Archive for the 'ideas' Category

Thomas Paine as Che Guevara

29 September 2009

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There’s still time to catch the last few performances of A New World at the Globe Theatre in London, Trevor Griffiths’ adaptation for stage of his unmade screenplay about the life of one of Britain’s greatest radicals and campaigners, Thomas Paine. Commissioning the stage version to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Paine’s death in 1809 (in obscurity) was a smart piece of scheduling by the Globe.

Griffiths is a fine radical playwright, and this is a ‘big’ play, covering a sweep of history – in three hours – which takes in the American and French revolutions and the turmoil in Britain at the time. But it doesn’t forget the personal as well as the political. And the Globe is a good setting for such a play, with the groundlings’ space acting as an extension of the stage when necessary. This post isn’t a review – I’ll leave that to Michael Billington and Stuart Weir – but for me the play conjured brilliantly the fragility of the events of the revolutions as they unfolded, and the uncertainties of the participants who lived through them from day to day.

It also succeeded in a way that I imagine that Griffiths would wish for; there’s enough of Paine’s own writing – from Common Sense and the Rights of Man – in it to make me realise that I should have read more of it than I have. And enough, too, to make his present relative obscurity puzzling; as if his long-standing career as a member of the awkward squad had carried over into his historical legacy.

‘My country is the world’

As it happens, Verso has just published a new edition of Paine’s writings in their Revolutions series, with a fine introduction by the historian Peter Linebaugh (review via Verso’s blog). I’m just going to share a few notes from that introduction here.

Paine is a puzzle. He left school at 13, and was 37 when he went to the United States, and there was apparently little in his background – save, perhaps, the petition he wrote to Parliament on behalf of fellow exciseman in support of higher wages – to suggest that he would, over the next twenty years, become the most influential political writer of his time. The clues are there, though, in his engagement with local learned societies, his spell as a teacher, his study of science and engineering.

By the time the two parts of the Rights of Man had been published, he was both widely read and widely feared, partly because it had been priced cheaply (Part I cost only 3/-) and sold widely. The language was sharp and also uplifting: “All the monarchical governments are military. War is their trade, plunder and revenue their objects”, contrasted with “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good”. As Peter Linebaugh writes, Part II was dangerous to the British government because of “its forthright translation of equality in economic terms, and its overall tone of democratic confidence”.

‘Where liberty is not’

Linebaugh has a deep knowledge of the 18th century, and he situates Paine’s work at a moment before the commons had been closed off by landowners, when the American revolution had created new ideas of the possible. He makes the analogy to Guevara, and it seems a fair one; a revolutionary who fought (and wrote) in one revolution, was centrally involved in the politics of a second one (he was a deputy to the French National Convention), and was pursued by a government deeply fearful of a third (the full powers of the British state – spies, hired mobs, and lawsuits – were turned on him).

His work was also influential in the United Irishmen movement in the decade in Ireland before Wolfe Tone‘s failed rebellion; 10,000 copies of the Rights of Man sold in the country. A British military commander wrote that “The north is certainly inoculated by Paine, who persuades every man to think himself a legislator”.

Paine seems, now, impossibly modern, with his opposition to the death penalty and slavery, and his scepticism about organised religion. He spoke for the rights of the native American nations. His judgment on contemporary events appears astute; he refused to vote for the execution of Louis XVI, because of the harm it would do to the revolutionary cause; he thought Washington, after the revolution, unprincipled (and Washington, in turn, left Paine to languish in a French cell); and called Napoleon a charlatan. He influenced independence struggles in India and Indonesia.

His books – and a biography – were banned from American public libraries in 1949, as part of HUAC’s mission (oh, irony!) to defend “the form of government defended by the Constitution”. His history is entwined with that of American Presidents; Monroe freed him from jail in Paris, Jefferson invited Paine back to the United States. Paine was, it was said, Lincoln’s favourite writer, and also seems to be a favourite of Obama’s, who quoted him without crediting him in his inauguration speech. In short, the exchange which is quoted by Linebaugh at the start of his introduction, between Paine and his sponsor Benjamin Franklin seems apposite:

‘”Where liberty is, there is my country”, declared Benjamin Franklin, to which Thomas Paine replied, “Where is not liberty, there is mine”‘.

The picture at the top of this post shows John Light as Thomas Paine, and Daniel Anthony as Will, in the Globe’s production of A New World.

The power of an idea

5 November 2008

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Suppose we think of the power of an idea as a ratio. The amount of an explanation that it explains divided by the amount it needs to assume to do the explaining.

I found this in the Royal Society in a panel in the Royal Society written by Richard Dawkins. (It has been moved there from a National Portrait Gallery exhibition called Heroes and Villains. The theory in question was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution which of course has huge positive score: it explains a huge amount and needs to assume only a little (the principle of random selection).

Neo-classical economics, in contrast, has to assume so much (this is my thought, not Dawkins’) that its ratio disappears towards zero.

The Royal Society was founded in 1660, as a large stained glass window inside the building reminds us: the first corresponding society in the world, and the first virtual community of scholars and academics, now almost 350 years old.

The picture is an 1874 lithograph called The Pedigree of Man, by Ernst Haeckl, from creationwiki’s page on the theory of evolution.