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.

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The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic

L0019663 Burke and Hare suffocating Mrs Docherty for sale to Dr. Knox
Burking Poor Old Mrs Constitution by Wm Heath

But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.

Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians

In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty.   In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?

The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..

In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:

Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm,
Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand
Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand

What is Shelley saying?  He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:

And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?

I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.

…..But Was it Enough?

Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue.  This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action.  It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.

Continue reading “The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic”

‘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

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.

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‘Ye are many, they are few!’; More Inspiration From the Poet Shelley

shelley masqueThe anniversary of two events of primary importance in our radical history occur in August; the birth of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 4th (in 1792) and the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England on the 16th (in 1819).  Last week my thoughts Shelley’s great Poetical Essay on the State of Things was published on openDemocracy and it is a suitable moment to consider the relevance of another of his great works inspired by events in Manchester, the Masque of Anarchy (you can read it here).  Like the openDemocracy article, this post is neither intended as a literary study of Shelley’s work nor an account of the origins of Shelley’s radical opinions. There are many people far better qualified for this task and I can only draw your attention to two examples, Paul Foot’s excellent article from 2006 or the materials on this fascinating blogsite by Graham Henderson. In both my openDemocracy article and the present post I have two aims. Firstly to outline my claim to Shelley as part of the tradition with which I identify and secondly to assess the importance of Shelley’s work and the invaluable lessons it has for us now.

Although popular pressure had been building for reform since the start of the French Revolution in 1789, economic depression and high unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 intensified demands for change. In 1819 a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn. The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial.

Shelley was in Italy when news reached him of the events in Manchester and he set down his reaction in the poem Masque of Anarchy (sometimes Mask of Anarchy) which contains the immortal lines contained in the title of my post. The work simmers over 93 stanzas with a barely controlled rage leading to a call to action and a belief that the approach of non-violent resistance (an approach followed by Gandhi two centuries later) would allow the oppressed of England to seize the moral high ground and achieve victory. Such was the power of the poem that it did not appear in public until 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act which extended the voting franchise.

Anarchy – Chaos and Confusion as a Method of Control

An excellent place to start thinking about the relevance of the poem is with the eponymous evil villain, Anarchy. He leads a band of three tyrants which are identified as contemporary politicians, Murder (Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh),  Fraud ( Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon) and Hypocrisy (Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth).  But Shelley widens the cast of villains in his description to include the Church, Monarchy and Judiciary.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

The promotion of anarchy with its attendant fear of chaos and disorder was one of the most serious accusations which could be levelled at authority. The avoidance of anarchy was also a concern of English radicals ever since the Civil War in the 1640s and Shelley was making the gravest personal attack  with his explicit individual accusations.  But Shelley’s attack is pertinent, the implicit threat of confusion and chaos to subdue a population for political ends is something which we experience today.   The feeling of powerlessness which can result from an apparently confusing and chaotic situation is something which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’.  In our own time he has identified recent Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as deliberately using such a tactic. Likewise the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been variously accused of being a threat to national security or a threat to the economy .

The 1819 Peterloo massacre occurred at a time of hightened external tension with fear that the French revolution would spread to Britain. The fear was not unfounded and various groups around the country emerged with such an intent, in many cases inspired by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man which the Government had been trying to unsuccessfully suppress. The existence of an external threat combined with homegrown radicals was explicitly used as a reason for a policy of political repression and censorship. Likewise today an external threat, Islamic State combined with an entirely separate perceived internal threat (employee strike action) has been cited as justification for a whole range of measures including invasive communication monitoring (so called ‘Snoopers Charter’) without requisite democratic controls and a repressive Trade Union Bill seeking to shackle the ability of unions to garner support and carry out industrial action.

The Nature of Freedom

The nature of freedom is a problem which has bothered both libertarians and republicans for generations. In Masque of Anarchy where Shelley is enumerating the injustice suffered by the poor he clearly defines freedom in terms of the state of slavery, a core republican premise:

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 essence of freedom which has financial independence as a core component is clearly articulated over a number of stanzas, starting with:

‘’Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

‘So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

In our own time freedom is frequently constrained by insufficient financial resources as a result of hardship caused by issues such as disability support cuts, chronic low wages and a zero-hours contract society. Shelley would have no problem with identifying Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, playing with multimillion pounds football clubs while his workforce toil in iniquitous conditions for a pittance; or Sir Philip Green impoverishing British Home Stores pensioners to pile up a vast fortune for his wife in Monaco. Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Masque is the cast of villains, the substance  is unchanged!.

Non-Violent Resistance – A Way Forward

I pointed out that in the 1811 Poetical Essay, Shelley was searching for a peaceful way to elicit change in an oppressive hieracrchical society.  By 1819 Shelley has settled on his preferred solution of non-violent resistance.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

‘And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Nonviolent resistance is not an instant solution and takes years of persistent and widespread enactment to be successful. A partial victory was secured in the 1830s with the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Abolition of Slavery Act (1834). But history has proved that it is a viable strategy, the independence of India being an eloquent testament.

The Establishment Self-Serving Glorification of War Must End

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George III

I have never held a gun, let alone fired one.  I share this with the vast majority of British people, lucky to be born in the second half of the 20th Century when being sent to war in a mass army was a thing of the past.  At the same time I am no idealistic dreamer and am fully aware that we live in a world full of dangers (albeit some of which we create!), appreciating that there are men and women who make sacrifices for our country.  Because I have never been in the forces I cannot fully understand the life of a serviceman/woman, but I  am quite capable of questioning the motives of a British establishment which commits them to action. In particular there is a serious issue with a royal family which treats the armed forces both as a mean of personal glorification and a job creation scheme.

One of the inspirational aspects of the past few months for me has been meeting members of the Veterans for Peace movement (I particularly valued their presence at Levellers Day and Gus Hales has written a personal account). A number of my recent blogs (here for example) have involved the way contemporary monarchy encourages many people in Britain to uncritically accept it as part of their identity.  For servicemen and women the pressure must be overwhelming with the taking of the oath of loyalty and the justification of fighting for King/Queen and Country. To mentally reject that identity and question whether military power is in the interests of the British people themselves takes real will power.

While limiting the problem of the glorification of war to the monarchy risks missing a large part of the story, it is still a good place to start.  The fact that for three or four hundred years following the Norman Conquest English monarchs were in reality successful warlords means that monarchy and militarism were interlinked from the start.  Although by the eighteenth century the time was long past when a king personally led an army, monarchs lost none of their zeal for sending troops into battle for power and glory.  For example in 1781 when it was patently clear to politicians that the war in North America was lost and British troops should be withdrawn, George III (pictured above) insisted on continuing with hostilities,  With an increasingly rebellious House of Commons, Prime Minister Lord North was left with no option but to tell the King where to go!  Today, George III’s ancestors show similar disdain for servicemen.  At any state occasion members of the Royal family can be seen ridiculously strutting around in uniforms of high military rank bedecked with ribbons and medals.

Royaluniforms

As this Telegraph article makes clear, many of these are invented or handed out by the queen presumably with the intention of making an impression on us. There can be no other reason why you would give Prince Philip the Order of Merit when it is limited to 24 individuals and otherwise has been held by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell (himself a pacifist!). Look more closely and you will see almost all of these preening people displaying medals such as the Queens Silver Jubilee medal and Golden Jubilee medal given ‘for service’.  Interestingly these very medals have frequently been denied or withheld from actual servicemen/women of long standing as this blog illustrates.

Continue reading “The Establishment Self-Serving Glorification of War Must End”