Paine knew that the British monarchy, which wielded the global imperial power that America wields today, was blinded by its hubris and military prowess. It had lost the ability to listen and as a result had lost the ability to make rational choices.
Portrait of Thomas Paine by Auguste Millière (1880).
Cornel West, Richard D. Wolff and I, along with moderator Laura Flanders, next Sunday will inaugurate “The Anatomy of Revolution,” a series of panel discussions focusing on modern revolutionary theorists. This first event will be part of a two-day conference in New York City sponsored by the Left Forum, and nine other discussions by West, Wolff and me will follow in other venues later this year.
Sunday’s event will be about Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason”—the most widely read political essays of the 18th century, works that established the standards by which rebellion is morally and legally permissible. We will ask whether the conditions for revolt set by Paine have been met with the rise of the corporate state. Should Paine’s call for the overthrow of British tyranny inspire our own call for revolution? And if it should, to echo Vladimir Lenin, what must be done?
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Thomas Paine is America’s one great revolutionary theorist. We have produced a slew of admirable anarchists—Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day and Noam Chomsky—and radical leaders have arisen out of oppressed groups—Sitting Bull, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West and bell hooks—but we don’t have a tradition of revolutionists. This makes Paine unique.
Paine’s brilliance as a writer—his essay “Common Sense” is one of the finest pieces of rhetorical writing in the English language—is matched by his clear and unsentimental understanding of British imperial power. No revolutionist can challenge power if he or she does not grasp how power works. This makes Sheldon Wolin’s book “Democracy Incorporated” and his concept of “inverted totalitarianism” as important to us today as Paine’s writings on the nature of the British monarchy were in 1776.
There were numerous American leaders, including Benjamin Franklin, who hoped to work out an accommodation with the British crown to keep America a British colony, just as many now believe they can work through traditional mechanisms of power, including electoral politics and the judicial system, to reform corporate power. Paine, partly because he did not come to America from England until he was 37, understood that the British crown had no interest in accommodation; today, the corporate state similarly has no interest in granting any concessions. It became Paine’s job to explain to his American audience the reality of British power and what effective resistance would entail. Paine knew that the British monarchy, which wielded the global imperial power that America wields today, was blinded by its hubris and military prowess. It had lost the ability to listen and as a result had lost the ability to make rational choices. The inhabitants of New York would discover this when British warships and mercenary troops besieged the city.
Paine created a new political language. He wrote in crystalline prose. “Common Sense” was read by hundreds of thousands. It was the first political essay in Enlightenment Europe to call for a separation between civil society and the state, terms that many writers had considered interchangeable. Civil society, Paine argued, must always act as a counterweight against the state in a democracy. Power, he warned, even in a democracy, carries within it the seeds of tyranny.
Paine, as George Orwell and James Baldwin did later, used his pen as a weapon. It was a weapon deeply feared by the monarchies in Europe, as well as the Jacobins in France, who imprisoned Paine and planned to execute him for denouncing the Reign of Terror. He spoke an undeniable truth. He called his readers to act upon that truth. “My motive and object in all my political works, beginning with Common Sense,” Paine remembered in 1806, “… have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free.”
“Where liberty is, there is my country,” Benjamin Franklin once said to Paine. “Where liberty is not, there is my country,” Paine replied. For Paine, the role of a citizen extended beyond national borders. The fight of those living under any system of tyranny was his fight. “When it shall be said in any country in the world ‘My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness’: when these things can be said,” Paine wrote, “then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.”