It’s a long read, and this is a short excerpt. It’s worth your time, and will be followed by the second part, an old column of mine that includes a passage about Paine.
Why? Because July 4 makes me feel radical and revolutionary, and it’s not too late to make good on promises deferred. For more on this topic, see “Happy Birthday, America!” by Ricky L. Jones in the current issue of LEO Weekly.
Reading Paine From the Left, by Sean Monahan (Jacobin)
Though embraced by the likes of Glenn Beck, Thomas Paine was the American Revolution’s most radical figure.
… Paine was a consistent advocate of a strong federal government and also a sharp critic of economic inequality and poverty who designed the world’s first fully fleshed-out scheme of social welfare provision. Beyond that, he introduced millions to a radical critique of private property and class society, and pointed to democratic politics as the solution.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, while ruling classes were cursing Paine’s name from pulpits and palaces, the growing radical workers’ movements were toasting to his memory and reprinting his works. The Irish Republicans, the Chartists of England, and the early American labor movement all lauded Paine and his ideas echoed across Europe in the Revolutions of 1848. For generations, the revolutionary’s birthday was celebrated every January 29 by fledgling trade union and socialist movements on both sides of the Atlantic, who regarded Paine as one of their intellectual fathers and a role model for democratic revolutionaries.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the only Americans who dared to openly claim Thomas Paine for their own were radical trade unionists, freethinkers, abolitionists, and socialists. As John Nichols points out, in 1856 the New York Times warned that the “many socialist Painites . . . and their affiliation to every species of radicalism in the land boded evil to the future of our republic.”
The Prussian Forty-Eighter, disciple of Karl Marx, and Civil War Union Army Gen. August Willich praised Paine’s radical criticisms of authority at dozens of the birthday celebrations held by radical German-American organizations. Eugene Debs too was an open Painite, and at his trial for sedition for publicly opposing World War I, he cited Paine’s declaration, “My country is the world. To do good is my religion” as a model of the “wider patriotism” that he espoused.
As Harvey Kaye observes, the Communist Party published a collection of Paine’s writings in 1937, and hailed him as the “foremost fighter for world democracy,” the “chief propagandist and agitator of the revolution,” and a visionary radical who saw “beyond the limits of the bourgeois revolution,” attacked the “accumulation of property,” and proposed a “system of social insurance.”
Paine was at the center of two of the great democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century — the American and the French. (Beyond that, though he found the violence of the Haitian Revolution “distressing,” he considered it “the natural consequence of slavery,” which should “be expected everywhere.”)
Not only was he a central personality in the “age of revolutions,” he was one of the first radicals to connect the cause of political democracy to economic demands. Because of that, he was touted as a champion not only of the rights of the commoners against aristocracy, but, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, “the radical-democratic aspirations of small artisans and pauperized craftsmen” against the owners of property …