The Positions He Takes

John Barrell

  • Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens
    Atlantic, 128 pp, £9.99, July 2006, ISBN 1 84354 513 6

‘If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason,’ wrote Christopher Hitchens last year on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine.[*] And as if to reinforce that message, he has now himself published a little book on Paine, a ‘biography’ of Rights of Man. It begins with a dedication, ‘by permission’, to President Jalal Talabani: ‘first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.’ However selective this description of Talabani, who has been all this and almost everything else at one time or another, it is an opening that encourages us to expect a tract for the times: a demonstration perhaps of how Paine’s book can help us understand the complexities of the situation in Iraq, perhaps even of what his theory of rights might have to say about the legislative and judicial innovations introduced into the US and Britain as part of the war on terror. Will Paine help us adjudicate between the rights of those who died in the Twin Towers and those who have been tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere? Between the non-combatant victims murdered by the suicide bombers of the insurgency and the non-combatants murdered by the Americans in Fallujah or Haditha or Makr al-Deeb? By the end of the book, Hitchens still seems to believe that he will. ‘In a time,’ he writes in his final sentence, ‘when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.’

In the event, between the dedication and the final sentence the book says nothing about Iraq or the war on terror, perhaps in silent acknowledgment of the difficulty of knowing quite how to depend on Paine in these dark times, perhaps because Hitchens believes it best to let Paine speak for himself and to leave President Talabani and the rest of us to make the connections. I would be more persuaded by the wisdom of this method if the book made more effort to expound and to summarise Paine’s political philosophy. But compared with any other book on Paine I can think of, this one is casual, even perfunctory. Long before I reached the end of what is a very long short book, I was at a loss to know why it had been written. Discussing the reasons why Burke, who had supported the revolution in America, should have been so hostile to the revolution in France, even in its earliest and most innocent phase, Hitchens remarks that ‘it is a deformity in some “radicals”’ – he has Marx particularly in mind – ‘to imagine that, once they have found the lowest or meanest motive for an action or for a person, they have correctly identified the authentic or “real” one.’ Quite right too; and if any radical, misled by George Galloway’s description of Hitchens as ‘a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay’, should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken. A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert. The press release accompanying the book led me to expect something much livelier; Hitchens, it exclaims, ‘marvels’ at the forethought of Rights of Man, and ‘revels’ in its contentiousness. There is a bit of marvelling and revelling here and there, but it is as routine as everything else in this book, which reads like the work of a tired man.

Too tired, to begin with, to check his facts. Rights of Man (not The Rights of Man, as Hitchens persistently calls it) was written as an answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hitchens tells us that among others who wrote replies to Burke, along with Joseph Priestley and Mary Wollstonecraft, was William Godwin, which he wasn’t. He says that, unlike Paine, Wollstonecraft advocated votes for women, which she didn’t. Paine himself, Hitchens says, was not discouraged from writing Part One of Rights of Man by the rough treatment he received at the hands of a Parisian crowd following Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes. Nor should he have been, for Part One was published several months before the king fled and Paine was manhandled. According to Hitchens, Part Two was produced partly to explain to Dr Johnson the need for a written constitution, and partly to endorse Ricardo’s views on commerce and free trade, but when it was written Johnson had been dead for seven years and Ricardo, not yet 20, had published no views that required endorsing. Paine was charged with seditious libel for publishing Part Two, and to escape arrest he fled to France, accompanied by the Wykehamist gentleman-lawyer John Frost, described by Hitchens as secretary of the London Corresponding Society. The LCS was a society of radical artisans, not a gentleman’s club, and its secretary was in fact the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. The trial proceeded in Paine’s absence, and according to Hitchens the future prime minister Spencer Perceval ‘opened for the prosecution’; in fact, though Perceval read the indictment to the court, the prosecution was much too important to be left to so relatively junior a barrister, and was opened by the attorney general himself. In 1794 Paine published The Age of Reason, ‘probably’, thinks Hitchens, in reaction to a sermon by Richard Watson, the bishop of Llandaff, though, as Paine himself tells us, he had not heard of the sermon until it was advertised in Watson’s reply to The Age of Reason, An Apology for the Bible.

This is only a selection of the many errors in this book, and they are not trivial; they misrepresent matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine’s writings, and it is in the course of Hitchens’s attempt to describe that context that they occur. It is the more surprising to find these errors, as none of them occur in John Keane’s biography of Paine (1995), on which Hitchens depends heavily – it must have been lying open on his desk as he was writing this book. Here for example is Keane on Watson’s Apology:

Watson … went so far as to admit that parts of the Pentateuch were not written by Moses and that some of the psalms were not composed by David … Paine took particular pleasure in some of the Bishop’s curious admissions. For example, The Age of Reason questioned whether God really commanded that all men and married women among the Midianites should be slaughtered and their maidens preserved. Not so, the Bishop indignantly retorted. The maidens were not preserved for immoral purposes, as Paine had wickedly suggested, but as slaves, to which Christians could not legitimately object.

And here is Hitchens: Watson, he tells us,

was willing to admit that Moses could not have written all of the Pentateuch and that David was not invariably the psalmist. But he would not give too much ground. Paine was quite out of order, wrote the good bishop, in saying that God had ordered the slaughter of all adult male and female Midianites, preserving only the daughters for rapine. On the contrary, the daughters had been preserved solely for the purpose of slavery. No hint of immorality was involved.

Or here is Keane on the problems Paine encountered in his efforts to publish Part One of Rights of Man:

Paine finished the first part of Rights of Man on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791 … The next day, Paine passed the manuscript to the well-known London publisher Joseph Johnson, who set about printing it in time for the opening of Parliament and Washington’s birthday on 22 February. As the unbound copies piled up in the printing shop, Johnson was visited repeatedly by government agents. Although Johnson had already published replies to Burke’s Reflections by Thomas Christie, Mary Wollstonecraft and Capel Lofft, he sensed, correctly, that Paine’s manuscript would attract far more attention and bitter controversy than all of them combined. Fearing the book police, and unnerved by the prospect of arrest and bankruptcy, Johnson suppressed the book on the very day of its scheduled publication.

And here is Hitchens again:

Having completed Part One on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791, Paine made haste to take the manuscript to a printer named Joseph Johnson. The proposed publication deadline, of 22 February, was intended to coincide with the opening of Parliament and the birthday of George Washington. Mr Johnson was a man of some nerve and principle, as he had demonstrated by printing several radical replies to Burke (including the one by Mary Wollstonecraft) but he took fright after several heavy-footed visits from William Pitt’s political police. On the day of publication, he announced that The Rights of Man would not appear under the imprint of his press.

Although Hitchens’s debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’ – though if Hitchens had taken the trouble to find out more about Watson he would perhaps be less dismissive of him. Like Burke, Watson was sympathetic to the cause of the American colonists but strongly supported William Pitt’s war on terror, and so, like Burke, was regarded by radicals as having abandoned his principles. Hitchens nowhere acknowledges the debt he owes to Keane’s narrative, though he does have footnotes to Keane, eight in all, which cite him simply as the source for quotations. With unexpected generosity, indeed, he three times acknowledges Keane for quotations that he must have found elsewhere, for the versions he gives are considerably longer than those in Keane’s book.

Hitchens’s casual attitude to facts is not compensated for by a corresponding precision with ideas, or any concern for the range, the richness, the complexity of Paine’s thinking. For example, we will not learn from Hitchens anything much about what Paine thought the rights of man actually were. ‘The great achievement of Paine,’ he tells us, ‘was to have introduced the discussion of human rights … Prior to this, discussion about “rights” had been limited to “natural” or “civil” rights.’ I have no idea what this means. For Paine, the rights we have by virtue of being human – the rights of man – take the form of ‘natural’ rights, ‘civil’ rights, ‘political’ rights, and he discriminates between them with increasing care; but he would surely have been puzzled by the notion of human rights as something beyond, something different from, not ‘limited’ to, natural, civil or political rights. Hitchens seems similarly at sea in his brief discussion of Paine’s theory of revolution which he understands entirely in terms of ‘the sudden return or restoration’ of a lost golden age, holding Paine responsible (among others) ‘for the “heaven on earth” propaganda … that disordered the radical tradition thereafter’. This is entirely to ignore the trajectory in Paine’s thought from a ‘full-circle’ theory of revolution as a return to the founding contract of society, to one in which, as Mark Philp pointed out in his superb short book on Paine (1989), revolution is represented as a new stage of social organisation made necessary by social, economic and intellectual progress.

There is little sign over the course of the book that Hitchens has paid enough attention to Paine’s ideas to notice how they develop. This above all is why it seems so inert. He asks us to admire Paine simply for the sake of the positions he takes on one issue or another, as these can be summarised in a sentence or two, but no political philosopher can excite us simply by his conclusions, skimmed from the top of the arguments they develop from, any more than we can admire poems on the basis of a one-sentence summary of what they ‘say’, in isolation from the process of saying it. Sometimes Hitchens is obviously impatient with Paine’s arguments: too dependent, in the early days, on the Bible, too preoccupied with supposedly out-of-date questions like the origin of government, to help us in the present. More often there is no sign that he has even noticed them. His brief pages on Common Sense, Paine’s justification of the American Revolution, do not notice how that book is tugged in two directions by the need to argue for the revolution in terms both of the rights of the colonists and of their greater political virtue as compared with the British. Thus he does not recognise in Paine’s later development how his attempt to build a theory of government on natural rights involves (almost) freeing himself from the classical republican tradition in which he had educated himself. Hitchens treats the distinction Paine makes so much of, between ‘society’ and ‘government’, as insignificant, and thus has nothing to say about Paine’s faith in civil society: in sociable economic exchange, and in the simple pleasures of sociability, as much more efficacious than government in preserving social order.

Hitchens’s perfunctory stabs at summarising what Paine has to say, interspersed with rambling homespun reflections, are padded out with moments of pleasing comedy, when he points out to us some of the little coincidences of history. Burke’s lament for Marie Antoinette, he notes, ‘was not equalled until the hysterical tributes’ to Princess Diana – and both died in Paris. Burke predicted that the French Revolution would end in despotism, and Rosa Luxemburg predicted the same of the Russian Revolution. But wait: they have more in common than that. Luxemburg’s favourite pseudonym was ‘Junius’, which, intriguingly enough, was also the pseudonym – well, not of Burke, but of Philip Francis, who had once been a friend of Burke’s (though he may not have been ‘Junius’ anyway). At times Hitchens’s prose seems entirely shaped by his tireless search for inconsequential correspondences. My favourite is this: ‘Just as Paine’s joke about dress and lost innocence was intended to remind his audience of a mythical Eden, so his appeal to a lost but golden and innocent past was a trope that Milton and Blake knew very well.’ This delightfully crazy sentence and a few others like it almost reconciled me to this book. Not quite though. Hitchens announced in the Nation in 2001 that he had ‘become increasingly convinced that … one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism’. I have little enough sympathy with most of what I overhear Hitchens saying, but, after reading this effort, I’m with him on that.

[*] Thomas Paine and the Promise of Revolution (Hill and Wang, 326 pp., $25, 2005, 0 809 08970 x).