essays

Mar 1, 1982

Tom Paine, Bourgeois Radical Democrat

“Paine was [prevented by his] liberal social theory and competitive individualism from seeing nongovernmental threats to freedom, equality, and democracy.”

Isaac Kramnick
Dept. of History, Cornell University

“Tom Paine: Radical Democrat.” Democracy 1 (January 1981): 127–138.

Alone among the American revolutionary founders of 1776, Tom Paine (1737–1809) was “considered a true democrat—a populist, an egalitarian, a democrat.” In contrast to conservatives and neo-conservatives who see democracy as “problematic,” Paine trusted in the people unfettered by government and thus qualifies as the “first important radical in the American political tradition.” But there are revealing limitations to Paine’s world view. His democratic commitment was bound to a liberal framework. “Paine’s is a radicalism on the left fringe of the American liberal consensus. But it is a bourgeois radicalism, nonetheless, complete with all the strengths and weaknesses of that tradition.”

Paine enthusiastically rejected the aristocratic world of spendthrift kings and nobility, and he sought to debunk the deceptions and power of “government” which he starkly opposed to the free and natural order of “society,” the harmony of liberal individuals. In doing away with the old trappings of feudal privilege, Paine crusaded to aid the productive poor, the old, and those needing public education. Paine’s radical egalitarianism was not protosocialism; in the name of talent, merit, and productive work, it was bound up with the interests of bourgeois liberalism, the principal doctrine behind the assault on the old regime’s aristocratic privileges.

Paine’s political theory was “vintage liberalism” in assuming the absence of cooperation and fellowship in the political arena. Government had no positive agency to promote justice or virtue; at best, it could preside as an umpire over a world where individualism was the central value. Along with his entrepreneurial friends — the Wedgewoods and the Arkwrights — Paine favored equal opportunity in a competitive individualistic society rather than a political leveling to achieve equal results. Individualist society and its economic institutions were benevolent, free, and productive in marked contrast to the taxing and coercive tyranny of government and its ally, the established Church. In America Paine glimpsed a liberal utopia in which civil society had triumphed over government. “Traditional republican doctrine is turned on its head; self-serving individuals further the common good, and public government serves its own selfish and corrupt interest.”

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That government power might serve less abusive ends could not occur to individualistic liberals like Paine. The connection of power, community, and freedom could come only with democratic theorists like Rousseau. Paine was trapped by the limitations of liberal social theory and competitive individualism from seeing nongovernmental threats to freedom, equality, and democracy. We should never forget, despite Paine’s limitations, his passionate and radical opposition to privilege.