Speaking Volumes: Tom Paine's Pamphlets

January 20, 1995

Harvey J. Kaye on Tom Paine's Pamphlets.

I have testified in these pages and elsewhere to the influence upon me of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, C. Wright Mills's Sociological Imagination, E. H. Carr's What is History?, T. H. White's Once and Future King (the only fiction I have read and reread many a time) and the prison writings of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci.

Yet, I am convinced my intellectual and political orientations were determined long before my encounters with those works. Indeed, I am sure both my passion for history and my commitment to radical democratic politics were instilled in me by my grandfather's own dramatic renditions of chapters of The Torah (the Old Testament) and his personal tales of growing up a Russian-Jewish immigrant boy and socialist youth on the Lower East Side of New York City.

A trial lawyer by profession, Grandpa Lou was persuasive, and my childhood imagination articulated his accounts of exploitation and oppression, belief and dissent, exodus and liberation as a single story of the past and the making of the present, a narrative of human experience and aspiration as the struggle for freedom and justice. As Gramsci himself wrote from one of Mussolini's gaols, encouraging his young son to read history: "All that can't fail to please you more than anything else. Isn't that right?" At the same time, I do recollect my grandfather's words being enhanced by the wondrous illustrations of the Giant Golden Bible Old Testament, a book he gave me well before I could actually read and which I still hold on to dearly.

On becoming literate I gravitated (rather prematurely) to the bookshelves in the corner of the dining room of my grandparents' apartment. I clearly remember escaping the grown-ups' conversations in favour of returning over and again to those shelves and to two volumes in particular among the many English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian texts lined up there.

One was a curious work by Joseph Lewis published by the Freethought Press Association contending that, in fact, it was not Thomas Jefferson who had authored the American Declaration of Independence but Thomas Paine. I was fascinated by it because it challenged established history, and for several years -- even though I knew I was wrong -- I obnoxiously argued the point against my teachers. I smartly dropped the case while in high school, but, having been endowed by my grandfather with Paine's own (actual) writings, I made the revolutionary pamphleteer my personal political hero; though it was not until last year when I co-edited The American Radical (Routledge) that I finally had a chance to write my first biographical essay on Paine.

Truly, the American and British Lefts could use someone like him today, that is, a voice capable of engaging the essentially radical-democratic sentiments and values of our respective peoples and reinvigorating the struggle against property and privilege and for liberty, equality and democratic community. (I should add that although I failed to retrieve the Lewis book from my grandfather's collection, I happened upon a copy just a few years ago in a secondhand shop in Indiana and snatched it up for a mere $2.00. Strangely, I can't bring myself to read it.) The other book in my grandfather's "library" that so intrigued me -- and that I did secure for myself -- was H. G. Wells' The Outline of History. Since my grandparents lived across the street from the Brooklyn Museum, I allowed Wells to be my guide through its many and diverse rooms of art and archaeology (where, to my boyish delight, they had an unwrapped "mummy" on display.). I devoured Wells's text in chunks and, while I did not follow its every chapter, the work served as my first introduction to the history of "humankind". Moreover, it further persuaded me that history was large and universal, and that in spite of catastrophes, humanity was making something of itself.

My grandfather died in 1979, just before the New Right's ascendance to political power. But had he been around to hear Fukuyama's proclamation ten years later that we had arrived at the "end of history", I know Grandpa Lou would have been amused and, likely, he would have referred us either to Wells's words in The Outline -- "Let the reader but refer to the earlier time charts we have given in this history, and he will see the true measure and transitoriness of all the conflicts, deprivations and miseries of this present period of painful and yet hopeful change" -- or, even better, to Paine's defiant line in Common Sense that "we have it in our power to begin the world over again".

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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