Paul Foot Speaks!! The Revolutionary Percy Shelley - Part 3

In Parts One and Two of Foot’s speech to the 1981 London Marxism Conference, he first traces and explains the troubled development of Shelley’s reputation. On the one hand the revolutionary so loved by Chartists, socialists and Marxists, and on the other, the gossamer-winged, child-like lyrical poet so loved by the English upper classes.  He rejects the latter version as a castrated, imaginary construct designed to make it “safe” to read Shelley.  He then delves into the heart of Shelley’s revolutionary nature: his atheism, feminism and political activism. 

While tracing Shelley's revolutionary credentials, he is careful to note that Shelley was not without inconsistencies.  He points particularly to an aspect of Shelley’s writing that has dogged his reputation for years: Shelley’s apparent fear that his political agitation could lead to uncontrolled mob action. Foot suggests that Shelley's predilection for gradual change manifested itself in his failure to embrace universal suffrage. But Foot is careful to point out that Shelley himself was ambivalent.  At times, he appeared to argue for gradual non-violent responses to tyranny while at others he seemed to favour mob violence.

In Part Three, Foot seeks to bring to a resolution this dichotomy in Shelley’s work. This part of the speech involves a discussion of Prometheus Unbound, in which Foot relies heavily on the interpretation of Shelley’s biographer, Richard Holmes. Foot is determined to demonstrate that Shelley understood that revolutionary change might also involve potentially violent action by the “masses”.

Much of Foot’s language in Part Three will strike the modern ear as somewhat dated and mired in the rhetoric of post war Marxism and Socialism. But this is because he was speaking to an audience of Marxists and socialists in 1981. I will confess that researching and footnoting some of his more obscure references was quite a challenge which is why publishing Part Three took so long.  He is anxious to connect Shelley directly with the Marxist and Socialist traditions by introducing Marx’s own opinion of Shelley as it comes down to us through his daughter Eleanor's reminiscences. You can read more about this here.  He then explains how later, in the 1930s, Marxists came to disown Shelley and completely misunderstand him; an echo, in effect, on the left, of what happened to Shelley’s reputation on the right in Victorian times.

Foot’s objective is to reconnect the modern left with Shelley. He does so in a surprising and original manner which is altogether convincing.  Foot ably and competently traces the evolution of the modern left and demonstrates how it became disconnected from “the masses”, from real people with real-world concerns and issues.  He longs for the "enthusiasm" that Shelley brought to the table.  If ever there was a convincing “call to arms” that involves educating one’s self in the philosophy of a poet dead for 200 years, this is it.

But before I turn you over the great Paul Foot, I would like to introduce a counterpoint.  I have said before that Foot injects something of himself both into his portrait of Shelley and also his interpretation of his poetry and philosophy.  Nowhere is this more demonstrable than in Foot’s view that Shelley put political action by the masses at the heart of his revolutionary philosophy.  A very, very different view comes from Roland Duerksen, an American Shelley scholar and author of Shelley’s Poetry of Involvement

Roland Duerksen 1926 - VERY MUCH ALIVE!!

Roland Duerksen 1926 - VERY MUCH ALIVE!!

Roland Duerksen was born onto a small wheat farm in Topeka, Kansas in 1926.  The son of strict religionists he grew up in an environment that can only be described as hostile to ideas. His mother virtually banned books from their house and his one room elementary school boasted a few paltry shelves of books. A pacifist on account of his religion, Duerksen obtained alternative service during the Second World War. He returned after the war to Topeka where he worked with his father on the farm. It was not until seven years passed that he decided he wanted to teach and embarked on a path which cam only be described as a daunting intellectual odyssey.  It ultimately led to a distinguished career as a professor of English Literature.

Duerksen very convincingly argues that for Shelley the most important component of any successful revolution is the interior, psychological revolution that must precede any outward physical revolution.  He writes, "Instead of continuing to serve the perverted motive of self-interest, mankind must learn how to identify with others and to adopt the motive of loving, symbiotic relationships." (Shelley's Poetry of Involvement, p 75).  He also suggests that the peaceful attainment of sexual and socio-economic equality was paramount for Shelley; therefore, any true revolution must result from non-violent resistance and activism. I have an in depth interview with the extraordinary Roland Duerksen coming very soon.

Foot, on the other hand, was born into a world of privilege.  According to the Economist, "His grandfather, Isaac Foot, a devout Methodist, had been a Liberal MP, as was his uncle Dingle, though he later defected to Labour. Another uncle, John, became a Liberal peer, and a third, Michael, was to lead the Labour Party. His father, Hugh (later Lord Caradon), was a diplomat and colonial servant whose career included terms as governor of Cyprus and Britain's ambassador to the United Nations." Based on his background and his later career, he could well be considered a "class traitor"!

Foot and Duerksen, while coming from enormously divergent backgrounds, Duerksen and Foot share many of the same beliefs and personal qualities; and they draw from the same inspirational well: Shelley.  To make their cases they turn to virtually identical texts: Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam and so on.  That they have such divergent views of what lies at the heart of Shelley’s political philosophy is, I think, a testament to the complexity and nuance of our poet’s mind.

And now, on with the show.

For those of you just joining us, Part One can be found here: and it contains a link to Part Two, which in turn contains a link that will bring you back here.  In due course, I will publish the entire speech in one place, stay tuned.

As we begin, Foot has just finished his discussion about a dichotomy in the way in which Shelley approached political action.  He now offers an explanation.

Paul Foot Speaks!! Read his Guardian Obituary  here .

Paul Foot Speaks!! Read his Guardian Obituary here.


And really it comes to a climax, this division, this contrast between the way in which he thought about revolutions and oppressions and the mob, all these things come to a climax when he writes Prometheus Unbound. Now that’s a very difficult poem to read.  I have lots of people who’ve come up to me since we had the meeting at Skegness[i] last year and they say, “Well, I tried to read this thing, this Prometheus Unbound, but it is very difficult to read.” And so it is. It is very difficult to read.  But the most important thing about it in my view, is that it brings that contradiction - between his [fear of] the mob [and the need for revolution] to a head and forces it through to some kind of conclusion.

And this is the story of Prometheus.  I was a Greek scholar. I’ll admit it. [laughter] I was a Greek scholar at school. I was very, very good at Greek - we didn’t have to be good at anything else.  And, well, I’m not actually all that good at it. [laughter] But anyways, I was a Greek scholar, and we were taught this about Prometheus[ii].  [We were taught that it was] a Greek legend. And it was simply this: that there was a man (referring to the Titan Prometheus) who dared to say that Jupiter was not god of the earth. [We were taught] this was an absolutely scandal, and that [Prometheus} was a really revolting, subversive figure.  And he was treated in a way in which subversive figures ought to be treated. He defied [Jupiter], he dared to invent fire, and he had the idea that the science might advance the cause of mankind instead of advancing the cause of Jupiter.  upiter’s view was that the science was really a radical idea in the first place that we would be better off without science of any kind in order that [his rule] could be more [secure].  [But] Prometheus disobeyed Jupiter, invented fire [and gave science to humanity] and he was treated in a way in which all naughty school boys ought to be treated, which is [to be] chained to a rock for seven million years. [laughter] And every evening a vulture came and gnawed out his liver which would grow again by the following morning and then the vulture would come again and gnaw it out again. And it was extremely painful. I understand the Turkish authorities in Cyprus are looking into this form of dealing with recalitrants of one kind or another. [laughter]

And the whole thing was taught to us in that way.  The [original story] was written, as a matter of fact, by a man called Aeschylus and it was called Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound[iii]. And he did have an idea about [how] people [should] rebel against authority. But we were not taught that. I read the whole bloody thing in Greek. I never came to that conclusion - I never even started to come to that conclusion.  But anyways, there we are. [Here is a man in revolt] against authority and he’s chained to a rock.

Shelley writes a poem about this man chained to the rock and [how] his lover Asia seeks to get him off the rock.  He represents oppressed mankind. Now Asia loved militants. Richard Holmes, whose book is the only one worth reading on the subject[iv], describes [her] love [as militant]. She is trying to get him out of there.  That’s the point: how the hell do you get him out of there?  What do you do to get him out of that situation?[v]

It’s very interesting the way in which critics write about [Prometheus Unbound]. Because there is another character in this play; in this play/poem.[vi]  [Prometheus Unbound] contains some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the whole history of English literature. But you have here another character called Demogorgon.[vii]  [But what is Demogorgon?]  You can read all the books you want. You can try looking him up in the index. Everybody discusses it. Who is this Demogorgon? They tell you is a spirit - some kind of weird thing that Asia's goes to and appeals to, to [help her save] Prometheus. You see her man is in trouble. [laughter] [And] in the same way you would go to an altar or to some deity and say: “now who can help me save my man”, [Asia goes to Demogorgon.] [laughter]

But actually [the original] Greek actually assists us here.  Because [the word] Demogorgon, as I understand it and as Richard Holmes understands it and as no one else has yet understood it [laughter], comes from two words in Greek: demos, that means "the people" and gorgon, which means "the monster". [He is] the “people monster”. [laughter]

Now where does [Asia] go to [save Prometheus]? She goes to the “people monster”. She goes down [to his cave] in Act 2, Scene 4 of [Prometheus Unbound] which is one of the most fantastic [passages] in the whole of literature. I am going to find this even if it takes me half an hour to find it[viii]. I bloody well got to find this.  [He is looking though his papers] Act 1 is extremely difficult to read and I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t read it and if I were you I would go straight to Act 2, Scene 4. [laughter] [He reads from the play]:

— The Cave of Demogorgon
Asia and Panthea
What vèiled form sits on that ebon throne?
The veil has fallen.
         I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun.
 — Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living Spirit.
Ask what thou wouldst know.
What canst thou tell?
All things thou dar'st demand.
Who made the living world?
Who made all
That it contains? thought, passion, reason, will, Imagination?
God: Almighty God.
Who made that sense which, when the winds of Spring
In rarest visitation, or the voice
Of one belovèd heard in youth alone,
Fills the faint eyes with falling tears which dim
The radiant looks of unbewailing flowers,
And leaves this peopled earth a solitude
When it returns no more?
Merciful God.
And who made terror, madness, crime, remorse,
Which from the links of the great chain of things,
To every thought within the mind of man
Sway and drag heavily, and each one reels
Under the load towards the pit of death;
Abandoned hope, and love that turns to hate;
And self-contempt, bitterer to drink than blood;
Pain, whose unheeded and familiar speech
Is howling, and keen shrieks, day after day;
And Hell, or the sharp fear of Hell?
He reigns.
Utter his name: a world pining in pain
Asks but his name: curses shall drag him down.

And Asia whips him with agitation, whips him with it.  [She] asks a simple question first; "Is it God who done it? Well, then, what about all the dirty things that are going on?  What are you gonna do about that?"  All the way through this passage she is whipping him and agitating him.

Whom calledst thou God?
 I spoke but as ye speak,
For Jove is the supreme of living things.
Who is the master of the slave?

Asking the question, “who is the master of the slave?” And on and on and on until she says: “Prometheus shall arise / Henceforth the sun of this rejoicing world: / When shall the destined hour arrive?

And what happens after all [of her] agitation, [her] constant agitation?  [What happens after Asia demands that Demogorgon bring new ideas to her that he come out of his] old religious superstitions and backward ideas - [his old] racist ideas? What happens?

What happens is that two cars emerge out of the cave. Two cars representing change, representing the powers that are going to go after Jupiter and deal with him. In one way or another, they’re going to deal with him. I’m not gonna read that out to you. I’ll leave that for you to read. But what I will read is Richard Holmes description of what those two cars mean - what they represent. And here is the synthesis, if you like, the coming to grips with the problems that he had all his life about the masses. Would the masses respond and what would happen if they did? What was the problem of the mob? All these things.

Richard Holmes, author of Shelley, The Pursuit.

Richard Holmes, author of Shelley, The Pursuit.

[He reads from Holmes]:

There are two chariots mentioned: the one that brings Demogorgon to Jupiter is undoubtedly terrible and violent: Jupiter, authoritarian government, is to be overwhelmed by massive force, and the process in society is to be like a volcanic eruption and an earthquake which ‘ruins’ cities. The etymological reading is surely relevant here.  It is the eruption of ‘Demogorgon’, the ‘people monster’.

Yet there is also the second chariot with its ‘delicate strange tracery’, and its gentle charioteer with ‘dove-like eyes of hope’.  This is the chariot which carries Asia and Panthea back to Prometheus, and it seems to indicate that political freedom transforms man’s own nature and substitutes an ethic of love for the ideology of revenge and destruction represented by Prometheus’s curse. The end of Act II leaves both those possibilities open historically. Revolution will come, but how it will come depends on man himself.  There are always two chariots. In either case it is inevitable, and it is to be celebrated.[ix]

Now we don’t say that it is inevitable. But the point is this: that in either case the synthesis there, the dialectic if you like, of the argument about the mob - that the mob might go and supersede itself - is really met in that great passage there. [Everyone says] that it is the greatest passage ever, but nobody understands what it’s about! They don’t understand what’s going on in his head because they have separated [Shelley] from his ideas. They don’t understand what the imagery is about.  [They say]: “this is a very beautiful [passage] - learn it off by heart and shut up.” If you ask any questions they’ll tell you: “Demogorgon, yes that’s all very interesting, Demogorgon’s rather like Mary, the mother of [Jesus], that’s the sort of creature Demogorgon] is." They unleash all kinds of [fanciful] ideas [about what Demogorgon stands for].[x]

But the fact of the matter is, that you do have a synthesis there coming out of the dialectic of the argument.  The fact of the matter is that when you rise up, you can have civil war, bloody revolution and all kinds of violence on the one hand.  [On the other hand], if you’re strong enough, powerful and forceful enough, you can do it by cutting down on the amount of violence and do it with that gentle "dove-eyed charioteer". Either way, probably, if the truth be known, it will be a mixture of both. But either way it is to be celebrated. Either way it has to be supported. And the point about Shelley is this: that although there is his statement about writing for elites that aren’t gonna do the job[xi], there is no conclusive proof that whenever he came to test the two ideas[xii], that he came out on that side[xiii]. There is no evidence at all for this. You read for instance Stephen Spender.  Oh - Stephen Spender [laughter]- Stephen Spender, you know, that old Stalinist hack [from] the thirties who couldn’t even bear to be a Stalinist and who gave that up and then just sort of driveled on in the Times Literary Supplement.  And he writes [that there’s] “lots of proof that Shelley at the end of his life gave up [his] revolutionary ideals.” That’s not what happened at all. [Prometheus Unbound] was written right at the end of his life. There are also all the great poems of 1819 [including] The Mask of Anarchy and other shorter poems including one that starts off, “An old mad, blind, despised and dying king.[xiv] That’s not the line of a man who’s giving up the struggle. [His] attacks on the Castlereagh administration comes right at the end of his life. Those things happened. And the people that understand Shelley, understand that he would have gone on to develop [these themes]. The tragedy is that he did die when he did, [otherwise] he would have gone on to develop his ideas among the rising working-class movement that was taking place.

One person who understood it, thankfully, is Karl Marx who was writing at the same time as all these drivellers who were mucking about in Horsham. [laughter] Or a little earlier at any rate. This is the Franz Mehring biography of Marx[xv] [holding it up].  One thing did come out of that dreadful series on Eleanor Marx that was on the television recently[xvi]. [Only] one or two tiny little scraps of information and importance came out.  One of the things was that Marx and his family were great lovers of literature and weren’t people that looked back on literature in the way in which some sectarian people do – as though it were something all belonging to the bourgeois class – as if all [real] literature starts from the revolution. He was someone who looked back and reveled in the great literature that had [been written].

[Here I believe Foot begins to quote Mehring]:

After Marx had become permanently domiciled in London, English literature took first place and the tremendous figure of Shakespeare dominated the field. In fact, the whole family practiced what amounted to a Shakespearean cult. Unfortunately, Marx never at any time dealt with Shakespeare’s attitude with to great questions of his day. Referring to Byron and Shelley, however, he declared that those who loved and understood those two poets must consider it fortunate that they Byron died at the age of thirty-six. For had he lived out his full span he would have undoubtedly have become a reactionary bourgeois.  Whilst regretting on the other hand that Shelley died at the age of twenty-nine. For Shelley was a thorough revolutionary and would’ve remained in the van of socialism all his life.

He did, although dead, remain in the van of socialism.

The greatness of that book by Richard Holmes is that it traces this other Shelley, that revolutionary Shelley, that Shelley who would have remained in the van of socialism all of his life. It traces that Shelley through the years that followed his death.  It traces him through the period of the Chartists[xvii]. [I have a] book here, the nicest book I’ve got [that is] not on loan to anybody. This is a publication of Queen Mab, which is dated 1831.

From the 1813 edition published by Shelley himself.  Foot no doubt has a beautifully bound copy from a later time.

From the 1813 edition published by Shelley himself.  Foot no doubt has a beautifully bound copy from a later time.

It was published without Shelley’s permission by a man called William Clark who was one of the many people at that time that started to publish literature on the streets, in the stalls, outside the ordinary publishing houses - without the necessary stamps and without the necessary government approval[xviii]. [They sold books and essays by the] millions. [And this copy of] Queen Mab was a book like that. It didn’t look like this in those days, it was just a leaflet which was dished out. Between 1821 and 1841 there were fourteen separate editions of Queen Mab published by working class publishers for working people. [They were] sometimes given away or sold at very cheap prices in bookstalls and places of work – all around the places and the neighborhoods [where] working class people lived. No one knows how many copies were sold, but [we have a better idea] how many editions there were. These were just the fourteen editions that Richard Holmes has discovered.  But there were many, many more, no doubt, than that. [Including pirate editions of] The Mask of Anarchy and the Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte[xix].

All these wonderful words were published not by the bourgeois publishers who on the whole tried to keep Shelley’s work for themselves and instigated all kinds of prosecutions against the people.[xx]  [Richard Carlile[xxi]] was hounded off the streets. He was prosecuted and sent to prison for three years for publishing Queen Mab

The radical publisher Richard Carlile.  Shelley championed him and, later, Carlile championed Shelley.

The radical publisher Richard Carlile.  Shelley championed him and, later, Carlile championed Shelley.

Richard Carlisle published all of Shelley’s work in his journal, The Republican. [He also sold] copies of [Shelley’s works] in Ireland. Richard Carlile spent years and years and years in Dorchester prison, still giving orders that these sorts of publications should be published[xxii]. That tradition goes all the way through the 1830s and through the 1840s and on. Thomas Cooper, the “Chartist Rhymer”, [used to deal with the fact] that many people could not read by going to the workers meetings and [reading] poetry). They read out Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy, Men of England, 1819 and the rest of [Shelley’s radical poems]. They used to read those things out to people and people used to learn them and pass them on to their families.

Thomas Cooper. By J. Cochran - Engraving of photograph, frontispiece, Life of Thomas Cooper.

Thomas Cooper. By J. Cochran - Engraving of photograph, frontispiece, Life of Thomas Cooper.

And that’s a tradition which is varied from the bourgeois publishers, a tradition that comes [down] through that Bernard Shaw meeting in 1890 and right up to the earliest Communist movement in the 1920s when Shelley again was a great favourite.

And I say the “earliest communist movement” in the 1920s, because the later communist movement does not find Shelley a favourite. [Foot pauses to find a book] Where’s the book? Here is a disgusting book by a man called David Daiches[xxiii] [laughter] who is I think still a professor of literature somewhere or other. [It was published] in the good old days by the Left Book Club[xxiv] – they published two hundred and fifty-seven books [which is] quite a considerable feat of publishing except so much of it is utter drivel.  And here is the response [to Shelley] of what I think you might call the left/labour/ communist tradition in 1938. [He reads from Daiches book, Literature and Society]:

In Shelley’s poetry, he’s continually stressing the inevitability of man’s natural goodness eventually destroying the bonds that enslave the world. He thinks chiefly of the ideal rather than the means for its attainment. Although later socialist thinkers may look on him as a forerunner, he is in no way a political thinker in the modern sense. He had the outlook on life of a sensitive and intelligent child. He never faced the real problems of earthly existence, though on the other hand he never consciously retired into a dream world.  [If he did spend time in an unreal world, he did not realize it; he thought it was the real world and judged accordingly.]

That is why Shelley, for all of his great lyrical faculty, is a poet that he finds sooner or later to be unsatisfying. This is called a book called Literature and Society. And that is the passage devoted to Shelley by a [man who is part of a movement] which had lost its lust for the activity of human beings, of real human beings; lost its enthusiasm and vigor and in terms of the operation of masses of people. An intellectual [movement] which is cut off from the tradition of Thomas Cooper [and the Chartists], Richard Carlile, Bernard Shaw and the early communists, even people like Willie Gallacher[xxv] who used to run around the Clyde shouting the poems of Shelley.  And [then there is] a little review of Holmes’ book in the Morning Star[xxvi] the other day which is even more revolting than David Daiches [Foot looks for it among his paper but cannot find it], because they [too] have lost the vigor and the enthusiasm which Shelley had for the people.

And that really ah brings us to this meeting and why we’re here. We [have forgotten that we] are part of a tradition [which goes back to Shelley]. So, let me just end off by saying one or two things about the importance of that tradition and why it’s important that we talk and read about Shelley. See, I think we - most of us here - come out of [more modern] political tradition, which is part of a sectarian world. A [modern] tradition where reaching people was not our problem because no one appeared to want to be reached.  A tradition in which we were isolated from the masses. And as we were isolated from the masses, it became necessary for us to turn inward to people who [shared] the same, or roughly the same, revolutionary ideas. And we developed, therefore, a [manner] of speaking and writing and a language which is very much separated from the speaking or reading of the masses. And we isolated ourselves and developed what I like to call a kind of internal “bulletinese” - a sort of language which was always worried about the great hideous [party] line. [We worried whether we were] in order with the [party] line, and if we weren’t in order with the [party] line [we knew] we’d better trim our language and [correct] what we said [so that is conformed to the party line]. [We worried about whether or not we had got] the right way of saying things so that we wouldn’t get stabbed in the back by [members of] the IMG[xxvii] or the SLL[xxviii] who happened to be sitting around in the meeting. But there was no one real in the meeting at all.  There was no one real in the meeting, and it was all unreal and therefore you had to develop a language that was unreal. We developed an absolutely disgusting party line [filled with] political bile and also a way of denouncing people. We became very, very good at denouncing other people. Always smashing them, exposing them: “alien-agents of the Pentagon”. We developed a way of talking about people as though they were hostile to us. And we thought that everyone was hostile to us.

We came out of that tradition.

Now everybody knows that this is changing.  Changing very, very fast and changing faster than we can cope with [sometimes]. And the point is we have to develop a language which suits the change because we are for [mobilizing] the masses. We are for doing what Asia and Demogorgon did.  But we can only do that if we develop a language which is suited for that [purpose] - a language which the people can understand. A language which has some bite and zest and enthusiasm. That’s what we have to do and that’s why I think reading great revolutionary poets like Shelley is fundamentally important. [It is filled with] all kinds of images, all kinds of similes and metaphors - ways of saying things, different ways of saying things. The great masters of language really understood language and could use it like great musicians use the piano. These are things we need to soak up. We need to really go back and soak it up. Particularly when those great masters of language are in line with our politics.

And then I would say another thing. [You see this happen] when you see people talking and arguing with one another in the streets. You see them arguing about, I don’t know, say [austerity] or something like that.  [And they are talking in a normal fashion] until they see somebody coming up, say a member of the Central Committee[xxix] or a member of some other [faction] or something of that kind. And then you absolutely, really do see people change in midstream. [They were] talking away about people’s children and their lives and they were trying to get them to understand [something] and trying to be on the level with them – and [someone from the Central Committee comes along and] they’ll suddenly snap into the old routine, bloody, ritualistic rhetoric. And then you see the worker they were talking to get that confused look of embarrassment. [And they are thinking;] “My God! What the hell is all this about?  It's nothing to do [with me]. I have to get away. I’ve found the perfect excuse to get away and pay no attention to [this person].”

These things matter.  [The great revolutionary poets like Shelley can help us; they can give us an advantage with their language. Yes, people say a lot of the time that Shelley is] difficult to read. People often say [his poetry] is difficult to read. But [it is worth it]. The [value] that you get out of reading it [is to be] able to turn it around and use the language: the metaphors and the similes.

 [And there is something else about the way we have grown up politically]. I think because we[xxx] were so small and isolated from the outside world, we developed a skepticism[xxxi].  [This came from observing] people [who] said that they were going to do things and [then] didn’t do [those] things. [For example, politicians] who promised they would do things after the election if they were elected to office [and then did not do those things].  Communist party people who were very sentimental about freedom and liberty but didn’t appear to be doing anything about freedom or liberty. And therefore, we developed a skepticism. A skepticism which, to some extent, shaped our language and our attitudes. We were skeptical all the time and we worried about [the tendency to say one thing and do another] and [therefore] we [were able to] grow out of that [phase].  It wasn’t a healthy thing. The fact that we’re here at all is [because] people held the line.  They held their line [through their skepticism] and they were able to say “We don’t [approve of] that kind of thing - that bloody sentimentalism. And we don’t [approve] because that’s reformism and opportunism. We don’t go for those kinds of thing."

But the problem now is much more serious than that. The problem is that there is a line drawn between skepticism and cynicism, and that line is an extremely narrow one. It’s very, very easy for the skeptic to topple over into being a cynic. And a cynic can never be a revolutionary.  [It is] absolutely impossible for a cynic to be a revolutionary because they don’t see the possibilities - they don’t believe that it’s possible that working people can change their lives and change society. And therefore, there’s a danger that we [might] hold [on] to our skepticism and hold [on], if you like, to what [we] believe to be the [party] line. [If we do this there is a danger we will not] undertake the task that’s most important for us: which is, among the working people of this country, to unlock the enthusiasm, the excitement that exists in every human being. And that’s what changes people more than anything [else] - just allowing people to be enthusiastic and to have the enthusiasm and the energy to change society. To come away from that dreary skepticism by which we [on the left] managed to keep ourselves together, during [that] period in which we were isolated [from the people], and going to the masses with the enthusiasm, with the feeling, that society can be changed. That every militant in the factory [can change the world].

I was in a blanket factory the other day talking to a woman of fifty-nine and now crippled with arthritis.  [She was] losing twenty-five pounds a month because [she refused to take her pension so she could fight] to save the factory.[xxxii] You sit opposite this woman, and you feel that there is nothing that the stooges could do to curb her. Nothing. And you feel that we are absolutely together in the battle. Her enthusiasm [was incredible]. [She was saying] “I want to fight! I’m not having these bastards on my back, I’m with you.”  And then [I felt] a little bit embarrassed [about saying who I was, where I was from and what paper I represented]. Because I felt cut off from her fighting tradition. We have to find a way [to harness the enthusiasm of people like her]. I think enthusiasm is the centrepiece. All the time - enthusiasm.

Of all the things about Shelley that really inspired people [in the] a hundred and sixty years since his death, the thing that matters above all is [his] enthusiasm [for the idea] that the world can be changed. It shapes all his poetry. And when you come to read [Ode to the West Wind] where he writes about the “pestilence stricken multitudes” and the leaves being blown by the wind; [then you understand that] he sees the leaves as multitudes of people stricken by a pestilence. You begin to see his ideas, his enthusiasm and his love of life. He believed in life and he really felt that life is what mattered.  That life could and should be better than it is. Could be better and should be better. Could and should be changed. That was the thing he believed in most of all.

And the thing that make me most furious is when people say that he committed suicide. That he ran that ship into the storm on purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth.  There he was in Leghorn[xxxiii] [on the 8th of July, 1822] rushing around and arranging his plans for a political quarterly with [Leigh Hunt] and rushing [hurrying to get back to] Jane Williams[xxxiv] and meet other people. The sky was beautiful and the weather was good and he loved his boat. He loved life. He loved life all the time. And all the time that he loved it, he saw the way in the way in which it was damaging masses and masses of people around him. And he saw the need to change it.

[It is a little like] lying in bed on a Sunday morning with no meetings and no demonstrations to go to. And you [think life is] terrific. You’re lying there and you’re drinking your one cup of coffee a week, and you’re thinking, “well this is great.” [laughter] And the sun is coming through the window and you’re bantering with your children and you think “well, you know, life is pretty good, really. It’s pretty good. [Everything is] all right and I don’t have [anything] really to complain about.” And then you pick up the bloody Sunday Times or the Observer, and you read there about some people in Chile or in Cyprus or about some woman [whose] body that has been broken at the hand of some torturer or executioner. And then you begin to feel the rage, the fury boiling up in you. You begin to feel that fury. But a light comes on [that represents what] could be and a light comes on that [represents what] should be. [And you think about what] could be and what should be on the one hand and what is, on the other hand; and it is intolerable. It has to be changed, and it can only be changed by the action of the masses.

The Villa Magni in San Terenzo where Shelley spent his last days.

The Villa Magni in San Terenzo where Shelley spent his last days.

[It was the same for] Shelley basking in the sunlight in Leghorn[xxxv] in 1819, coming down for breakfast, chatting to his family and enjoying life - thinking of the boat trip that he was gonna take that day - thinking of the winds and the sun, the stars. And suddenly, the papers come in from England and the papers tell the story of the massacre of women and children at Peterloo. And Shelley flies up into the attic [in a fury]. And raging and furious he writes The Mask of Anarchy and he didn’t have a Socialist Workers Party to activate, he didn’t have an organization and that was part of his problem - he had no one around him. But he had the ability to write. He had the ability to write an appeal for revolution, which all of us must feel.

Images from Michael Demson's Masks of Anarchy. Buy it  here .

Images from Michael Demson's Masks of Anarchy. Buy it here.

`And that slaughter to the Nation[xxxvi]
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.
`And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again -- again -- again--
`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.
            Mask of Anarchy, Stanzas 89 – 91.

Paul Foot. 1937-2004.

Paul Foot. 1937-2004.

[i] Skegness is a seaside town near Lincoln in the English Midlands that was home to many socialist and Marxist meetings.

[ii] Foot now launches into a heavily sarcastic version of the Promethean myth as taught by his school masters in England.

[iii] Foot is referring to a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer. Only the first survives.  Shelley derived much of his understanding of the second and third from Cicero’s commentary on it. From Wikipedia: “In Prometheus Unbound, Heracles frees Prometheus from his chains and kills the eagle that had been sent daily to eat the Titan's perpetually regenerating liver. Perhaps foreshadowing his eventual reconciliation with Prometheus, we learn that Zeus has released the other Titans whom he imprisoned at the conclusion of the Titanomachy. In Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, the Titan finally warns Zeus not to lie with the sea nymph Thetis, for she is fated to give birth to a son greater than the father. Not wishing to be overthrown, Zeus would later marry Thetis off to the mortal Peleus; the product of that union will be Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Grateful for the warning, Zeus finally reconciles with Prometheus.”

[iv] Foot is referring to Shelley, The Pursuit.  This book was published in 1975 and was the first full-life biography to emerge about Shelley since the 1940s. It created something of a sensation because of the favourable, serious treatment it accorded Shelley whose reputation had been in decline for decades.

[v] Foot’s point here is that Asia is the sort of revolutionary heroine he had been talking about earlier.  She isn’t in love with Prometheus in a romantic, “Victorian” manner: she is militantly in love with him and wants to do something about his predicament.

[vi] Prometheus Unbound is what Shelley called a “lyrical drama”. Critics have fussed over this for decades: is it more of a poem or more of a play. Foot simply calls it a “play-poem”.

[vii] The question of what Demogorgon represents has bedevilled critics for centuries. Foot mocks the problems they have had in figuring it out – suggesting that they have all come to trite, non-revolutionary conclusions.  He then maps out his own straight forward interpretation.

[viii] Foot is leafing through his copy of the poem.

[ix] Holmes, 504-505.

[x] Foot is mocking the non-radical, non-political response to Demogorgon.  He suggests that people acknowledge the beauty of the language but fail to ask the proper questions.  If asked political questions, they deflect to mythic nonsense.

[xi] Foot is referring back to Shelley’s statement in the Preface where he says that he is writing the poem for the members of the societal elite.

[xii] Violent revolution versus peaceful revolution.

[xiii] The side of the elites.

[xiv] Foot is referring to England, 1819

[xv] Once considered the classic biography of Marx, today some consider it more hagiography than biography.  Published in German in 1918, it was finally translated into English in 1935.

[xvi] Eleanor Marx was the daughter of Karl Marx and was married to Edward Aveling.  In 1888, she and her husband delivered two lectures to the Shelley Society entitled “Shelley’s Socialism”.  Copies are virtually impossible to obtain, and the one version that was produced contained only the first lecture.  You can find my article on it here.  Later in his passage Foot uses the term "sectarian" which he uses in the sense of "factional". Marxism by this point had split into dozens if not hundreds of factions.

[xvii] Chartism was one of the principal vehicles by which Shelley’s radical tradition was passed down to the modern world.  From the Encyclopedia Britannica: “British working-class movement for parliamentary reform named after the People’s Charter, a bill drafted by the London radical William Lovett in May 1838. It contained six demands: universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annually elected Parliaments, payment of members of Parliament, and abolition of the property qualifications for membership. Chartism was the first movement both working class in character and national in scope that grew out of the protest against the injustices of the new industrial and political order in Britain. While composed of working people, Chartism was also mobilized around populism as well as clan identity.”  Read more here.

[xviii] Foot is possibly confused.  When Queen Mab was first published by Shelley in 1813, he printed 250 copies.  Approximately 70 were bound and distributed personally by Shelley.  William Clark, who was a bookseller, who stored the rest in his shop. Years later, in 1821, Clark distributed the remaining copies without Shelley’s permission through the black market.  Government agents confiscated the copies, arrested Clark and sent him to prison for 4 months.

[xix] You can find this here.

[xx] Foot may be conflating two issues here.  On the whole, there were very few copyright-based prosecutions against the pirate editions of Shelley’s work; either by Shelley or his heirs. On the other hand, the government actively prosecuted anyone publishing words considered seditious or threatening to the government – which basically meant ALL of Shelley’s poetry and essays. Much of this activity took place after Shelley’s death.

[xxi] Richard Carlile was a republican and a radical who championed freedom of the press. He spent many years in jail for his publishing activities, which included publishing most of Shelley’s radical poetry and essays. Read more about him here.

[xxii] Foot is alluding to the fact that even while he was in prison, Carlile managed to publish his journal, The Republican.

[xxiii] David Daiches (2 September 1912 – 15 July 2005) was a reasonably well-respected Scottish literary historian and literary critic, scholar and writer. He wrote extensively on English literature, Scottish literature and Scottish culture. read more about him here.

[xxiv] Foot, in true polemical form, pours scorn on what was one of the most important leftist publishing initiatives of the 1930s.  From Wikipedia: “Pioneered by Victor Gollancz, it offered a monthly book choice, for sale to members only, as well as a newsletter that acquired the status of a major political magazine. It also held an annual rally. Membership peaked at 57,000, but after the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact of 1939, it disowned its large Communist element, and subsequent years of paper-rationing, during and after the war, led to further decline. It ceased publishing in 1948.” Read more here.

[xxv] William Gallacher (25 December 1881 – 12 August 1965) was a Scottish trade unionist, activist and communist. He was one of the leading figures of the Shop Stewards' Movement in wartime Glasgow (the 'Red Clydeside' period) and a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He served two terms in the House of Commons as the last Communist Member of Parliament. Read more about him here.

[xxvi] The Morning Star is the only socialist daily newspaper published in England.  It was originally called the Daily Worker and first published in 1930.

[xxvii] The International Marxist Group (IMG) was a Trotskyist group in Britain between 1968 and 1982. Foot for most of his life had a deep and abiding affection of Trotsky.  It was the British Section of the Fourth International. It had around 1,000 members and supporters in the late 1970s. In 1980, it had 682 members; by 1982, when it changed its name to the Socialist League, membership had fallen to 534. Read more here.

[xxviii] Socialist Labour League was an openly Trotskyist organization, although most of its members remained active in the Labour Party. The SLL was formally announced at the end of February 1959, Membership was "open to all who want to see the vigorous prosecution of the class struggle and the achievement of working class power". Read more here.

[xxix] Foot is referring to senior members of the party hierarchy.

[xxx] I am not sure who Foot is referring to.  Possibly the left-wing English movement.

[xxxi] In a difficult passage that is tied very much to the circumstances of the time, Foot now discusses the atmosphere on the left during what I believe to be the 30s through the 70s.  His point is that the left abandoned action for rhetoric; the left became divorced from (and hence isolated from) the people; the left became “sentimental”.  This last charge is a curious one. I think he means the left was attached to ideas of freedom but lacked the will to do anything about it. He asserts that this pattern of behaviour caused more modern leftists to become skeptical and demanded change.  And out of this skepticism grew the modern labour movement. 

[xxxii] She would have foregone her pension so that she could remain employed and hence continue to work as a union organizer.

[xxxiii] Modern day Livorno.

[xxxiv] This is a rather risqué assertion.  Jane Williams was the wife of his friend Edward (who perished with him). In the last months of his life, Shelley developed something of an infatuation with her, despite the fact they all lived together under one roof in San Terenzo: Mary, Percy, Edward and Jane. Shelley wrote poetry to her and Mary was quite deeply aggrieved by this. Whether they conducted an actual sexual affair in unknown. But Foot’s point here is that Shelley was very much engaged in life and had much to look forward to.

[xxxv] Foot is now talking about the moment Shelley heard of the massacre we now call “Peterloo”.  This event took place not in Livorno, but rather in San Terenzo at the Villa Magni.

[xxxvi] Referring to the massacre at Manchester.