FYI France: Tom Paine!
Une lecture critique du livre «Révolution Paine» (C&F éditions) par Jack Kessler depuis San Francisco.
A new book which can remind us all, again, of what France and the US have in-common... at a good time for remembering all this, on both similarly-beleaguered sides of The Pond right now...
Révolution Paine: Thomas Paine penseur et défenseur des droits humains, by Thomas Paine, Peter Linebaugh (pref.), Nicolas Taffin (dir.),
(C&F éditions, 35 C rue des Rosiers, 14000 Caen, t. 02.31.23.39.48, fx. 01.40.09.72.67, firstname.lastname@example.org; août 2018) ISBN: 978-2-915825-85-5
Tom Paine was British, it must be remembered — but then so were we all, back then, in revolutionary “America”, citizens of an empire which spanned the globe until very recently, our “shots heard round the world” the first of many which ultimately would bring that empire and others to heel and create new ways of thinking about government for the modern world.
In all that mælstrom we very much needed ideas, and cheerleaders, for encouraging and inspiring ourselves and our fellow citizens, and Tom Paine was that. Whatever his opponents and most severe critics — and there were many — thought of him, and even friends and fans worried about him, but he was encouraging and inspiring, and for careful and conservative American “colonists” like the wealthy plantation-owner George Washington and the gentleman-printer Benjamin Franklin and the Boston lawyer John Adams, Paine’s encouragement and inspiration were enough, and at times they were very badly needed in fact.
And the French were there for us, very different but close in spirit to the Americans, and always needed, for their spirit & their money & their guns & for many other resources and reasons — at the very least they were enemies of our enemies and so our friends, on whom we could rely for insight, breadth of vision, even occasionally at their own ruinous expense...
France entertained Paine the rebellious Brit after the excitements of the British colonies had hosted him for a long while — in both places his own exciting language and the clarity of his vision helped citizens greatly, in the great troubles of their times — so now a glimpse of Tom Paine may help again, both to see our current troubles more clearly too, and to remember what we and the French share in-common in all this. When things change, for the US and France, neither of us is ever alone.
The book is a “reader” — not a compendium, but a comfortable and thoughtful armchair-piece to browse-through and then keep handy, as headline-events of current troubled-times pour in, descending upon us daily.
First comes a preface — avant-propos — by Nicolas Taffin, outlining why and how the idea for the book occurred to him: 2018 saw the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he says, and still we face troubles that first were defined for us by events of 1789 — after such a long time the birthday-celebration required a renewal of the effort, he thought, and who better than Tom Paine who first inspired it, in both the US and France, and the “Human Rights” and “Commons” forms in which the ideas were first presented.
Then comes an elegant introduction to Paine and his works by historian Peter Linebaugh, translated from l’américain...
It is a useful thing, to know Paine’s history, as he landed somewhat un-announced upon the Americans with his outrageous views and funny accent (?) and stunning phrasings. That he had a tradition, and a context, back home in also-turbulent England, only makes sense — and that early-on England experimented with many of the ideas the colonists were confronting later in their own contests with the Crown, deserves recalling, many of the same conflicts were heard before in early Industrial Revolution England, as workers and owners confronted one another, and governments moved to tax and otherwise control the new techniques.
Paine and his East Anglia neighbors had rehearsed many of the confrontations he was to witness and comment upon in his sojourns in the American colonies — the issues were similar, new techniques & how to cope with change & the sharing of burdens and benefits & working conditions & and of course taxes... not exactly “taxation without representation”, there at-home in England, but taxation all-the-same...
Whether Paine was a Che Guevara, as Linebaugh I-hope-playfully suggests, whether the Introduction successfully demonstrates that Americans of that time, “ambitiously risked class warfare on a global scale”, well, other readers will have to read and judge... Linebaugh, described by Wikipedia as a “Marxist historian”, does weave through initial attributions of Paine’s ideas to his having been, “conscious of classes, sensible to differences in power and wealth” — he describes Paine’s concerns for “Agrarian Justice” as involving “class injustice”.
It matters that Paine’s life in mid-18th c. England greatly preceded the writings of Marx a century later; but also of course there may have been historical connections, workers’ lives a century earlier were very much what the historicist Marx was interested in and wrote about. Linebaugh carefully outlines that Paine, “lived at the time of an industrial revolution, of commercial expansion & urbanization & population increase” — he grants that Paine’s views did not fall cleanly into any contest between “communism and capitalism”, terms which, apparently per Edmund Burke, were, “still cartilaginous, not yet well defined or formed”.
But Paine had a good sense for “the commons”, he insists, “and of its long presence in English history”, a matter which he says has not been well considered in previous studies of Paine. “A long anti-capitalist tradition in England”, Linebaugh believes he’s found, through Tom Paine, “one which contributes to our understanding about current notions of ‘revolution’ and ‘constitution’ in modern Britain” — for this suggestion alone, Linebaugh’s Introduction makes for some very interesting reading.
Beyond this Introduction there are excerpts, then, from Paine’s own “Rights of Man” — fascinating, the differences, between one culture’s “emotive” language and another’s — French easily is the equal of English in this regard...
And finally a fascinating Post-Script by editor Nicolas Taffin: he takes “Tom Paine of Thetford” several significant steps further than the little local American Revolution — several steps further, even, than the nascent Class Warfare of the Levellers and workers’-revolts of East Anglia which maybe-led to the Marxian revolutions of the 19th century — Taffin going-further finds, in Paine, the freeing of the human imagination, from the illusory securities and comforts and oppressions of the previous era’s religion-controlled philosophies, the emergence of the Enlightenment’s idealisms into a modern world of “real” rights and responsibilities and true-freedom, governed by reason alone...
Paine may have had a glimmer. The American Founders who fought our little revolution here certainly had some glimpse as well... Certainly the young Virginia lawyer who boldly wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and then chafed as the elders to whom he submitted that draft picked it apart... Jefferson had read much of what the young Paine had read as well — in 1776, when arguably they both were at their most-inspired, Jefferson was age 33, Tom Paine was age 37 — as Wordsworth observed of youth in a slightly-later revolution, “Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”.
But the true significance of what they all were doing did not emerge until much, much later... as late as the 1820s the two then very elderly American patriots Jefferson and Adams, both preparing for death and fondly reminiscing in their dotage-correspondance, could recall what they had done for the little United States, and for Britain, but only the more daring Jefferson seriously considered what they may have done ‘way back then to, “free the human spirit in general”...
Taffin gives Paine the greater credit. Well, history has benefit of hindsight... Whether Paine himself, or truly his contemporaries, really understood what he was accomplishing with his amazing writings, back then, seems questionable. There are crackpots writing this sort of thing about The Future today — just as there were in East Anglia long before Paine’s birth there, which later he read, a few of them, in the Old School at Thetford — so qua-dreamer Paine’s contribution may well have been fortuitous, simply a matter of good timing... The poet appears to have felt this about his own contribution to the French Revolution, and others have suggested Paine contributed little there too...
But ideas have lives of their own, and History has control of this. Taffin doubtless is correct that if we are “free” today — universally — then some part of that is due to the writings of Tom Paine, almost regardless of how exactly that happened and what agencies promoted it and why, Marxist or Liberal or French, English, American, or other... Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh both are said to have read Tom Paine, I expect Steve Bannon has as well, and Marion (Le Pen) Maréchal (age 29) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (age 29) are reading Paine now...
So the mystery of origins and influences continues, but so do the ideas. Read Taffin’s fascinating rendition here of Tom Paine’s context and continuing influence, and see what you yourself think... it is what many of us are worrying about in both the US and France, now, & that particular “common-concern” coincidence has made vast historical waves before...
And now a Note:
Tom Paine in epigrams, 1737-1809: & now I understand better why Ben Franklin must have enjoyed his company so much... —
“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 by 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
“I love the man that can smile in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.”
“If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
“To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”
“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
“’Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.”
“Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us.”
“Reason obeys itself, and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”
“Moderation in temper is a virtue, but moderation in principle is a vice.”
“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
“The most formidable weapon against errors is reason.”
— and the following three Tom Paine épigrammes seem of particular relevance to our present Franco & américain mutual Times-of-Troubles —
“Character is much easier kept than recovered.”
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”