Thomas Paine by A J Ayer - review by Paul Foot

Paul Foot

Burke and Ayer Strike Again

Thomas Paine


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One of the most comforting facts about the tempestuous life of Thomas Paine is that he didn’t do anything of any significance until he was nearly 40. If there hadn’t been a series of revolutions and threatened revolutions in the last quarter of the 18th century, no one would ever have heard of Thomas Paine. He would have lived and died a garrulous customs official with a taste for booze and political conversation. As it was, he left his native England for America on the eve of the Wars of Independence, and found himself, as a budding journalist , 39 years old, embroiled at once in the mighty arguments which racked the American colonies. Should they fight the British Crown or should they seek compromise? The merchants and many of the landed gentry argued for the latter. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet, Common Sense, which sold more copies to Americans than any other book except the Bible. At least 150,000 were sold – and even that fantastic figure understates its impact.

‘Freddie’ Ayer is an academic (a legend indeed, for any of us who were educated at the University of Oxford over the last forty years or so), and he is interested in the philosophical foundations of Common Sense. In a long, rather tiresome passage, he ferrets around in Hobbes, Locke and Hume to complicate the roots of Thomas Paine’s ideas. In fact, Common Sense, like all Paine’s writings, was based on an extremely simple idea, far too simple, really, for any of the Great Philosophers who preceeded or succeeded him: representative government. All his long life Paine’s greatest hate was government of the people by clique, by caste, or, worst of all, by monarchy. He ridiculed hereditary kings as ‘absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet Laureate’. Though he particularly detested the corrupt and dictatorial court of George the Third, he never allowed his hatred of the particular to deflect him from attacking the principles which had led to it: absolute or unrepresentative political power. His forthright views, and the plain rugged style of his Common Sense pamphlets (they went on and on in a great stream, making up a sort of philosophical and polemical backbone to the American revolution) inspired his readers with the idea that people could choose their government, and throw that government out if it did not suit them. They overturned the balance of the argument, and steeled the Americans to fight.

In his anxiety to trace the source of these ideas, and perhaps to flourish his own unrivalled knowledge of the early English philosophers, A J Ayer manages to miss a lot of the point about Thomas Paine and his role in the American revolution. His ideas were, as Ayer concedes again and again, powerful in themselves. They stand the test of time and the scrutiny of modern Oxford logicians. But the most important characteristic of Thomas Paine was that he was himself a revolutionary. He never left the revolution. He marched with the soldiers of Washington’s army not just when times were good, but (and there were many such) when times were bad. He was constantly on hand with his verbal advice and with his prolific pen whenever Washington’s High Command lost its nerve. He was always there to pillory the faintheart or the ‘sunshine patriot’ whenever a compromise with the British was suggested. He was a foot soldier in Washington’s army, never shirking the toughest marches or seeking to supplement the starvation rations. He was at one, in body and mind, with the common people who made the revolution and they loved him for it. The reverence lasted for many years after Washington was victorious. Paine was afforded full honours by the new independent United States, and a house at New Rochelle.

But he never enjoyed peace and quiet. He returned to England in 1788, chiefly to build an iron bridge which he had designed. In 1791, however, he pushed himself at once to the centre of one of the most famous controversies in all our history: a controversy which arose from another, yet more far-reaching revolution, in France.

For the upper class in Britain, the French revolution which had seemed quite fun to many of the more liberal spirits at the outset, was taking a sinister turn. For the first time ever, the organised poor had appeared on the revolutionary stage. The bedraggled masses of Paris, so ‘unfortunate’ a sight for visiting English gentry, were suddenly a power in the land, and were demanding not just ‘rights’ and constitutions but property.

Edmund Burke, the liberal orator and bore, who had written in favour of American independence, now turned the full fury of his rhetoric on the ‘swinish multitude’. His ‘reflections’ on the French Revolution come at once to the spectre which was keeping respectable people awake at nights. Freddie Ayer has selected some marvellous quotations, one of which, as he points out, seems to shout forward all the way to 1848, and the Communist Manifesto:

‘In every prosperous community, something more is produced than goes immediately to the immediate support of the producer. This surplus forms the income of the landed capitalist. It will be spent by a proprietor who does not labour’.

Here, in an unexpected nutshell, is the theory of ‘robbed labour’, the notion of a ‘class’ of people who have at their disposal a surplus which has been produced by another class. There is an idle class and a working class. Burke identifies both without embarrassment, and then goes on to justify them. ‘This idleness is itself the spring of labour; this repose the spur to industry.’

There was not enough wealth to go round. So a surplus was taken by the ‘landed capitalists’. But this gave those capitalists time to study, time to develop new technology, and therefore, the ‘repose’ which seemed to some like a privilege was in fact a ‘spur’ to better things for everyone.

It followed for Burke that the people who produced the wealth in the first place, the people from whom a surplus was taken by the landed capitalists, should learn to accept this process and rejoice in it. In another fascinating passage quoted by A J Ayer, Burke wrote:

‘To be enabled to acquire, the people, without being servile, must be tractable and obedient. The magistrate must have his reverence, the laws their authority … They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice. Of this consolation, whoever deprives them, deadens their industry, and strikes at the root of all acquisitions as of all conservation. He that does this is the cruel oppressor…’

Into the shoes of this ‘oppressor’, fighting for the oppressed, stepped an enthusiastic Thomas Paine, who wrote in reply to Burke the most powerful political pamphlet in all British political hi story, The Rights of Man. After a furious introduction in which he contrasted the foppish Burke with the genuine people he was attacking (‘he pities the plumage but forgets the dying bird’), Paine returned to the central themes of Common Sense, the worthlessness of royalty, the despotism of unrepresentative government and the need for the common people to overthrow both. The impact of the pamphlet was astonishing. Its unbelievable circulation – Paine once claimed half a million, though that was probably a bit steep – proved how much its iconoclasm fitted the mood of the English masses in the early 1790s. The government feared the pamphlet mightily. They banned it. They prosecuted anyone who sold it or read it or even referred to it. They even went to war with France in their desperate and eventually successful effort to forestall the popular uprising for which The Rights of Man plainly called. They ordered the arrest of Tom Paine, and chased him to Dover, where he got a ship just in time for Calais, where he was greeted by a vast crowd as a new deputy in the Convention of Revolutionary France.

For all its power and purpose, however, The Rights of Man is vague on the question which Burke had identified as the crucial one. Burke had argued that to challenge the right of the minority to the surplus of wealth produced by others was to challenge the foundation of wealth creation itself. Paine skated over the argument.

Though he wrote in general in the interests of the poor and dispossessed, his vision of society was not egalitarian. He was for ‘equality of rights’, not for equality. ‘The rich,’ he wrote, ‘have no more right to exclude the poor from voting … than the poor have to exclude the rich.’ He envisaged a flourishing society with commerce and an abundance of rich people, who would dwell in peace and harmony with poor people because of the representative institutions of government. As A J Ayer observes: ‘He did not understand the nature of capitalism.’ Nor did he see any contradiction between his beloved representative government and the most glaring inequalities of wealth and property. He laid out very clear rules for his representative institutions, and sometimes falls foul of A J Ayer in the process. For instance, Paine wanted 2-year Parliaments. Ayer thinks this would lead to a ‘surfeit of electioneering’. However, when the People’s Charter circulated throughout the nation some fifty years later, one of its six demands (the only one, incidentally, which has not been conceded) was for annual Parliaments. Yet the prospect of a clash between the rich and the representative institutions simply did not occur to Thomas Paine. Once the institutions were installed, once they were working in a democratic way, he believed, the ideal society would quickly follow:

‘When it shall be said in any country of the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance or 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 the friend of its happiness; when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and government.’

Paine urged his readers to carry out a cathartic popular revolution which would usher in a peaceful new world, founded on ‘Rights’, commerce and hard work. It was a robust, but slightly confusing vision, whose weaknesses were very quickly discovered by Paine as he made his triumphal way to Paris. He had been enthusiastic about the 1789 Revolution, which flowed so naturally from his own revolution in America. But he did not understand or want to understand the grim battle for the control of the revolution which was being waged between the Paris masses (the Montagne) on the one hand, and the ‘enlightened’ middle classes (the Gironde) on the other. When the debate polarised about the execution of the King, Paine sided with the Gironde. He was against the execution of anyone in captivity. But the debate, and Paine’s circle of friends in Paris which was entirely drawn from the Gironde, isolated him from the Revolutionary Committees, from Robespierre and especially from Marat. He found himself before long a suspicious person, and was locked up in the notorious Luxemberg prison. He only escaped the guillotine because of his American citizenship, though the American representative in Paris, Morris, and the self-important American Secretaries of State were singularly reluctant to come to the aid of the man who, more than anyone else, had helped them win their revolution.

It was in prison that Paine wrote most of his third famous pamphlet, The Age of Reason. The pamphlet was an onslaught on Christianity, perhaps the most powerful ever written.

A J Ayer criticises it not for its hostility to Christianity and all its superstitions – Ayer is at one with Paine on all that – as on its deism. Paine believed there was an ‘ultimate being’, the Creator of All things, and A J Ayer takes this unconvincing theory to pieces. The same job was done on Paine much earlier (and even more effectively) by Shelley in his pamphlet A Refutation of Deism. Shelley and Ayer, in their rather different ways, make the point that the furious logic with which Paine denounced Christianity could be turned to good effect against his own Deism. However, Professor Ayer concludes:

‘One cannot but admire the force of and courage of his attack not only on Christianity but on any form of religious superstition.’

The Age of Reason was indeed a most courageous pamphlet which put paid to any lingering respect which Paine may have commanded in fashionable America. He was obliged to live out the rest of his life in penury and obloquy. When he died, there were only five people at his funeral, two of them black men who came to pay tribute to Paine’s life-long battle against slavery. As A J Ayer points out in a splendid epilogue, his reputation was studiously ignored almost all the way through the nineteenth century. The Great Historians of Gladstone and Disraeli, for instance, never mentioned Thomas Paine. Only in the 20th century has the enormous role he played in two revolutions had any sort of public attention. At such a distance, of course, even an old revolutionary can be patronised. When the Thomas Paine Society met in New Rochelle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Revolution, a major message of solidarity with a ‘fighter for freedom’ was sent by special envoy: from President Reagan.

The great weakness in this biography is a weakness of all the other biographies of Paine that I have read, including Moncure Conway’s, which is by far the best (an exception is the historical novel, Citizen Paine, by Howard Fast). It misses Thomas Paine, the revolutionary. However accurate the Professor may be in tracing the origin of Paine’s thought, or in refuting his deism, it all misses the mark if the man before us is not the man of action, the restless and indomitable agitator which Thomas Paine was above all else. There are times too when A J Ayer appears to be writing more about himself than about Thomas Paine. His agonising over his lust for revenge against thugs and criminals, for instance, which he says conflicts with his intrinsic rationalism, is a bit hard on the stomach. Yet in these days of raucous reaction, when so many people who once believed in a better and fairer world are falling over themselves to declare themselves for a nastier and greedier one, A J Ayer holds fast to the decent rational reformism which has kept him going for 70 years or so. Again and again he uses examples from the life of Thomas Paine to throw a jibe at the Thatcher government, at sadistic judges or even at ‘the rubbish governments talk about national security’. He believes in the Rights of Man; he would prefer to live in an Age of Reason; and he recognises in Thomas Paine someone who fought all his life for both; and who therefore deserves at the very least this decent, rational and honourable testimonial for which the Great Man himself would have been cheerfully and characteristically grateful.

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