WASHINGTON — One of the most vivid, outspoken conservatives of our time has the drawback of being a fictional character in a British costume drama, “Downton Abbey.” Here is Lady Violet, Dowager Countess, sparring with her relentlessly progressive in-law, Isobel Crawley:
Lady Violet: “You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.”
Isobel: “I take that as a compliment.”
Lady Violet: “I must have said it wrong.”
One of America’s leading young interpreters of British conservatism, Yuval Levin, has written a book detailing a more consequential historical version of the contest between preservation and radical reform. In “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left,” Levin tells the story of an unfriendly rivalry between the progenitors modern conservatism and modern liberalism. In the time Burke and Paine shared — the late 18th century — philosophical arguments could ignite revolutions, and pamphlets could be as important as battles. Both Burke and Paine were masters of political rhetoric at a time when political rhetoric really mattered, and their rivalry still reverberates.
Levin praises Paine for his ability “to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions.”
It happens to be Levin’s talent as writer as well. Paine emerges as a restless, homeless agitator for liberty, convinced that governments should be torn down and rebuilt according to rational enlightenment principles. “Government by precedent,” argues Paine, is “one of the vilest systems that can be set up.” Burke, in contrast, proposes to “make the most of the existing materials of his country.” Demonstrating Burke’s own gift for epigram, Levin observes, “The best kind of political change, in Burke’s view, builds on what is best about the given world to improve what is worst about it.”
Levin gives both great thinkers their due. But this cannot conceal the fact that Paine’s greatest political hope proved to be a horror, and Burke’s greatest fear turned out to be a prophecy. Burke argued that the triumph of Paine’s enlightenment ideology in the French Revolution would unmoor men and women from tradition, habit and moral restraint. A revolt in the name of liberty alone quickly turned against liberty itself, producing both the Terror and Bonaparte.
Burke’s prediction was swiftly and completely vindicated.
But the complex story told by Levin offers plenty of correctives for conservatives as well — including on the nature of conservatism itself. Burke would not have been comfortable among the Lady Violets of his day — the Tory conservatism of crown and altar. The MP for Bristol was a Whig and a reformer who criticized the British war against America, pushed for Catholic rights, opposed the exercise of unjust colonial power in India and was an early critic of slavery. He was also a social outsider, set off by his red hair, his Irish accent and his Catholic mother, sister and wife.
Modern politics emerged as an argument between two sorts of Whigs, meaning two sorts of liberals — what Levin terms “progressive liberalism” and “conservative liberalism.” Both are distinctly modern movements. Both accepted liberalism’s commitments to liberty and reform. But they differed dramatically on how reform should be achieved. One was the party of radical liberation through revolution, which supported the French Revolution even after its violence emerged.
The other was the party of gradual progress.
In a typical illuminating flash of insight, Levin compares these divisions of ideology to branches of science. Paine’s approach is more similar to Newtonian physics — the application of rational, abstract laws and scientific methods to remake society. The past, in this view, is a dead hand. The individual must be liberated from superstitions and unchosen obligations. Burke’s politics are more like evolutionary theory — moving by gradual mutations and reflecting the inherited wisdom of the species. Human beings, in this view, live in a complex web of social relationships that pre-exist us and outlast us.
And government should protect and strengthen these structures rather than rip them up according to abstract theories of liberty.
Levin finds these conflicting visions — between politics as physics and politics as evolution — reflected in modern arguments between left and right. And the author, though a fair-minded historian, is not neutral in the great debate. He seeks the reconstitution of a communitarian conservatism that takes the need for reform seriously, rather than offering pure opposition. That is a Burkean task — in which Levin is increasingly playing a Burkean role.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.