Paine Vs. Marx Essay, Research Paper
The debate over the distribution of property and the unnatural inequality it produces has long troubled political thinkers, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau mused in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: It is obviously contrary to the law of nature, however it may be defined for a child to command an old man, for an imbecile to lead a wise man, and for a handful of people to gorge themselves on superfluities while the starving multitude lacks necessities. (Rousseau, p. 869) Thomas Paine wrote in his classic The Rights of Man that he wished to “[restore] justice among families by a distribution of property ” (Paine, p. 177) This sentiment was seemingly echoed by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto when he spoke of the ” the crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth ” (Marx, p. 34). However, a more careful review of the texts in context (For these authors cannot be read in a political vacuum, the ramifications of the environment in which their arguments originated must be considered) will reveal to us two arguments that while similar in theory, differ in implementation. Paine’s proposal for redistribution of property was seen by some as radical for his time, (a time devoid of any progressive tax scheme of note) but still in line with leading liberal bourgeois political values of the day. Marx’s argument, formed nearly a century later, after the success of the middle class in seizing a sizable share of power from the old nobility has rendered many of Paine’s aspirations a reality. While Marx saw the proletariat revolution as the next step in the evolution of society, Paine would argue that society had already reached an apex in the manifestation of liberal democracy, and Marx’s attempt to further equalize society would serve to destroy the very bourgeois political values that Paine had utilized to advance what Marx termed the capitalist bourgeois rebellion against feudal society. I would argue that while in practice the irreconcilable differences between Marx’s communism system and Paine’s liberal ideology make them incompatible, the theoretical similarities between Marx and Paine can best be seen through their respective context, reasoning, and criticisms.
A general swing towards greater freedoms and liberty for all individuals has characterized the context of the post enlightenment era in western civilization. This progressive quality influences our discussion heavily, as Paine and Marx both come from politically turbulent times. Paine was a leading liberal thinker of his day, politically situated on the far left of the polarized world of conservative monarchs and liberal reformers that existed in the late 18th century. In much the same way, Marx stood at the far left of the political spectrum in the 19th century, railing against the same liberals who, ironically, only a century before had represented the political far left. Paine viewed the capitalist values of free enterprise as a means to rebuild Europe’s societies on individualistic principles, and it is here that he and Marx digress. Marx did not value private property rights as Paine did, simply because in the 19th century the political discourse had progressed to the point where what was a goal for further progress in Paine’s time, had in Marx’s mind become an obstacle to it. Even the modern American ethos of democracy and capitalism would seem to refute the claims of Marx by successful example of those liberal bourgeois values championed by Paine. Seen in this light, one must come to the conclusion that the historical context of the two authors has made their arguments relative, despite a theoretical similarity.
While Paine and Marx developed their ideas in different times under profoundly distinct circumstances, their reasoning is most similar in theory. Paine argued that “All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny. An heritable crown, or an heritable throne, or by what other fanciful name such things may be called, have no other significant explanation than that mankind are heritable property. To inherit a government, is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds.” (Paine, p. 114) If Paine’s argument concerning the legitimacy of political hereditary succession were taken to its logical extreme and applied to the economic realm, then a past generation would have no right to dictate (via the use of inheritances) the economic situation of the present generation. Along these lines Marx’s gave instructions for the redistribution of wealth. ” this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property Abolition of all rights of inheritance.” (Marx, p. 30) This statement tends to indicate that he would agree. Marx disagrees with inheritances because he sees them as perpetuating an unfair system whereby each generation starts with unequal amounts of economic capital. Paine’s argument against the hereditary monarchy revolves around the principle that new generations are not beholden to the constraining edicts of those past, and in this way a similarity of reasoning can be shown.
Both Paine and Marx are similar in their aims, that is, to redistribute the wealth of their respect times, but it is not mere chance that the implantation of Marx’s communist utopia would necessitate the dismantling of much of Paine’s bourgeois world. Many scholars have debated the finer points of property and it’s equitable distribution. The French Scholar Pierre Joseph Proudhon wrote that ” under the regime of property, there is great inequality ” (Proudhon, p. 207) as he argues that an uneven distribution of property in a governing system leads by default to an uneven distribution of power, similar in some respects to Marx’s thinking. John Locke argues in Two Treatises of Government that all properties are held in common until our labor makes them the property of the actor “Whatsoever then [a person] removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.” (Locke, p. 329) Locke brings some clarity to the discussion by legitimizing private property, preemptively refuting the Marx ideology and supporting the idea of individual free will to determine one’s economic standing. But Richard Schlatter stated in Private Property; the History of an Idea that ” the old individualistic interpretation of Lockean theory cannot be applied to a modern system of industrial production.” (Schlatter, p. 273) However, there does not appear to be any thinker who has tried to deny the logical connection between elimination of hereditary succession in the political as well as the economic realm. And it is here that the logic of Paine and Marx most closely connect, where one catches a glimpse of Marxist thinking in Paine. While communism represents a possible interpretation of Paine taken to his logical conclusions, it is by no means the only.
By straying so far to the left of the political spectrum, Marx has in effect, lost sight of the basic value inherent in liberal ideas and rights without which no truly equitable society can hope to exist. In colloquial terms, Paine argued for a leveling of the playing field, while Marx sought to level the playing field by adjusting the height of the players (I’m sure that Czar Nicholas II would agree that this proved just as painful in execution as it sounds in the above metaphor). Communism asks of men the impossible, to not be men; specifically to act not in their self-interest, but in that of the common good. And it is here that Paine and Marx come into conflict, as Paine held that: “Every man wishes to pursue his occupation, and to enjoy the fruits of his labours and the produce of his property in peace and safety, and with the least possible expense. When these things are accomplished, all the objects for which government ought to be established are answered.” (Paine, p. 136) Marx believed that government could transform men into angels who would work as altruists for the common good, but Paine realized government was unable to create that which it was incapable of manifesting itself; for the government was not God, and its citizens far from angels.