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The Positions He TakesJohn Barrell
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Vol. 28 No. 23 · 30 November 2006

The Positions He Takes

John Barrell

2524 words
Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography 
by Christopher Hitchens.
Atlantic, 128 pp., £9.99, July 2006, 1 84354 513 6
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‘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.

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Letters

Vol. 29 No. 1 · 4 January 2007

In John Barrell, the London Review tasked an eminent truffle hunter to examine Christopher Hitchens’s book Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ (LRB, 30 November 2006). But instead of sniffing out tasty morsels for salivating LRB readers, Professor Barrell chose to stick his snout in a cow pie.

He sneers that Hitchens ‘misrepresents matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine’s writing’. I would encourage any fair-minded reader to compare Barrell’s claims of ‘misrepresentation’ with the words that Hitchens actually wrote.

Here’s a selection of what Barrell considers ‘essential’ matters of fact. He notes that Hitchens uses Rights of Man and The Rights of Man interchangeably. Shall we put Moncure Conway on the block as well? He claims Hitchens inaccurately identifies gentleman-lawyer John Frost as ‘the’ secretary of the London Corresponding Society, a position occupied by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. How so? John Frost was sent to Paris as a delegate for the Corresponding Society in November 1792. ‘Secretary’ at its root means ‘keeper of secrets’, and it is a perfectly good noun to use in describing Frost’s role. In any case, why would Barrell read so much into such a brief reference to a rather tertiary figure?

Barrell accuses Hitchens of writing that Paine communed with Dr Johnson’s ghost and endorsed Ricardo’s works before they were written. One could come to such ridiculous conclusions only by reading Hitchens’s phrases with a breathtaking literal-mindedness. And so it goes. Close scrutiny reveals Barrell’s damning indictment to be little more than magnified bits of gossamer based on a laughably exact reading of Hitchens’s text.

As for Barrell’s assertion that Hitchens has borrowed heavily from John Keane, if every book whose author unintentionally mirrored the words of a source was thrown into the dustbin, we’d hardly need libraries. Barrell’s comparison of passages from Hitchens and Keane is a cheap and easy trick he has used to denigrate Hitchens’s writing. Can he assure us that a careful reading of his own voluminous footnotes wouldn’t uncover an offending line or two?

As Tom Paine said, ‘a man may write himself out of reputation when nobody else can do it.’ Barrell’s crudely executed hit job, which masquerades as a review, is not the work of a serious academic. The London Review should be ashamed for printing such a shoddy, animus-driven temper fit.

Jennifer Verner
Nolensville, Tennessee

John Barrell writes: Jennifer Verner claims that I made an error of fact only in the case of John Frost. Hitchens said he was ‘secretary of the London Corresponding Society’. I said he was too posh to have been a member of that society, whose secretary was the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. Verner replies that Hitchens was using the word ‘secretary’ in a sense described by the OED as ‘obsolete’, and last recorded in 1815 in an early novel by Sir Walter Scott, where the context suggests it was already an archaism. I don’t know whether Hitchens has a whimsical habit of using common words in long-obsolete senses, but even if he does it won’t help. As Michael Davis points out in the new DNB, on an occasion when Frost is recorded as attempting to attend a secret meeting of the LCS, he was turned away as not being a member of the society. But, Verner says, he went to Paris as a delegate for the LCS, so he must have been entrusted with its secrets. In fact, Frost went to Paris as a delegate of the Society for Constitutional Information; the notion that he went as a delegate for the LCS was invented by Holland Rose in 1912 and discredited by Albert Goodwin in 1979, in the standard narrative history of late 18th-century radicalism, The Friends of Liberty. Perhaps I did overstate the case in referring to Frost’s journey with Paine to Paris as among the facts ‘essential’ to understanding the context of Paine’s writings in the 1790s. Hitchens himself puts it no higher than to say such facts are ‘necessary’ to such an understanding, and I’m happy with that.

I said in my review that Hitchens appeared to believe that David Ricardo published before Paine. Verner claims that in this I was guilty of a ridiculously literal reading of what Hitchens wrote. The passage I was referring to reads: ‘In his exaltation of commerce and free trade over feudalism, he [Paine] not only seconded Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but also anticipated Karl Marx.’ The point of those contrasting verbs is perfectly clear. It is to suggest that Paine agreed with some writers who wrote before him, whom he ‘seconded’, and with another writer who wrote after him, whom he ‘anticipated’. You can’t read it any other way. It’s then hardly surprising that when – after encountering quite a few such errors of chronology (more than I listed in my review) – I found Hitchens saying that Paine wrote in order to ‘enlighten’ Dr Johnson, I assumed he believed that Johnson was still alive in the 1790s. I still do.

The business about the title of Rights of Man is, I agree, a small point, so small I made it in brackets, and I would not have mentioned it at all if the book had not been so full of inaccuracies. I don’t know what Moncure Conway has to do with anything. He published his life of Paine in 1892, when the conventions for referencing were entirely different. I should have thought Verner, a historian, would have known that.

Verner is big on punishing supposed mistakes. In an intriguing essay published on the twin neo-con websites laughably named Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia, she claimed that Dana Priest of the Washington Post was wrong in what she said about extraordinary rendition, mainly because she is married to an old leftie and writes for the Post; but that if she is right, she shouldn’t say it anyway because to do so subverts US foreign policy. I wonder if the subtext of Verner’s letter is that I must be wrong in my criticisms of Hitchens because I am married to an old leftie and write for the LRB, but that if I am right I shouldn’t criticise Hitchens anyway because to do so endangers the security of the US.

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