Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Common Sense

Thomas Paine

The opening words to Common Sense certainly struck a chord with me, as they surely would with many a determined radical pamphleteer of the internet age. "Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour", Thomas Paine conceded, but then "time makes more converts than reason, as a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right in question". In short, Paine had the prophet's certainty that the validity of his claims would be demonstrated by the course of events.

And indeed, in 1776, his proposals were literally revolutionary. Yet hundreds of thousands would accept the great bulk of them as common sense within the space of months, as Americans began their struggle to free themselves from British colonialism, and to establish a republic. Norfolk-born Paine had only been in the country two years, but he was working to popularise ideas already being debated by America's future leaders. When he claimed that "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind", he was representing the best in the pioneering spirit of the new nation, and the words had a very different meaning to what they would suggest in today's context.

Paine began by trying to describe how government of any form might first have come to be, and in this, he was apparently inspired by his meetings with the native Iroquois people (an interesting parallel with the later work of Friedrich Engels). He sketched out a classically libertarian position on the minimal necessity of government, which can be compared to that of later writers such as Thoreau. Our needs and wants draw us into society with others, and "society in every state is a blessing", but even the best government is only "a necessary evil", which should only exist to provide security for all by enforcing "virtue", and at the least expense.

It should be obvious to all but the most deluded royalists that all monarchical systems fail this test, being hugely draining on the public purse, and failing to provide security to all. Commenting on the mixed system that had been adopted in the country of his birth after the English Civil War, Paine observed that "the fate of Charles I hath only made kings more subtle, not more just." The king still wielded immense power over both the houses of parliament, and "The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly".

Paine then shifted his attention to the absurdity of monarchy as a system of government. After all, "...how a race of man came into the world so exalted above the rest and distinguished like some new species is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind." Invoking scripture, he declared monarchy "the most prosperous invention the devil ever set on foot for idolatry", and illustrates his beliefs with biblical examples. Then putting religion to one side, Paine asserted that with "all men originally equals, no-one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever". The absurdity wouldn't matter though, if monarchy ensured "a race of good and wise men", but "as it opens the door to the foolish, the wicked and improper, it hath in the nature of oppression." After all, the minds of future monarchs "are early poisoned by importance, and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large." By the time they ascend to the throne, they are "frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions."

One look at the House of Windsor shows that this remains true of the British monarchy, and all The King's Speeches in the world can't change the fact. But Paine wasn't concerned with monarchy as an abstraction, or as some kind of academic exercise. He wanted to convince his new countrymen that it was necessary to rise up against a specific monarchy - that of Britain - and its armed forces. So in later chapters, blood-curdling tales of British massacres seeped into the pages, alongside strategic calculations and rhetorical claims that "the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth" than American independence. In these passages, Paine made his case that America had outgrown its abusive "parent", and would now be able to prosper without its supposed familial ties. "We have boasted the protection of Great Britain", he charged, "without considering that her motive was interest, not attachment". In 1776, "not a single advantage is derived" from being a colony of Britain, and furthermore, it was illogical for one country to make laws for application in another.

Not content to curse the darkness, Paine made sure to light a candle - proposing a new system with a president instead of a monarch, one year terms of office for assembly members (after which they would return to the community), and "wholly domestic" policies (i.e. no waging of war).

From a Marxist perspective, there are of course some important limitations to Common Sense. Paine cloaked his appeal in "virtue" and morality, precisely he reserved the motivation of social class for the aristocracy. What's more, "commerce" was presented as being class neutral, and beneficial to all. But capitalism as we know it was in its infancy, and the task of describing and analysing its horrors would fall to the poets and economists of future generations. Common Sense is a remarkable example of pamphleteering, which succeeded because it described the then coming political upheavals in ways that many enquiring minds would come to understand. The radical writers of today have much to learn from the clarity of speech and persistent logic of Thomas Paine.
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