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The history of the left-right divide: A centuries-old argument defines our politics, and offers a way forward

Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine's exceptional concerns about their legacies should not surprise us. They were right to assume that their names and their words, if not their mortal remains, would not be left to rest but would continue to play key roles in the great debate they had helped launch. Assorted radical leaders the world over laid claim to the legacy of Thomas Paine, as did the mainstream labor and progressive movements in the Anglo-American world. Conservative cultural and political movements have laid claim to Edmund Burke’s name and ideas.

Ironically, our understanding of the Burke-Paine debate has actually suffered some from such persistent political attention to both men. The revolutionaries who adopted Paine as their own would too often infuse his historical memory with socialist sensibilities that would have been largely foreign to Paine himself. And a great deal of the commentary (and even the scholarship) regarding Burke, particularly over the past century, has seemed to want to make him (even) more temperamentally conservative than he was.

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