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The Age of Paine
Posted on Jul 3, 2009
By Scott Tucker
This is memorable writing, but in his later works Paine unmistakably changes his tone and reasoning when he revisits the subject of the duties and limits of government. Unfortunately, the famous early lines of Paine are framed and frozen as his essential creed even by some scholars sympathetic to the libertarian left and to democratic socialism. Indeed, when political scientist Isaac Kramnick wrote an introduction to a bicentennial Pelican edition of “Common Sense” in 1976 (later republished by Penguin Classics), Kramnick interpreted Paine in this manner: “Government was not a positive agent laying the foundation for a just or a good society, let alone a welfare state. Its only role was to provide a stable and secure setting for the operations of commercial society.”
That is not just a minor misreading of Paine, but a major distortion of the whole trajectory of his thought, both early and late in his life. The philosopher A.J. Ayer noted a tension between the arguments Paine made for natural rights, and the arguments he made in a more utilitarian manner; but in neither case did Paine ever abandon a distinctly moral view of human relations. Paine’s moral sense smolders and flares up on almost every page, even when he is presenting economic facts and figures. Paine’s critique of government did change with time, and he did finally find a larger role for both government and taxation in providing basic social democracy. But Kramnick simply portrays Paine as a lifelong exemplar of “bourgeois radicalism,” and this might be historically true if he meant to argue that many 18th century mechanics would join a rising middle class.
That argument would border upon my own in this article, since Paine was among the most class-conscious of the radical republicans. Kramnick’s only argument for class consciousness, however, would have to be an argument for a middle class rising right up to the ruling class. For what would stop them? Not “bourgeois radicalism,” which Kramnick bluntly defines as “the ideology of Tom Paine.” Here we come to the real reason Paine has never been a welcome figure in group portraits of the Founding Fathers. In the person of Paine we do behold an ideologically contradictory persona, but also a rapidly evolving egalitarianism. Kramnick acknowledged “that Paine pushed bourgeois radicalism to its outermost limits. … ” Kramnick’s bicentennial message, if not his class-conscious mission, becomes plain in his own words:
“To emphasize the bourgeois Paine is not to discount the Paine who later would become a hero for the Chartists and early trade unionists. It is simply to insist that his radicalism be seen as still within the bourgeois fold, a line of interpretation receiving little stress in recent discussions of his politics.”
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In studying the works of Paine, we find a man both daring and conflicted. Paine often draws back from the brink of his own most advanced ideas. Sometimes we find Paine surveying a social chasm wider than the Grand Canyon; and, with all his good will and genius in the 18th century, he cannot draw up a single-span iron bridge to cross over to the other side. Paine was certainly a troubled man in some periods of his life, and finally a quite lonely man as well. If we attribute this only to personality and not also to class consciousness, then the anxiety of Paine teaches us no more useful lesson than the anxiety of various scholars seeking to keep him “within the bourgeois fold.”
“Tyranny, for Paine, was taxation.” So Kramnick wrote, and for proof he offered a quote from Paine’s “Anti-Monarchical Essay” (1792): “ … in a word, whoever demands a king, demands an aristocracy, and thirty millions in taxes.” Yes, but it does not follow that whoever demands millions in taxes to provide grants to young workers, solidarity to the unemployed and aid for the elderly is thereby demanding the restoration of monarchy. For these are precisely some of the economic proposals Paine also makes in “The Rights of Man.” In that book Paine laid line after line of dynamite at the foundations of the fortress built up with so many medieval towers and turrets by Edmund Burke to defend hereditary peers, prejudice and property. Here we will find Paine pushing the limits of 18th century social democracy, and we will find him making class-conscious and materialist arguments:
“Why, then, does Mr. Burke talk of his house of peers, as the pillar of the landed interest? Were that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would continue, and the same ploughing, sowing, and reaping would go on. The aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land, and raise the produce, but are the consumers of the rent; and when compared with the active world are the drones, a seraglio of males, who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist for lazy enjoyment.”
Paine was acquainted in England with William Blake, who already mentioned the “dark Satanic mills” of early industrialism in one of his poems. Had Paine lived to observe British factories and working-class slums a century later, he would have given that scene a similar survey.
In Paine’s time, Adam Smith was considered the Isaac Newton of economics, thus giving mercantile capitalism the blessings of the laws of nature. Smith often stated that trade monopolies undermined free trade, without giving any clear enforcement plan beyond moral warnings to break up such monopolies. Many self-styled disciples of Smith happily edit out the moral homilies, and then read him as if he was simply an 18th century Ayn Rand. The same liberties can be taken with Paine for the sake of the same libertarian ideology. Paine was certainly influenced by doctrines of the free market. In Paine’s time, the free market already had both mechanical and metaphysical properties, since the machinery of class domination had been set in perpetual motion by some hidden hand. This was an early version of the belief that the free market was free as the birds and the bees, though also subject to a few natural disasters.
Capitalism, in the most optimistic view (then and now), was naturalism. Adam Smith did not, of course, have in mind Ayn Rand’s Social Darwinism. No, but as the real costs of the free market grew unmistakable, the naked Social Darwinist doctrine became necessary. From the fountainhead of class struggle emerged not only the trade unions and the socialists, but also such “libertarian” class warriors as von Mises, Rand and Milton Friedman. Where do we locate Thomas Paine in this picture? He studied economic documents, but he was not an economist. He was not only a citizen of England, America and France, but also a citizen of “the republic of letters.” In “The Rights of Man,” Paine even took the utopian view (all too much under the spell of Smith) that commerce tended to advance world peace: “I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend of its effects. It is a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other. … If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” This was naive even in his own day, but we cannot blame him for not forecasting the fierce imperial rivalries and world wars of later centuries.
In England there were always links between political and religious dissenters, so a good number of British republicans, anti-slavery activists and working-class radicals attended the chapels and meetinghouses of the Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and other dissenting churches. By the time Thomas Paine was born, the civil disobedience of the early Quakers was hardly necessary. As E.P. Thompson wrote in “The Making of the English Working Class,” “They had prospered too much: had lost some of their most energetic spirits in successive emigrations to America: their hostility to State and authority had diminished. … ” A sterner spirit of dissent existed among the Baptists at that time, and found expression in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” “And it is above all in Bunyan,” wrote Thompson, “that we find the slumbering Radicalism which was preserved through the 18th century and which breaks out again and again in the 19th. Pilgrim’s Progress is, with Rights of Man, one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement: Bunyan and Paine, with [William] Cobbett and [Robert] Owen, contributed most to the stock of ideas and attitudes which make up the raw material of the movement from 1790-1850.”
Eighteenth century artisan work was often highly skilled, and this stratum of the English working class was both numerous and literate. (Nineteenth century industrial production, by contrast, began with the immiseration and consequent illiteracy of many workers drawn from the traditional artisan class. The poorest rural and urban workers had, of course, always had to struggle for both wages and literacy.) Artisan labor and public association created relative independence from the ruling ideas of the ruling class. So did the printing presses, which published much of the news the ruling class saw fit to print, but also published an ever increasing number of republican and radical journals. Coffee, chocolate and tobacco, all part of the “free trade” of empire (widely extracted from slave labor), also kept the customers coming to the pubs, clubs and coffeehouses that multiplied in London, Paris and Philadelphia. Radicals, republicans and revolutionaries found much common ground in these material circumstances and public places.
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