Meet Tom Paine, raconteur, polemicist, a commoner who dominated political discussion in three countries and served the cause of revolution in them all. John Keane is eager to treat Paine as a contemporary, someone who though dead is, in the force of his thought and the vigour of his prose, more alive than many.footnote1 His new biography of Paine has been charged by reviewers elsewhere with anachronism in approach and subjectivism in some of the detail (for instance the Excise Board’s ‘coldly written minute’, p. 60). The book is certainly engrossing; it gives a richer picture of Paine’s first forty years in England than is readily available elsewhere, and, if it occasionally suffers from ‘presentism’, it enjoys the virtues of enthusiasm. Yet Keane’s hopes are not those only of a biographer. He suggests in a prologue that his Paine can and should be brought ‘alive’ as a contemporary (pp. xii–xiii), accorded the homage of, as it were, a virtual presence in our own political debates. So far, few reviews have examined this claim, which is an important one. One way of assessing it is to examine Keane’s Paine, and Keane–Paine, on the central issue of civil society—to assess just how much we can in fact learn from Paine on this issue.

Keane presents Paine very much as an eighteenth-century Václav Havel, a defender of ‘civil society’ against the arbitrary abuse of power backed by dogma. Civil society is the theme of an earlier book by Keane and of a collection edited by him, and it is central both to his own thought and to his interpretation of Paine. In his previous book, Democracy and Civil Society, Keane was careful to distinguish between the Hegelian idea of the complex of social interactions distinct from the state (including family and economy), the Marxist idea which isolates and emphasizes the economic sphere, and the Tocquevillian passion for ‘intermediate institutions’ which are assertive and self-aware associations of citizens. All of these are distinct from Paine’s own emphasis on the naturalness of human solidarity, expressed in commercial and social interaction. In the Paine biography, Keane takes Common Sense to introduce ‘civilized society’ as a natural and potentially self-regulating form of association, counterposed to ‘government’ which is, at best, a necessary and artificial evil. On this basis, Paine defends the dignity of ordinary citizens as the source of political legitimacy. He unmasks the pretensions of monarchic and aristocratic claims to power and superiority, and urges the people to appreciate their own sovereignty.

In light of Keane’s other work and his stated aims of bringing Paine alive, he seems to be suggesting that what we need today, as in Paine’s time, is to encourage the growth and self-confidence of civil society such that it can at once check state action and also keep alive the sense of dignity and responsibility of the ordinary citizen. He had made this claim about Eastern Europe in the 1980s, drawing on and aligning himself with Havel, and had the satisfaction of seeing it win seemingly widespread popular acclaim in the revolutions of 1989. The Czech, Slovak and Polish revolutions of that year were particularly invigorating, and particularly Paineite, examples of the role civil association can play in overthrowing tyranny. But disposing of tyranny is a very different political thought-world from the task of maintaining democratic republics, which is what the ‘we’ addressed in Keane’s prologue face today. And this fundamental distinction raises some questions, first, about Paine’s own deployment of the notion of civil society, and, second, about the role which it can usefully play in current political theory.

Even as Keane presents him, Paine’s invocation of civil society is made in the context of challenging despotism. His astonishingly pungent political writings are above all engagé, trying to shake the hold of outworn allegiances over the hearts and minds of citizens-in-the-making in the American and French revolutions, and in the revolution Paine tried valiantly to make in Britain. In throwing down the gauntlet against monarchy, however, Paine only barely touches on the Tocquevillian theme of ‘intermediate institutions’ as nourishing diversity and participation in democratic polities. Indeed, he decamped as soon as possible from the newly-settled American constitutional order, eager for new revolutionary adventures in the Old World. His relative lack of interest in the democratic orders he would help to found, and the role of civil society therein, is mirrored in his writings. Except for a pregnant remark which Keane cites (pp. 302–3) from The Rights of Man about the need for governments actively to civilize and cultivate a people emerging from despotism, Paine’s focus is on forcing the transition to democratic rule rather than on any new challenges democracy might bring.

What are these challenges? In a democratic state the people play multiple roles. People in civil society confront themselves as authors of the political order, and their representatives and agents as wielders of state power. This dispersion of popular identity means that civil society cannot simply mass itself against the state; nor, if civil society remains diverse and fragmentary, can it rest entirely content with a non-political role. Tocqueville is sometimes taken to have celebrated just any kind of civil association—gardening societies as much as political parties. But in fact he laid great emphasis on participation in local government as the best way of making civil association reinforce and protect democratic politics. The point can be generalized: in democratic society thought must be given to the articulation between civil society and the state’s democratic aspect, as much as to the watchdog function of civil society against the state as Leviathan. Democratic politics risk being sapped of strength and vitality by some forms of civil association, or being swamped and manipulated by others. To avoid these risks, debate about the responsibility of civil society in relation to politics is much needed. At its best, civil society would engage in complex and negotiated forms of articulation with the political, ranging from Habermas’s suggestion that civil society ‘besiege’ the state to the Tocquevillian reinvigoration of local government—an urgent need in the British case—and arguably, civilliberties activism. Such responsibility, however, requires nurture, attention and possibly theorization. A flourishing diy culture alone does not an adequate civil society make.