We too often assume that the left and right divide began with the eruptions of the ’60s or with the presidency of FDR. It is in fact much older — ancient, even, for it is not out of the question to assume that Greece and Rome faced similar questions. So Yuval Levin, with his The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, has done modern American political discourse an incredible service by reminding us to always consider the historical context.
Levin takes the reader on a guided tour of the Enlightenment-drenched late 18th century and demonstrates how Burke and Paine, who serve as Levin’s representatives for conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism, respectively, adapted the thinking of the age to their approach to political questions. He draws from both their letters and published works — which make for great reading, by the way. Both, after all, were wonderful rhetoricians.
Their two defining moments? The French and American Revolutions. Paine supported both, because he viewed them as serious expressions of Enlightenment liberalism — the crushing of institutions and traditions, the releasing of the individual from various constraints, the basis of all things on reason. As Levin notes, Burke, though he supported the American Revolution, was horrified by the French Revolution, viewing it as a “mortal threat to liberty” (29). He of course believed that good, free regimes were based upon habit, sentiment, and communal association — with the dead, the living, and the yet to be born.
If you are familiar with political philosophy, then neither of their positions will come as a surprise. What I think is most important about Levin’s book is this: he reminds us that the United States is not really heir to a truly conservative tradition. For instance: Burke was a conservative Whig. This is why a strong, objective sense of history is important. As Levin writes:
The revolutionaries who adopted Paine as their own would too often infuse his historical memory with socialist sensibilities that would have been largely foreign to Paine himself. And a great deal of the commentary (and even the scholarship) regarding Burke, particularly over the past century, has seemed to want to make him (even) more temperamentally conservative than he was, in the process overlooking important strains in his thinking (225).
Our nation was founded by a revolution, which, as Levin notes, is why many modern conservatives tend to sound like Paine in denouncing the excesses of the state while triumphing the individual. But they are also quite willing to craft policy that closely resembles the communal, tradition-based conservatism that Burke articulated (228-229).
The questions that so plagued many late 18th century thinkers remain: Was America, like Burke thought, a separation from England, but maintaining a form of its institutions? Or was it, as Paine would imagine, a total break, a completely new, reason-based nation (225)?
As such, those on the left and right can benefit from a close reading of Burke and Paine. Liberals, Levin writes, “are left philosophically adrift and far too open to the cold logic of utilitarianism” (229). The right “shares a great deal of Burke’s disposition, but seeks to protect our culture inheritance in a less aristocratic and (naturally, for Americans) more populist way than he did, if also in a way that lacks his emphasis on community and on the sentiments. Today’s conservatives are thus too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindidualism, and they generally lack a non radical theory of the liberal society” (229). They should instead focus on community, gradualism, and reform. On page 231, Levin concludes by telling us that our political debates are not indicative of an invasion by socialists and radical secularists. Rather, “these echoes are in fact reminders of the defining disagreement of the political order of modern liberalism” (231).
He’s right. And this is important because we, like Burke and Paine, are living in a transformative, strange, and radical age. We are going to have to engage these questions again. Interestingly enough, in his chapter titled “Revolution and Reform,” Levin tells us that Burke and Paine had decided that the traditional Whig and Tory divide had ceased, and it was to be replaced by people who either defended the old order, but who were willing to present reforms, or those who wanted to bring about a utopian age of reason.
Does this not sound like the 21st century? Some at PJ Media have been discussing a “Conservatism 3.0,” which David Swindle proposed after reading America 3.0 by James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus. The end of what Walter Russell Mead calls “the blue model” is coming, and we are going to need figures to articulate the best way to move forward. After all, the basic and most important questions of political philosophy are this: How are we to live? How ought we organize ourselves?
A new Burke and Paine are most likely on their way. And they will no doubt be assisted by Levin’s fine work.