Thomas Paine and the uprisings in Czechoslovakia and Hungary - 01 December 1989
I imagine that most of us in the past week have been watching and reading about the upheaval in Prague with pleasure, at least, and I was going to say continuing astonishment, but I wonder how long you can go on being astonished.
The Czechs have always been poets and an American reporter noticed that the people of Prague, when they talk about the drastic changes they've set in motion, speak less in the political terms used in Poland and Hungary and more in the language that might describe a work of art.
The most expressive thing I heard was from a woman, old enough to have been there 21 years ago when the first serious moves towards freedom were crushed by the incoming tanks. She said, "For 20 years, we were frozen, under house arrest. Now, we are melting and living our youth once again".
And it was heartening to any westerner who goes back, far beyond 1968, to Hitler's snuffing out of liberty across a whole continent. It was heartening to see these delirious Czechs on Thursday, the day of Winston Churchill's birthday, stabbing the sky with his V for victory sign.
For onlooking Americans, there's a peculiar feeling, which is common to most, if not all western countries, but is quite new here. It's the feeling of being bystanders. Not praised, but not blamed in any way for what's going on. Since the emergence 40 years ago of two, and only two, superpowers, practically everything that happened abroad, from Japan, to Palestine, to Lebanon, to Cuba, to Portugal, and yes, to Britain and Germany, could be, and often was, attributed to the good, or evil, designs of the American president and the state department.
In the past week, they have enjoyed the rare luxury of sitting back and applauding. For once, none of the besieged, hardline Communists has attributed the uprisings to a CIA plot. For once, you could turn page after page of the New York Times, 14 pages in all, of despatches and commentary, from Prague, from other Czech towns, from Warsaw, from Budapest, from Paris, and nowhere find a snippet of comment from the President of the United States.
We saw him briefly the other day saying to a reporter that while everybody was delighted with the news from Czechoslovakia, it is not for us to presume to say anything about how they should begin to run their own free country. But Mr Bush's brief comment did include a note that by now I think most of the Western leaders – Mr Kohl, Monsieur Mitterrand, Mrs Thatcher – have sounded and, if I remember aright, they all used the same word. The transition from a Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia and the other Eastern European countries would be "painful".
None of them, that I've heard, counted the ways in which pain would afflict the process, but all of them have time by now to reflect on the usual main difficulty in passing from the joy of a tearing down of an old, bad government to the task of setting up a new, good one.
It has been the experience, throughout history, and has been demonstrated a dozen times in the past 40 years or so, that after the heroism of defiance comes the tedium of governing. Usually the people who preside over the burning down are not very good architects. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany are at the anxious stage of finding the architects.
There's a warning, a vivid example from the story of the American Revolution and one man who, more than any other, had the passion and the great oratorical talent to rouse the colonies to revolt. He is Thomas Paine. An Englishman born tough, early life as a sailor, teacher. His first wife died. He had an unhappy second marriage. He emigrated to America on the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin at the late age, in those days, of 37, became a journalist, and, less than two years away from the Declaration of Independence, hobnobbed with revolutionary leaders.
Six months before the Declaration and the outbreak of the war, he published a pamphlet called "Common Sense". I have it up there on a shelf in front of me. The words burn the pages they're written on, "This appeal for a break with England worked, said George Washington, a powerful change in the minds of men". It had a tremendous vogue down from New England to the Carolinas and certainly did as much as anything to mobilise the underground. Paine served in the continental army as a non-combatant and wrote more tracts, including "The Crisis", which begins with the clarion sentence, "These are the times that try men's souls".
When the war was over and the country was floundering in an ineffectual Confederation, he urged the calling of a convention to write a national constitution. So far, so brave. But he'd been so successful, so adored, as the most eloquent apostle of liberty, that once the liberty was won and the grim business of building the new Republic was at hand, in the very month that the founding fathers met in Philadelphia to do that, Paine sailed for England with the model – he was a mechanic and inventor – with the model of an iron bridge he'd designed.
He'd fallen so much in love with the idea of revolution itself that he felt he must do his best to bring it to England and France. He wrote and published another incendiary pamphlet, "The Rights of Man". I have it in my hand. "The revolution in America", he wrote, "presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics. So deeply rooted were all the governments of the Old World and so effectually had the tyranny and the antiquity of habit established itself over the mind, that no beginning could be made in Asia, Africa or Europe to reform the political condition of man. Freedom has been hunted around the globe. Reason considered as rebellion. And the slavery of fear has made men afraid to think".
Well, Tom Paine would do the necessary thinking and reform the political condition of man. This tract was written as a counter-blast to Edmund Burke's denunciation of the French Revolution. It was so powerful, written with such brilliant, crackling passion, that Prime Minister Pitt decided that it was a threat to the government of England. Tom Paine said, "Pitt is quite in the right but if I was to encourage his opinions, we should have a bloody revolution ".
So, Paine was indicted for treason, put under arrest but helped to escape by none other than the poet William Blake. He arrived in France, knowing hardly any French, but already thought of as a powerful ally, he took his seat in the Convention there.
He went on, blazing away about liberty and the rights of men, including the poor, till he became suspect to the men who had taken over that Revolution, to Robespierre and the Jacobins, and he was thrown into prison.
He'd been the most rousing herald of the American Revolution and hoped to become the first trumpeter of the French Revolution, but he found they had their own trumpeters who, by now, marched to a different tune. He escaped the guillotine by a hair's-breadth. Paine's great and good principles did pass over into the new government of the United States but they were set in motion by other, duller and, it must be said, constructive men.
What East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, perhaps soon, Romania, will be looking for are the new leaders who, however much they may have enjoyed the bonfire, are willing and able to start the rebuilding. Their special problem, it seems to me, is that, from all accounts, the revolutionaries are young, idealistic, with little or no experience of government, while the men they are to replace are, at best, middle-aged whose life and training have been totalitarian.
No doubt there will be interim governments, much shuffling and reshuffling. A "painful" transition is a mild term for what lies ahead.
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