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A new biography lauds William Godwin, but some contemporary radicals of the 1790s offer better inspiration for the modern left, argues Dominic Alexander

Richard Gough Thomas, William Godwin: A Political Life (Pluto Press 2019), vii, 166pp.

Ideas are shaped by their times, but not in the way that a mirror reflects an image. Eras of major structural social change do not directly produce equivalently transformative new ideas. Rather, a distance from the maelstrom of change is needed for fresh conceptions of new realities to work through human consciousness. It was no accident, therefore, that it took until the 1840s for a full understanding of the new industrial capitalist society to take shape. It was furthermore not co-incidental that this understanding was reached from the vantage point of Germany, a society lagging well behind the leading economies of Britain, and France following it. Marx and Engels were in exactly the right position to see most clearly the shape of modern capitalism.

Those who lived through the earlier decades of industrialisation in Britain had no such benefit of perspective, but had to respond to the brutal changes happening around them with the intellectual and political tools at their disposal. Their conceptions partook of the old and inklings of the new in different measures, but were all shaped by the contradictory forces of a society where inherited social relations were rapidly decaying and unprecedented forces were being unleashed. Politics were in upheaval as well as economics, and while Britain itself appears to us now to have been superficially stable, it was bracketed by revolutions to its east and west. Its own colonies in New England had rebelled, ending the first British Empire. Its most powerful rival to the east, France, overthrew its absolute monarchy, also detonating the Haitian Revolution, which shook the slave foundations of Atlantic capitalism to the core.

The political writers of the whole era from the 1770s through to the 1830s in Britain would have been geniuses beyond compare in human history if they could have clearly grasped the totality of what was happening in any way near how Marx was able to do. Their thinking remains illuminating, nevertheless, in the contradictory impulses contained within it, and as antecedents of later systems of political thought characteristic of industrial society. Many of these figures are therefore not easy to classify, as they combine older plebeian forms of social and political protest, with more clearly liberal bourgeois ideas, and intimations of more modern proletarian politics.

Radical responses to industrialisation

The revolutionary Thomas Spence (d.1814), like his French analogue Gracchus Babeuf (d.1796)of the ultra-Jacobin Conspiracy of Equals, called for the dispossession of the landowning class, and the institution of a form of communism. Spence, however, was in some ways simply trying to deny industrialisation, imagining a society based around autonomous democratic parishes, at the very moment these structures were collapsing under the weight of urbanisation. Some of his followers ended up on the scaffold having been lured into an assassination plot against the Cabinet (the Cato Street Conspiracy), which they saw as righteous revenge for the Peterloo Massacre. Less militant figures included utopian socialists like Robert Owen and William Thompson (d.1833), who could be trenchant critics of capitalism, and proved to be significant influences on the emerging labour movement. These were, however, more or less marked by a paternalism that arose from their positions as an industrialist and landowner respectively.

While capitalism was rapidly producing a world of property-less workers and wealthy industrialists, the older model of capitalism was based on a mass of poor artisans and merchant capitalists. For a long while the two forms existed side-by-side, with the older being annihilated in bursts of mechanisation which destroyed traditional industries and social relations. For many poor workers and artisans, the shape of the new relations of exploitation was not yet clear, and both could unite with parts of the middle classes in opposition to the authoritarian ‘Old Corruption’ of the landowners and the monarchy. Strains of republicanism and democratic ideas could unite different social layers as the ‘people’ against the ‘aristocracy’. This was the original ‘populist’ politics, and in the context of revolution and revolt against the rule of the landowning class was clearly progressive, while containing contradictory forces which would diverge in the politics of mature capitalist society.

William Godwin is probably more familiar today as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the father of Mary Shelley, than for his own stature as a radical thinker of the 1790s, in a possibly singular reversal of the usual bias. Unusually, for figures of this period, he can be claimed as a direct ancestor of a modern political ideology; anarchism. Yet, despite inspiring many radical opponents of the contemporary British Tory regime, notable Percy Bysshe Shelley, he himself was ‘not a revolutionary’ as Richard Gough Thomas is quick to acknowledge in his introduction to Godwin and his life (Thomas, p.1). Despite his clear opposition to mass, revolutionary politics, he was later claimed as a founder of his ‘socialist’ tradition by no less than the Russian anarchist revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin, who admitted that ‘he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his remarkable work’ (Thomas, p.141).

Godwin against authority

The work to which Kropotkin referred was Godwin’s monumental, though meandering, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which was also the chief source of Shelley’s admiration for the elder radical. Godwin questioned the right of the authorities to rule, on the basis of rational argument, at a time when Edmund Burke could still defend the existing order on the basis that tradition alone could guarantee safety and stability. Even more, divine approval for monarchy and aristocracy was still a widespread notion. It is easy to see how Godwin’s attack on monarchy, in all its guises, his declaration in favour of ‘equality of conditions’,[1] and the rational improvability of human beings, would certainly appeal to those like Shelley who were rebellious minded. Thomas Spence, similarly, published extracts from the Enquiry in his political journals (Thomas, p.18).

Godwin argued that authority was illegitimate, and cannot be conceived as deriving from the consent of the people, because it is:

‘impossible for an individual to actually give up the ability to reason ethically – we continue to think, and to hold opinions, even if our behaviour is outwardly obedient … An individual might grant a leader or government the power to tell them what to do but, if that power can be withdrawn the first time the individual disagrees with their orders, said “power” is little more than the right to make suggestions. The true power of government lies in its ability to use force’ (Thomas, p.24).

Government is merely the assertion of force, as Godwin underlines in a trenchant formulation:

‘“I have deeply reflected,” suppose, “upon the nature of virtue, and am convinced that a certain proceeding is incumbent upon me. But the hangman, supported by an act of parliament, assures me I am mistaken”’ (Godwin, Enquiry, p.205).

Unlike many other radicals, Godwin was able to escape the prosecutorial attentions of the authorities, probably because the Enquiry was a large and expensive book, and as a philosophical argument, rather than a political polemic, it was thought not to be quite so dangerous as Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, for example (Thomas p.18). Paine tends to be dismissed as a simplistic writer when comparisons are made with Godwin, but the two deserve to be considered side by side as key figures in the radicalism of the 1790s. Both the Rights of Man and the Enquiry were enthusiastically read and discussed in the various clubs and meetings of the popular radical circles, often referred to as ‘English Jacobins’.

Both these works envisaged an egalitarian society based on small producers, and therefore represent the world of plebeian artisans, where the contradictory relation between capital and labour had not yet fully separated working people from the means of production. Both authors lay considerable emphasis on the importance of reason in public affairs, and saw existing government as a tyrannical imposition upon the natural independence of each individual. In Paine’s phrase: ‘It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders’.[2]There are notable contrasts between their political programmes, however, which might well underline other reasons for the authorities’ relative tolerance of Godwin. Firstly, in Paine, there is a real enthusiasm for an age of revolution that is lacking in the former:

‘Conquest and tyranny, at some earlier period, dispossessed man of his rights, and he is now recovering them. And as the tide of all human affairs has its ebb and flow in directions contrary to each other, so also is it in this. Government founded on a moral theory, on a system of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the government of the sword revolved from east to west’ (Rights of Man, p.133, original emphasis).

We might quarrel with Paine’s geo-political history here, but his democratic commitments are clear.

Godwin against politics

Godwin had an altogether more ambivalent attitude to politics, to the point that he is actively hostile to political organisation altogether, let alone mass movements, of which he was consistently distrustful (Thomas, p.102). Political organisation is harmful in itself because instead of developing their independence, it encourages people to seek views that will help a group to coalesce, to the detriment of the search for ‘truth’.In Godwin’s view, truth is more likely to be found by individual, autonomous creativity, since ‘in political associations, the object of each man is to identify his creed with that of his neighbour’ (Godwin, p.284).

Hence, for Godwin, revolution ‘is engendered by an indignation against tyranny, yet is itself ever more pregnant with tyranny’ (Godwin, p.269). In fact, he opposes ‘tyrannicide’, on the grounds that to ‘proscribe all violence, and neglect no means of information and impartiality, is the most effectual security we can have, for an issue conformable to reason and truth’. Moreover, if ‘the nation be not ripe for a state of freedom’, attempting to remove a tyrant will only bring ‘new calamities’ (Godwin, p.294). Godwin here seems to have forgotten the violence of the state itself in his rush to dissociate himself from revolutionary action. From being a radical critic of existing government and society, Godwin negotiated himself into a kind of liberal pacifist quietism.

Godwin is relentlessly individualist: ‘Society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals,’ he states confidently (Godwin, p.176). There is, as a result of this assumption, little awareness of the structural impact of class on society in his analysis. The old regime is less identified with the landowning aristocracy than with moral and educational categories: ‘the true supporters of government are the weak and uninformed, and not the wise. In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish, the basis of government will also decay’ (Godwin, pp.247-8).

Godwin’s target here, as elsewhere, is the existence of states as such, but somehow this means the actually existing state ceases to be his main enemy. Here is indeed the anarchist thinker, but it is noteworthy that the inferior moral and intellectual condition of the mass of humanity, from the point of view of reason, becomes the most pressing problem. The only way to overcome present ills is to improve people through education, so that they may all perceive the world in the same rational way as Godwin did.

Godwin against society

Godwin’s application of reason results in some deeply flawed conclusions, perhaps most famously in his thought experiment over who should be saved from death, if only one could be chosen, Fénélon, Archbishop of Cambray (1651-1715),the humanistic writer, or his valet (in the original edition, it was his maid; Thomas, p.20). It is the aristocrat who deserves priority as ‘that life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good.’ In saving Fénélon, and so his great moralistic work Telemachus, ‘I should have been promoting the benefit of thousands who have been cured by the perusal of that work of some error, vice and consequent unhappiness’ (Godwin, pp.169-70). Godwin’s utilitarian logic prevents him from seeing that perhaps the Archbishop is only enabled to be the great man, apparently of such tremendous worth to humanity, because of the work of many maids, valets and other working people.

It is true that Godwin thought economic inequality unjust, but imagined it would be restrained by the rational judgment of his community of independent producers (Kramnick, p.30). There is little sense of how, in practice, this would come about, especially as Godwin is clearly hostile to taxation, and thought that attempts to re-distribute wealth, or schemes of agrarian reform like those of Thomas Spence, were ‘remedies more pernicious than the disease they are intended to cure’ (Godwin, p.714). There are also occasional moments where Godwin perceives the class structure of society to have ill consequences, as where he contrasts the productive ‘labourer and manufacturer’ against landowners, whose ‘hereditary wealth is in reality a premium paid to idleness’ (p.719).

However, his solution is entirely utopian, since he rejects re-distributive measures, and holds out an ideal of perfect individualism. His ideal society would forebear co-operation altogether:

‘all supererogatory co-operation is carefully to be avoided, common labour and common meals …Whether, by the nature of things, co-operation of some sort will always be necessary is a question we are scarcely competent to decide’ (Godwin, pp.758-9).

Yet, he cannot help but to speculate on the technological advances of his time, and to project, against the evidence that mechanisation was requiring ever greater levels of social co-operation and co-ordination, not less, that ‘hereafter it is by no means clear that the most extensive operations will not be within the reach of one man’ (Godwin, p.759).

Paine’s social premise

The individualist philosophy advanced by Godwin was not a necessary consequence of the socio-political circumstances in which Godwin was operating, as Tom Paine was able to take a quite different approach. As early as his pamphlet written during the American Revolution, Common Sense, Paine begins with a foundational assumption for political life that is unusual for many eighteenth-century writers:

‘In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest … In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought … the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants … that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same … but one man might labour out the common period of his life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed …’[3]

In contrast to the usual individualist Robinson Crusoe metaphor, so beloved by economists, Paine grasps the primacy of social existence, and roots this in necessity of co-operative work. The argument lies in stark contrast with Godwin’s speculative machines that would free humans from the evil of co-operation.

The second part of Paine’s Rights of Man contains some very advanced ideas about how to achieve an egalitarian society, which were surely enabled by his understanding of the impact of class upon society. He delineates the social cost consequent upon the ability of landowners to skew the tax burden away from their property:

‘they live apart from distress and the expense of relieving it. It is in the manufacturing towns and labouring villages, that those burdens press the heaviest, in many of which it is one class of poor supporting another’ (Rights of Man, p.202).

Towards the end of the Rights of Man, Paine lays out plans for an extensive welfare state, which would even provide a system of universal education, as well as minimum wages, and progressive taxation: ‘an overgrown estate … is a luxury at all times, and, as such, is the proper object of taxation’ (p.231). All of this could be paid for, if the power of the landowning aristocracy as a class were ended, beginning with the monarchy: ‘It has cost England almost seventy millions sterling to maintain a family imported from abroad, of very inferior capacity to thousands in the nation’ (Rights of Man, p.216.)

Paine was in no way a socialist, but it is possible to see the beginnings of a working-class politics in his programme. Godwin, by contrast, serves to magnify the problems of a radical politics based on individualism. It seems remarkable that anarchists should wish to claim him as an ancestor, as the faulty consequences of his thinking would seem to provide a critique of anarchism as an ideology; a drive towards abstract moralism, and a rejection of politics as such, together encouraging a tendency to lurch between ultra-leftist posturing and liberal quietism.

Thomas’ biography is very useful introduction, providing an interesting account of Godwin’s life and works, although in many respects it tends to delve further into the personal aspects of his life, rather than to sustain a thorough analysis of his politics and philosophy. Significant controversies, such as Godwin’s break with fellow radicals, and criticism of fellow radicals tend to be de-politicised. In 1795, attacking government censorship, he also fell out with his friend, the imprisoned John Thelwall, whose Jacobinism has been said to verge on socialism (Kramnick, p.42). In Thomas, this is reduced to a personality based literary spat. Thelwall was ‘hot-tempered’ (Thomas, p.45), and presumably as a result he ‘took the pamphlet as a personal attack … and the two exchanged angry letters’ (Thomas, p.54).

The positions a figure takes in later life should not discredit their earlier ideas, but in the case of Godwin, the denouement of his career seems to be rooted very firmly in the political quietism stemming from his distrust of mass movements and political organisation. A fierce critic of patronage bestowed by the government on favoured figures in the Enquiry, he applied to the Whig government in 1833 for a sinecure, which was granted, and later confirmed by the Tory Prime Minister, Robert Peel (Thomas, p.137). He certainly had personal reasons for needing the financial support, but its gift nevertheless reveals how far away he was from being perceived as a threat to the authorities. So was the anarchist tamed.


[1] William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. Isaac Kramnick (London: Penguin Books 1793/1976), p.736.

[2] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, ed. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, introduction G. D. H. Cole(London: Watts & Co. 1937/1792), p.215.

[3] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, ed. and introduction Isaac Kramnic (London: Penguin 1976/1776), p.66.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He has been a Stop the War and anti-austerity activist in north London for some time. He is a published historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, a social history of medieval wonder tales