Percy Bysshe Shelley was a Romantic poet of radical imagination in an age informed by the 1789 French revolution. He was born in 1792 during the European wars and died by drowning of the coast of the north-west coast of Italy in 1822, some two hundred years ago.
Shelley was a controversial figure during his short life whose important works like QUEEN MAB were suppressed until late into the Nineteenth century. Dismissed by literary critics during most of the Twentieth century, it was not until recently that his poetry and political prose, such as OZYMANDIAS and THE MASK OF ANARCHY have been positively reassessed as a contribution to radical political dissent.
Unfortunately many of his works remain largely unknown or unread. There is his infamous THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM which got him expelled as a student from Oxford. And he wrote a trenchant criticism against capital punishment and a defence of revolutionaries like Jeremiah Brandreth. Brandreth was publically executed for treason at Derby Jail following the failed Pentrich Uprising when workers, who were faced with high unemployment, rising corn prices and general inflation following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, marched on Nottingham Castle as a prelude for an assault on London (‘An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte’).
In 1811, Shelley wrote THE POETICAL ESSAY ON THE EXISTING STATE OF THINGS which was published as a backdrop to his visit to Ireland in support of Catholic emancipation and the Repeal of the Union. The pamphlet was dedicated to the Irish journalist Peter Finnerty. Finnerty had been imprisoned for seditious libel and forced to stand in the stocks when he accused Viscount Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary of State for ordering the torture of Irish rebels following the Irish uprising of 1798 which had been put down with ruthless savagery by Pitt the Younger’s Tory administration.
Shelley’s adult life could be summed up in a suggestion by a character in Salman Rushdie’s novel THE STANIC VERSES:
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep”.
It is in this respect that Shelley believed “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A DEFENCE OF POETRY, 1821). Poetry is political or it is nothing.
Politics in late 18th and early 19th century
Shelly should be placed in and understood in the revolutionary politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. At the time, the nobility dominated both houses of parliament, and very few people had a vote. The French Revolution posed a threat to aristocrat privilege.
Reformers set up societies throughout the country, such as the London Corresponding Society, and the Manchester and Sheffield Constitutional Societies. These agitated for moderate and radical reform of English government and the constitution. The most common demands were for the sovereignty of the people, fairer representation in parliament, universal male suffrage, and regular or annual parliaments.
In the early 1790s, these societies publicly congratulated France on its successful revolution. Some activists were more revolutionary still, visiting Paris and calling for the overthrow of all European despotic governments and universal freedom for all people – a world of revolutions.
The government response to the revolutionary movement, generated by fear and panic at the possible loss of their property and lives, was swift and dramatic. All English supporters of the French revolution were labelled “Jacobins”, a term associated with French terrorists and revolutionary intent; much in the same way as the right wing media today name anyone who criticises the profit system as a “Marxist.”
The State used coercive powers to stop the spread of radical ideas like suffrage and democracy for all. Writers, printers and publishers were arrested and prosecuted for seditious libel under a Royal Proclamation against Seditious Writings issued by George III in 1792.
In an attempt to suppress this wave of radicalism, Prime Minister William Pitt introduced draconian measures known as his “Reign of Terror” (1793-5). Government spies were deployed to infiltrate the corresponding societies in Britain and the group of British activists in Paris who met at White’s Hotel and were labelled the “British Club”.
In 1793 groups, modelled on the French Convention, were held in Edinburgh with the aim of creating popular political assemblies around Britain. The ringleaders were arrested, tried, convicted of treason and transported to Australia.
In 1794 the government suspended the Habeas Corpus Act, which protected people from unlawful imprisonment. A number of leading English radicals were arrested and charged with high treason for which the punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered. They were examined before the Privy Council and tried at what became known as the “Treason Trials”. All were acquitted which only increased the government determination to use the evidence of “spies” and to have tame juries sworn-in to convict the innocent.
The first result of the peace in Europe, following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, was a severe political and economic crisis. In the face of political dissent and riots the government passed the “Gagging Acts” of 1817 (Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) to further suppress political ideas and publications deemed a threat to private property and the interest of the landed aristocracy and rising capitalist class. The act of treason was even extended to imagining the king’s death. The political unrest of 1817 and the government’s silencing tactics culminated in the Peterloo Massacre
Shelley was political.
The political significance of Shelley’s poetry was not lost on Frederich Engels. Engels wrote extensively on the Chartist movement, most notably in THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS (1845) as well as writing articles in the Chartist Newspaper NORTHERN STAR.
THE NORTHERN STAR issue of 1839, quoted an excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem QUEEN MAB: A PHILOSOPHICAL POEM. Queen Mab was banned at the time due to its atheistically provocative passages. It was an underground text to resurface just as the working class were politically finding its feet.
Engels, when he first arrived in England and met up with Chartists, translated QUEEN MAB into German. Engels wrote:
"Shelley, the genius, the prophet, finds most of [his] readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie own the castrated editions, the family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.”
And the Chartists in their struggle for the vote and against the Poor Law Reform Acts of the 1830s found the political Shelley. THE NORTHERN STAR was a Chartist newspaper that campaigned for political reform, particular the vote and published between 1837 and 1852.
The Chartists struggle for the vote forced one former Whig Government Minister, Thomas Macaulay to remark:
‘Universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists. It is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation...civilisation rests on the security of property...while property is insecure; it is not in the power...of the moral or intellectual constitution of any country sinking into barbarism...” (quoted in Malcolm Chase, THE CHARTISTS: PERSPECTIVES & LEGACIES, 2007p. 8).
It was Macaulay’s class who were to sink into barbarism as they desperately tried to politically secure the institution of private property by denying the vote to the rest of society; the propertyless. Two decades later in 1867 and again in 1884, with the passing of the second and third reform Acts, the working class had the potential to use the revolutionary vote to establish socialism.
Marx, too held Shelley in high esteem. According to Eleanor Marx, her father,
“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” (quoted in P B SHELLEY: POET AND REVOLUTIONARY, J Mulhallen p 130 Pluto 2015)
Here is Shelley on the death of Napoleon
‘Napoleon’s fierce spirit rolled,
In terror, and blood, and gold,
A torrent of ruin to death from his birth’
This dismissal of dictators should be read in conjunction with Byron’s ODE TO NAPOLEON BUONAPARTE:
‘Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew’d our earth with hostile bones.
And can he this survive?
Since he, miscalled the morning Star
Nor man nor fiend has fallen so far’
Shelley also pricked the pomposity of ‘great men’ who believed they would be remembered forever.
In OZYMANDIAS, one of Shelley’s best known and most accessible poems a ‘traveller from an antique land’ describes to the poet the crumbling remains of a colossal statue he had encountered in the desert of an ancient Egyptian tyrant.
The head of the statue, now lying in crumbling ruins on the sands, preserves the tyrant’s ‘sneer of cold command’; on the statue’s pedestal is a vainglorious inscription:
‘My name is Ozymandias,
King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
And, though from the aristocracy, Shelley sided with the poor struggling to form, what Marx called, a ‘class for itself’ against the landed aristocracy and rising bourgeoisie.
Shelley, like Marx and Engels, grew up in the shadow of the French Revolution. He grew up in a political environment of state repression and violence towards any form of radicalism or revolutionary change.
“We Claim him as a Socialist”
In April of 1888 Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling gave a socialist address to ‘The Shelley Society’ in which they tried to show Shelley was a “socialist” rather than an apolitical romantic poet. This lecture was to be published as a pamphlet SHELLEY AND SOCIALISM first by the Shelley Society then, in altered form, by ‘To-Day’, April 1888, pp.103-116 marxists.org).
Marx and Aveling were at pains to point out that:
“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”.
They first described a set of six distinguishing hallmarks of socialism and pointed out:
“…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 authors then set out the six most pertinent conditions which they believed illustrated Shelley’s “socialism”:
(1) A note or two on Shelley himself and his own personality, as bearing on his relations to socialism;
(2) On those, who, in this connection had most influence upon his thinking;
(3) His attacks on tyranny, and his singing for liberty, in the abstract;
(4) His attacks on tyranny in the concrete;
(5) His clear perception of the class struggle; and
(6) His insight into the real meaning of such words as “freedom,'’ “justice,” “crime,” “labour,” and “property”.
The authors also quote from a letter Shelley wrote to Leigh Hunt in 1820, in which he stated:
“...the system of human society as it exists at present must be overthrown from the foundations.”
However, it is doubtful Shelley meant a “capitalist system” in which the ownership of the means of living is owned by the capitalist class to the exclusion of the working class majority. At the time he was writing, way before the publication of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, he could not conceive of a working class acting democratically and politically in its own interest.
And even if Shelley believed in universal suffrage and a peaceful revolution he was in no position to identify the agency for a socialist revolution as a mature working class majority taking control of the machinery of government including the armed forces to replace capitalism with socialism.
The class struggle was taking place but it was Engels who described the Canut revolt of the Lyon workers in 1831 as “the first working-class rising” of the early period of capitalist development just as he described the organizational capacity of the Chartists to struggle for workers’ interests in England around the same time.
If Shelley is to be conceived as a socialist at all it would be a utopian socialist; a social reformer in line with others like Robert Owen whom he knew. QUEEN MAB, for example, is written in the form of a fairy tale that presents a future vision of a utopian society. Shelley at the time was influenced by the political philosopher William Godwin who pursued a passive theory of “social justice” rather than an active “social revolution”. Shelley offered no socialist objective, how it could be achieved and by whom.
Although Engels remembered Eleanor Marx, “We all knew Shelley by heart then” he would have placed Shelley with the “Utopian Socialists” where he dismissed them in his pamphlet SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC as:
“...a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook”.
To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.
This was to be Marx’s scientific contribution to socialism with his theory of history and theory of surplus value.
‘The Mask of Anarchy’
Like many other British artists, including Byron, Shelley and his second wife Mary decamped to Italy due to its political climate at the end of the 1810s. Here Shelly continued to write politically charged poetry and drama, including THE MASK OF ANARCHY, a bitter response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Manchester.
The Peterloo Massacre, recently made into a film by Mark Leigh, took place at St Peters Field Manchester on Monday 16 august 1819. Fifteen people were killed and 500 injured when cavalry, led by a local factory owner, Captain Birley charged into a crowd of around 60,000 people many women and children who had gathered to call for universal suffrage and vote by ballot. They had come peacefully to listen to Henry Hunt who was arrested and sent to prison for two years.
The Prince Regent congratulated the cavalry at Peterloo for preserving the “public peace”. As a consequence of the massacre the Tory government passed the Six Acts of 1819 banning all “unofficial” large public meetings. Magistrates were given extra powers to arrest people and search for weapons. It became illegal to criticise the state in print and punitive taxes were imposed on all newspaper sales.
The news of the Peterloo massacre reached Shelley only on 6 September. He set to work almost immediately, writing the ninety-one stanzas of THE MASK OF ANARCHY within a few days.
Shelley selected a popular ballad form which was used later by Bob Dylan in his protest songs like SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK BLUES with its memorable lines: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters"
Leigh Hunt, the editor to whom Shelley originally sent the poem, was afraid to publish it in 1819 because of the repressive laws against ‘sedition’, but the poem was still appropriate in 1832 when once again there was agitation for reform of Parliament and he published it where it found a new audience with the Chartists who were then struggling for male suffrage.
The opening lines of the MASK OF ANARCHY describe a huge carnival procession. Leading the procession are the government’s principal actors: Murder (Castlereagh, the foreign secretary), Fraud (Eldon, the Lord Chancellor), Hypocrisy (Sidmouth, the home secretary), and other Destructions (bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies).
Here is the hated Castlereagh personified as murder :
“I met murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him”
In face of defeat and a repressive state, Shelley gave us Hope:
“And the prostrate multitude
Looked – and ankle-deep in blood
Hope, that maiden most serene
Was walking with a quiet mien:”
In his poem THE MASQUE OF ANARCHY, Shelley lays bare the hypocrisy of the government and calls for the people to continue to challenge its rule despite the violence deployed against them. It culminates with the famous verse:
‘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.’
‘Ye are many – they are few’.
And this is still the case today: ‘ye are many –they are few’. The working class form a majority in society, owning nothing but their labour power which they sell as a commodity to employers for a wage or salary. In the productive process the working class are exploited producing what Marx called “surplus value”, from which the unearned income of rent, interest and profit are derived, including the taxation that goes to support the coercive capitalist state.
The working class face a capitalist class minority and their state – the “few”- who own the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of everybody else. As a consequence of the wages system they cannot produce what they need and cannot take what they want.
“Rise like lions” means social revolution. A revolution in which a socialist majority takes democratic and political action in order to replace the profit system with socialism; the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. A social revolution in which socialist delegates will be sent by a socialist majority to Parliament for the express purpose of gaining control of the means of government including the armed forces of the state for “the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic”.
What of today’s politicians like Castlereagh, those who wear the masque of hypocrisy, fraud and murder; the Starmers, the Trusses and the Johnsons of the world? We can only recall the words of Lord Byron, a friend and contemporary of Shelley, who wrote a fitting tribute to Castlereagh the tyrant as he lay buried in Westminster Abbey:
‘Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this
Here lies the bones of Castlereagh
Stop, traveller, and piss’
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.