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In this first extract from Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary, Jacqueline Mulhallen discusses Shelley’s radical politics in the wake of the Peterloo massacre

Jacqueline Mulhallen, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto Press, 2015)

[In his political essay, A Philosophical Review of Reform, written in the immediate aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819], Shelley believed that there was ‘an almost universal sentiment’ that change is necessary. The ‘manufacturers [factory workers] to a man’ wanted reform and ‘an immense majority of the inhabitants of London’ (p. 670).[i] ‘Those interested in maintaining the contrary’ (‘I mean the government party’) say that it can only come about by violence (p. 647). Shelley implies that ‘temporary popular violence’ could not be worse than ‘the mischiefs of permanent tyrannical and fraudulent forms of government’. It is a choice between ‘despotism and anarchy’ (pp. 647-648).

It is necessary because of the disproportionate inequality of the distribution of wealth. ‘The majority of the people’are ‘ill-clothed, ill-fed and ill-educated’, but not so much so that they do not ‘know this’(p. 655). Their labour produces the wealth since all property is the produce of labour. They are robbed of their natural rights by the national debt, introduced to pay for ‘two liberticide wars’against France and America, and ‘paper money’(p. 657); the money owed could have been used to improve the conditions of working people, with better education, housing and clothes –‘a paradise of comfort’with ‘a nice collection of useful books’. This is not a utopian future; he is explaining what the present could have been like. He saw that working people were deprived of education and resented it. Their great thirst for education was shown when mechanics’institutes and libraries were established over the next few decades. In 1815, the interest on the public debt was £37,500,000 and the rate of exchange unfavourable because of excessive use of paper money.[ii]

Shelley followed Cobbett in believing that, since the bank could never pay the money in gold, the ‘paper money’issue was fraudulent and more crucial to the economic problem than it was but he does not put the weight on it that Cobbett does. Shelley could not have been uninformed about the stock exchange as he would undoubtedly have discussed it with his friend, Horace Smith. For him, the problem is far deeper, namely a class war which has worsened since the aristocracy of land was joined by the aristocracy of ‘stock jobbers, usurers, directors, government pensions, country bankers: a set of pelting wretches who think of any commerce with their species as a means not an end’, although the chivalric ideal of the aristocracy ‘at the bottom […] is all trick’(p.652). […]

Shelley’s reform programme is similar to Cobbett’s: abolish the national debt, the standing army, sinecures and tithes, make all religions and non-religion legally equal and make justice cheap, certain and speedy (p. 655). Shelley believed that a government elected to do this should oblige the rich to pay the national debt as it is a ‘debt contracted by the privileged classes towards one portion of themselves’but ‘the interest is chiefly paid by those who had no hand in the borrowing’(p. 661). Some who are termed ‘property owners’are not much better off than the labouring classes –‘I mean not every man who possesses any degree of property; I mean the rich’(p. 659). Artisans, farmers, mechanics, doctors, artists and writers work for their living and should be allowed to leave something to their children, but not the aristocracy, who got their money by ‘usurpation, imposture, violence’and don’t deserve it (p. 660). On this basis, Shelley was saying that he deserved to keep anything he earned with his pen, but not his family estate.

If there was any chance that reform would come via Parliament, Shelley wanted to take it as he felt that a concession would prevent an insurrection, something he does not want, not because he wants the situation to continue as it is but because he feels that the resulting chaos would re-establish a tyranny, as it did after the English and French Revolutions. There were three reform possibilities.

(a) Reform could come from the existing Parliament, which could begin by disenfranchising the rotten boroughs and transferring the seats to the unrepresented cities. Shelley felt it would be best to accept this, then press for more ‘with firmness and moderation’. Thus people would become ‘habituated’to ‘exercising the functions of sovereignty’.

(b) A government more open to reform could be elected. If so, Shelley would vote for a property qualification and triennial parliaments. Given contemporary prejudice against women, the vote for women is ‘somewhat immature’, although he is himself in favour of it, but he does not like the impersonality of voting by secret ballot since it does not give an opportunity for ‘the elector and the elected’to ‘understand each other’(p. 665).

(c) If ‘the Houses of Parliament obstinately and perpetually refuse to concede any reform’Shelley’s vote would be for the universal suffrage, equal representation and annual parliaments demanded by the radical reformers even though he describes these measures as ‘ill-digested systems of democracy’(p. 667). To Shelley they fell short of the 1793 French Constitution, which, among other things enshrined the rights of free exercise of religion, liberty of the press, petition and to hold public assemblies, and far short of Babeuf’s demands or Shelley’s own Declaration of Rights.[iii] Why do the reformers not demand ‘the immediate abolition of […] monarchy and aristocracy, and the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution, including the Parks and Chases of the rich, of the uncultivated districts of the country’(p. 662), a suggestion similar to that expressed in Spence’s The Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth. Universal suffrage might bring these about, but in that case it would ‘produce an immature attempt at a republic. It is better that [an] object so inexpressibly great and sacred should never have been attempted than that it should be attempted and fail’(p. 662).

Shelley was right to believe that for ‘Commons [to] reform itself, uninfluenced by any fear that the people would, on their refusal, assume to itself that office seems a contradiction’(p. 663). He did not think that there would be no struggle. He had already warned that ‘so dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then nor now nor ever left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood’(p. 638) and remarked that in the French Revolution ‘the tyrants were as usual, the aggressors’although ‘the oppressed […] took a dreadful revenge’(p. 644). Shelley was concerned with the dangers of counter- revolution and with the hazard that militarization would pose to a revolution by enabling a new tyranny. War is inevitably linked to tyranny, and ‘demagogues, oligarchies and usurpers are merely varieties of the same class’(p. 673). ‘The true friend of mankind […] would hesitate before he recommended measures which tend to bring down so heavy a calamity as civil war, but it seemed that ‘the madness of parties admits no other mode of determining the question at issue’(p. 673). 

[i]Page numbers from Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works, edited by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[ii]Elie Halévy, England in 1815 (London: Ernest Benn, 1949), pp. 349, 358

[iii]<http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/1793-french-republic-constitution-of-1793> [accessed 8 January 2015]

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