On the Origins of the Political Right and Left

As the world watches the upcoming US election, fallout from the UK Brexit vote and increasingly populist, divisive and identity-based politics it is interesting to reflect on the origins of the left and right which in large part can be traced to the writings of two political philosophers, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

Both lived around the time of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and French Revolution (1789-1799), events that were formative on their political views. They were contemporaries who knew each other, often corresponding and replying in print to each other’s published writings. Burke is widely regarded as a father of modern conservatism while Paine is lauded by the left. In many ways their views were deeply-seated in polarised values that continue to influence politics to this day.

Burke and Paine differed in fundamental ways in their overall view of the world. Burke was impressed and grateful for what he perceived as working well in society, acknowledging it and seeking to make at most incremental refinements. This differs from Paine who was outraged by what he saw as failures and injustice in the status quo. He was a revolutionary, progressive and believed what he perceived as not working should be rooted out to make room for something better. Where Burke begins with gratitude Paine begins with outrage.

The rights of individual and the State is another area which defines the relationship between Burke and Paine and to this day is a defining feature of the left and right, of liberals and conservatives. Paine deeply believed that each individual is born with inherent rights, not that these rights arise from being part of a society. In Paine’s view society exists so individuals are free to exercise their principles, views and choices without oppression.

Unlike Paine’s lofty view of mankind Burke viewed mankind as flawed and prone to self-destruction. He revered and protected that which he saw as working, seeking targeted minimalist reforms and cautious to protect social institutions such as the family, traditions, markets and the church. For Burke society flowed from community relations of which the family was central. Burke believed people are embedded into a web of obligations and duty by tradition where Paine emphasised the inherent freedom of the individual to choose. In Paine’s view individuals should be no more constrained by the choices of their forebears any more than by their neighbours.

Here we see another point of differentiation that persists to modern day politics, of duty verses freedom and of the rights of the individual vs those of community.

In Paine we see the belief that politics exists to apply scientific rigour to social problems. Burke on the other hand believes that life and society are too complex for applying technical solutions like a formula - that institutions have grown over time through trial and error and his faith lay in distributed, life experience, community knowledge than the scientific methods of the few.

Paine was sceptical of institutions and saw them as a hindrance, often self-serving to government’s provision of liberty, equality and freedoms to its citizens. He was not afraid of advocating wholesale reform unlike Burke who emphasised continuity.

In the contrasting views of Burke and Paine, we see that political views on the role of the State and its limitations are deeply rooted in attitudes on family, duty, tradition and freedom. These views, both personal and shared, persist even today in forming our political allegiances.

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