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International Socialism, Winter 1995


Megan Trudell

Living to some purpose


From International Socialism 2:69, Winter 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Keane
Tom Paine: a political life
London 1995, £25

During his life Thomas Paine, the 18th century radical writer and republican, was hounded from Britain, imprisoned in France and treated as a pariah in America, his adopted country. But the attacks on Paine are not all 200 years old. In 1964 the mayor of Thetford in Norfolk, Paine’s birthplace, wanted a proposed statue of Paine to be stamped with the words ‘convicted traitor’.

The man who inspired such vitriol is someone whose entire political life was spent in the service of revolution, against absolutist monarchy, for representative government and for the right of ordinary people to make their own history. Paine was lucky enough to witness two revolutions. He played a crucial role in the American Revolution of 1776 and experienced the Great French Revolution of 1789 first hand. In both he defended and encouraged the participation of ordinary people in revolts which shook the foundations of their societies, often incurring the wrath of the ruling authorities of the day. He wrote some of the most popular and accessible works of that century, consistently pushing forward the causes of freedom and progress. Paine suffered for his principles, and was often poverty stricken as he insisted any royalties for his work be used to further the causes which he supported.

Paine’s is a life worth celebrating, and for that reason John Keane’s new biography is welcome. Keane is quite right to resurrect Paine – though his task is far from uncontroversial, as a hostile review of his biography by an Oxford don, Jonathan Clark, shows.

Clark sees Paine as ‘embittered ... vain, repellently egotistical’, and repeats the 18th century slurs of Paine as a personally unhygienic drunkard. More serious than hackneyed personal attacks, Clark also suggests that the causes Paine fought for would have been better off without his intervention: ‘The modern world might have been (in its own terms) a better place ... had Paine remained quietly at home in Thetford.’

Against such reactionary outpourings Keane’s book, and Paine himself, ought to be defended. However, while containing a great deal that is useful and fascinating, there are serious criticisms to be made of the book.

So who was Tom Paine and why does he still inspire such contempt from those Keane refers to as ‘pickled in port and privilege’? Tom Paine was born in Thetford in Norfolk in 1737. Until his late thirties his life was relatively unremarkable. He was influenced by his father’s Quaker views, and by Methodism. He held a variety of jobs: as a corset maker, a seaman and an exciseman. At the end of 1774 he arrived in Philadelphia, bearing a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, who he had met in London.

The America into which he stepped was ready to explode. Still a colony of Britain, America was run by men who considered themselves British, loyal to the king, and for whom there were strong economic and military advantages to remaining linked with Britain. Yet increasingly sections of the colonists were moving into conflict with Britain over imposed trade restrictions and taxes. Their demand was, ‘No taxation without representation’ – they wanted some political say in the running of their colony. Military confrontation wasn’t far away.

On 19 April 1775 at Lexington Green, British troops fired on a group of American militiamen, killing eight and wounding ten. Paine’s response was swift: ‘When the country, into which I had just set foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir’. [1] His writings in the Pennsylvania Magazine against the British Empire became increasingly radical. Despite opposing violence, he concluded that force was the only way for America to resist oppression: ‘I am thus far a Quaker, that I would gladly agree with all the world to lay aside the use of arms, and settle matters by negotiation; but unless the whole will, the matter ends, and I take up my musket and thank heaven he has put it in my power’. [2]

Paine became a soldier in Washington’s army, and also put his pen to the service of the revolution, going much further than even the most radical American leaders, for whom there was no question of independence. Even Thomas Jefferson, at that point, lamented the souring of what he regarded as a basically sound relationship between Britain and America. For Paine ‘the present unhappy situation’ stemmed not from a blip in a good system, but from a ‘ruinous system of colony administration adopted by the British ministry ... evidently calculated for enslaving these colonies’. In January 1776 Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was published. It was a call to arms, bold and imaginative, and it rapidly outsold everything except the Bible – an estimated 120,000 copies were sold by April. It was written in a way that the poor and uneducated could understand. Paine made a point of this in all his writing: ‘As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet’. [3]

The content of Common Sense set America alight. It still makes exciting reading today. Paine launched an attack on the institution of hereditary monarchy and put the case for representative democracy, for the people to be able to elect and recall government annually, and for American independence from Britain. He contested the arguments for keeping the links with Britain, arguing that America would thrive economically and that independence would encourage trade between Britain and the colonies, and that America could protect itself militarily and need not be reliant on Britain.

The language of Common Sense was extraordinary. William the Conqueror was denounced as a ‘French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives’. [4] The right of sovereigns to rule was castigated: ‘Monarchy and succession have laid ... the world in blood and ashes’, and, ‘Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived’. [5] Paine also saw that the ‘lower orders’ were central to ensuring the revolution was not sabotaged. He argued for checks to be put on power in the new society and called for annual elections, a two tiered federal system, and a continual conference to decide the precise nature of government.

Keane covers the American events well – conveying the fire and passion of Paine’s writing and the impact of Common Sense in giving direction and voice to the revolution, propelling it along the course to independence. A flavour of the passions aroused by the pamphlet is given by an incident in March 1776. Paine was in New York, where the government sponsored reply to Common Sense was to be published. On getting wind of the publication 40 pro-independence demonstrators forced their way into the printers, ‘seized the entire edition – fifteen hundred copies in all – and marched off to a local common, where the copies were burned to cinders’. [6]

Towards the end of 1776 the revolution was in trouble. The Americans were outnumbered, and forced to retreat from Brunswick, New Jersey, to Trenton on the Delaware River. The British threatened Philadelphia. The Americans desperately needed a victory to rescue the country from despair. Paine left Washington’s army and walked from Trenton to Philadelphia where he wrote the first essay in a series, The American Crisis, intended to rally dispirited troops and the mass of Americans. These words were read out to the army preparing to face the British at Trenton and are among the most powerful of Paine’s life – fighting as he was for the survival of the War of Independence:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. [7]

Trenton was won, and, in Keane’s words, ‘The American Crisis had proved to be a literary cannon on the battlefield of independence’ [8]

Following the victory of America over Britain in the War of Independence a power struggle ensued between the moderates who wanted to restrict the right to representation to those who held property, and the radicals supported by Paine – men like Timothy Matlock and James Cannon who had a part in drafting the intensely democratic constitution of Pennsylvania, which gave voting rights to all white men regardless of property in frequent elections. Pennsylvania also became the first state to abolish slavery in 1779, where Paine was the clerk of the Assembly.

However, Pennsylvania’s example was not followed and, as it became clear the radicals were losing out to more moderate elements, Paine became disillusioned with the road the revolution was taking. He argued against corruption in high places in the Silas Deane affair (a sort of 18th century Jonathan Aitken scandal), and was forced to resign as Foreign Secretary to Congress as a result, labelled an enemy of the revolution by some. The moderates eventually won out and by 1781 Congress was in the hands of conservatives.

Despite the victory of the moderates, Paine consistently argued that American revolutionaries should take the revolution to Europe. He saw the revolution as a progressive force that had wrought changes in people’s heads as surely as it had changed American society:

Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution more extraordinary, than the political revolution of the country. We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used. We can look back on our own prejudices, as if they had been the prejudices of other people. [9]

He pointed to the oppression of the British labouring farmers, tradesmen and poor. ‘the sweat of whose brow goes day after day to feed, in prodigality and sloth, the army that is robbing both them and us’. [10] He saw the potential for opposition to the continuing war and for revolt against the despotic George III, a man he had previously described as ‘sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish’, no better than a ‘common murderer, a highwayman or a housebreaker’. [11]

His arguments intensely irritated the American leadership, including, by this point, Benjamin Franklin, trying as they were to forge a peace deal with Britain, but he persisted in his belief that the future for revolution lay in Europe.

Revolution in France

Paine returned to Britain in 1787. Back in Europe he collided with the French Revolution. For Paine, ‘A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose’. [12] He embraced the revolution immediately, defending it in Rights of Man from those who denounced it. Destined to become the best selling book in the history of publishing, Rights of Man was an answer to Edmund Burke’s The Revolution in France, in which Burke – who had actually supported the American Revolution – defended the old order in France, and attacked the notion that representation could be the province of the ‘swinish multitude’, arguing that the state would be oppressed if such people were to have a say in its running. Revolution was ‘a strange chaos of levity and ferocity’ [13] and antithetical to ‘Englishmen’ who ‘look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility’. [14] ‘The very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror’. [15] Burke spoke for the British ruling class, petrified at the possible spread of the ‘French distemper’ to England.

In Rights of Man Paine, who welcomed the spread of revolution to a country he saw as steeped in the idiocies of the past, ripped Burke’s argument apart. In straightforward and fast moving prose he defended the revolution against Burke and his kind: ‘Their cry now is, "It has gone too far", that is, it has gone too far for them... their fear discovers itself in their outrage, and they are but publishing the groans of a wounded vice.’ He praised the Declaration of the Rights of Man issued after the storming of the Bastille – the preservation of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man ... liberty, property, security and resistance of oppression’, restated the democratic principles of equal rights, again attacked the absurdity of monarchy and hereditary privilege, and lambasted Burke for shedding tears over the fate of the French aristocracy while ignoring the plight of ordinary people:

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection, that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope, in the most miserable of prisons ... He pities the plumage but forgets the dying bird. [16]

Rights of Man sold in vast numbers – four editions were published in a month and 50,000 copies were sold by May, two months after its publication. People who could not read had it read to them The impact was huge. The ruling class was horrified. Pitt’s government issued a proclamation against ‘wicked and seditious writings’ and encouraged a campaign against Paine. The printers were jailed, flyposters were jailed for putting up posters supporting Paineite reforms, booksellers were harassed, effigies of Paine were burnt, cartoons depicted him as the devil or as a drunkard or madman, and shoes were produced with the initials ‘TP’ on the soles – so that every time people walked, they were treading on Paine!

Despite his brilliant defence of the French events, Paine’s position on the revolution was problematic. He ardently supported it, yet did not fully understand the social forces at work. For Paine, the king of France was a progressive reformer compared to the despotic George III. He wrote to George Washington that Louis XVI ‘prides himself on being at the head of the revolution’. [17] Considering Paine’s general opinion of monarchy, this may seem surprising. But the context was that Paine saw the French king as a friend to the American Revolution, as France had in part financed the War of Independence. Paine therefore saw Louis as a willing participant in the French Revolution. Paine believed he was progressive. In this he was very wrong and his belief was to fundamentally distort his view of the French Revolution.

When in 1792 Paine was chased out of Britain as a result of the furore surrounding Rights of Man he went to France, where he was immediately delegated to the National Convention. He spoke no French and his circle was that of the Girondins – the more conservative faction in the Convention. This partially explains how someone who was so radical in one revolution could be conservative in another. The larger explanation lies in the nature of the revolutions. America was Paine’s model, and the victory of the moderates over the radicals in that country had been virtually bloodless. There was no invading army once the British had been beaten, and no strong counter revolutionary forces existed within the country. Indeed the American Revolution was to require a ‘second stage’ in the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. In France all the decisive phases of the revolution followed in short order. Paine seemed one step behind the most progressive sections of the revolution, often mistaking where the greatest threat to liberty lay.

For example, he supported Robespierre’s argument that Louis XVI should be tried, but argued against the king’s execution, and for the monarch to be exiled instead to America. His argument was based partly on concern that the execution of such a ‘friend to America’ would backfire and lose American support for the French Revolution. Nonetheless, he did not understand the necessity of swiftly dealing with enemies capable of organising against the revolution. Paine argued for unity between the Girond and the Jacobins and spoke against Danton’s call for elected judges, calling instead for a ‘disinterested’ judiciary. He could not see the extent to which the two factions were pulling in different directions. The Jacobins were trying to deepen and extend the democratic freedoms enshrined in the constitution of 1793: universal male suffrage, social and economic rights to welfare and education, the right of insurrection. The Girond were attempting to reverse those very gains which Paine himself valued so highly. He supported Marat’s impeachment from the Convention orchestrated by the Girondins, and stated that the Jacobins ensured ‘the prospect of a general freedom is now much shortened’. [18] Paine’s weakness, and the great tragedy of his political life, was that in his pursuit of democratic principles and equality, he took the wrong side in the French Revolution. Perhaps he did not fully appreciate what was at stake, and ended standing with those who would undo the revolution. That was not his aim, but it was the logic of his position in such a revolutionary crisis.

John Keane, however, would have stood with those enemies of the revolution enthusiastically. He argues that Paine rejoiced at the revolution without seeing its dark side. [19] ‘Revolutions suck the blood from their own children’ resulting in a ‘maelstrom of confusion, decadence, and demoralisation.’ He sees Paine’s support of the French Revolution as ‘fanciful apologetics’. With the suppression of the Girond who wanted to compromise the revolution in their own self interest, and who were hostile to the popular movement and the rise of the Jacobins, Keane abandons analysis completely. Quoting the Jacobin, St Just, in one breath – ’Those who make revolutions by halves dig their own graves’ – he then denounces the Jacobins who were trying to avoid precisely this eventuality as ‘cold-blooded schemers’, ‘pompous, crass, precocious, grandiloquent, savage and cruel ... monsters ... drunk on potions of power’, and states that, ever since the outbreak of war and the king’s execution, ‘power had been passing from men who believed in persuasion and compromise to men who believed in uncompromising compulsion’. [20]

Setting aside the obvious parallel with Keane’s own remark elsewhere that Edmund Burke’s description of the revolution ‘bordered on the hysterical’, [21] his account of the French Revolution utterly misses any sense of the real pressures placed on the revolution at the time.

The French Revolution differed enormously from the American. It was faced with war against all the major European powers and the threat of counter-revolution from within its borders. The Jacobins tried to take the democratic ideals of the revolution forward. They faced a choice, not between ‘persuasion’ and ‘compulsion’, but between taking those measures necessary to preserve the gains of the revolution and allowing the revolution to be drowned in blood. Keane conveniently leaves out the attitude of the Girond to the Jacobins preceding their overthrow – they organised every opponent of the revolution against the Jacobins and threatened the very destruction of Paris: ‘People would be searching soon on the banks of the Seine to see if Paris had ever existed’. [22] The assassination of Marat a month after the suppression of the Girond was a warning the Jacobins could ill afford to ignore. In that situation the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety and the Terror were necessities aimed against the organisation of counter-revolution. Typically for an opponent of revolution, Keane subscribes to a slightly more sophisticated version of the ‘Jacobins drink blood’ myth, without ever informing us of the reality. One illustration, of which there is no hint in Keane’s book, will have to suffice:

Around 40,000 people were executed during the Terror … the vast bulk of these were executed in the regions of civil war... around three quarters of executions were for armed rebellion. In two thirds of the 83 departments less than 25 people were executed during the whole course of the revolution. [23]

The largest number of executions on a single day was the day Robespierre and the Jacobins were executed by reactionaries after the fall of the revolutionary government.

For Keane, Thermidor, the period of reaction of 1795 in which former Girondins and the majority of the bourgeoisie reasserted their power, represented the return of normality. ‘The package of reforms produced unintended anti-Jacobin outbursts ... but nonetheless had civilising effects. They halted arbitrary arrests, and ended the tyranny of the guillotine ...’ The massacre of Jacobins in towns across France, the sentencing to death of 36 people in a week in Paris for daring to oppose the dismantling of the economy and the hardship it brought, the crushing of attempted insurrections, all are swept under the carpet as ‘unintended’.

Paine himself, though imprisoned and very nearly guillotined under the Jacobins, took issue with some aspects of the new bourgeois order, especially the new constitution. The right to resist oppression and the right of insurrection were removed. The language of social and economic rights of the 1793 constitution was replaced with that of obedience before the law. Universal suffrage was abolished and instead political power was restricted to those with property. Paine reasserted his belief in universal suffrage, denouncing the notion of property qualifications and the disenfranchisement of taxpayers: ‘If you dispense with principles, and substitute expedients, you will extinguish that enthusiasm and energy which have hitherto been the life and soul of the revolution; and you will substitute in its place nothing but a cold indifference and self interest’. [24]

In France, Paine published two other works of importance. Age of Reason, written in prison, was a demolition of organised religion. Though not an atheist, Paine wanted a rational religion, free of superstition and myth, and set about ‘marching through the Christian forest with an axe’, denouncing the Bible as ‘a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalise mankind’. [25]

The response to the Age of Reason was not exactly rational. Though a best seller in Britain and reprinted many times, indicating again his ability to speak plainly to the mass of people, Paine was denounced as ‘bigoted’, ‘wicked’ and a ‘filthy little atheist’ – the latter by Theodore Roosevelt.

Agrarian Justice was written in the winter of 1795 as a response to the widening gap between rich and poor. This inequality sickened him: ‘The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together’. [26] His solutions were welfare measures to alleviate poverty rather than any redistribution of wealth. His vision was of a democracy wherein rich and poor could coexist, with equal rights, the rich helping the poor. He did not see that democratic structures and equal rights are liable to hijack without economic equality, and therefore did not predict the result of the rich concentrating power into their hands – the inevitable conflict between classes.

Paine returned to America in 1802, where he was treated as an outcast. He lived in poverty, at times in squalor, dying in 1809. At his funeral only five mourners attended, two of them Pennsylvania blacks.

Keane’s book is very well researched and large parts it are fascinating. But it is marred by an analysis which sees Paine’s thought as not only radical in the 18th century, but as a guide to changing society today. The thread running throughout Keane’s book is stated clearly in the introduction: ‘Paine’s 18th century vision of a decent life ... is undoubtedly more relevant than that of Marx’. [27] Keane sees Paine’s checks and balances on government, outlined in Common Sense, as a constitutional measure against a tyranny which transcends history – that regular elections and democratic structures prevent the excesses not just of capitalist states, but, by inference, of revolutions against those states.

The rights and democratic structures emerging from the American and French revolutions were essentially to serve a new class. Those bourgeois democratic freedoms are crucial and socialists continue to defend them, but they are not the revolutionary ideals they once were, and, more importantly, do not guarantee real freedom for the majority. A revolution today would overturn capitalism and would bring with it a more thoroughgoing democracy than any Paine could have envisaged. Keane sees tyranny as the only outcome of revolution and, in theoretical despair at the possibility for fundamental change, sees an extension of the democratic structures that Paine called for as still revolutionary today. Socialists are all in favour of democratic rights, but an ideology which hopes to overcome the divisions in society merely by extending democratic rights is infinitely more utopian and less relevant than Marxism. To grant everyone in society truly equal rights means ensuring equality of resources and it is precisely this which the ruling class’s monopolisation of the means of producing wealth debars.

Paine lived 200 years ago in a world where his proposals were revolutionary. Today Keane’s ideas are merely a set of politics which see the market and parliamentary democracy as essentially the best we will get. By attempting to use Paine’s politics to explain the modern world Keane does Paine a massive disservice, he takes the edge off Paine’s relevance. Paine’s anger and disgust at bloated privilege, his sense of justice, faith in ‘lower orders’ and defence of revolution are very relevant. But Paine took part in revolutionary movements against the old order at a time when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. Now that class is the order and is therefore the active enemy of revolution and a block on the further development of human society.

Paine’s work, however marvellous, does not give us the tools with which to break the grip of that parasitic class. To claim otherwise is to defend the status quo. And that is something with which Tom Paine would have had little patience.


1. J. Keane, Tom Paine, a Political Life (London 1995), p. 101.

2. Ibid., p. 102.

3. Ibid., p. x.

4. Ibid., p. 115.

5. Ibid., p. 116.

6. Ibid., p. 129.

7. Ibid., p. 145.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 231.

10. Ibid., p. 235.

11. Ibid., p. 143.

12. Ibid., p. 283.

13. Ibid., p. 292.

14. Ibid., p. 294.

15. Ibid., p. 293.

16. T. Paine, Rights of Man (Harmondsworth 1985), p. 51.

17. J. Keane, op. cit., p. 284.

18. Ibid., p. 373.

19. Ibid., p. 312.

20. Ibid., p. 383.

21. Ibid., p. 292.

22. P. McGarr, The Great French Revolution, Internationalism Socialism 2:43, p. 58.

23. Ibid., p. 67.

24. J. Keane, op. cit., p. 424.

25. Ibid., p. 395.

26. Ibid., p. 426.

27. Ibid., p. xiii.

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