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THE poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “an outcast from the first,” as would be expected for a radical Romantic in the early 1800s.
An article on Shelley seems fitting as Jeremy Corbyn quoted The Masque of Anarchy at Glastonbury, much to my delight.
Shelley specialised in calling men to arms, to fight for a better society and to fight against bourgeois rule, yet the word “socialism” wasn’t coined until roughly 10 years after his magnum opus The Revolt of Islam was published. So how could he possibly be the prototypical socialist?
Fortunately for me, there is extensive analysis of Shelley’s revolutionary works, including a book by Paul Foot (to whom I heavily owe a lot of inspiration) entitled Red Shelley, but the question still stands as to whether or not his contemporaries, or even those before him, were more socialistic in their behaviours and writings.
Lord Byron was known to have had revolutionary tendencies as well, but whether or not he would have grown more cynical with age and just become a reactionary bourgeois is another question entirely — he often professed liberty yet he retained his status as a Lord. In one fell swoop, that wipes Byron out of the question.
Shelley on the other hand was a man of his deed. In fact — according to Franz Mehring in his book Karl Marx: The Story of His Life — Marx was quoted as saying he regretted the young death of Shelley, for he was “a thorough revolutionary and would have remained in the van of socialism throughout his life.”
Interestingly, there have been arguments put forward that socialists have existed since early civilisation, such as in ancient Greek political philosophy. However, whether or not these people espoused modern socialism is another matter altogether. While Greek philosophers touched on elements of socialism, they never had the same organised train of thought. Plato, for example, put forward notions of common ownership. He states in the Republic that “the guardian class” would share food not just with the men and women of their own class but also with those of the lower class. This, however, cannot be true socialism.
Socialism, as is well known, calls for the eradication of the class system, something Plato did not call for. Perhaps he was alluding to something like a welfare state, but that is far different from the emancipation of the proletariat; all classes in fact, that Marx would eventually call for, and that brought Shelley out in all of his work.
Shelley’s hero Laon in The Revolt of Islam stops the old king Othman of the fictional Golden City from being executed, as he is, in the eyes of Laon, just as much a man as anyone else — he has a right to live as much as the next man.
This does indeed backfire, which demonstrates that Shelley was aware of the brutality the ruling class would use to retain its power, echoing the Internationale in that eventually “if those cannibals keep trying to sacrifice us to their pride, they soon shall hear the bullets flying. We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.”
In some shorter works of Shelley, we get to see even more of his prototypical socialism. An unlikely candidate for selection would be Ozymandias, but the last few lines show the inevitable collapse of the hierarchical society: “‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains, round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It is a socialist theory that the collapse of hierarchy is the inevitable next step in the world. It began with the fall of feudalism and will end with the fall of capitalism. If you take from this that the only thing that persistent rule of the few will be met with is the end, then you will see the beginning of how Shelley wrote for socialism.
We see this with the collapse of the many absolute monarchies around the world over time, and even with the collapse of the USSR. Absolute rule is not what we need, we need the true dictatorship of the masses, the end of the class system.
Shelley was unique in his use of prototypical socialism in more than just his words, his deeds matched up to it.
He was prepared to use the necessary force to maintain or create a society that has deposed rulers, such as the case of Ferdinand IV of Naples, the Austrian puppet king, who he allowed the killing of if necessary, even though he found him and his family charming. According to Paul Foot, he was always repulsed by violence, yet he saw it as a necessary means to an end in some situations.
This is interesting as it is actually a departure from modern socialism, which decries violence, and calls for peace as the means to the ends.
Going back to The Revolt of Islam, we see that Laon and Cythna wanted a bloodless coup, so we do see Shelley’s underlying repulsion with violence. Interestingly, Laon, in some interpretations, represents Shelley himself.
So was Shelley the first modern socialist? He certainly advocated the seizure of the means of production to the masses, and he also continually endorsed the overthrow of tyrannical government and the end of classes.
Although sometimes his situations forced him into an acceptance of violence, he was at heart a peaceful man and a true socialist in modern terms.
It is interesting indeed that in 1888, Marx’s daughter Eleanor wrote with her husband an essay entitled Shelley and Socialism, in which she highlights the inherent Marxist nature of his work.
To end, it seems apt to quote Shelley’s song Men of England: “The seed ye sow, another reaps; the wealth ye find, another keeps; the robes ye weave, another wears; the arms ye forge, another bears.
“Sow seed — but let no tyrant reap: find wealth — let no imposter heap: weave robes — let not the idle wear: forge arms — in your defence to bear.”
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