My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism

I had the great honour in September to present a paper on the radical republicanism of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and how it influences my political activity.  I reproduce it here.

Reclaiming Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Radical Republicanism

1.  Introduction

A number of works have analysed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (PBS) poetry from a proto-left viewpoint (e.g. Paul Foot 1981*). This paper, however, considers the issue of Shelley’s radical political philosophy with specific attention to Republican principles.

Clearly, PBS could have known nothing about socialism or communism. So any analysis based solely on these principles risks misrepresenting fundamental points of his ideology.  Viewing his work within a contemporary setting not only brings his political concepts on liberty into focus but reveals a surprisingly strong relevance to current concepts of republicanism.  Over the past 40 years researchers such as Quentin Skinner have revealed aspects of republican thinking lost to us for two centuries whilst others have set about the task of evolving them for the 21st Century. When PBS was at the height of his powers liberalism was starting this process of marginalizing republicanism but Thomas Paine and William Godwin, amongst others  would have exerted a strong influence on Shelley.

To illustrate the points, the paper focusses on two of Shelley’s poems where the republican vision is most highly developed, Mask of Anarchy and Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things along with the sonnet England in 1819.

2.  What is Republicanism?republicanMag

In popular conception Republicanism has become synonymous with anti-Monarchism.  But its history and development is vastly richer and it is more accurate to characterise it as ‘anti-Slavery’. The seeds date back over two and a half thousand years when the Roman Republic was established following the defeat of the ruling Tarquin Kings in 509BCE. Indeed our modern word is derived from the Latin res publica meaning ‘public matter or affair’.  The early Roman republic bears little similarity to our current idea of Republicanism but we, along with PBS, owe a great debt of gratitude to that great statesman and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BCE-43BCE) for codifying the fundamental tenets.  Predictably for a society heavily dependent on slavery it was important to define just what a constituted a free person.  It is this formulation as an individual free from domination which provides a golden thread right from that era, through Shelley’s time to the present day.

The goal of early Republicanism was to establish the political; system which most effectively liberated citizens to protect their city-state. But around four hundred years ago a significant mutation occurred and republicans began to reformulate the ideas of non-domination explicitly in terms of citizen rights.

So how can we characterise modern republicanism? Professor Stuart White of Jesus College Oxford suggests four overarching principles:

1. Individual freedom defined as not living at the mercy or largesse of another (the famous nondomination doctrine).

2. An economic and social environment promoting and serving the Common Good.

3. Popular sovereignty, appropriately inclusive of all citizens and excluding oligarchic rule.

4, Inclusive and widespread civic participation by citizens.

I shall show how each of these principles are present in the works by PBS under consideration. These ideas were radical in the early eighteenth century and, I argue, are still radical today.

3.  Freedom as Non-Domination; Core RepublicanismLibertySlavery

At the heart of republican philosophy lies a definition of freedom as non-domination or the absence of the condition of slavery.  Non-domination is a far stricter doctrine than non-interference which forms the basis of liberal and libertarian ideology. Non-domination asserts that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master condition who allows his slaves latitude and possibly wealth, but could change his attitude at any moment. It is in these terms of slavery which PBS grounded his idea of liberty.  So in the Mask of Anarchy we find:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

The late Paul Foot in The Poetry of Protest asserted that slavery is economic exploitation. For a republican this is a narrow and incomplete view which fails to take into account the myriad other ways which slavery can occur, for example gender oppression which concerned PBS. Again in Mask of Anarchy we find:

‘Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

4, The economic and social environmentwordcloud

But republicans do agree with socialists that sufficient economic resources are essential to individual freedom.  At first, however, republicans took a hardline stance.  Cicero, for example, says this in de officiis:

..vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

But as the Industrial Revolution evolved along with the concept of the Free Contract, wage-earning per se was not viewed as slavery in itself but rather the lack of agency to contest the conditions of the contract. This is what concerned PBS and economic hardship is a frequent theme in the works under consideration.

Continue reading “My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism”

The Last Night of the Proms; A Dash of Ancient Feet, Religious Dissent and Republicanism

Opinion over the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms becomes ever more polarised. Increasingly, you either revel the naive jingoism of the second half of the event or it repels you. But I wonder how many of those lauding it as a ‘major cultural treasure’ really know the background of one of its centerpieces, Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem.

The lyrics are from a poem by William Blake, one of the most controversial artists in British history.   He was a religious dissenter and no lover of the established Church of England.  Like many dissenters he held radical political views and was a republican.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the appalling treatment of Eighteenth and Nineteenth religious dissenters such as the scientist Joseph Priestly by the establishment backed ‘King and Church’ faction. Interestingly, despite religion playing a prominent part in most of his works, Blake was a firm friend of revolutionary thinker Tom Paine.

So what about Jerusalem? The symbolism behind the words is shrouded in considerable mystery and the dark satanic mills are a particular point of contest.  They are popularly taken to refer to the oppressive conditions of factories endured by the lower classes during rapid industrialisation. But another interpretation suggests the satanic mills are the Anglican churches and cathedrals, yet another insisting that they represent the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The published setting for Jerusalem, more correctly known as And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times is an issue rooted in republican history.  Written in 1804 the poem is part of a preface to a two volume poetic work called Milton: A Poem in Two Books.  The Milton in question is none other than the great republican poet John Milton who was at the height of his powers during the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the 1650s following the English Civil Wars.

So when the Prommers are bursting their lungs to Jerusalem they are indulging in a work with its roots deep in religious dissent and republicanism.  Personally, Blake is not the radical I warm to most, with his firebrand advocacy of religion I am more at home with the secular sympathies of Paine.

I would like to think that including the piece in the Proms is an acknowledgement of the importance of dissent to British society. Alas that would be self-delusion and it is likely that the majority of revelers couldn’t care less about the words and are genuinely ignorant of our radical or dissenting past. But they are hardly to blame, living in a culture which promotes a historical narrative of monarchy, privilege and empire and marginalizes the story of the long struggle for rights and freedoms for us all.

The Priestley Riots: Fake news, Trolling, Vicious Media Attacks and Establishment Collusion.

Between 14th  and 17th July 1791 a period of sustained rioting convulsed Birmingham. The name given to the unrest, The Priestley Riots,  derives from the most notable target of the violence, the chemist, religious dissenter and political radical Joseph Priestley (credited with discovering Oxygen). The trigger for the rioting was a dinner held at the Dadley Hotel in Temple Row organised by radicals and religious Dissenters to mark the success of the assault on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. Mobs opposed to the Birmingham Dissenters attacked and burned not only their homes and chapels, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society. The details, however,  reveals the dark nature of establishment collusion.

According to eye witness accounts local Justices of the Peace Joseph Carles and Dr Benjamin Spencer (an Anglican vicar and, along with Carles, a member of the establishment supporting Bean Club) actively encouraged the mob. Moreover the Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke, was heard to issue a ‘guarantee’ of judicial protection to those taking part. Prior to the 14th July banquet, various incendiary posts and leaflets were published about the event, the sources of which are still unclear but highly unlikely to be the Dissenters themselves. Likewise a cartoon was published despicting Priestley holding up a platter and saying ‘The Kings head here’. Except that Priestley was not at the dinner. Today we would call it ‘fake news’!

Events following the riots were also shocking. The magistrates (remember Brooke’s ‘guarantee’) refused to arrest any of the rioters post facto and actually released those that had been arrested at the time When the Government forced the magisrates to try the riot ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and subverted the trials.  Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were brought to trial with four convicted.

The riots revealed that the Anglican gentry in collusion with the judiciary were prepared to use violence against Dissenters whom they viewed as potential revolutionaries . Bear in mind that at that time religious and political revolution were almost synonymous and the Monarch was head of the Church of England (as remains the case).  Those campaigning for the religious freedom and political reforms we enjoy today had to be prepared to face uncontrollable mobs.

Following the riots Joseph Priestley was forced to flee Birmingham and set up home in London. But things were justs as bad. Vicious political cartoons continued to be published about him, In a direct parallel to today’s ‘trolling’m  letters were sent to him from across the country, comparing him to the devil and Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Priestley and Tom Paine were publicly burned.

Fake news, trolling, vicious media attacks, inciting religious hatred and establishment collusion. Sound familiar?

A Progressive Alliance; Short Term Expediency, Not a Long Term Prospect

progallIt has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests.  So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out.  But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.

The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance.  But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing.  Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.

The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground

So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo.  But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of  ‘Alliance’.  In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate.  But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU.  It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.

Continue reading “A Progressive Alliance; Short Term Expediency, Not a Long Term Prospect”

A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.

Suits, Poetry and Megaphones; My Experience with Shelley at #TakeBackBrum 2016

the-party-conference-2016-day-one-mirror
People’s Austerity Birmingham (Daily Mirror)

In previous posts and articles I have described some of the ways in which the works of the great philosopher and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley have stood the test of time. My central point is that beneath the establishment whitewash, Shelley’s work is as relevant to radical politics now as it was two centuries ago; his concerns are our concerns. So it has been an idea of mine to take Shelley back to where he belongs – the streets of Britain, via a megaphone!

Protest and Poetry

This year the Conservative Party held its annual conference in central Birmingham between the 2nd and 5th October. As a means of protesting the Government’s austerity measures which has seen the poorer and more vulnerable members of society paying for the excess and incompetence of a broken financial system, the People’s Assembly organized a weekend of protest in the city. With our presence at the start of the Sunday protest march, the Birmingham branch of Republic Campaign drew attention to the fact that monarchy is one of the few institutions completely shielded from the cuts inflicted on the rest of society. This presented the perfect opportunity to debut my ‘Street Shelley’ plan especially as between 10,000 and 20,000 people would be queuing up to march past.

Continue reading “Suits, Poetry and Megaphones; My Experience with Shelley at #TakeBackBrum 2016”

Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative

petermemeWhen I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago.  It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from.  I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre.  Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?

The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative

It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history.  Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom.  The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment.  Here are just a few of the more prominent examples.  The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism.  But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!

Continue reading “Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative”