Conservative liberalism vs. progressive liberalism

Edmund Burke is considered the father of modern conservatism, while his contemporary Thomas Paine is a forerunner of modern liberalism.  Yuval Levin has written a new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.

A review by Michael Gerson discusses his thesis that both theorists, for all of their differences, care about liberty and reform, though they seek those ideals through different means.  Burke and Paine–like many conservatives and liberals to this day–exemplify the conflict between “conservative liberalism” and “progressive liberalism.”

From Michael Gerson: Burke and Paine, a rivalry that still reverberates – The Washington Post:

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 Levin tells 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 conservatives of crown and altar. Instead, Burke 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 were 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 preexist us and outlast us.

I suppose that conservative conservatism would something really retro, like monarchy.  And progressive progressivism would be a version that rejects “liberty,” such as communism.

What do you think of this analysis?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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