French Revolution’s radical social and political ideals, which nominally elevated the individual above the rest of society. He boldly predicted that the chaos in France would lead to war across Europe. He died in 1797, too soon to witness the accuracy of his prediction.

Paine, by contrast, stood firmly behind the French Revolution’s utopian ideals. By Paine’s lights (and, somewhat ironically, by Ronald Reagan’s lights two centuries later), government was seen to be the cause of rather than the remedy for society’s ills. The overarching problem, as Paine saw it, was that “government is governed by no principle whatever; that it can make evil good, or good evil, just as it pleases. In short, that government is arbitrary power” (qtd. on p. 112). Levin interprets Paine as arguing that “the principles of liberty will better protect individual freedom than the institutions of society” that Burke favored (p. 113). For Paine, “government is not a mystery at all. The science of government ought therefore to be a science of principles, not of single instances, and these principles are accessible to the reason of every rational individual” (qtd. on p. 151). Burke, too, recognized some intrinsic problems with government: for example, “[m]y opinion is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more specially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people” (qtd. on p. 119). But whereas Burke preferred to prune away the rot, Paine argued for a complete uprooting by means of revolution and then for a replanting along rational lines that directly favored individual liberty.


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