Tom Paine: Utopian?

By Jendrysik, Mark | Utopian Studies, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Tom Paine: Utopian?


Jendrysik, Mark, Utopian Studies


We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Political Writings 44)

What makes someone a utopian? What standards can be applied to judge whether or not an author can be inducted into the pantheon of utopian visionaries? In the case of Thomas Paine we can expand the question. What happens if that writer's dreams and hopes are substantially realized? Is it possible to be considered utopian in one era and mundane in another?

In Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Eric Foner says repeatedly that Paine is a utopian, or that his thought has utopian aspects, but Foner never really clarifies just what he means. Foner writes, for example, "Paine's utopian vision of the future stirred men to action" (xvi). Is Paine's utopian vision one of a belief in progress? In the individual? In the goodness of society? What Foner calls Paine's utopianism may exist at the intersection between his traditional civic republicanism, his belief in the inevitably of scientific and social progress, and his attachment to free markets and individual liberty. Paine lived with a dual vision, one both forward-looking and traditional. While rejecting history as a guide he, perhaps unconsciously, used the civic republican tradition. (1) He believed that republican government could nurture or create a uniform, shared public-interest and citizen self-control. It would advance the rule of reason and maintain an ethic of self-sacrifice for the public good. Part of the utopian nature of Paine's thought comes from the difficulty--some might say the impossibility--of reconciling the divergent forces in the two main streams of his political theory. These two beliefs were an attachment to the common good and individualism. Paine lived before the era of mass industrial capitalism and during a time of expanding frontiers and opportunity for the common man (or at least for white immigrants to North America). Paine wrote at perhaps the only time in history when these two views, self-interest and public interest, could be held in tension and, to an extent, reconciled.

A number of authors provide standards which can be used to situate Paine's ideas and projects within the utopian tradition. According to Russell Jacoby's categories, Paine is both a blueprint and an iconoclastic utopian. While Jacoby suggests that the two styles are fundamentally opposed, I believe that Paine effectively combines them. For him, utopianism is first expressed in iconoclasm. In all his major works and especially in Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, he smashes the idols and shibboleths of his time: kingship, established religion, aristocratic hierarchy, and unexamined tradition. By the time he arrives at his most clearly "utopian" work, Agrarian Justice, he and the revolutions he supported and lived through have delegitimated monarchy and aristocratic privilege and have replaced them with new universal principles. "Thus, in Agrarian Justice he moves directly to laying out his utopian blueprint for a just and equitable society.

Paine can also be identified as a critical utopian since his work "give[s] voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasizes process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a center" (Moylan 211). He always supports direct democracy and the rights of the common man against the claims of aristocratic elites (both monarchical and republican) to a special right to rule. His works are "expressions of the aspiration for human fulfillment towards which our political experience should always be directed" (Lancaster 111). However, unlike the critical utopians described by Tom Moylan and Ashlie Lancaster, Paine is never afraid to project a blueprint for the future. So, he combines aspects of a critical, iconoclastic, and blueprint utopian.

Paine is also utopian because he moves thought beyond the edge of the known world.

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