Eleanor Marx Speaks!!! The Revolutionary Percy Shelley

"We claim him as a socialist" - Eleanor Marx to the Shelley Society, 1888.


 Eleanor Marx with her husband Edward Aveling (R) and William Liebknecht (L). c. 1886.

Eleanor Marx with her husband Edward Aveling (R) and William Liebknecht (L). c. 1886.

With these words Eleanor Marx concluded her 1888 address on the politics of Percy Bysshe Shelley. I strongly recommend this essay to those who want to understand the Real Percy Bysshe Shelley. Marx offers a perceptive, shrewd analysis of the political philosophy that underpinned Shelley's thought.  And she offered it in 1888 at a time when English society was doing its level best to wipe out all memory of Shelley's radicalism - a process that has continued in some quarters until this very day.

One excerpt to whet your appetite:

More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that today tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery.

In her speech she also relays a now famous reference anecdote regarding the opinion her father had of Shelley and Byron:

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.

If you want to read more about Victorian attitudes to Shelley, I suggest you watch Tom Mole's presentation on his new book, What Victorians Made of Romanticism. You can buy it here. If you want to get to the crux of the issue, look no further than this brilliant encapsulation by Frederich Engels:

"Shelley, the genius, the prophet, finds most of [his] readers in the proletariat; the bourgeouise own the castrated editions, the family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today
 Eleanor Marx (front centre) in 1864 with her sisters Laura and Jenny. Behind are Frederick Engels and their father Karl Marx

Eleanor Marx (front centre) in 1864 with her sisters Laura and Jenny. Behind are Frederick Engels and their father Karl Marx

During these times, there was a struggle for Shelley that was fought out between what in modern terms could be called the "left" and the "right". The "hypocrites" of whom he spoke, the Victorian bourgeoisie, owned the sort of anthologies which Tom Mole talks about in his book and an engaging and accessible lecture you can watch here. Exactly who was the Shelley that the anthologies presented to the Victorian reading public?  Professor Mole provides an astonishingly well researched overview of over two hundred different anthologies dating from the years 1822-1900.

Eleanor Marx and her husband Edward Aveling delivered their speech at the height of this struggle.  It was a struggle the leftists largely lost. Shelley's radicalism gradually receded from the public eye and has really never recovered despite pioneering books such as "The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical (by another Marxist, Kenneth Neil Cameron) and The Red Shelley by Paul Foot. This is not to say there was not a robust tradition on the left that continued to be inspired by Shelley.  Foot was a good example of this. Reading Marx's essay it is easy to understand why Foot, the greatest crusading journalist of his generation, revered Shelley.  Here is his gravestone!

Read more about Eleanor Marx here. You can also read Rachel Holmes terrific biography.

Follow this link to enjoy her speech: