Thursday, 8 November 2012

Lessons from Edmund Burke and Tom Paine


It is from Burke and Paine that the opposing traditions of British left and right politics descend. One of the lesser known ironies about Burke and Paine is that they were friends. In the years immediately before the French Revolution they were political pundits seen eating, drinking and arguing about the rights and futures of humanity in the coffee houses of the Strand. Another irony about them both is that really close analysis of their works fails to locate them, their visions or their practical politics simply or easily with the traditions that take them as founding fathers.

The study of Burke and Paine challenges deep seated prejudices and forces us to think hard about the demand for equality and the status of reason as a criterion for political judgment. Brought up in the traditions of the left, the mythology I imbibed was that Burke was a reactionary Tory bigot intent on preserving the hierarchies of class ridden English society at all costs.

Growing up in the 60s and striving for fair play I naturally revered Paine and detested Burke who, I assumed, was being utterly unreasonable and self serving in his resistance to an utterly reasonable demand for equity. But when I read Burke’s 1756 A vindication of a Natural Society, I found his understanding of the mechanics of ideology anticipated the Marxist analysis (but not prescription) more or less completely. He knew that in order to preserve social order it was the first task of the aristocracy to convince the poor to accept their position as the poor. David Cameron faces precisely the same task today.

But the key to understanding Burke is to understand his fight against the abuse of power. He fought for the rights of Americans in the American War of Independence, for Indians against the abuses of the East India Company and for relief against the penal code in an Ireland that only recognised the existence of Catholics for the purposes of punishment. It was this same abuse of power that he saw as pregnant in the new French National Assembly. What is so stunning about his most famous 1790 work – Reflections on the Revolution in France was that in many respects he turned out to be right. He predicted the anarchic collapse of the new French National Assembly – we got Robespierre and exercise of the guillotine. He predicted an expansive war – we got it for twenty or so years. He predicted the rise of a dictator – we got Napoleon.


A close look at Tom Paine’s biography shows that he was no socialist. He was a republican who was very keen on free trade. As a youth he served on a privateer that engaged in state legitimated piracy – waiting in the Channel for French vessels to commandeer and sell in Bristol and Plymouth. The twists and turns of his life show high principle counterpoised with personal vanity and opportunism. One of the strangest ironies about his life was that he ended up in the Luxembourg awaiting a cart to take him to the place of execution. It was only the luckiest and fortuitous happenstance that saved him. If reason was his standard it didn’t serve him very well – he ended up pretty sad, lonely and poor.

But Paine’s demand in the Rights of Man which informed the traditions of socialism and the Labour party, was for a welfare state and a representative democracy- demands based on standards of reason that we assume today. The differences in their practical and theoretical political positions was that Burke weighted the existing order and welcomed only very very small gradual change from any quarter – in that sense he really was a true conservative. Paine on the other hand positively encouraged serious and powerful revolutionary change in the interests of equality.

Two hundred and twenty years later who can we say was right? In one very important sense surely the judgement has to go in Burke’s favour – the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions carried a very heavy human cost as have so many revolutionary movements across the world. Revolutions do seem to carry the seeds of their own self destruction.

The lessons of Burke and Paine go to the core of any serious political vision. Inequality exists but reason – the standard of right thinking – cannot accept inequality. How can the social order be reasonable when it is mere luck whether you are born rich or poor? How can it be reasonable that the poor suffer and are condemned to suffer for ever? Yet experience shows that revolutionary change on the basis of the reasoned and reasonable demand for equity flies in the face of how we live our lives. It always ends in disaster. Reason given the status of omnipotence, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, becomes a monster.

As a lifetime lefty, the hypocrisies of my position are writ large when I consider the life and legacies of Edmund Burke and Tom Paine.


Article first posted on The Backbencher

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