6 de março de 2015

Lendo Paine a partir da esquerda

Embora abraçado por pessoas como Glenn Beck, Thomas Paine foi a figura mais radical da Revolução Americana.

Sean Monahan

Jacobin

"Thomas Paine" de Laurent Dabos.

Quando Thomas Paine faleceu em sua pequena fazenda em New Rochelle, Nova York em 1809, ele estava empobrecido e em grande parte deslegitimado.

Nos Estados Unidos, passando por uma revitalização religiosa dramática, foi caluniado como um "infiel" e um "bêbado" por seus ataques ao cristianismo e os rumores de sua depravação moral pessoal. Isso, além de suas tiradas contra George Washington, os federalistas e a escravidão tinha dizimado sua reputação no país que ele ajudou a fundar.

Do outro lado do Atlântico, Paine foi condenado como um traidor à Coroa e um perigoso rebelde por sua apaixonada defesa da Revolução Francesa em Os direitos do homem, condenado na ausência por difamação sediciosa e queimado em efígie em toda a Grã-Bretanha. Nenhuma pessoa foi vista como uma ameaça maior aos establishments políticos de seu tempo do que Paine, tanto nas monarquias da Europa como em sua própria República Americana.

Como um culto da personalidade em torno dos "Pais Fundadores" cresceu ao longo da história dos EUA, o autor de Senso comum foi notoriamente excluído. Por cerca de duzentos anos, a imagem de Paine nos principais círculos americanos estava completamente manchada: a visão de Teddy Roosevelt sobre ele como um "pequeno ateu imundo" resume o sentimento prevalecente. Não é surpresa que, décadas antes, Abraham Lincoln manteve sua admiração por Paine em silêncio.

No entanto, o interesse em Paine aumentou durante períodos de crise e agitação democrática na década de 1930 e novamente na década de 1960, e as coisas mudaram quando Ronald Reagan, em seu discurso de aceitação de 1980 para a nomeação do Partido Republicano para presidente, citou a promessa inspiradora do grande revolucionário "Nós temos o poder de começar o mundo de novo." Desde então, Paine foi readmitido na formação de fundadores dos EUA, e recentemente foi tornado o improvável cartza da direita reacionária, mais notadamente pela personalidade da mídia Glenn Beck.

Improvável, porque Paine foi um defensor consistente de um governo federal forte e também um crítico acentuado da desigualdade econômica e a pobreza, que criaram o primeiro esquema de provisão de assistência social do mundo. Além disso, ele introduziu milhões a uma crítica radical da propriedade privada e da sociedade de classes, e apontou a política democrática como a solução.

Ao longo do século XIX, enquanto as classes dominantes estavam amaldiçoando o nome de Paine nos púlpitos e palácios, os crescentes movimentos dos trabalhadores radicais brindavam a sua lembrança e reimprimiam suas obras. Os republicanos irlandeses, os cartistas da Inglaterra e o movimento trabalhista americano precoce elogiaram Paine e suas idéias ecoaram em toda a Europa nas revoluções de 1848. Durante as gerações, o aniversário do revolucionário foi celebrado todo dia 29 de janeiro iniciando movimentos sindicais e socialistas em ambos os lados do Atlântico, que consideravam Paine como um dos seus pais intelectuais e um modelo para os revolucionários democráticos.

No século XIX e início do século XX, os únicos americanos que se atreveram a reivindicar abertamente Thomas Paine por conta própria eram sindicalistas radicais, livre-pensadores, abolicionistas e socialistas. Como John Nichols aponta, em 1856, o New York Times advertiu que "os muitos painitas socialistas... e sua afiliação a todas as espécies de radicalismo na terra constituiu o mal para o futuro da nossa república".

O prussiano de quarenta e poucos anos, discípulo de Karl Marx e general do exército da União da Guerra Civil, August Willich, elogiou as críticas radicais de Paine à autoridade em dezenas de celebrações de aniversário realizadas por organizações radicais alemãs-americanas. Eugene Debs também era um painista ceclarado, e em seu julgamento por sedição por se opor publicamente à Primeira Guerra Mundial, ele citou a declaração de Paine: "Meu país é o mundo. Fazer o bem é a minha religião" como um modelo do "patriotismo mais amplo" que ele defendeu.

Como observa Harvey Kaye, o Partido Comunista publicou uma coleção dos escritos de Paine em 1937 e o saudou como o "principal lutador para a democracia mundial", o "principal propagandista e agitador da revolução" e um radical visionário que viu "além dos limites da revolução burguesa", atacou a "acumulação de propriedade" e propôs um "sistema de seguridade social".

Paine estava no centro de duas das grandes revoluções democráticas do final do século XVIII - a americana e o francesa. (Além disso, embora tenha achado a violência da Revolução Haitiana "angustiante", ele considerou "a consequência natural da escravidão", que deveria "ser esperado em todos os lugares".)

Não só ele era uma personalidade central na "era das revoluções", ele era um dos primeiros radicais a ligar a causa da democracia política às demandas econômicas. Por isso, ele foi promovido como um campeão não só dos direitos dos plebeus contra a aristocracia, mas, como afirmou Eric Hobsbawm, "as aspirações democráticas radicais de pequenos artesãos e artesãos pauperizados" contra os possuidores da propriedade.

Senso comum

A experiência de vida de Thomas Paine ensinou-o a pregar a rebelião contra a desigualdade. Ele nasceu em 29 de janeiro de 1737, em uma pequena cidade chamada Thetford, no leste da Inglaterra, em uma humilde família Quaker. Seu pai treinou-o na arte da família - a costura - apesar dele ter fugido de casa aos dezesseis anos.

Por sua conta, Paine encontrou trabalho como um jornalista, um cobrador de impostos ou um professor; passou por dois casamentos (o primeiro logo o deixou viúvo e o segundo terminou em separação); viveu principalmente com salários de miséria; e teve um tempo difícil segurando um emprego por qualquer período prolongado de tempo. Sua primeira incursão na política o encontrou liderando seus colecionadores de impostos em uma condenada campanha por salários mais altos. A primeira metade da vida de Paine, como disse o historiador Eric Foner, foi um "período de fracasso implacável", e fundamentou sua identificação vitalícia com a situação - e resiliência - dos pobres e trabalhadores.

Na década de 1770, ele conviveu com círculos de dissidentes religiosos e artesãos radicais na área de Londres e Lewes, e desenvolveu um interesse pela ciência, tecnologia, deísmo e filosofia política. Através deste meio dissidente conheceu Benjamin Franklin, que em 1774 incentivou Paine a imigrar para a América e lhe escreveu uma carta de recomendação.

Em sua chegada à Filadélfia, Paine encontrou rapidamente um lugar na comunidade de artesãos radicais de lá, tornando-se editor da revista Pensilvânia. Ele construiu um nome para si mesmo como uma voz articulada de dissidência política, embora usasse pseudônimos para seus artigos mais controversos.

Em um texto assinado como "Humanus", Paine criticou a Grã-Bretanha por "destruir as terras mal-aventuradas da África, roubando-a de seus habitantes inofensivos para cultivar seus domínios roubados no Ocidente", ameaçou a "Independência" para a América e pediu "A legislação continental, que impedirá a importação de negros à venda, suavizará o destino daqueles que já estão aqui e, com o tempo, obterá sua liberdade". Sob a palavra "Amicus", ele começou a formular um esquema de bem-estar social inicial que proporcionaria aos jovens casados com "uma suficiência razoável para começar" e um fundo "com o objetivo de nos apoiar na nossa velhice".

A Revolução Americana, no entanto, logo ofuscou esse trabalho inicial.

As military tensions were flaring up between the British and the colonists, Benjamin Rush suggested Paine write a pamphlet in support of independence from Britain and republican government, though advising him to avoid inflammatory words. Paine agreed to write the work, but ignored the advice to tone down the language.

He published Common Sense in early 1776, what historian Gordon Wood describes as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.” Here, Paine does not criticize this or that policy or any political figure in particular — he takes on the very principles of monarchical government and hereditary privilege. The essay sold more than 150,000 copies within the first few month, including editions translated into German. Paine later recalled this as “the greatest sale that any performance ever had since the use of letters.”

Whereas previous anti-British pamphlets had used dry, legalistic language, citing precedents and past authorities, Paine deliberately avoided “every literary ornament” and crafted his message with “nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” Not only did Paine’s work reach a much broader audience than previous attempts had, inspiring many to revolt, he succeeded in changing the very language of politics itself.

Before Paine’s writing, the word “republic” was commonly associated with mob rule and anarchy in mainstream discussion. After Common Sense had soaked through colonial society, a republic seemed to be the only just form of government. After all: “Of more worth is one honest man to society . . . than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” Paine’s work was crucial in winning over many to the cause of independence and republican government.

As Common Sense made the rounds, Paine took part in the political revolution in the province of Pennsylvania. As the old provincial assembly was continuing to favor reconciliation with the British, Paine and other radicals attacked the body as illegitimate on the grounds that its electorate had been restricted to property-owners. After ousting the old landed elite from power, the radicals called a popular provincial convention, which approved a new state constitution that featured a unicameral legislature based on universal male suffrage — allowing even indentured servants to vote — with one-year terms for office.

This was by far the most democratic constitution of the time. Paine took its unicameralism, its short office terms, and its universal male suffrage as the ideal against which he would criticize all other constitutions throughout his life, including those of the United States and France.

Indeed, Paine was among the first to criticize the Articles of Confederation; in Common Sense he had remarked, “the continental belt is too loosely buckled.” In the pamphlet Public Good and several letters he wrote in the early 1780s, he called for a new continental convention to draft a common constitution along the radically democratic and centralized lines of Pennsylvania’s of 1776. Because of this he later remarked, “I ought to stand first on the list of Federalists.”

But Paine condemned in the harshest language the Federalists themselves, describing the Federalist Papers as “despotic” and saying of John Adams, “his head was as full of kings, queens, and knaves, as a pack of cards.” The Federalists’ fears of the tyranny of the majority could not clash more with Paine’s vision of popular sovereignty as the solution to all problems, and view that institutional checks placed on the people’s will was an aristocratic threat to liberty.

Paine took his unshakeable faith in democratic government with him when he traveled to Europe in 1787. A student of science, Paine had designed an innovative iron bridge he hoped to build over the Schuykill River in Philadelphia, and he set forth for England with the simple purpose of finding investors for it. He had made a lot of powerful friends in the course of the Revolution, and the state of New York had gifted him a small farm seized from a loyalist, but Paine had donated all royalties from his publications to the cause of the young nation, and he could not finance his bridge’s construction on his own.

And so Paine stumbled to Europe, accidentally finding himself at the center of a new wave of revolutionary upheaval following the storming of the Bastille in France.

Justiça para todos

The United States that Paine had left was still an overwhelmingly agrarian society. By contrast, England in 1787 was in the early stages of the industrial revolution. While enchanted by the possibilities of industrialization, Paine also noted the monstrous social inequality that accompanied it.

After his arrival in Europe he traveled between London and Paris for a few years, trying to find investors for the construction of his bridge and befriending French Enlightenment thinkers and English radicals. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the Marquis de Lafayette invited him to Paris, where he witnessed firsthand the fervor surrounding the abolition of feudal privileges, the institution of a constitutional monarchy, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Paine excitedly wrote to George Washington, “A share in two revolutions is living with some purpose.”

After returning to London, Paine published Rights of Man, which laid out both a principled defense of the French Revolution and a damning criticism of the English monarchy and the aristocratic social system. The publication quickly sold thousands of copies, and he soon began work on a second part, which would mark a crucial development in his writing.

Rights of Man Part II goes beyond the critique of hereditary government and defense of political democracy seen in Common Sense and the first part of Rights of Man. Intended for the poor and working people of Britain, Part II specifically attacks social class and calls for not only republican government but also an elaborate system of social welfare provision.

In this work Paine draws a line in the sand between the virtuous producers and the idle rich who profit from the labors of others. He asks, “Why . . . does Mr. Burke talk of this House of Peers, as the pillar of the landed interest? Were that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would continue, and the same ploughing, sowing, and reaping would go on. The Aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land . . . but are the mere consumers of the rent.”

Despite his observation that “a great portion of mankind, in what are called civilized countries, are in a state of poverty and wretchedness” which was “far below” that of preindustrial societies, he did not wish to return to simple rural life as did philosophers like Rousseau. Rather, he wished to eliminate the evils of modern commercial life while maintaining its benefits.

To that end, Paine proposes not only the abolition of feudal privileges but also the introduction of large taxes on luxury goods and inheritances, and the use of the funds raised to pay for an elaborate welfare state. This would include direct welfare payments to the poor, public education for all children, old age pensions, income support for families with newborn children, and aid for funeral expenses.

Perhaps most shockingly, this scheme would provided for a network of public work houses in which anyone would be admitted for public employment with full room and board “without inquiring who or what they are,” where anyone is free to “stay as long, or as short time, or come as often as he choose.”

This is not only a remarkably advanced welfare system for 1792 — it’s astonishing in its complete rejection of the sorts of paternalism that have so often accompanied later schemes of social relief. Paine saw reliance on charity and the Poor Laws as inadequate and humiliating. In his system, all the programs are universal, with no strings attached, and are “rights” that can be demanded.

In Rights of Man Part II, Paine shows that society — specifically, “aristocratical” society — creates poverty: “One extreme produces the other: to make one rich many must be made poor; neither can the system be supported by other means.”

For Paine, the cause of political democracy is inseparable from the economic demands of the poor, and the solution is democratic government: the poor can escape their wretched condition only through politics. Rights of Man Part II sold roughly two hundred thousand copies that year, by far outselling any political pamphlet in history at that time. Its message quickly reverberated through the “lower orders” of British society, as well as the rest of Europe and North America.

It was not long before the specter of revolution began to grow over Britain. Graffiti began appearing in town squares in the night with mutinous slogans like “No king” and “Equality.” Grumblings among the working classes began to be heard even in daylight. A British general in 1792 reportedly had this dialogue with some English workers causing a disturbance in a town near Durham: “Have you read this little work of Tom Paine’s?” “No.” “Then read it — we like it much. You have a great estate, General; we shall soon divide it amongst us.”

In panic, the British government soon began rounding up the most prominent radicals to be tried for treason, starting with Paine. The American narrowly escaped arrest and fled to France, and afterwards he was tried and convicted in absentia. Throughout the British Isles, loyalist mobs burned effigies of the radical in public processions. His parting shot was a warning that “when the rich plunder the poor of his rights, it becomes an example to the poor to plunder the rich of his property.”

The revolutionary French government awarded Paine honorary French citizenship and, on his arrival in the country, he was elected as a representative to the Convention for Calais, arriving just in time to herald the abolition of the monarchy and the birth of a republic.

Paine could not speak French, and was therefore cut off from his usual base of popular support and had to rely heavily on his friends like Condorcet to keep him in the loop. As a result, he had a great difficulty finding a place in French Revolutionary politics, and nearly lost his life because of it.

Though Paine is sometimes mischaracterized as “among the most moderate of the Girondins,” he was in fact one of the most radical democrats in the Convention, and befriended members of both political factions, including Jacobin leader Georges Danton. Two things marked Paine for suspicion in Robespierre’s mind: his association with Girondins such as Condorcet and his advocacy that the deposed king be spared the death penalty.

While Paine agreed that Louis Capet was guilty of high treason, he argued for the punishment of exile rather than execution. This position was based on a principled objection to the death penalty: “as France has been the first of European nations to abolish royalty, let her also be the first to abolish the punishment of death.” Paine convinced nearly half of the Assembly, but not quite enough. In January 1793, the king was sent to the guillotine.

As the French Revolutionary War turned sour, Paris was riven by faction fighting, and the provinces were engulfed by peasant uprisings, Paine withdrew from the Convention in disaffection. At the end of 1793, Robespierre came to power and Paine was arrested along with everyone else associated with the Girondins.

After riding out the Reign of Terror in Luxembourg Prison, Paine managed to avoid the guillotine by a fluke accident and, after the fall of Robespierre and the rise of the Directory, was finally released due to the intervention of the new American ambassador, James Monroe.

He lived with the Monroes for the next few years. Though still recovering his health, he stayed tuned in to political developments in the country and followed intently the crackdown against the Conspiracy of Equals, a group of ex-Jacobins aiming at the violent overthrow of the Directory, and the trial and execution of their leader, Gracchus Babeuf. Their thought would have a large influence on Paine.

The “Babouvistes,” as they were known, were the first modern revolutionary communist movement, and their assault on property was far more radical than anything Paine or other radicals had put forward. Taking the political theory of Rousseau in a radical new direction, they argued, “miseries and slavery are consequences of inequality, which is itself the result of property. Property is, therefore, the greatest scourge on society; it is a veritable public crime.” All differences in wealth are unearned — they accrue by the exploitation of others, or by the accident of naturally endowed strengths and talents — and therefore are undeserved.

The Babouvistes proposed a new Reign of Terror during which they would nationalize all private property, impose equal liability to work and provide an equal distribution of goods to each citizen. This plan was popular with the Parisian sans-cullottes, though many balked at the conspirators’ bloodlust.

Speaking in the same radical democratic republican language as Paine, the Babouvistes came to a much more fundamental critique of property and a wholly collectivist solution. Though the Conspiracy was discovered and its leaders arrested, the movement’s doctrine left a deep impression on Paine.

His Agrarian Justice, written in 1795–96, was Paine’s last great pamphlet and marked the completion of the social welfare project he had proposed in Philadelphia in 1775. The pamphlet reiterates in clear language Paine’s theory that inequality and poverty arise not from nature but from society. More clearly than in Rights of Man Part II, and plainly inspired by the Babouvistes, he traces the origins of this inequality to private property. Crucially, the cause of inequality in Agrarian Justice is no longer linked to an “aristocratic” system of privileges, as in all his previous works, but to the very institution of property itself.

In the author’s inscription, he states, “There are two kinds of property. Firstly, natural property,” in the land, air, and water of the earth, which the Creator gave all humanity an equal right to, and, secondly, “artificial or acquired property,” the products of labor of which “equality is impossible,” since that would require “that all should have contributed in the same proportion, which can never be the case.” He states, “Equality of natural property is the subject of this little essay. Every individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property, or its equivalent.”

He goes on to argue, like John Locke had, that in the state of nature the earth and all its bounties were “the common property of the human race.” But unlike Locke, Paine insists that this right is not forfeited when land is claimed as private property for the sake of cultivation — “it is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.”

He explains that such private property is justified because cultivation so greatly increases the productivity of the soil, but that in “all those who have been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property” are owed compensation for that loss by right.

“Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a ground-rent . . . for the land which he holds,” the funds from which would go towards a new scheme of social security. Again, Paine insists, “it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for.”

The money raised by this ground rent would be distributed out as an equal payment to “every person, rich or poor” on turning twenty-one, guaranteeing to each citizen a modest inheritance, “means to prevent their becoming poor.” This proposal has often been interpreted as the first suggestion for a universal basic income, but that doesn’t seem to be exactly what Paine had in mind.

While a basic income is usually seen as an anti-poverty measure designed to help the poor meet their living expenses with regular cash payments, Paine’s proposal takes the form of a one-time lump-sum grant given to each individual when they reach adulthood. He goes on to say, “With this aid they could buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and [work for themselves] instead of becoming burdens upon society.” Paine hopes that recipients will use their social inheritance not to buy consumption goods, but to buy for themselves some means of production, and avoid entirely the precarious and pauperized life of wage labor.

This is a universal capital grant, not a basic income. Paine wants to make everyone the owner of productive property. Republican liberty, after all, requires economic independence and material security for everyone.

But in devising this scheme, Paine goes beyond, and contradicts, his initial claim to deal exclusively with “natural property.” The ground-rent he proposes would take the form of a 10 percent inheritance tax on all estates. The value of these inheritances, he realizes, includes “what is called personal, as well as . . . landed property,” and there is no clear way of parsing out the two.

Therefore, he goes on to offer two criticisms of personal property itself, which he had defended in the preface as the just returns to one’s labor. The first is remarkable:

Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally. Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

As said the Babouvistes, now says Paine: one does not truly have a claim to the “full product of their labor,” since their very productivity is a creation of society. This argument is even more profound than that of Paine’s Ricardian Socialist followers; eighty years later Karl Marx would level a more developed version of this very criticism against the philosophy of Lasalle in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

Paine’s second criticism is equally profound: “if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labour that produced it; the consequence of which is, that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.” Here Paine sees property to be the result of the exploitation of labor by capital.

Given the depth of Paine’s criticism of the principles of private property, it is unclear why he is so devoted to defending a reformed version of the institution. It is clear that he sees “landed monopoly” as inseparably linked to “cultivation . . . one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention,” and in his system he seeks to “remedy the evils and preserve the benefits” of the modern system.

But he seems to contradict himself in two respects: first, he seeks to preserve the benefits of large-scale cultivation and production, but his capital grant proposal has the aim of offering an escape from wage labor in large-scale cultivation and production; and second, he wants to create a system in which everyone appropriates the full products of their labor, but offers a profound criticism of the very idea of the right to “the full products of one’s labor.” The question remains: why not communism?

Nonetheless, Agrarian Justice is an enormously important development in working-class political thought. “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust,” Paine argues. “It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it.”

Since a democratic republic requires economically secure and independent citizens, socioeconomic rights cannot be separated from political rights. Paine makes quite clear that addressing the issue of material inequality grows “spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution,” and that a “revolution in the state of civilization is the necessary companion of revolutions in the system of government,” in order “to give that revolution effect.” Marxists would later call this objective “social revolution.”

Modern socialists no doubt will see the specific form of Paine’s solution as insufficient. But he was, after all, writing at a time in which modern class antagonisms were “only just cropping up,” and which could then be thought of only “in their earliest, indistinct and undefined forms,” as Marx later said in defense of a different group of early socialist thinkers, who wrote in the decades after Paine.

It was quite reasonable to propose small proprietorship and commerce as a solution to inequality in the 1790s, even if we see that same solution as thoroughly obsolete today.

We should not overlook the significance of Paine’s fundamental critique of the regime of private property and his insistence that the political revolution must be followed by a social revolution that transforms those property relations.

The American revolutionary’s formula was groundbreaking: exploitation and inequality are the disease, and democratic politics is the remedy. This message reached hundreds of thousands of poor working people in a time when the Industrial Revolution had only just begun.

Um mundo a ganhar

The connection between Thomas Paine’s writing and Karl Marx’s politics isn’t simply one of an abstract resemblance. Most prominent socialist theorists of Marx’s day were consistently apolitical or anti-political: some, like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, advocated the withdrawal from society into utopian communes; others, like Henri de Saint-Simon, offered technocratic schemes to existing governments; still others, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, called for working-class mutual aid societies and total abstinence from politics.

Against these socialists, Marx advanced a revolutionary politics inspired by the political activities of two national trade union movements: the Chartists in Britain and the Workingmen’s movement in the United States, both of which were thoroughly Painite.

In Britain, the growing trade union movement of the early nineteenth century closely linked its economic demands and strike activity with the demand for the right to vote and political democracy. Friedrich Engels, witnessing firsthand the strike wave of 1842 at his father’s factory in Manchester, became an enthusiastic supporter of the People’s Charter and wrote several pieces about the promise of these Painite, working-class democrats that Marx published in the Rheinische Zeitung and the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.

The activities of the Chartists, as well as the French radicals of his day, served as Marx’s model for working-class politics under authoritarian regimes: the struggle for political democracy, republican government, and universal suffrage.

In the Northern United States, property qualifications were removed from the right to vote in the late 1820s as part of the Jacksonian reform movement. Taking advantage of their newly won suffrage, Painite trade unionists in Philadelphia founded the Workingmen’s Party (the “Workies”) in 1828, the first labor party in world history, to compete against what they saw as the two parties of capital.

One of the leaders of the New York Workingmen’s Party, Thomas Skidmore, the next year wrote Rights of Man to Property!, a book that took Paine’s argument in Agrarian Justice to a much more radical conclusion. Skidmore’s platform called for a statewide convention that would seize all private property in the state of New York and reapportion it equally to each resident.

This Worky leader seems to be the first figure in history to voice something close to the exclamation “expropriate the expropriators” — and did so in a tract whose title is a deliberate nod to Paine’s Rights of Man. Extending Paine’s egalitarianism, Skidmore argued for full citizenship and voting rights for every resident of New York, including blacks, American Indians, and women, and an equal share of property for everyone.

This proposal and the considerable (though short-lived) electoral success of the Workingmen’s Parties provoked a wave of panic by the ruling classes across the United States.

Two accounts of this movement, one by Scottish aristocrat Thomas Hamiltonand another by English Jacobin-turned-South Carolina slavery apologist Thomas Cooper, both found their way onto the reading list of Karl Marx during his formative years in the mid 1840s. Reading these hysterical reports of the American Workies, which he referred to as the American “socialist democratic school,” undoubtedly helped to inspire Marx’s view of the working class as the agent of modern social revolution, the centrality of universal suffrage for the cause of socialism, and the need for a mass-based political party of labor as the democratic vehicle to achieve that revolution.

While Marx didn’t engage much with the works of Paine himself, the American revolutionary’s followers on both sides of the Atlantic played an enormous role in forging the nineteenth century’s workers movement that supplied Marx with the empirical politics that he provided a rich philosophical justification for.

It’s no coincidence that he would write, “Socialism and communism did not emanate from Germany but from England, France and North America” — the same places where Paine had done so much to foment democratic revolution.

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