Shelley: A Socialist Poet
I became acquainted with Shelley in 1944. At the time I was eighteen years of age and a Republican remand prisoner in Belfast jail. I liked poetry and, searching for something readable in the prison library—a cupboard which they opened twice weekly to the accompaniment of bawling screws, who could see no justification for delay in lifting one of the books—I found a treasure: The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Eventually I got my own copy of Shelley and, over many, many years, I have prized it as the first real socialist literature I ever read. It is, I think, fitting that, on the bi-centenary of his birth, an appreciation of his life’s work should appear in a socialist journal.
Poets, with their abstract notions of freedom and justice, can momentarily help a prisoner transcend the ignominy and degradation that the prison system imposes. But Shelley’s ideas of freedom and justice were no way abstract; his was no mere solace for the soul. Yes, there were the odes To The West Wind, To A Skylark, To A Cloud; beautiful word music in the classical tradition of English metrical composition.
But, more importantly, there was the wisdom that stripped to its essential ugliness a system of society that dissipates, wastes and destroys wealth in order to make its rich richer while mentally and physically impoverishing the producers of that wealth. There was the vision of a new world, a world of dignity and equality where cash would not be the measure of human need. And there was the indignation, the anguish, even the pain—sometimes written in a spontaneity of anger that defied the discipline of well-marshalled prosody. Here was a text book of revolutionary thought that showed the futility of the cause for which I was imprisoned and extended my vision beyond the empty rhetoric of nationalism.
During his lifetime Shelley had come to Ireland to protest at the misery of the peasantry. Some Irish nationalists have equated this with sympathy for Irish nationalism but Shelley, whose constituency was the toiling masses everywhere, did not subscribe to the myth that the English working class were the beneficiaries of English imperialism. Thus, after hearing of the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819, Shelley wrote the Masque of Anarchy in which he describes the contemporary condition of the working class in England:
Asses, swine have litter spread
And with fitting food are fed;
All things have a home but one –
Thou, Oh Englishman, hast none!
This is Slavery—savage men, Or wild beasts within a den Would endure not as ye do—But such ills they never knew.
This poem, consisting of some ninety one short stanzas of varying lengths was written at Leghorn in Italy. According to his wife, Mary, when Shelley heard how the military murderers had waded into a peaceful reform protest “it… aroused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion”. According to some purists, that anger adversely affected the quality of the poem.
Whatever its poetic qualities, Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy must rank, from a working—class standpoint, as the most didactic of English poetical works. His verse castigates every rotten facet of capitalism: its law, its judiciary, its priests, its parasite class and the foulness of its oppression. His words bear the reader along the path of anger and frustration seeking, it would seem, retribution, revenge. But Shelley, in an age when violence was the tool of revolution, was too deeply perceptive of the need for democratic action if the revolution which he craved was to realise his vision. True, he makes us angry, makes us loathe this evil that murders people for profit but, on the crest of our anger, he stops us:
Then it is to feel revenge
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood –
and wrong for wrong –
Do not thus when ye are strong.
What then? What should we do when “we are strong”? Shelley, the democratic socialist says we should use the unassailable power of our numbers. Poetically, he says we should think… decide:
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest, close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many—they are few.
In 1888 Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling published an appreciation of Shelley under the title Shelley’s Socialisrn. The justification for their assumption is abundant throughout Shelley’s poems and prose writings. In one of his notes to Queen Mab, Shelley quotes Godwin with approval: “there is no real wealth but the labour of man”.
Prometheus Unbound, The Masque of Anarchy, Queen Mab, The Ode to Liberty, these, with his prose writings, his prologues, his sonnets and his songs chronicle the misery of the peasant and the wage slave but always, there is the optimism of the true revolutionary; the clarity of vision, as here in Prometheus Unbound, of a future where:
The Loathsome mask has fallen the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribless and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king,
Over himself, just, gentle, wise.
Queen Mab is a vision of the past, present and future of mankind. In it Shelley attacks kings, war, commerce and, in particular, priests and religion. In fact the criticism of christianity, in the poem as well as in prose notes attached to it was so hard-hitting that when it was republished in the 1820s the publisher was sent to prison for blasphemy. Queen Mab became the work that publishers used in defiance of the restrictive press laws of the time. Each time they were convicted of blasphemy. But as a result Queen Mab, and thus Godwin’s social ideas, came to be widely read in Chartist and radical circless.
In this passage from Queen Mab he criticises the way money contaminates all human relationships:
All things are sold: the very light of Heaven Is venal;
Earth’s unsparing gifts of love,
The smallest and most despicable things
That lurk in the abysses of the deep,
All objects of our life, even life itself,
And the poor pittance which the laws allow
Of liberty, the fellowship of man,
Those duties which his heart of human love
Should urge him to perform instinctively,
Are bought and sold as in a public mart
Of undisguising selfishness, that sets
On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.
He saw money, “paper coin—that forgery of the title deeds”, as capitalism’s instrument of theft; he saw slavery as a natural result of property society; he saw the poverty and alienation of the masses and, especially, did he decry the intellectual poverty and deception which capitalism inflicted on its wage slaves.
In part V of Queen Mab Shelley attacks commerce which he sees as a product of selfishness in the sense of people wanting to sell their surplus for money rather than give it to others to satisfy their needs:
Commerce! Beneath whose poison-breathing shade
No solitary virtue dares to spring,
But Poverty and Wealth with equal hand
Scatter their withering curses, and unfold
The doors of premature and violent death,
To pining famine and full-fed disease,
To all that shares the lot of human life,
Which poisoned, body and soul, scarce drags
That lengthens as it goes and clanks behind.
It is quite clear that Shelley was expressing Godwin’s idea that, in a just society, producers would give away their surplus produce free rather than sell it for money. Hence his opening description of commerce as “the venal interchange of all that human art or nature yield; which wealth should purchase not, but want demand, and natural kindness hasten to supply”. When he later describes what will happen when people are motivated by the “consciousness of good” he naturally states that they will have no need of “mediative signs of selfishness”—of money—and that “every transfer of the earth’s natural gifts shall be a commerce of good words and works”.
This commerce of sincerest virtue needs
No mediative signs of selfishness,
No jealous intercourse of wretched gain,
No balancings of prudence, cold and long;
In just and equal measure all is weighed, One scale contains the sum of human weal, And one, the good man’s heart.
Part V of Queen Mab ends as follows:
But hoary-headed Selfishness has felt
Its death-blow, and is tottering to the grave:
A brighter morn awaits the human day, When every transfer of earth’s natural gifts Shall be a commerce of good words and works;
When poverty and wealth, the thirst of fame,
The fear of infamy, disease and woe,
War with its million horrors, and fierce hell Shall live but in the memory of Time,
Who, like a penitent libertine, shall start,
Look back, and shudder at his younger years.
In one sense this argument as to whether or not Godwin and Shelley were socialists is anachronistic since the modern idea of socialism, as the solution to the problems of a majority wage-working class within a capitalist industrial society, had not yet come into being. This is partly why in this article we have used the word “communist” rather than “socialist” to describe the moneyless equal society advocated by critics of the essentially agrarian class society that existed before industrial capitalism developed. It was of course the low level of development of the means of production that accounts for the fruga1, even Spartan, character which the pre- industrial communists were obliged to give to the egalitarian society they advocated, but it still remains true that people like (in England) More, Winstanley and Godwin and Shelley and (in France) Morelly, Babeuf and Buonarotti were forerunners of the socialist industrial society of abundance that we mod- ern socialists now advocate.