Monday, September 24, 2012

So Thomas Paine 
Was a Crypto-Marxist. 
Who Knew?

Thomas Paine c. 1806

[The following essay, truncated and edited with emphasis added by FT, was published anonymously, and appears largely to be a rationalization of the author whose belief in Marxian ideology is patently obvious, yet it provides interesting, little-known information on some of the more curious and eccentric ideas of Thomas Paine, who was disavowed and disowned by George Washington and other Founders after the success of our revolution.]

Thomas Paine’s Take on Social Justice

I recently read Thomas Paine’s essay “Agrarian Justice”, and I think it’s important that we bring it up in today’s climate.

Every day, it seems, I hear or read people say things that imply that they believe that liberalism originated with The New Deal, that any government social justice programs are inherently derived from Communism or Socialism ...  that our country was founded as a Capitalist, Christian nation, and that liberalism is somehow ... a rejection of, the foundational ideals of our government.

Even many “liberals” seem to accept the assumption that the founding fathers laid a foundation of Capitalism and Christianity.  Hence the seeming need of some to denigrate and defile their memories.

My position, after reading many of the original works of these men, and other great Americans ... is that they knew they were laying a foundation.  They knew there was only so much work they could do, and that other work would be the task of future generations.

For instance, they proudly proclaimed that each and every man should be his own master, though some of them owned slaves because they recognized that dismantling in international economy built on human trafficking was the work of many generations.

They correctly assessed that their time was the time to undermine the assumption of the Divine right of Kings, and to elevate Natural Philosophy above superstition as the means of lighting the path for future innovations.  That is a great enough task for any generation, I would say.

The Founding Fathers were liberals.  Most of them used the word “liberal” to describe themselves, and at least three of the greatest minds and eloquent spokesmen for the American Revolution were not Christians, but were deists (Men who, though they believed in God, cast aside the mental shackles of religious superstition to embrace the idea of natural laws as being the supreme expression of God).  One was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.  Another was James Madison, primary author of the United States Constitution, and a third was Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense” and the “American Crisis” series of essays (among others) that galvanized and propelled the American Revolution (as well as the French Revolution) with his ... sheer virtuosity with the English language.

To be liberal is to be American, but lets take a moment to define liberal.  Conservative pundits would have you believe that “Liberal” means taking drugs, having meaningless kinky sex with many anonymous partners, destroying families, having many abortions, and loving trees and animals more than human beings.

Some people who call themselves liberals might do some of these things, but none of these are “liberal values”.

“Liberals”, in the traditional American sense, are people who believe in the principles of the Enlightenment.  Liberals believe that reality is the ultimate test of any ideology.  They rely on the basic premise that natural laws and natural philosophy (exploring natural law with the tools of reason and logic) should be the foundation of human effort.

One idea that came about through this thought process is the idea that in a natural state, every man belongs to himself.  Where there is no government or religion to tell him what to do, he is free to do as he chooses.  Whether he lives or dies, lives in prosperity or wretchedness, in health or sickness; it is on his merits and his alone that he achieves of fails.  If he dies, he dies as a man.  If he lives, he lives as a man.  If he is moral or immoral, noble or brutish; he is so of his own power.  It is a state neither superior nor inferior to a state of civilization, it is merely the natural state of man.  It is not an ideal state.  Though man is in control of himself, he controls nothing else.  He cannot control the world around him, other men, or his destiny outside of what he can do of himself and his own power.  But he does control himself, completely.  ...

In “Agrarian Justice”, Thomas Paine described that natural state as one that entitled every man equally to the fruits of the earth, and to existence on the earth.  Though some were better suited to survive than others, all had equal inheritance to strive.  No one “owned” land, in the sense that one’s ability to exploit the benefits of land was only equal to your ability to hold it and make use of it on your own or at most in a family unit.  

This is, of course, a thought experiment, as we can have no idea what life was actually like before any kind of civilization.  It is up to [us] to decide if the picture painted is useful or enlightening.

Civilization changed that with the cultivation of land.  Once land was improved, such that it could yield many times more food than it could before, it became essential that one person be able to “own” a given piece of land.  Nobody would cultivate land that could be taken away.  Instead of cultivating it, they merely moved on when they had used what bounty it yielded on its own.  They would hold it and chase others away only as long as it was worth the effort.

Civilization, land ownership, and land improvement evolved in an interconnected way.  You could not have one without the other…and once those conditions arose, it became impossible to reverse.  Land, once cleared of forest, cultivated, and owned, where that ownership was supported by a government, and the government supported by land owners, would forever be property.

But Thomas Paine argued that it was still not the land that was “owned”, but the labor to improve it, which was irreversible (for all practical purposes) and inseparable from the land.  Civilization provided the means by which an individual or family could hold onto the land they cultivated.  Cultivation provided the means by which soldiers and laborers and craftsmen could be fed ...

Paine goes on to point out, however, that though most people benefited from this innovation, there were many who suffered by it.  ...  Poverty, Paine asserts, is an artifact of civilization.  There are people that society simply has no place for.

And though society has no place or use for them, they are unable to live in the natural state, as land must be owned.  Therefore, society owes them such consideration as to at least give them a means to avoid wretchedness.

In other words, a social safety net.  People who cannot work to maintain a place in civilization, whether it be because they are too young, too old, too sick, or ... disabled, should be provided for by those who benefit from civilization, at the expense of others.  (I would add, n modern times, people who require re-training due to outmoded skills sets)  He did not propose this as charity.  He did not view it as beneficence, but as justice.  As society paying these people back for the loss of their inheritance of the bounty of the world that they would have equal share of in the natural state.

Paine [proposed the idea] that [while] civilization certainly benefited everyone to different degrees  ... [no one]  should be worse off under civilization than he would be in a natural state.

He had very specific proposals as to how it would be executed, and I’m sure they made sense in sparsely populated post-colonial America where most of the wealth was in land. ... [O]ur modern Social Security System is a very good analogue for his proposal.  There are some ... differences, but what stands out as the same is the sense of social justice.

Liberals believe that people are entitled to dignity, and to the ability to meet their basic needs.  In a natural state, most people would die.  Because of civilization, there are more people alive who would have died in the natural state.  Civilization cannot, will not, and should not dispose of them ...   [instead[ it must maintain them, or help them maintain themselves ...  They should be able to get food, clothing, shelter, health care and education.  They should have decent jobs if they can work, and their basic needs provided for if they cannot.  And certainly, society should not turn it’s power against them to keep them wretched for the benefit others.

This cannot be done unless the people who benefit from civilization give some of their wealth back to the society to pay for it.

The conservative model of “faith-based initiatives” seems to be centered on the idea that charity should be the prerogative of the giver.  The giver should be able to choose who he thinks is worthy.  That people should have to supplicate themselves to churches and “sing for their supper”.  There is a meanness and pettiness to this that is unworthy of the wealthiest nation on Earth.  And somehow, a lot of people think that this is the American Way.  That it is a foundational value of our society.

Well, I have at least one founding father on record that says it isn’t so.  I prefer the idea that a just nation will have little need for charity.

~ § ~

[NOTE: Undoubtedly, it would be a good idea to read "Agrarian Justice" the essay by Thomas Paine that supposedly inspired this article. It may be found at the following link:

The complete essay that constitutes this article, may be found,as originally written, at the following link:

Another article of interest on the ultimate fate of Thomas Paine may be found here:]

Many thanks to Les Carpenter of Rational Nation for prompting us to examine this topic. ~ FT


  1. Fascinating post, FT.

    In other words, a social safety net. People who cannot work to maintain a place in civilization, whether it be because they are too young, too old, too sick, or ... disabled, should be provided for by those who benefit from civilization, at the expense of others. (I would add, n modern times, people who require re-training due to outmoded skills sets) He did not propose this as charity. He did not view it as beneficence, but as justice.

    That part does make sense to me -- although I would say that families helping out families comes first and friends helping out friends comes second BEFORE the government steps in. Particularly the central government.

    Church in the larger sense should also have responsibility.

    The key, of course, is not to have the majority of any society on the dole -- any kind of dole.

    Capitalism isn't perfect. What is better, though?

    Of course, today we have seen capitalism perverted into a strange and voracious animal.

    I wonder what Paine would have said about federal income tax.

    From time to time, as I can afford it, I give personal charity -- help to someone whom I personally know. I'd rather do that than support a public charity, where so often the money is gobbled up in graft and/or wasteful spending.

    PS: I wish that I had time to make a longer and more involved comment. But it's off to PT for Mr. AOW today. Some great news on that front: more therapy has been approved, I think. We're spending buckets of money, but seeing results some three years after Mr. AOW's stroke.

  2. By definition, Paine cannot be a Marxist, since he predated Marx, but I see where you're coming from.

    Paine was a true radical, and he almost got himself killed by the French libertines he supported (There's a lesson in there somewhere)

    The anonymous author fails to see the vast difference between the classical liberal of the Founders' day and today's very doctrinaire, illiberal self-described "liberal."

    There is no comparison.

    "Give me taxpayer-funded birth control or I'll give you death!" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

  3. Mr. Paine had a very admirable idea. It's a shame that he neglected the points arrived at by Mr. Thomas Malthus in his famous essay published a mere three years later. For the arguments therein have demonstrably rendered Mr. Paine's plan imminently impracticable without amendments imposing heretofore unheard of reproductive restrictions (the equivalent of a China "One Child Policy").

  4. "A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counter-acting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full."

  5. Thank you, Silver and AOW for stopping by.

    If you can find the time, Paine's essay, itself, from 1795 and two other articles about Thomas Paine are linked at the bottom of today's article.

    It was Les Carpenter who prompted me to examine this topic. I've always known Thomas Paine was a true radical -- as were most of the Founders -- but I never knew he was motivated by collectivist-redistributionist ideas before.

    Frankly, given the decidedly modern, liberal-progressive thrust of the anonymous essay, we'd all do well to read Paine's work, itself. EIghteenth-century political prose is rarely an easy read, however, which is why most of tend to remain ignorant of intimate knowldge of the Founders.

    Not long ago I forced myself to plow through Washington's Farewell Address. I'm sorry to say it was a stupefying experience. Very heavy sledding. GW may have been a great man, but the style of his prose leaves much to be desired.

    Also, there are nay number of points in the anonymous essay that could and should be challenged -- the assertion that James Madison was not a man of faith and the general tone of hostility towards Christianity attributed to the Founders are among them.

    I, myself, am a Christian, but one who vehemently rejects most of the Old Testament and any kind "Authoritarian" approach to Faith. What I mean, of course, is that it's impossible to coerce anyone into believing something that his heart cannot accept, therefore it's downright anti-Christian to make such an attempt.

    In that regard I am probably in accord with most of the Founding Fathers -- certainly Jefferson whom I greatly admire for a host of reasons.

    ~ FT

  6. The arguments AGAINST Malthus were left to Marx. IMO, "ridicule" is not a very effective argument.

  7. ...besides, the "institutional" discrimination that kept the poor people, poor, did NOT arise from an over abundance of labour, but from a "shortage" there-of.

    The earliest medieval Poor Law was the Ordinance of Labourers which was issued by King Edward III of England on 18 June 1349, and revised in 1350. The ordinance was issued in response to the 1348–1350 outbreak of the Black Death in England, when an estimated 30–40% of the population had died. The decline in population left surviving workers in great demand in the agricultural economy of Britain. Landowners had to face the choice of raising wages to compete for workers or letting their lands go unused. Wages for labourers rose, and this forced up inflation across the economy as goods became more expensive to produce. An attempt to rein in prices, the ordinance (and subsequent acts, such the Statute of Labourers of 1351) required that everyone who could work did; that wages were kept at pre-plague levels and that food was not overpriced. In addition, the Statute of Cambridge was passed in 1388 and placed restrictions on the movement of labourers and beggars.

    This is why Paine "tiptoes" around the issue of calling it an Agrarian "Law" as opposed to "justice" in his original essay.

  8. It is only by tracing things to their origin that we can gain rightful ideas of them, and it is by gaining such ideas that we, discover the boundary that divides right from wrong, and teaches every man to know his own. I have entitled this tract "Agrarian Justice" to distinguish it from "Agrarian Law."

    Nothing could be more unjust than agrarian law in a country improved by cultivation;...

  9. And Adam Smith was pro unions.

    There is so much that the fringe right doesn't know.

  10. Cursing liberals again, Freethinker?

    Okay, let's put it on a level you understand because you don't understand economics.

    A liberal is someone who understand that Schubert represents a modest intermediate level in song form that has been transcended by mostly black performers such as Johnny Hartman singing Strayhorn's Lush Life. Puts Schubert to shame in all phases, melody, rhythm, poetry.

  11. Yes, ducky, Adam Smith was a veritable union organizer... *rolls eyes*

    "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary."

    -Adam Smith, "Wealth of Nations" (Book I Ch X)

  12. And Adam Smith was pro unions.

    there is nothing inherently anti-free market about unions, or guilds as they were called back in Adam Smith's day. The problem is when they, like the pseudo capitalist business class, form an unholy alliance with government.

    And Ducky, today's doctrinaire, dogmantic, march in lockstep, herd mentality "liberals" bear no resemblance to the founding fathers.

  13. FT,

    Paine was not calling for anything even resembling Marxism. Paine did not say that everyone in society should have the same socio-economic status. He did not suggest that the government take over all means of production.

    The author of this article wasn't talking about anything that had to do with Marx, either.

    Social safety net =/= Marxism. I mean what are we supposed to do? Tell people with disabilities "sorry for your luck. Don't blame me, blame God!"?

    What if you're a third generation poverty stricken family? How are your friends and family going to help then?

    It is more just to say that we, as a society, are going to take care of those who are vulnerable than to say "well, sorry for your luck but you're on your own--hope you know someone generous." For a society such as ours, with such great wealth, it is immoral to tell people to fend for themselves, especially when their trials and tribulations are not their fault.

  14. “If only Malthus, rather than Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much richer and wiser place the world would have been today!” - John Maynard Keynes

  15. Reestablishing our credentials as our resident pain-in-the-ass are we, Canardo?

    And always JUST when I begin to believe we may have found common ground at last!

    Well, it's COMMON all right, but in the wrong sense of the word.

    I have a much greater understanding of economics than you do of Schubert, Ignoranto.


    I never cease to wonder -- marvel even -- at the apparent inability of intelligent people to recognize wry, tongue-in-cheek humor, satire and figurative language when presented in the blogosphere.

    I absolutely despise deadheaded literalism, and refuse to express myself by simply listing "facts" without personal interpretation, literary allusion or literary references.

    The greatest sin is to bore. I'd rather infuriate, annoy or occasionally hurt people than put them to sleep with dry, witless, deadly serious attempts at "analysis."

    Love you all, but for Christ's sake, LIGHTEN UP if only just a wee bit.

    ~ FT

  17. "The problem [with unions] is when they, like the pseudo capitalist business class, form an unholy alliance with government."

    That, of course, defines our Central Economic Problem very neatly.

    The question we need to answer is this:

    "What could we hope to do to reform the current, thoroughly corrupt system without staging a bloody revolution where hundreds of thousands -- possibly millions -- would perish and millions more suffer deprivation and untold agony?"

    "And Ducky, today's doctrinaire, dogmatic, march in lockstep, herd mentality 'liberals' bear no resemblance [whatsoever] to the founding fathers."

    You forgot to add "militant" to that, SilverFiddle, but other than that your statement is spot on.

    ~ FT

  18. I have not read the essay by Malthus you linked, Thersites, but if the lengthy quotation in your second post was written by him, I'd say he sounds as heartless and inhumane as Ayn Rand, who like Marl Marx, himself, -- and all these guys and gals --"stole" or "borrowed" much of their thinking from lesser known, but more creative predecessors.

    Such "borrowing" and reinventing of old material has always been standard operating procedure until the overly litigious society of souls devoted to limitless self-service emerged in the twentieth century.

    The funniest -- and one of the saddest -- developments along these lines, if also trivial was the fairly recent "copywriting" of the dreadful tune called HAPPY BIRTHDAY that everybody knows and everyone has always sung everywhere without attribution. Now, because of pernicious, ill-conceived legal action, restaurants are no longer free to sing it to customer on their birthdays. Instead, bit slap happy clappy claptrap for the once-beloved-if-inferior traditional song.

    We've been overtaken and overwhelmed with petty, spiteful, selfish trivialities to the point where society is hardly able to function with any degree of spontaneity at all.

    All that, of course, is far removed from Malthus, but once a reign of grim, ruthless, utilitarian selfishness has been established, which what I imagine Malthus advocated, Civilization is dealt a crippling -- possibly a mortal -- blow.

    ~ FT

  19. Sorry if the truth of biology seems immoral toyou, FT. The world as it is, not as we'd wish it to be.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. ...and isn't it better to let the subjects of an enquiery speak in their own words, rather than to paraphrase them?

    ps - As for Malthus "borrowing" ideas, his was the first mathmatical calculation comparing population growth to food production that I am aware of, which is why Marx and Ricardo focused upon his arguments, and not someone else.

  22. pps Malthus wasn't "advocating" a position. He was "explaining" a biological reality.

  23. food production increases at a linear arithmetical rate, population at a geometric exponential rate. And the one forms a necessary "check" upon the other.

  24. Ducky, no offense, but you are simply THE most insufferable egomaniacal prig I have ever known...and I've known QUITE a few.
    SOrry for taking space with this comment, FT...but there were just no other words.
    Gee, I wish you knew SOMETHING about economics :-) But, if you don't agree with THE MASTER... HEH!!!

  25. "Civilization," Thersites, has been the result of human beings with vision, worthy ambition and great courage making determined efforts to improve the dismal "natural" state in which they've found themselves.

    The existence of Art, Music, Architecture, Theater, Literature, Parks and Gardens, Gourmet Cooking, Fine Cabinetry, Museums and Universities attest to that.

    Hobbes' "nasty, brutish and short" observation would be entirely true were it not for the dedicated effort of the visionaries -- and the pervasive desire and lifelong search of the vast majority to experience loving relationships with fellow human beings.

    "Reality" is NOT just the unvarnished exhibition of the WORST we have to offer one another.

    Belief in and endorsement of the Utilitarian Approach and Social Darwinism may be tempting, but we ARE capable of much better than that.

    If it were not so, we wouldn't be here talking about it. The race would have annihilated itself ages ago.

    "Hold fast to that which is good.
    Render not evil for evil ..."

    A state of perpetual bliss may not be attainable, but in the pursuit of that end we find much great adventure and deep satisfaction.

    Heaven would never be a long uninterrupted NAP in front of a cosmic television set.

    ~ FreeThinke

  26. Hello, Z,

    So glad you stopped by!

    Not to worry about Ducky. I accept him for what he REALLY is -- a leftist and a fellow artist. Most of the time he's just playing a character part.

    Frankly, after all these years, I'm not sure we'd know what to do without him.

    You needn't apologize for anything you say here, Z.

    I welcome just about any honest opinion. I only get annoyed at chronic outbursts of lies and utter nonsense --and protracted argumentation with repetitious insults that only go around in circles, and never get anywhere.

    If we all agreed all the time, he world would be a pretty dull place.

    ~ FT

  27. When does Charity become a monstrosity?

    When it's COERCED at the point of a GUN.

    ~ FT

  28. Fine, FreeThink. give the rats the run of the granary. They won't multiply any faster than if you didn't.... REALLY!

  29. "If man wants to progress, he must create new forms of energy of greater and greater densities." - Lazare Carnot (1784)

  30. Of course, he could convince his fellow rats to eat all their own babies... or do the "civilized" thing, and toss them into medical waste bags.

  31. "Of course, he could convince his fellow rats to eat all their own babies..."

    Now you're taking a page or two from Jonathan Swift, aren't you? ;-)

    ~ FT

  32. That's a great video, Theristes, very persuasive -- brilliantly conceived and executed -- entertaining too, by Gosh.

    I've long held the outré opinion that The Industrial Revolution and Ford's enhancement and encouragement of the means of greater mass production were a tragic misstep for Civilization -- THE GREAT MISTAKE.

    However, as my father used to say,
    "Nothing can stop the wheels of Progress."

    So what are we going to do?

    Either some enormous natural disaster -- or great series thereof -- will wipe out three-fifths of the world population, or we will simply suffer the fate of the dinosaurs and become extinct.

    Expect another KRAKATOA, more and more earthquakes of greater and greater magnitude, increasingly more powerful tidal waves, a new, and more virulent version of The Black Death. Unending plagues will occur till the earth has finally purified herself of the domineering, contaminating presence of Mankind.

    If, as the environmentalcases say, the planet is more important than all mankind, and we are just a stone in the road of planetary evolution, the extinction of our benighted species should be welcomed by all "enlightened" individuals.

    I say in the immortal words of George W. Bush, "BRING IT ON!"

    There are many things far worse than death. A life of servitude to morons and the resultant agony and deprivation is certainly one of them.

    ~ FT

  33. Many thanks FT for your magnanimous gesture with respect to the inspiration for this post.

    I have read other works by Thomas Paine, Common Sense being the most well known, however frely admit to not hiving read the work you reference and discuss in this post.

    Paine, more than anyone else inspired the "masses" of colonial America to rebel against the statist and heavy handed English Monarchy.

    His views, inspired by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment were not only liberal, in the classical sense, but revolutionary as well.

    Paine is certainly known for his views on social justice and his belief that government(s) has a social contract to care for those among the population that are LEGITIMATELY unable to do so for themselves.

    To describe Pains as a Crypto Marian is, in my never humble opinion FT, a more than huge stretch. It is to take personal distaste for present day liberalism (which I share equally with you) and ascribe it to a man that more than anyone else was responsible for galvanizing a society to rebel against the very statism you allude he supported. It is difficult to parallel Paine's thinking with the present.

    I will FT, the result of this post, take the time to read the referenced material by Paine.

    Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  34. IMO the big mistake was NOT heeding Jonathan Swift's admonitions against Struldbrugs (corporations) and setting up a Grand Academy at Lagado.

    C'est la vie

    It had better been hidden
    But the Poets inform:
    We are chattel and liege
    Of an undying Worm.

    Were you, Will, disheartened,
    When all Stratford's gentry
    Left their Queen and took service
    In his low-lying country?

    How many white cities
    And grey fleets on the storm
    Have proud-builded, hard-battled,
    For this undying Worm?

    Was a sweet chaste lady
    Would none of her lover.
    Nay, here comes the Lewd One,
    Creeps under her cover!

    Have ye said there's no deathless
    Of face, fashion, form,
    Forgetting to honor
    The extent of the Worm?

    O ye laughers and light-lipped,
    Ye faithless, infirm,
    I can tell you who's constant,
    'Tis the Eminent Worm.

    Ye shall trip on no limits,
    Neither time ye your term,
    In the realms of His Absolute
    Highness the Worm.

    -John Crowe Ransom



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