Understanding Right and Left, Part 2: Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

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[Editor’s Note: In the last post here on TheEcclesialCalvinist we examined an earlier effort to understand the split between Right and Left in America—that of Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow which focuses particularly on how a broader cultural divide is reflected in American religion.  As we saw, Wuthnow views the emergence of these two impulses as primarily due to post-second Word War social factors and also to changes in moral calculus that are ultimately religious in character.  Now we turn to a very recent effort—hot off the presses, in fact—by Washington, DC policy analyst Yuval Levin which focuses on a much larger span of time and on political theory as key to understanding the divide.]

Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Basic Books, 2014).

The central argument of this book is that debates over the French Revolution gave rise to two impulses—a party of justice and progress exemplified by the American Revolutionary thinker Thomas Paine, and a party of order and conservation which we associate with the British statesman Edmund Burke.  The fact that these two men knew each other and frequently wrote in opposition to one another gives a personal quality to this narrative of debates that might otherwise seem rather abstract.

Levin is particularly well-qualified to tell this story.  Currently the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, he is the founder and editor of National Affairs journal (one of the more stimulating and thoughtful conservative publications on the contemporary scene).  This book has its origins in a 2010 doctoral dissertation presented to the interdisciplinary John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where Levin studied under Ralph Lerner, Leon Kass, and Nathan Tarcov.

The contrast between Burke and Paine can scarcely be more stark.  To be sure, both  in their own way supported the American Revolution—as a British MP Burke thought that Parliament had overreached in its efforts to tax the Americans, and that the colonies should be allowed to go their own way, while Paine viewed the Revolution as the beginning of a new era in which reason and justice would triumph in politics internationally.  But beyond this formal agreement on the issue of colonial independence, they disagreed about nearly everything else.  Paine championed and was to some degree directly involved in the French Revolution, while Burke was an astringent critic of it.  In order to explain this, Levin contrasts the two men on a variety of foundational issues.

With regard to their views of human nature, Paine was an individualist who affirmed the primacy of reason.  This was, after all the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and Paine’s anthropology reflects the optimism of the Enlightenment—where reason is followed, human beings will do the right thing, and social pathologies such as war, oppression, and suffering will disappear (pp. 150, 159, 165).  Burke’s anthropology, on the other hand, is both more complicated and more pessimistic.  He viewed human beings as social creatures shaped by their relationships and histories, and he saw Paine’s individualism as a hopeless abstraction (p. 54).  Furthermore, reason is but one aspect of human nature; in reality, human beings are a complex matrix of reason, emotions, sentiments, affections, and imagination (p. 57), and what emerges from this is a somewhat more pessimistic view of the human condition (though Levin does not dwell on this or explore the roots of it).  That is to say, there are destructive and selfish human impulses that must be restrained as well as positive qualities that should be allowed to flourish.

These anthropological differences are reflected in their respective views of history.  An heir of the social contract thought of Hobbes and Locke, Paine looked back to a putative “state of nature” as the foundation for politics.  According to this way of thinking, human beings as equal individuals entered into a social contract, consenting to delegate certain powers to government for the common good.  In other words, the proper foundation for politics is gained by leapfrogging over nearly all of human history to the beginning where we find the basic principles of individualism, equality, and consent (pp. 47-50).  Thus Levin aptly describes Paine’s as a “politics of timelessness” and of an “eternal now” (p. 207).  For Burke, however, human beings and their political systems are products of their history, and we cannot begin history anew by going back to the beginning (pp. 53-56).  In light of this, Levin argues that Burke redefined the social-contract language of his day, seeing it not as original agreement in the state of nature but as a description of obligations that currently obtain (p. 106).

What are the respective ideas of justice and the political good?  For Paine, the notions of equality and consent, as rationally determined by appeal to the beginning and the social contract, are preeminent.  Not surprisingly, rights language is prominent and Paine’s expectations for political process are more utopian.  But here, as Levin notes, Paine’s conception of freedom is rather formal, in that he largely defines freedom in negative terms as freedom from coercion and despotism (pp. 181-182).

Burke’s approach to justice and social good is, as we would expect, more complicated and more rooted in the concrete realities of actual political process.  Over against Paine’s formal notion of “freedom from,” Burke advocates the promotion of “virtuous liberty” (pp. 113f); because of the complexity of the human condition, politics inevitably involves a balance of restraint and freedom.  As Levin memorably quotes Burke himself, “Men must have a certain fund of natural moderation to qualify them for freedom, else it becomes noxious to themselves and a perfect nuisance to every body else” (p. 25).

But, as Levin astutely argues, Burke’s moral epistemology is more complicated than Paine’s.  To be sure, politics is about promoting good and restraining evil (p. 147)—Burke is no crass utilitarian.  But knowledge of such moral truths emerges out of the experience of political life itself rather than directly through the exercise of Enlightenment reason or through reflection on natural or divinely revealed law (pp. 76-77).  This more indirect process of learning the lessons of political life Burke calls “prescription,” which Levin defines as the “means by which  practices and institutions that have long served society well are given the benefit of the doubt against innovations that might undermine them and are used as patterns and models for  political life” (p. 140).

These respective convictions entail certain attitudes toward the dynamic of political change.  Paine argued for swift and radical change with little concern for continuity with the past, while Burke advocated slow and incremental reforms that would preserve the best of the past.   Along these lines, Levin’s discussion of the role of generational transition in politics is especially intriguing.  For Paine with his preoccupation with individual choice, an “individual’s rights and place in society should have nothing to do with what preceded his birth” (p. 207), and subsequent generations cannot be bound by the legislations of their elders (p. 213).  Burke, on the other hand, believed that the present generation has obligations to generations past and future, and that these obligations are interrelated in that we cannot provide for the needs of the future as we reject the lessons of the past (p. 215).  As Levin puts it,

Paine’s assertive, confident, rationalist, technocratic, and progressive outlook held that through the right kinds of political arrangements, man could overcome the limits that these facts might impose and he could therefore reshape his world to his preferences, and even end the long-standing scourges of injustice, war, and suffering.  Burke’s grateful, protective, cautious, pious, gradualist, and reformist outlooks held that 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).

Levin has succeeded rather well in demonstrating that the impulses we call Right and Left in America have a long and rich history.  The Left, with its utopian preoccupations with the abstract ideals of individual autonomy and equality, and its sanguine confidence in the power of government to achieve these goals, reflects convictions articulated at length by Thomas Paine.  Likewise, the Right, with its concern for obligations, order, continuity with the past, and a sober realism about what government is able to achieve, can with considerable justification look back to Edmund Burke.

But Levin also realizes that there has been a lot of water under the bridge since these debates of the late-eighteenth century.  For example, the contemporary Left is not simply identical with Paine, and Levin argues that a tension soon arose between Paine’s utopianism and the natural-rights theory that Paine thought would help to achieve that utopian goal—the implicit restraints of the latter made the goal impossible to achieve.  Thus the Left has come to embrace more intrusive and encompassing roles for government, and has become at the same time “philosophically adrift” (pp. 227-229).  On the other side of the fence, the current conservatism of the Right is both more theoretical and more individualistic than Burke (p. 228).  Unlike Burke, American conservatives have embraced natural-rights theory instead of Burke’s more communitarian vision of shared practices and institutions as safeguarding both rights and obligations.  While American conservatives often follow Burke in practice by defending the family, church, and other institutions, they tend to do so in more populist and individualistic ways, and this leads to stridency (p. 229).  In this sense, then, Levin’s book can be read not only as a typology of Right and Left, but also as a subtle critique of elements of the contemporary American Right for their individualistic libertarianism, that is, for being insufficiently Burkean!

In all of this Burke clearly comes off as the more complex and textured thinker, while Paine is the Age-of-Reason period piece.  This is not just because Levin clearly has a greater appreciation for Burke.  The fact of the matter is that Burke is a more complex and textured thinker—looking backward to the wisdom of the past and anticipating later concerns for the limits of reason and the importance of community.  In addition, Burke’s wholistic anthropology seems much more up-to-date than Paine’s reductionistic rationalism.

Levin also provides an insightful historical explanation for the historic antipathy of the Left toward the traditional family structure.  In short, the family, with its web of connections and obligations that are not freely chosen, stands in considerable tension with the individualism and autonomy of Paine’s social-contract theory. As Levin puts it,

Only by beginning one’s theory of politics from a highly implausible thought experiment about perfectly independent people founding a society by choice can one imagine a society in which choice is utterly central.  When one looks at how human beings actually live, it is impossible to ignore the centrality and the value of compulsory obligations (p. 101).

In short, Burke correctly realized that “the family is the primary obstacle to an ethic of choice and so a primary target of genuinely radical liberal revolutionaries” (p. 103).

All this underscores a point that Levin makes in a number of contexts throughout the book.  Burke’s approach to politics is realistic—it seeks to respond to the world as it is.  Paine’s on the other hand is relentlessly utopian—it wants to remake the world in conformity with the tenets of Enlightenment reason.  But this, in turn, raises the very real question of whether Paine’s Enlightenment rationalism overreaches, and is in fact battling against the nature of social reality itself.  In a splendid paragraph Levin writes,

Enlightenment liberalism emphasizes government by consent, individualism, and social equality, all of which are in tension with some rather glaring facts of the human condition: that we are born into a society that already exists, that we enter this society without consenting to it, that we enter it with social connections and not as isolated individuals, and that these connections help define our place in society and therefore often raise barriers to equality (p. 206).

This seemingly religious zeal by Paine and his successors to recreate social reality in the image of egalitarian individualism leads us to a final comment—Levin’s treatment of religion.  Here, interestingly, he is not quite as sure-footed as he is when dealing with matters of political theory.  For example, he appears to conflate the natural-law tradition (which speaks of moral truths universally accessible to reason and experience) with instances of divinely revealed law (see, e.g., p. 73).  This is significant because, while both appeal to a transcendent moral standard, the political implications are rather different.

Even more significantly, Levin never really seems to engage the ultimately religious roots of the profound anthropological differences between Burke and Paine.  While Paine is rightly presented as the fairly radical Deist he was (p. 39), and Burke as the “relatively orthodox” Anglican he was (p. 75),  Levin seems somehow to want to downplay the importance of their religious convictions.   But this, in turn, raises further questions, because Paine’s utopian desire to recreate the social world of his day in his own rational image was buttressed by a hatred of Christianity, while Burke’s inclination to work with the world as it is doubtless reflects an ultimately Judeo-Christian understanding of the creation order and the family as a given and as a good thing within which human beings must work if they have any sense at all.  Here we need to recognize the ultimately religious impulse of the Enlightenment that was ably chronicled by historian Peter Gay in his The Enlightenment, An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism (Knopf, 1966).

It is often said that religious beliefs resist falsification.  Ultimately, the persistence of the abstract egalitarianism, individualism, and fixation with autonomy that has characterized the Left, despite the unhappy historical evidence from the French Revolution, the Gulags and the killing fields of the Marxist era, and the persistent failures of collectivist experiments since then, suggests something that looks a lot like misplaced religious faith and commitment.  As we seek to understand the Right and the Left in the contemporary context we need to do justice not only to the social and political factors influencing the debates but also to the implicit religious convictions that inform and underlie these discussions.

Levin has produced a study that provides both a useful and historically informed typology for understanding some of the key issues that divide Right and Left, and considerable food for thought for American conservatives as they ponder the future of their movement.  Highly recommended!