Revolution of the world

After mobilising a million to honour one Queen Elizabeth official Britain is readying to mobilise for the other Queen Elizabeth's golden jubilee. But there is another Britain, an unofficial Britain of revolution and democracy. Terry Liddle remembers an outstanding opponent of monarchism

"A share in two revolutions," wrote Thomas Paine in a letter to George Washington, "is living to some purpose." Most revolutionaries would count themselves fortunate indeed if they participated in just one revolution. Paine, however, participated not only in the American and French revolutions of the 18th century; if events had been just slightly different he would have participated in a third in his homeland. He was also a leading force in two intellectual revolutions against kingcraft and priestcraft. Paine was born into humble circumstances - his father was a staymaker - in an East Anglia where social relations remained largely feudal. The son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, Paine was born at a time when Quakers were lobbying strongly for the abolition of the payment of tithes to the established church. This was a time when Quakers, with their disrespect for political and religious authority, were still considered subversive. At the age of seven Paine went to Thetford Grammar School (at one time it refused to have any of his books in its library). There he started reading the works of such rebels as Milton and Bunyan. After five years of education he was apprenticed to his father in the staymaking trade. Staymaking did not suit Paine and at the end of his apprenticeship he made for London. There he attended lectures on science and developed an interest in politics. He was for a while a Methodist lay preacher. He found work as an excise man, finally taking up a post in Lewes, which in the Civil War had been a republican stronghold. In Lewes he took part in the debates in the Headstrong Club, amusing his fellows with his poetry, some of which was of high quality. He attempted to improve the lot of excise men, only to be victimised. At the age of 37 he set sail for America. The American colonies were in a state of political ferment, the colonists coming increasingly into conflict with the authorities, who taxed them heavily without allowing them political representation. Having survived an outbreak of typhus, Paine settled in Philadelphia, where he became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, which he filled with his poetry and articles on science and social and political affairs. He advocated the abolition of slavery. Hostilities between the British and the colonists opened with the Battle of Lexington. Paine published a pamphlet Common sense which is credited with laying the foundations of American democracy. For the first time Paine attacked the institution of monarchy. For him monarchy was not only dangerous and destructive: it was also plain daft. It was Paine who originated the idea of a United States. After a bitter revolutionary struggle in which Paine served as a soldier, political advisor and war reporter America defeated mad George's redcoats and German mercenaries and won its freedom. When the Americans faltered, Paine rallied them with his attacks on sunshine patriots and summer soldiers. He would have extended the new-found freedom to the slaves, but his designs were thwarted by the rich landowners whose prosperity depended on slavery. Paine returned to England in 1787, and in 1789 revolution broke out in France. It found an ardent supporter in Paine. He had started making plans for what was to be his political masterpiece Rights of man. It was written in part as a rejoinder to a vicious attack on the revolution by Paine's former friend, Edmund Burke. Burke had been scared witless by the violence of the Parisian people, dancing wildly to their anthem à‡a ira, directed against the hated aristocrats. On a visit to Paris Paine, having forgotten his hat with the tricolour cockade, narrowly escaped being strung up as an aristocrat. The first part of Rights of man appeared three months after Burke's book. In his spirited defence of the French Revolution Paine made statements which to the ruling class seemed dangerous, if not openly seditious. For example, in explaining the actions of the national assembly in preparing a constitution, he states that the authority of the people was the only authority on which government had a right to exist in any country. He added that the continual use of the word 'constitution' in the English parliament proved that there was none. If there was no constitution, then the king ruled without authority. Paine's book was received with enthusiasm. The Society for Constitutional Information, dormant for a decade, was reanimated. It prepared the first cheap edition of Paine's book and Paine became a member. In Birmingham a 'church and king' mob rioted, destroying the home of Joseph Priestly, a scientist and leading radical. The government commissioned a hostile biography of Paine. It was written by a civil servant. Part two appeared a year after the first part. By 1793 sales of the combined work had reached over 200,000. At a time when the print run of a serious book was usually less than a thousand and the literate population was around four million, this was a remarkable success. It was translated into numerous languages from Magyar to Gaelic. In his preface to part two Paine wrote: "I do not believe that monarchy and aristocracy will continue seven years longer in any of the enlightened countries of Europe." In chapter two he stated: "It could have been no difficult thing in the early and solitary ages of the world "¦ for banditti of ruffians to overrun a country, and lay it under contributions. Their power being thus established, the chief of the band contrived to lose the name of 'robber' in that of 'monarch' "¦" (T Paine Rights of man Harmondsworth 1977, p190). He continued: "All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny. An heritable crown, or heritable throne "¦ have no other significant explanation than that mankind are heritable property. To inherit a government is to inherit the people "¦" (p194). He concluded : "Every government that does not act on the principle of a republic, or in other words, that does not make the res publica its whole and sole object, is not good government. Republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public, as well individually as collectively" (p200). In discussing constitutions he wrote: "If we begin with William of Normandy, we find that the government of England was originally a tyranny, founded on an invasion and conquest of the country" (p214). In chapter 5 Paine outlined his plan for a system of social security, stating: ""¦ the resources of a country are lavished on kings "¦ and even the poor themselves, with all their wants upon them, are compelled to support the fraud that oppresses them" (p240). Paine's plan included old-age pensions, which would start at 50, maternity grants and grants for the education of children. It was not socialism, but it was in many ways better than the present bureaucratic muddle which stills reeks of the Poor Law, with its view of the poor as undeserving and in need of penalties rather than relief. At a dinner organised by the Revolution Society, which had been set up to celebrate the fall of the Stuarts in 1688, Paine was toasted and a song composed in his honour sung. Paine's reply was a toast to the world revolution. This was probably the first time the concept had been aired in public and Paine, who said that his country was the world, was the first modern international revolutionary. Constitutional societies sprang up in Manchester and other towns, which distributed Paine's book in large numbers. More alarming to the authorities was the formation of the London Corresponding Society. This had its base in the class of intelligent, literate artisans of which Paine was a member. It maintained relations with some 19 similar societies and with the Jacobin Club in Paris. The government was also unhappy at the distribution of the Rights of man amongst rank and file soldiers and sailors. The book was in great demand in Ireland, where the Society of United Irishmen made Paine an honorary member. The Irish started to arm and form a citizens' army. On May 21 1792 Pitt's government issued a proclamation against "wicked and seditious writings". This was aimed at Paine. Spies and informers were set to work and the prosecutions and imprisonments of radicals started. Paine was constantly followed by spies. The reactionary mob was plied with beer and whipped into a fury. Paine was burned in effigy. He was issued with a summons to answer charges of having uttered a seditious libel. The publisher of the first edition of Rights of man was brought to trial and pleaded guilty. Paine's trial was postponed until December. It is said that Paine fled to France to avoid prosecution. In fact he went to take his seat in the national convention, to which he had been elected by the voters of the Pas de Calais, having been made a French citizen. Back in England, Paine was tried in absentia and found guilty. Outside the court demonstrators chanted "Paine for ever!" Paine did not speak French and his speeches had to be translated. However, he did manage to make an eloquent plea for revolutionary unity. Later he called for the life of the king, who had been sentenced to death, to be spared. Marat attacked him, stating that as a Quaker Paine had no right to comment on such matters. Power in France was passing from the Girondins to the Jacobins. The king was executed and Paine feared that those who argued for his life would be next. He went into self-imposed exile in Saint Denis - nowadays a suburb of Paris. He thought the revolution was degenerating and violating the standards for human rights it had set. When the Jacobins staged a coup against the remaining Girondins in the convention Paine found his entry barred by the national guard. Jacobins from his constituency alleged he had lost the confidence of the electorate. On Christmas Day 1793, Paine was arrested and taken to the Luxemburg prison. Held without trial, he became seriously ill. Thanks to the efforts of James Monroe, Paine was finally liberated and he returned to America. In prison he had worked on The Age of reason, a devastating critique of religious orthodoxy. Paine was not an atheist, but he realised that the claims made for the literal truth of the bible were absurd and he set out to demolish them. This was a work which won him no friends amongst the establishment. For freethinkers it served, and still serves, as an inspiration. Back in America Paine found that the revolution there had also degenerated. Vicious attacks on him as an infidel were made by the press. It was alleged that his friend and future president, Thomas Jefferson, had offered him the sexual services of a female slave. In France Paine had got to know exiled Irish revolutionaries such as Wolfe Tone and Napper Tandy. Inspired by his ideas, they attempted a rising in Ireland in 1798, only to see it drowned in blood. In 1803 another rising, led by Robert Emmett, was also crushed. Paine urged France to aid the insurgent Irish. By now growing old, he retired to his farm at New Rochelle. There he died in 1809. Some years later his bones were brought back to England by William Cobbet, who had been a fierce opponent and then a staunch defender of Paine. Eventually they were lost. Paine, the world revolutionary, has no known final resting place. But more important than his bones were Paine's democratic republican ideas. Despite attempts by the right to misappropriate them and present Paine as a defender of bourgeois property, they belong firmly in our tradition - that of the struggle for the liberation of our class and of all of humanity. While the media elevates the banal and magnifies to near sainthood booze-sodden feudal relics, we should remember and celebrate Paine and his valiant struggles for the revolution of the world. We still have a world to win.