Paul Foot

Revolutionary necrophilia

(1 June 1991)

From Socialist Worker, 1 June 1991.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000), pp. 25–26.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Observer has decided to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) with a lecture for children.

Nothing in itself could be more appropriate. From the moment when he first sailed for America in 1768 (at the ripe old age of 39), Thomas Paine dedicated himself to the education of children, and even founded one of the first girls’ schools in history.

Who is to give this historic lecture in honour of this great man? The Observer has strained every muscle to get it right. It has come down in favour of someone very famous: the Princess Royal, Princess Anne.

No doubt some fatuous fool at the Observer felt that the occasion would be better acclaimed if it was graced by so famous a dignitary. But has anyone at the Observer even read a word of Tom Paine’s? For that matter, has Princess Anne, who, for some astonishing reason, has accepted the invitation?

Thomas Paine arrived in America in the nick of time to take part in the great revolutionary agitation which was to end with the British being finally deposed as the imperialist government of America.

Paine fanned the embers of revolt with his tough, translucent prose. When the War of Independence – dubbed by Paine the American Revolution – finally broke out, he sustained the morale of Washington’s flagging army with his Crisis Papers.

Their central theme was that the British had no business to rule the American states, and that the British king, George III, had no right to rule anywhere, especially not in Britain.


Paine’s furious onslaught on the British monarchy (and on monarchy in general) made the rebel armies determined that they would for all time banish the name and concept of king from the United States of America – a resolution which has been sustained ever since.

Thomas Paine was honoured by the victorious armies and the new Republican government, but he soon grew tired of honours, and returned to his native Britain. There he threw himself into the furious arguments that followed the French Revolution.

His Rights of Man was an answer to Edmund Burke, who had written a poisonous attack on the revolution. At the centre of Burke’s argument was the preservation of the monarchy. The Rights of Man replied with a furious denunciation of monarchy.

Hereditary success is a burlesque upon monarchy. It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot may fill. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but to be a king requires only the animal figures of a man, a sort of breathing automaton. This sort of superstition may last a few years more, but it cannot resist the awakened reason and interest of man.

Alas, apparently it can. For 200 years later we still have to put up with the same posturing figures whom Thomas Paine reviled in almost everything he wrote.

Paine was exiled from Britain and sentenced to death in his absence. It became a capital crime after 1792 to read the Rights of Man. He died in 1806, despised, forgotten and hated.

What fun he would have had with the editor of the Observer and all his prigs and courtiers, bowing and scraping before this latest representative of the Hanoverian dynasty!

And how he would have appreciated and lambasted the latest example of the old English disease, revolutionary necrophilia – the love and worship of revolutionaries long after they are safely dead.

Last updated on 30 June 2014