Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tom Paine... Quaker famine relief in post-revolutionary Russia

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, Common Sense and The American Crisis, and he inspired the rebels in 1776 to declare independence from Britain.

Tom Paine is an important figure for Quakers.  His mother was one and his life and work were characterised by plain speech, a disregard of titles and hierarchy, an utter commitment to equality, a belief that what we say and do matters, and a belief that we are perfectible.  His best-selling pamphlet of 1776, Common Sense, expressed the developing mood in America of the necessity of separation from Britain.  At the time a recent immigrant from England, Paine savagely and directly attacked 'the royal brute' and the whole concept of monarchy, in the process disabusing Americans of the notion that they could look to George III for redress.  The only alternatives, Paine insisted, were submission or independence. 

Paine believed that that the British Constitution was a tyranny that was beyond reform and that the Americans had to become independent. He was an anti-authoritarian libertarian and egalitarian.  The British colonial administration of America was inept but was more liberal than the local Americans, with their grand assertion that 'all men are created equal', in one important respect - slavery. Paine was for abolishing slavery but most American slave-holders were for independence, because they correctly feared the British would interfere with their rights. Simon Schama's Rough Crossing tells the story.

The American Constitution of 1789 silently allowed slavery but enshrined the right to bear arms which is causing so much trouble today. In this light, Paine's opposition to the British Constitution looks wrong. Under that Constitution Britain abolished slavery and peacefully evolved into a Parliamentary democracy, a modern mixed economy with a national health service. The US, by contrast, though it extended the franchise to white male adults far earlier than in Britain, had to fight a civil war over slavery and to this day is held back by an out-dated Constitution which stops the Government from introducing a national welfare service or the most moderate gun safety laws.  Interestingly, the US did not introduce women's suffrage much earlier than in Britain.  Generally, Paine's aspiration for America to be a model of rights, equality and democracy has turned out to be disappointed. 

 Paine helped promote a self-serving American independence movement.  The Founding Fathers were as much interested in their property rights as in the rights of man.  They ignored Paine's socio-economic egalitarianism and acquiesced in the abomination of chattel slavery.  In addition, Paine and the Founding Fathers scotched the prospects for modern social democracy in the US.  They saw no role for the state in social welfare and called for low taxation.  To that extent Paine anticipated the American Tea Party not the British Labour Party.  He believed that society could be improved but only by revolution, not by gradual progress aided by a stable government acting in the general interest. Because the Founding Fathers shared Paine's hatred of tyranny, they made a constitution which dangerously weakened the national government so as to impede laws on public safety and a modern welfare state.  So much for Paine's Common Sense.

Similarly, his Rights of Man sought to promote the French Revolution in opposition to Burke.  History has vindicated Burke and condemned Paine.  Nothing could be more inimical to the rights of man, and a fortiori those of women, than a violent revolution and the loss of peace and plenty.  Quakers themselves know this from their experience of the famine relief work in post-Revolutionary Russia (1921-1929) which is currently the subject of a fascinating but distressing exhibition of rare photographs in Friends House.

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