Shelley And Socialism
by Eleanor Marx
The question to be considered is not whether Socialism is right or wrong, but whether Shelley was or was not a Socialist; and it may not be unfair to contend, that if it can be shown that Shelley was a Socialist, a prima facia case, at least, is in the judgment of every Shelley lover made out in favour of Socialism.
That the question at issue may be clearly understood, let us state in the briefest possible way what Socialism means to some of us. (1) That there are inequality and misery in the world; (2) that this social inequality, this misery of the many and this happiness of the few are the necessary outcome of our social conditions; (3) that the essence of these social conditions is that the mass of the people, the working class, produce and distribute all commodities, while the minority of the people, the middle and upper class possess these commodities; (4) that this initial tyranny of the possessing class over the producing class is based on the present wage-system, and now maintains all other forms of oppression, such as that of monarchy or clerical rule, or police despotism; (5) that this tyranny of the few over the many is only possible because the few have obtained possession of the land, the raw materials, the machinery, the banks, the railways, in a word, of all the means of production and distribution of commodities, and have, as a class, obtained possession of these by no superior virtue, effort or self-denial, but by either force or fraud (6) lastly, that the approaching change in “civilised” society will be a revolution, or in the words of Shelley “the system of human society as it exists at present must be overthrown from the foundations.” The two classes at present existing will be replaced be a single class consisting of the whole of the healthy and sane members of the community, possessing all the means of production and distribution in common, and working in common for the production and distribution of commodities.
Again let us say that we are not now concerned with the accuracy or inaccuracy of these principles. But we are concerned with the question whether they were, or were not, held by Shelley. If he enunciated views such as these, or even approximating to these, it is clear that we must admit that Shelley was a teacher as well as a poet. The large and interesting question whether a poet has or has not a right to be didactic as well as merely descriptive, analytical, musical, cannot be entered upon here. In passing we may note that poets have a habit of doing things whether they have the right or not.
For the purpose of our study the following plan is suggested. I. A note or two on Shelley himself and his own personality, as bearing on his relations to Socialism. II. On those, who, in this connection had most influence upon his thinking. III. His attacks on tyranny, and his singing for liberty, in the abstract. IV. And in the concrete. V. His clear perception of the class struggle. VI. His insight into the real meaning of such words as “freedom,'’ “justice,” “crime,” “labour,” “property,” to-day. VII. His practical, his exceedingly practical nature in respect to the remedies for the ills of society. VIII. His comprehension of the fact that a reconstruction of society is inevitable, is imminent. IX. His pictures of the future, “delusions that were no delusions,” as he says. X. A reference to the chief works in which his socialistic ideas found expression. We cannot hope in this article to deal with more than the first six of these divisions. The remaining four we shall be glad, if opportunity offers to consider upon some future occasion.
Shelley’s own Personality. He was the child of the French Revolution. “The wild-eyed women” thronging round the path of Cythna as she went through the great city were from the streets of Paris, and he, more than any other of his time, knew the real strength and beauty of this wild mother of his and ours. With his singular poetical and historical insight he saw the real significance of the holy struggle. Another singer of that melodious time, Byron, was also a child of the same Revolution. But his intellectual fore-runners were Voltaire and his school, and the Rousseau of the Nouvelle Heloise, whilst those of Shelley were Baboeuf and the Rousseau of the Contrat Social. It is a wise child that knows his own father. As Marx, who understood the poets as well as he understood the philosophers and economists, was wont to say: “The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at thirty-six, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at twenty-nine, because he was essentially a revolutionist, and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of Socialism.”
The outbreak of the Revolution was only three years in advance of Shelley’s birth. Throughout Europe in the earlier part of this century reaction was in full swing. In England there were trials for blasphemy, trials for treason, suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, misery everywhere. Shelley saw — not as Professor Dowden alternately has it, “thought he saw” — in the French Revolution an incident of the movement towards a reconstruction of society. He flung himself into politics, and yet he never ceased singing.
Every poem of Shelley’s is stained with his intense individuality. Perhaps for our purpose the Lines written on the Euganean Hills, the Lionel of Rosalind and Helen, and Prince Athanase afford the best exemplars. But let us also keep in remembrance Mary Shelley’s testimony to the especial value of Peter Bell the Third, in respect to the social and religious views of her husband. “No poem contains more of Shelley’s peculiar views with regard to the errors into which many of the wisest have fallen, and of the pernicious effects of certain opinions on society ... Though, like the burlesque drama of Swellfoot, it must be looked on as a plaything, it has ... so much of himself in it that it cannot fail to interest greatly, and by right belongs to the world for whose instruction and benefit it was written.”
And now having quoted her we may quote himself upon himself. Whether wholly unconsciously, or with the modest self-consciousness of genius he has written, lines and lines that are word-portraits of himself. Of these only one or two familiar instances can be taken.
He was one of —
The sacred few who could not tame
Their spirits to the conquerors
[Triumph of Life]
And then I clasped my hands and looked around —
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground —
So without shame, I spake: — “I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check.” I then controlled
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.
“And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore,
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store
Wrought linked armour for myself, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind;
Thus power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined
[Laon and Cytha]
He was one of —
Those who have struggled, and with resolute will
Vanquished earth’s pride and meanness, burst the chains,
The icy chains of custom, and have shone
The day-stars of their age
The dedication of The Cenci to Leigh Hunt may be taken as if Shelley was communing with his own heart.
One more gentle, honourable, innocent and brave; one of more exalted toleration for all who do and think evil, and yet himself more free from evil; one who knows better how to receive and how to confer a benefit though he must ever confer far more than he can receive; one of simpler, and, in the highest sense of the word, of purer life and manners I never knew
[Dedication of The Cenci]
Pure-minded, earnest-souled, didactic poet, philosopher, prophet, then he is. But add to this, if you will rightly estimate the immense significance of his advocacy of any political creed, the fact already noted of his extraordinary political insight; and add also, if you will rightly estimate the value of his adherence to any scientific truth, the fact that he had a certain conception of evolution long before it had been enunciated in clear language by Darwin, or had even entered seriously into the region of scientific possibilities. Of his acuteness as historical observer, one general instance has already been given in connection with the French Revolution. Yet another less obvious but even more astounding example is furnished by his poems on Napoleon. Shelley was the first, was indeed the only man of his time to see through Napoleon. The man whom every one in Europe at that period took for a hero or a monster, Shelley recognised as a mean man, a slight man, greedy for gold, as well as for the littleness of empire. His instinct divined a Napoleon “the little” in Napoleon “the great.” That which Michelet felt was true, that which it was left for Lanfrey to prove as a historical fact, the conception of Napoleon that is as different from the ordinary one, as an ordinary person is from Shelley.
In 1816 we find him writing:
I hated thee, fallen tyrant! I did groan
To think that a most unambitious slave,
Like thou, shouldst dance and revel on the grave
and in 1821, the year of Napoleon’s death.
Napoleon’s fierce spirit rolled,
In terror, and blood, and gold,
A torrent of ruin to death from his birth
By instinct, intuition, whatever we are to call that fine faculty that feels truths before they are put into definite language, Shelley was an Evolutionist. He translated into his own pantheistic language the doctrine of the eternity of matter and the eternity of motion, of the infinite transformation of the different forms of matter into each other, of different forms of motion into each other, without any creation or destruction of either matter or motion. But that he held these scientific truths as part of his creed, there can be no doubt. You have the doctrine, certainly in a pantheistic form, but certainly there, in the letter to Miss Hitchener. “As the soul which now animates this frame was once the vivifying principle of the lowest link in the chain of existence, so is it ultimately destined to attain the highest.” (Letters VI., p.12). In Queen Mab:
Spirit of Nature! here!
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
Even soaring fancy staggers,
Here is thy fitting temple.
Yet not the lightest leaf
That quivers to the passing breeze
Is less instinct with thee
Yet not the meanest worm
That lurks in graves and fattens on the dead
Less shares thy eternal breath
Of the two great principles affecting the development of the individual and of the race, those of heredity and adaptation, he had a clear perception, although they as yet were neither accurately defined nor even named. He understood that men and peoples were the result of their ancestry and of their environment. Two prose fragments in illustration of this. One is: “But there must be a resemblance which does not depend upon their own will, between all the writers of any particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live, though each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. Thus, the tragic poets of the age of Pericles; the Italian revivers of learning; those mighty intellects of our own country that succeeded the Reformation, the translators of the Bible, Shakespeare, Spenser, the dramatists of the reign of Elizabeth, and Lord Bacon, the colder spirits of the interval that succeeded; all resemble each other and differ from every other in their several classes. In this view of things Ford can no more be called the imitator of Shakespeare, than Shakespeare the imitator of Ford. There were perhaps few other joints of resemblance between these two men, than that which the universal and inevitable influence of their age produced. And this is an influence which neither the meanest scribbler, nor the sublimest genius of any era can escape, and which I have not attempted to escape.”
The other is:
It is less the character of the individual than the situation in which he is placed which determines him to be honest or dishonest. (Letter to Hunt).
This extraordinary power of seeing things clearly and of seeing them in their right relations one to another, shown not alone in the artistic side of his nature, but in the scientific, the historical, the social, is a comfort and strength to us that hold in the main the beliefs, made more sacred to us in that they were his, and must give every lover of Shelley pause when he finds himself parting from the Master on any fundamental question of economics, of faith, of human life.
II. The people most immediately influencing him.
A word again upon Byron here. In Byron we have the vague, generous and genuine aspirations in the abstract, which found their final expression in the bourgeois-democratic movement of 1848. In Shelley, there was more than the vague striving after freedom in the abstract, and therefore his ideas are finding expression in the social-democratic movement of our own day. Thus Shelley was on the side of the bourgeoisie when struggling for freedom, but ranged against them when in their turn they became the oppressors of the working-class. He saw more clearly than Byron, who seems scarcely to have seen it at all, that the epic of the nineteenth century was to be the contest between the possessing and the producing classes. And it is just this that removes hint from the category of Utopian Socialists, and makes him so far as it was possible in his time, a Socialist of modern days.
We have already referred to the influence of Baboeuf, (probably indirect), and of Rousseau. To these must of course be added the French “philosophes,” the Encyclopaedists, especially Holbach, or more accurately his “ghost” Diderot — Diderot, the intellectual “ghost” of everybody of his time.
Into any inquiry concerning the writer, that influenced Shelley’s politics and sociology the name of Godwin must necessarily enter prominently. Bowden’s Life, has made us all so thoroughly acquainted with the ill side of Godwin, that just now there may be a not unnatural tendency to forget the best of him. But whatever his colossal and pretentious meannesses and other like faults may have been, we have to remember that he wrote Political Justice, a work in itself of extraordinary power, and of special significance to us as the one that did more than any other to fashion Shelley’s thinking. Much has been made, scarcely too much can be made, of the influence of Godwin’s writings on Shelley. But not enough has been made of the influence upon him of the two Marys; Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley. It was one of Shelley’s “delusions that are not delusions” that man and woman should be equal and united; and in his own life and that of his wife he not only saw this realised, but saw the possibility of that realisation in lives less keen and strong than theirs. All through his work this oneness with his wife shines out, and most notably in the dedication to that most didactic of poems, Laon and Cythna. Laon and Cythna are equal and united powers, brother and sister, husband and wife, friend and friend, man and woman. In the dedication to the history of their suffering, their work, their struggle, their triumph and their love, Mary is “his own heart’s home, his dear friend beautiful and calm and free.”
And what art thou? I know, but dare not speak:
Time may interpret to his silent years,
Yet in the paleness of thy thoughful cheek,
And in the light thine ample forehead wears,
And in thy sweetest smiles and in thy tears,
And in thy gentle speech, a prophecy
Is whispered, to subdue my fondest fears;
And thro’ thine eyes, even in thy soul I see,
A camp of vestal fire burning internally
And in the next stanza to the one just quoted that other Mary is besung
One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled,
Of its departing glory, still her fame
Shines on thee thro’ the tempests dark and wild,
Which shake these latter days
In a word, the world in general has treated the relative influences of Godwin on the one hand and of the two women on the other, pretty much as might have been expected with men for historians.
Probably the fact that he saw so much through the eyes of these two women quickened Shelley’s perception of women’s real position in society, and of the real cause of that position. This, which he only felt in the Harriet days, he would have understood fully of himself sooner or later. That this understanding came sooner, is in large measure due to the two Marys. One of them at least before him had seen in part that women’s social condition is a question of economics, not of religion or of sentiment. The woman is to the man as the producing class is to the possessing. Her “inferiority,” in its actuality and in its assumed existence, is the outcome of the holding of economic power by man to her exclusion. And this Shelley understood not only in its application to the most unfortunate of women, but in its application to every woman.
But note how in the Laon and Cythna it is (F. I. 108, xxi) “woman, (i.e. woman in general) outraged and polluted long.” Now truly he understands the position of woman, and how thoroughly he recognizes that in her degradation man is degraded, and that in dealing out justice to her man will be himself set free, the well-known Laon and Cythna passage will serve to illustrate.
Can man be free if woman be a slave?
Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air
To the corruption of a closed grave!
Can they whose mates are beasts, condemned to bear
Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare
To trample their oppressors? in their home
Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear
The shape of woman — hoary crime would come
Behind, and Fraud rebuild religion’s tottering
III Tyranny and Liberty in the abstract
With these in the abstract the poets have always been busy. They have denounced the former in measured language and unmeasured terms. Yet they have been known to refuse their signatures to petitions asking for justice on behalf of seven men condemned to death upon police evidence of the worst kind. They have sung paeans in praise of liberty in the abstract, or in foreign lands. Yet they have written hymns against Ireland and for the Liberal Unionists. Shelley has not, to use a forcible colloquialism, “gone back on himself.” When we read the Ode to Liberty, or the 1819 Ode for the Spaniards, or the tremendous Liberty of 1820, we have not the sense of uneasiness that we have when reading Holy Cross Day or The Litany of Nations. This man is through and through foe to tyranny in the abstract and in the concrete form.
Of course in much of his work the ideas that exercise a malevolent despotism over men’s minds are attacked in general terms. Superstition and empire in all their forms Shelley hated, and therefore he again and again dealt with them as abstractions from those forms. Superstition, or an unfounded reverence for that which is unworthy of reverence, was to him, at first, mainly embodied in the superstition of religion. To the younger Shelley, l'infame of Voltaire’s ecrasez l'infame was to a great extent, as with Voltaire wholly, the priesthood. And the empire that he antagonised was at first that of kingship and that of personal tyranny. But even in his attacks on these he simultaneously assails the superstitious belief in the capitalistic system, and the empire of class. As time goes on, with increasing distinctness, he makes assault upon these, the most recent, and most dangerous foes of humanity. And always, every word that he has written against religious superstitions, and the despotism of individual rulers may be read as against economic superstition and the despotism of class. “The immense improvements of which by the extinction of certain moral superstitions [for moral we can also read economic] human society may be yet susceptible.” [Preface to Julian and Maddalo] .
IV Tyranny in the concrete
We must pass over, with a mere reference only, the songs for nations — for Mexico, Spain, Ireland, England. Of his attacks upon Napoleon mention has been made. In the Mask of Anarchy, Castlereagh, Sidmouth, Eldon, are all personally gibbeted. In each case, not only the mere man but the infamous principle he represents is the object of attack. Just as the Prince Regent to Shelley was embodied princeship, and Napoleon embodied personal greed and tyranny, so Castlereagh (the Chief Secretary for Ireland before he was War Minister), was embodied war and government; Sidmouth, Home Secretary at the Peterloo time, embodied officialism, Eldon embodied Law. He is for ever denouncing priest and king and statesman.
Kings priests and statesmen, blast the human flower,
Even in its tender bud; their influence darts
Like sudden poison, through the bloodless veins
Of desolate society (Queen Mab)
But he scarcely ever fails to link with these the basis on which nowadays they all rest — our commercial system. See the Queen Mab passage beginning: —
Commerce has set the mark of selfishness
The signet of its all enslaving power
It is not for nothing that in Charles I the court fool puts together the shops and churches. “ The rainbow hung over the city with all its shops — and churches." This leads us to our next point.
V His perception of the class-struggle
More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that to-day tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery. He saw that the so-called middle-class is the real tyrant, the real danger at the present day. Those of us who belong to that class, in our delight at Shelley’s fierce onslaughts upon the higher members of it, aristocrats, monarchs, landowners, are apt to forget that de nobis etiam fabula narratur. Of us also he speaks. This point is of such importance that more quotations than usual must be taken to enforce it. From Edinburgh, in his first honeymoon he writes: — “Had he [Uncle Pilfold] not assisted us, we should still have been chained to the filth and commerce of Edinburgh. Vile as aristocracy is, commerce — purse-proud ignorance and illiterateness — is more contemptible .”
Or take the end of a Keswick letter, 1811, to Miss Hitchener: — “The grovelling souls of heroes, aristocrats, and commercialists.” Even when he uses the phrase “privileged classes” in the Philosophic View of Reform
VI His understanding of the real meaning of things
His acuteness of vision is not only seen in his marking off society into the two groups, but in his understanding the real meaning of phrases that are to most of us either formulae or cant. Let us take as many of these as space allows.
Anarchy. — Shelley saw and said that the Anarchy we are all so afraid of is very present with us. We live in the midst of it. Anarchy is God and King and Law in the Mask of Anarchy, and let us add in Capitalism.
Freedom. — The extraordinary statement that England is a free country was to Shelley the merest nonsense. “The white shore of Albion free no more .... The abortion with which she travaileth is the Liberty smitten to death.” Lines written during the Castlereagh administration .
Custom. — The general evil of that custom which is to most of us a law, the law, the only law of life, he was never weary of denouncing. “The chains, the icy chains of custom” (Queen Mab)
Cruelty of the governing class. — A tyrannical class like a tyrannical man stops at nothing in order to maintain its position of supremacy. No means are too insignificant, no weapon too ponderous. From the policeman’s “nark,” or spy not a member of the police force, to the machinery of a trial for treason, nothing comes amiss to the class that governs. Shelley knew what a mockery for the most part is a trial instituted by a government, whether in Ireland or in England. “A trial I think men call it” (Rosalind and Helen) .
In June 1817, a few operatives rose in Derbyshire. A score of dragoons put down the Derbyshire insurrection, an insurrection there is reason to believe put up by a Government spy. On November 7th 1817, three men, Brandreth, Turner, Ludlam, “were drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, and were hanged and decapitated in the presence of an excited and horror-stricken crowd” (Dowden’s Life). Against this judicial murder Shelley’s voice was lifted up, as it would be now in like case. For like cases are occurring, still occur in increasing numbers as the class struggle intensifies. In Ireland at Lisdoovarna, Constable Whelehan was murdered recently in a moonlighting raid. The raid had been planned by Cullinane, a Government spy. On Monday Dec. 12, 1887, one man was condemned to ten years’, four others to seven years’ penal servitude for an offence planned by a government spy. Against this sentence Shelley were he alive would, we are certain, protest. So would he have protested against the direct murders by the police at Michelstown, and Trafalgar Square. So would he have protested against the recent judicial murder in America of four men and the practical imprisonment for life of three others. The Chicago Anarchist meeting differed even from the Derbyshire insurrection of 1817. There was no rising, no talk of rising, no use of physical force by the people, no threat of it. Yet seven men were condemned on the evidence of the police, evidence that those who have read every word of it feel was not only insufficient to prove the guilt, but absolutely conclusive as to the innocence of the accused. Had Shelley been alive he would have been the first to sign the petition on behalf of the Chicago Anarchists.
Crime. — This phenomenon Shelley recognized as the natural result of social conditions. The criminal was to him as much a creature of the society in which the lived as the capitalist or the monarch. “Society,” said he, “grinds down poor wretches into the dust of abject poverty, till they are scarcely recognizable as human beings.". And much that is called crime was to Shelley (the Preface to Laon and Cythna is but one evidence) only crime by convention.
Property. The opinion of Shelley as to that which could be rightly enjoyed as a person’s own property and what could only be enjoyed wrongly, will be in part gathered from a quotation which paraphrased in the more precise language of scientific Socialism reads thus: “A man has a right to anything that his own labour has produced, and that he does not intend to employ for the purpose of injuring his fellows. But no man can himself acquire a considerable aggregation of properly except at the expense of his fellows. He must either cheat a certain number out of the value of it, or take it by force.”
Again, note the conception of wealth in the Song to the Men of England: “The wealth ye find another keeps.”
As to that for which the working class work he quotes Godwin in the fifth note to Queen Mab.
Let us take as our last example of his understanding of the central position of Socialism, a quotation to be found in a letter to Miss Hitchner, dated December 15th, 1811. Shelley is discussing the entailment of his estate: “that I should entail £120,000 of command over labour, of power to remit this, to employ it for beneficent purposes, on one whom I know not."
We cannot expect even such a man as Shelley to have thought out in his time the full meaning of labour-power, labour, and the value of commodities. But undoubtedly he knew the real economic value of private property in the means of production and distribution, whether it was in machinery, land, funds, what not. He saw that this value lay in the command, absolute, merciless, unjust, over human labour. The Socialist believes that these means of production and distribution should be the property of the community. For the man or company that owns them has practically irresponsible control over the class that does not possess them.
The possessor can and does dictate terms to the man or woman of that non-possessing class. “You shall sell your labour to me. I will pay you only a fraction of its value in wage. The difference between that value and what I pay for your labour I pocket, as a member of the possessing class, and I am richer than before, not by labour of my own, but by your unpaid labour.” This was the teaching of Shelley. This is the teaching of Socialism, and therefore the teaching of Socialism, whether it is right or wrong, is also that of Shelley. We claim him as a Socialist.
End of Shelley And Socialism by Eleanor Marx