Edmund Burke maintains a strong hold on the English conservative imagination, but is scarcely known on the other side of the Atlantic. Thomas Paine, while half-forgotten in his native Britain, is presented to American eighth-graders as a founding philosopher of the 1776 revolution. Yuval Levin treats their ideas in tandem, and shows how their disagreements – most vividly over the French revolution, most intensely over the political authority of history – illuminate divisions in politics to this day, especially those between left and right.
Burke and Paine lived far from the ivory tower. Both were deeply and personally engaged in the issues of the day, Burke as a civil servant and politician, Paine as a pamphleteer and adviser to some of the leading lights of his era, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Thomas Jefferson. Levin himself is a combatant in the battle of political ideas, especially in his role as editor of one of the most influential journals of the thinking American right, National Affairs. (Last year he received a 0,000 award from the Bradley Foundation for his efforts to further conservative thinking. Only in America.)
His political purpose in writing this book is to bring Burke back to life and transport him across the pond, in order to temper the enlightenment individualism of his fellow American conservatives. Paine's radical vision of democracy based on the natural equality of individuals and the capacity of rational men to design political institutions – "we have it in our power to begin the world over again" – is in the DNA of American politics, on both left and right. Levin wants to inject greater respect for the intermediate institutions of community and civic associations, in counterweight to individual liberty.
He opens his account by describing the central dispute between the two men over the revolution in France. While Paine exulted at the toppling of the ancien regime, Burke expressed first scepticism, then outright horror at the events unfolding in Paris. His most famous work, Reflections of the Revolution in France, published in 1790, warned that by tearing up the roots of society, the revolution, led by "a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists" would end in anarchy, bloodshed and tyranny. "It is not the victory of party over party," he wrote. "It is a destruction and decomposition of the whole society."
Burke's position on the revolution made him an outlier not just in his own party – he was a Whig, not a Tory – but in British politics. Many of his fellow parliamentarians saw merit in the argument of French intellectuals that their revolution was a natural extension of Britain's own "glorious revolution" of 1688. Burke argued that 1688 was a "revolution not made but prevented" – which is, as Levin points out, "to put it mildly, sanitised to make a point". The point being that improvement, progress and reform are possible without sweeping away the existing institutions of society like so much detritus. Burke likened the French revolutionaries to someone who "set his house on fire because his fingers are frostbitten".
For Burke, political reform is, as Levin puts it, "more like medicine than engineering: a process of healing that seeks to preserve by correcting". For Paine, politics consists of the application of rational principles based on natural equality. Rationalisation, not preservation, is the central goal. "Government, in a well-constituted republic, requires no belief from any man beyond what his reason can give." As Levin puts it, Paine "sought to desentimentalise politics".
Here, still, is an important distinction between the disposition of the conservative right and the social democrat left. The left starts with rational, abstract ideals – equality, inclusion, democracy – and then attempts to apply them to an often ungrateful or unpredictable society. The right starts with the institutions and norms that already exist – probably for good reason – and only reluctantly concedes that there might be a smidgen of room for improvement.
Paine responded furiously to Burke's views on France in general, and his Reflections in particular: "a wild systematical display of philosophical rhapsodies". Paine saw any rough edges resulting from the revolution as trifling by comparison to the injustices of the preceding regime. As it turned out Burke was right about the French revolution – but Paine was right about the trajectory of politics for the following two centuries. Intellectually, Burke won the battle, but lost the war.
The idea of hereditary power of any kind struck Paine as immoral and illogical: "All hereditary government is tyranny." He agreed with Burke that government should be conducted by the "wisest men" available, but insisted that wisdom is no more likely to be inherited than artistic or literary ability. Burke, by contrast, supported the inheritance of political power – even though he himself rose from a humble background. In 1772, writing to the Duke of Richmond, he described upwardly mobile men such as himself as "annual plants that perish with the season", compared to the "great families and hereditary trusts and fortunes", which were the "great oaks that shade a country".
His case for hereditary political power did not rest on the genetic superiority of kings or aristocrats, however. Burke agreed with Paine that innate ability is probably fairly randomly distributed. His argument, rather, was that education – in the broad sense of acquiring culture, knowledge and good judgment – shapes some people for high office. It is not that aristocrats are born to rule: they are raised to rule.
Levin persuasively shows how the two men's politics are rooted in different views of human nature. Paine sees man in the "natural state" as equal and independent, using politics to form a social contract to set rules and protect rights. Burke sees each of us as defined by "social ties and ligaments" that "always continue, independent of our will".
Burke and Paine were first to be cast in a two-handed intellectual drama – communitarian versus liberal – that has become familiar in post-enlightenment intellectual life: Macaulay and Bentham; Mill and Carlyle; Michael Sandel and Amartya Sen.
There is an asymmetry in Levin's account – perhaps inevitable, given his own political disposition, which he admits he has not "left at the door". While the mind of Burke is brought authentically to life, Paine never quite makes it off the page. His ideas are repeatedly referred to as "abstract", "hard", "utopian" or "stark". Levin's Burke is a subtle thinker, weighing complex questions of politics, morality and history, but his Paine remains two-dimensional. Levin might say that's because he was; I'd say it is because Levin can't see him as well as he sees Burke.
Not that Burke is sanitised here for modern consumption. While many contemporary conservatives cite his famous line about the need "to love the little platoon we belong to" as an argument for local, civic associations, Levin reminds us that the platoons in question were in fact "very clearly a reference to social class". Burke thinks that, in a flourishing society, people know their place in the hierarchy – and learn to love it.
By offering us Burke warts and all, Levin in fact makes a stronger claim for his continued importance. In his hands, Burke forces us to think again about the wisdom that can inhere in the institutions and customs of a nation, sometimes even after rational scrutiny has done its work. I recall a fierce argument in government over the name to be given to a reformed House of Lords. For liberal purists, nothing less than "Senate" would do; but for most of us, there was value in the historical association, and some Burkean sense in a gradual transition to the reformed chamber. It was Burke's biographer, the MP Jesse Norman, who led the successful Commons rebellion to defeat the bill. No doubt he thought he was acting in the spirit of Burke, against the modernising spirit of Paine. But as Levin elegantly demonstrates, Burke's reverence was for institutions that hoard and bequeath the wisdom of previous generations – not those that are simply old. The current House of Lords, overflowing with mediocrities, is not what Burke had in mind.
While a passionate critic of the French revolution, Burke supported the claims of the American colonies to independence – while never uttering the word "revolution", of course – on the grounds that the British crown had broken with tradition and custom by imposing new taxes. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that is has taken an American to bring Burke's ideas so vividly back to life.
• Richard Reeves's John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand is published by Atlantic.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010