Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Thomas Paine: Permanent Revolutionary

Tomorrow marks the bicentenary of Thomas Paine's death. When he died in 1809, only six mourners attended his funeral, two of them free African Americans (testament to Paine's hatred of slavery). As the great orator Robert Ingersoll noted,

Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.

Today the corset-maker from Thetford, East Anglia, is claimed almost as a 'founding father' of America, to the extent that he was even quoted (though not named directly) by Barack Obama in his inaugration speech. Yet, as the radical historian Peter Linebaugh, who is working on an eagerly awaited biography of Paine, notes in two recent articles for Counterpunch - here and here there was much more to Paine than meets the eye: as Linebaugh notes, Paine was 'a revolutionary opposing kingship, one-man rule, the puppet-show of sovereignty, the war-making essential to monarchy'.

Of course there are inevitably limitations to Paine's political vision. As Megan Trudell noted,

'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.'

Yet one aspect of Paine's politics does seem to be also very relevant today in particular - his tremendous internationalism. Paine was that quintessential prophet hated in his own country - England - at least among the rich. He went to fight in the American War of Independence, a revolutionary people's war against the British Empire, and then championed the Great French Revolution which so terrified the rich and powerful crowned heads of all Europe. Yet his internationalism did not stop him becoming an inspirational figure in the making of the English working class, as testified by E.P. Thompson in his classic work of 1963. As Mark Steel once noted, according to one account, the Chartists of Merthyr Tydfil 'assembled in secret places on the mountains, and taking Paine's works from under a concealed boulder, read them with great unction'.

Yet Paine's very internationalism (his motto was 'the world is my country') poses a problem for those who talk, like Andrew Marr, of 'a strong English patriotism of the left, a vision that gathered Tom Paine, Hazlitt, the Chartists, the struggle against fascism and the post-war welfare state'. Those today like Billy Bragg et al who think the English Left need to try and reclaim English nationalism from racists and nationalists and use it for 'progressive' ends, would not, I feel, have found a supporter in Paine himself. Paine, like many of the Chartists (one of whose leaders after all was William Cuffay) was a tremendous internationalist to his very core - and that aspect of his life, together with his revolutionary ardour and spirit, should be why the Left, particularly in England, remember him today.

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