Shelley and Political Cultures: Introduction

I started my Ph.D. in the autumn of 2010 as a collaborative project between the University of Salford and the Working Class Movement Library, also in Salford. It was funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council (public money) so I think the research should be in the public domain and in a format other than a thesis — not the loveliest of forms.

The brief was to address the relationship between the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and the political/social movements Owenite socialism and Chartism in the nineteenth century — specifically, in their newspapers and journals. I began work a few months after the Coalition government came into office and just at the point when protests against the government’s policies were gathering pace, notably with the student protests against the proposed rise in tuition fees. As someone who, at that point, wanted to work as a lecturer, it was obvious to me that this was part of a wholesale attack on the higher-education sector and would make employment prospects (and working conditions) that much worse for scholars of my generation.

I also noticed an immediate parallel between the groups I was studying and contemporary culture in their uses of Shelley. His poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ appeared in numerous newspaper articles about the wave of popular protest in the autumn and winter of 2010. Tariq Ali asked ‘Why Can’t We Protest against Cuts like the French?’ in an article for the Guardian on recent protests in France against the raising of the state pension age. It ended with a plea for ‘the convocation of regional and national assemblies with a social charter that can be fought for and defended just as Shelley advised just under two centuries ago’. Ali concluded his article with the most famous stanza from Shelley’s poem:

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. (372–76)

John Pilger’s article for the New Statesman, ‘The Party Game is Over. Stand and Fight’, took the stanza for its epigraph. He argued that social democracy had failed and that Shelley’s lines resonated with people in 2010 because ‘only one political course is left to those who are disenfranchised and whose ruin is announced on a government spreadsheet’. His closing instruction was to engage in ‘Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring. Read Shelley and do it’. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, incorporated Shelley’s lines into his own prose in an article for the Guardian on the British government’s plans to cut public services. He argued that ‘If we want a future with fair pay, decent jobs, security in retirement and a welfare state, now is the moment for trade union members and everyone to shake off their chains and rise like lions’.

These writers mobilised Shelley’s lines in support of specific political agendas. They presented Shelley as having prescribed a particular course of action (Shelley had ‘advised’ the convocation of assemblies, as in Ali’s article), and his poetry as able to prepare people for action (as in Pilger’s). Ali and Pilger invoked Shelley explicitly, quoting his lines as an epigraph indicating the thrust of the argument to follow (Pilger) or as a stirring conclusion to one (Ali). Serwotka’s reference, on the other hand, was implicit and intimate in folding Shelley’s lines into his own rhetoric, identifying Shelley’s ‘lions’ with ‘trade union members and everyone’ who were to ‘shake off their chains’. Serwotka perhaps assumed that he would not need to tell his readers who had created this image, or that it didn’t matter since the phrase ‘rise like lions’ belonged to the Left’s lexicon.

It was no accident that Shelley was the poet of choice for activists in the first year of the Coalition government. Ali, Pilger, and Serwotka were participating in a radical tradition of Shelley appearing in print that the nineteenth-century social and political movements Owenite socialism and Chartism established and consolidated. It is not now, as it was in that period, a common journalistic practice to give poetry a prominent place in newspapers. The aim of this research is to trace the use of Shelley in these movements as they developed over time and under the pressure of historical events. Just as the context of usage in 2010 would make such use intelligible for future readers it also matters for comparable use in the print cultures of Owenism and Chartism.

Shelley’s poetry contributed to the movements’ literary cultures, appearing in the poetry columns of key publications like the Owenite New Moral World and the Chartist Northern Star. I argue that if we are to think about the extent of Shelley’s influence on the movements in general, it is also necessary to excavate the practice of Shelley’s lines appearing in political editorials, in speeches at meetings, and in readers’ contributions, which are not immediately recognised as being literary. I think about their uses of Shelley in terms of their respective ‘structures of feeling’ in Raymond Williams’s sense: as ‘social experience’ that developed over time and in an oppositional relation to other contemporary structures of feeling.1

I distinguish further between Owenite and Chartist uses of Shelley in terms of the distinct characteristics of their own structures of feeling, arguing that there was a clear difference in the ‘Shelleys’ that they presented and in the uses they found for his poetry. While it is true that there was a degree of fluidity between the movements, that people could be both committed to the Charter while holding Owenite social views, I argue that the parameters set by the movements’ print cultures make this distinction visible. For example, the rising lion as described above was prominent in Chartist newspapers but did not make an appearance in the Owenite New Moral World. I attribute this to differences in opinion between Robert Owen, who was committed to non-violent social change, and a much more flexible position within Chartism, in which use of threatening language was a cornerstone of the movement’s political strategy. This was true even for those Chartists who would hesitate to argue for offensive political violence, despite the conventional division of the movement into ‘advocates’ of ‘moral’ and ‘physical’ force. I argue that these differences were produced dialectically at critical points, when the Owenite ‘Shelley’ was so defined (at least in part) because it was not the Chartist ‘Shelley’.

Newspapers and periodicals, then, are not only key sources for evidence of specific usage but must also be theorised as actively shaping the respective ‘Shelleys’ produced by Owenites and Chartists. I also argue that newspapers and periodicals were instrumental in the dissemination of Shelley’s poetry within these circles, and that their relative habits of quoting certain poems from Shelley’s oeuvre but not others, and certain sections from poems but not others, contributed to the production of their ‘Shelleys’.

Subsequent blog posts will address what I think are key issues for understanding the relationship between Shelley and the cultures of the two movements: What exactly do we mean when we say that Shelley was ‘popular in’ or had ‘influenced’ the movements? Was this a passive or an active stance on the part of Chartist and Owenite readers? How did the Owenite and Chartist ‘Shelleys’ differ? Why were they different? How and why did these versions of Shelley develop over time?

What strikes me now, in 2016, is how the current political struggles in Britain are both rooted in the 2010 context described above but also look radically different. In 2010, with thousands on the streets to protest against the rise in tuition fees, many agreed with Pilger that ‘the party game was over’ and direct action was the only way to fight. People had little faith in New Labour, knowing that it had introduced tuition fees in the first place. At the time of writing (13/07/16), Jeremy Corbyn has just succeeded in being ‘allowed’ onto the ballot paper for a new leadership election after a tactically well-planned but strategically catastrophic coup attempt by the right-wing of the Labour Party. During the coup, the party membership doubled in a week. Many of those new members will be people who took part in struggles like the one over tuition fees or who belonged to organizations like UK Uncut.

It looks very like the ‘party game’ is back on the agenda, but not as a replacement for the protests, local organization, direct action, and trade-union activism that Ali, Pilger, and Serwotka advocated in 2010. The current mood seems to me to be one of determination to first uphold the principle of democracy in the party — since it is severely threatened in practice — and then to revitalize it. This will require, as noted today by Paul Mason: ‘Engagement with long-dead party structures; mobilisation; organisation; self-discipline’. This will be a long term-project and we will need resources to sustain our resolve.

In the past, Shelley was a touchstone in this respect: quoted to celebrate strength and also to bolster threatened hopes when necessary. Can he be similarly present today? I think so. Although Shelley was not central to the free e-book Poets for Corbyn, the organizer of the volume introduced the volume in a Guardian article by citing ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ as ‘arguably the greatest political poem of all time’. A brief search for ‘ye are many’ on Twitter gave me the quote at the top of this page and this exchange:

shelley corb

Now, as then, Shelley is thought to be relevant to politics and I look forward to seeing what happens next.


1 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 128–35 (p. 132).

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