Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

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Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
    dust,
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
    ban,
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”

In a World of Peer-to-Peer Collaboration the End of Monarchy is Inevitable

Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future.  An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.

Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet.  Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information.  Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of  knowledge.  This peer-to-peer interaction  with established relationships  (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.

But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government.  The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us.  They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.

‘A Powerful Hand’; Innovative Radical Journalist Peter Finnerty

Fiercely contested court cases, attacks on the judiciary, personal abuse and subversion of Parliament.  Sounds like 2016, but this was over 200 years ago in 1811. At the centre of it was Irish journalist Peter Finnerty.  Almost unknown today, Finnerty was the beneficiary of one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great early works Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (you can read more about the radicalism of Shelley’s Poetical Essay here), but his influence at the time was far greater. Finnerty possessed a keen perception of how state institutions could be utilized to gain public attention and saw many opportunities for advancing his radical ideas in novel ways, some of which are applicable today.

Born sometime between 1766 and 1778 (sources vary) in Lochrea, Ireland, Finnerty became a printer in Dublin and published The Press, a nationalist paper founded 1797 by Arthur O’Connor. That same year the British government prosecuted The Press and Finnerty was tried for seditious libel following strong criticism of the judges who sentenced United Irishman William Orr to death along with Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who turned down an appeal for clemency. Finnerty was tried in early 1798 and sentenced to two years imprisonment and time in the pillory.  On his release, Finnerty moved to London and worked as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle newspaper while engaging in radical activism. This included the Robin Hood Society, notorious amongst establishment figures for, amongst other things, actively campaigning against the George III Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1809.  In 1811 Finnerty was again sentenced to prison, this time receiving eighteen months for libeling Minister of War  Lord Castlereagh during a highly critical report on British military command during the 1809 Walcheren campaign against Napoleon.  Incredibly, Finnerty used the imprisonment to keep the issue of Castlereagh in the public spotlight and repeated the libel on a number of occasions. In 1811 jail was a tough place and inmates had to provide for themselves. As a result, Finnerty’s friends and associates organized events to raise money for his maintenance inside jail with Shelley’s contribution being the proceeds from his poem Poetical Essay.

Finnerty is fascinating for a number of reasons.  Firstly he was one of the first activists to use journalism as a method of developing and promoting a radical political platform. Secondly. Finnerty missed no opportunity in trying to destabilize government by petitioning Parliament on all kinds of issues including the conditions of his imprisonment. Thirdly his use of court cases, even ones he lost, as a means of keeping issues in the public gaze was masterly.

Finnerty was a thorn in the side of Government using investigative journalism to cast doubt on the veracity of Governments officials and even witnesses in trials. Finnerty’s aim was the emancipation of the Irish people and the promotion of a mainland radical and republican agenda and the techniques he used can still be deployed today. But they are as equally available to reactionary and oppressive forces as to progessive ones. We need only look at the virulent attacks on the High Court and Supreme Court judges by the Daily Mail which briefly included drawing attention to the fact that one of them was a gay Olympic Fencer! These disgusting and scurrilous articles are serving the aims of an oppressive oligarchy which are very different from those of Peter Finnerty

Royal Popularity; A Ruthless Exercise In Identity Politics

The monarchy is kept in place as a result of its constitutional role, right? Not quite! In reality it is a grand exercise in the maintenance of public affection.  In fact, way back in 1977 at the time of the Silver Jubilee, no less a person than the distinguished historian A.J.P. Taylor concluded that the continuance of Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy was not so much dependant on its executive power but in upholding its emotional and symbolic links with the British public. But authors had been pointing this out for a century!  In reality much of the modern monarchy’s executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the other roles could easily be reassigned. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury would reasonably be head of a disestablished Church of England.  So the Monarchy is nothing more than a complex exercise in the continual generation of popularity.  How is it done in the sophisticated 21st Century? Enter the corporate branding experts!  In two previous blogs (you can read them here and here) I outlined the fact that  the Monarchy has become essentially a corporate brand and promoted as such (for example see this study).

In previous blogs I pointed to marketing experts who discovered that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods, for example, now being viewed as a ‘lifestyle choice’). It includes everything from cars to mobile phones to chocolate bars and so on (if you are in any doubt just look at Apple’s advertising!).  As a result of the application of these principles to the monarchy, people often use the Royal ‘brand’ as a means of reassuring themselves as to the type of person they are (‘patriotic’, ‘loyal’, ‘British’ etc), as a means of self-expression or a lifestyle ‘beacon’ to others. People will often seek ways in which they can express this personal identity and the courtiers  at Buckingham Palace are careful to provide a complete range of products and activities to support this; garden parties, parties in the Mall, walkabouts, royal visits so people can wave plastic flags.a whole range of tangible items such as mugs teatowels etc. This has led to a reliance on the monarchy by a greater or lesser proportion of the public for the maintenance of at least a part of their own identity.  The result is a family, the Windsors, being psychologically addicted to privilege whilst a great many people are dependent on that behaviour in a form of co-dependence.

It is unthinkable that I should adopt an institution dedicated unaccountable privilege as an integral part of who I am as a person. But, as a British Republican I recognise that I positively adopt aspects from history and my environment as part of my identity.  For example, many of my friends and family are aware of my deep affection for the poet Shelley. Similarly a part of my identity is bound up with the great scientists, artists and radical political thinkers who were born in Britain or moved here from other countries. My symbols are those which championed freedom, the Rosemary branch, Sea Green banner and suffragette tricolour to mention a few. Monarchy, empire and aristocracy have no place in my heart and thus form no part of the construction of my identity.

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

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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”

As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten

voltaireIf you have read some of my previous posts you may be aware that I rarely write about foreign radical thinkers.  Even when I do they are mainly in the Anglophone tradition such as American Thomas Jefferson, the major exception being Niccolo Machiavelli.  There are two reasons for this bias. Firstly, other countries such as France with a less moribund and self-protective establishment than Britain tend to be more open about radical proponents of the past and are better known as a consequence. Secondly, possessing woefully poor foreign language skills I am dependent upon published translations of major works.  Where nuance and opinion are all important, the subtleties of language are vital and easily lost or distorted as they cross language barriers.

Voltaire: Some Good ideas, Some Not so Good

I am making an exception in this post to make a couple of observations about François-Marie Arouet, better known to us as Voltaire.  Even more unusual for me, Voltaire was essentially a constitutional monarchist who also toyed with absolutism! But it is rare to find a radical thinker with whom I am in complete agreement, partly because of drastic changes in society over the past century. For example, many 17th Century English Republicans such as Algernon Sidney actually argued for a form of aristocratic rule, tempered by democracy. On the other hand, Chartist Ernest Jones was a constitutional monarchist.  To dismiss every thinker who holds one or two contrary opinions would simply lead to an impoverished and shrivelled view of how society may be improved. In few other individuals, however, is the sense of contrariness in such sharp relief than in Voltaire.  But I want to see how one of his ideas stacks up to contemporary reality in the shape of the present heir to the United Kingdom throne, Charles Windsor.

A hazard when considering Voltaire’s work is the polemical and satirical style he adopted.  Voltaire actually lived in Britain between 1726 and 1729 and formed a favourable view of the British Constitutional Monarchy in comparison with France’s pre-revolutionary autocratic ancien régime. As I mentioned in this openDemocracy article, Voltaire  was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment and a leading figure in the associated Republic of Letters network.

Continue reading “As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten”