Thomas Paine vs. Edmund Burke: do we have the right to revolt?

They come to “reclaim speech and public space… to take our place in the Republic.” They are unified by a system that they say has failed them, as well as a feeling of exclusion from the mainstream political system. They tell the press they will continue until the injustices they see in society—mostly based around democracy (or lack of it) and misrepresentation in the political system—are put right.

Known as Nuit Debout (loosely translated as “Up All Night”) the mostly left-wing group of protesters started gathering at the Place de la République in Paris—a symbol of the French Republic—and throughout France on 31st March. Their manifesto is defiant against the French government.

Crowds gather at the Place de la République in Paris for another night of Nuit Debout [Image credit: Nicolas Vigier / Flickr]

The protests have already had some impact: since Nuit Debout’s inception by the Convergence des luttes (convergence of the struggles) group, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has moderated the pro-business labor law reforms that were one of the original motivations for the movement and offered 500 million euros in grants for the young.

But this isn’t enough: the 3,000-strong crowds continue to pour into the square every night. One of the group’s “gurus” told The Independent that the Prime Minister’s changes to strict rules on hiring and firing had “accelerated what had already been blowing in the wind for a long time.”

Nuit Debout is the latest in a string of protests that have mobilized cities into taking back their communities. Spectators have drawn parallels with the Spanish Indignados citizens’ movement and the Occupy anti-globalization movement, as well as recent Occupy-style protests against corporate development of libraries in London, workers’ justice in Mexico, and election laws in Hong Kong.

But what would two of history’s greatest political theorists—Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke—make of the demonstrations, in particular, the protesters’ focus on using noble ideas as the basis of a new society?

Does revolution cause more problems than it solves? Burke’s Reflections

In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Irish political theorist Edmund Burke argued for a society in which institutions that have stood the test of time are to be cherished, with change introduced slowly—and only after proper consideration.

Political reform is an exercise in preservation, Burke said; we should keep what works while changing what does not work with extreme caution. He argued that the radical ideas that inspired the French Revolution were both seductive and dangerous and that Britain needed to be protected from them. Burke argued that the French Revolution consisted of France abandoning generations of experience and “god-given” notions of justice.

For example, many people believed the principle that “the people” should rule applied to Britain as much as it did in France. Burke wanted to discredit dangerous thoughts such as these before they sparked a revolution in his own country.

One of the most important ideas Burke advocated was that society is too complex and too important to be shaped by ideas alone. To him, social institutions should be shaped by successive generations slowly finding out exactly what works. If the way the country operates needs reform, then this should happen slowly so what is clearly already working can be preserved. In Burke’s view, governments that are invented and reinvented based on what is intellectually fashionable at a particular time will descend into chaos.

Burke also speaks out against the idea of a perfect state, or utopia. Instead of overthrowing an existing system in search of utopia, he says, it is better to keep adjusting our existing political systems until we find the perfect one. Reflections argues that politics is always more about pure logic than it is about noble ideas.

What Burke can teach us about modern revolution

Burke’s pragmatic analysis and cautious views act as the foundation for much modern conservative thinking. He explored the British political debate of the time, but he also looked at government reform in general. And Burke reminds politicians that radical change inspired by noble ideas can have unintended – and horrific – consequences.

While nothing in the latest round of civilian protests compares to the aftermath of the French Revolution, not all demonstrations have been peaceful. The past week at Nuit Debout has seen right-wing French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, a minor player in the May 1968 Paris student uprising to which Nuit Debout has been compared, marched away by security “for his own safety,” after he was allegedly spat on and told to leave.

In response, Finkielkraut wrote in the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro that the protests left no room for differing viewpoints or proper debate: “In this pretense at a citizen’s forum, they celebrate otherness but repress all other viewpoints. “The same” debates feverishly with “the same.” Those who claim to be revitalizing democracy… are reinventing totalitarianism.”

If Finkielkraut and other commentators are correct, then Reflections certainly has a place in the debate around whether politicians underestimate the impact that Nuit Debout, and other movements like it, can have.

Burke would have presumably heeded caution, in particular, to the lack of leaders or demands within the Nuit Debout group, their desire for history to start “moving again,” and the French government’s quick relaxation of original (if controversial) reforms in response. His concern that states should be based on pure logic rather than noble ideas is as relevant now as it was in the 18th century.


The right to revolt: Thomas Paine in modern times

“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess,” said Thomas Paine in his seminal work Rights of Man.

British-born American political activist Paine wrote Rights of Man in 1791 in response to Burke’s Reflections. Like LockeHobbes, and Rousseau, Paine claimed that popular political revolution was acceptable against government when it failed to safeguard the natural rights of the people. By these “natural rights,” Paine was referring to basic human rights of life, liberty, and property.

Paine believed that a republic should aspire to encourage the individuality of its citizens—even as they worked to pursue the common good—and that all people possessed certain natural rights simply because they were human.

Paine echoes ideas outlined in the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Paine understood, as perhaps no other writer of his time did, that he needed to reach an audience that was beyond the realm of statesmen alone. He knew that most people of his day lacked formal education, which excluded them from the important debates of the time. In Rights of Man, he targets this audience – which had historically never taken part in the political process – as equals. Paine treats them as independent and rational beings who can reflect well and make sound decisions, and showed how to create real and lasting reforms to benefit the poor and powerless.

Paine advocated a form of government that is based on individual rights, popular sovereignty of the people, the consent of the governed, and constitutional law. He argued that commerce and taxes must benefit all society. In his view, progressive taxation and economic redistribution helped to guarantee the general well-being of society. These reforms, he believed, would address the growing problems of inequality, unemployment, and poverty.

It can be argued that without Rights of Man, many ordinary people in many different places would have lived very different lives. His radical vision inspired the reform movement in 19th-century England, the anti-slavery movement in 19th-century America, and 20th-century struggles in Africa and Asia against European colonial powers. Paine’s writings have also influenced the development of liberal democracy, where elected representatives operate under a constitution that emphasizes the protection of individual rights and equality.

When Paine raised his voice he gave people real hope. But he gave them more than that. He encouraged people to rise up and change the course of nations towards liberty, equality, and the welfare of everybody, not just a privileged few.

What Paine can teach us about modern revolution

Without raising a militia or firing a single gunshot, Paine helped bring about worldwide reform and revolution, while starting debates that are still continuing today. His work has also had an impact on the welfare state, where the state agrees to protect the wellbeing of its citizens, and social justice—the distribution of opportunities in a society.

When Paine spoke of “natural rights,” he was referring to basic human rights that have been accepted in the democratic societies where protests like Nuit Debout are taking place. However, as society has moved on, so have our expectations of governments.

We hold our rights to free speech, democracy, opportunities, and education as markers of civilized communities, and have come to expect our governments to uphold them at all costs. And so, if we feel that the state is falling short of these expectations, surely Paine would argue that we should do our duty to “guarantee as well as possess” these rights.


What Paine and Burke can teach us about revolution in the 21st century

Certainly protesters in France, as well as those in other parts of the world, agree that even the act of protesting is a way of exercising their rights as individuals. Whether they can make a lasting impact on the way that our societies are managed, while also heeding Burke’s advice to approach political reform with caution, remains to be seen.


Get a deeper understanding of Paine and Burke’s ideas


Further reading on revolution and civil rights: read our expert analyses of key texts