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Henry Collins

William Godwin

(September 1961)

From Socialist Review, September 1961.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 260–63.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A virtuous man will teach himself to recollect the principle
of universal benevolence as often as pious men repeat their prayers.

William Godwin

If men practised benevolence towards each other society would be sound, happiness widespread and intellectual and moral progress infinite. This could be the text for a vapid sermon. In Godwin’s hands it became one of the formative ideas of British and world socialism.

Godwin was born in 1756. His youth coincided with the birth of industrial England. During the 1760s John Wilkes roused the people in defence of parliament and civil liberties against the autocratic tendencies of George III. In the 1770s Thomas Spence demanded the public ownership of land as the only foundation for a just society, freed from oppression and exploitation. At the end of the following decade feudal Europe was shaken to the point of collapse by the great French Revolution. And in 1793 Godwin published the first edition of Political Justice. It was to play its part in moulding the ideas of two generations of socialist pioneers.

Godwin’s ideas stemmed from philosophy rather than directly politics or social conditions. His philosophical roots were in Locke, Rousseau and the revolutionary school of French Encyclopaedists. With Locke, Godwin saw the mind of man as a complex receiving mechanism. Sensations, arriving from the external world were transmuted by reason into ideas, both intellectual and moral. With Rousseau, Godwin perceived the inherent equality of man and the sharp, bitter contrast between this innate equality and the availing inequality deriving from social conditions. From the Encyclopaedists and, most particularly, from Helvetius, he learned that man’s character was formed for him by his social environment, if this environment could be made rational and free, man, in turn, would become rational and free.

Innately, the human mind was neither good nor evil, neither wise nor foolish. It was what society had made of it – in too many cases a ghastly mess. Most men worked too long and too hard in conditions of crippling poverty. The privileged few, emancipated from the need to work, were also emancipated from the discipline, common sense and common humanity that went with work. If the poor were vicious from ignorance and greedy because of want, the rich were vicious from idleness and greedy because of greed.

More than a century and a quarter later, men would write of the “Acquisitive Society,” but Godwin, in the first decades of industrial capitalism, described its consequences with eloquence and power. His main weaknesses were those he shared with the French revolutionary materialists from whom he derived. As Plekhanov was later to demonstrate, in his essay on French Materialism of the Eighteenth Century, Helvetius and his school regarded men’s characters and opinions as the effects of their environment. But when it came to explaining how the environment itself was to be changed, they looked to a change in men’s opinions, to the enlightening effect of revolutionary ideas. No thinker of the eighteenth century was able to escape from this contradiction. And in Godwin’s case the dilemma was to drive him, more than once, over the edge into absurdity.

Though he called his book an Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, it was with social justice that Godwin was, in fact, concerned. Government, like property, originated in violence. But as violence was the cause of injustice it could not be the means of its eradication. Property gave man economic power over man, while Government gave him the means of physical coercion. If private Property led to gross inequality and, hence, to poverty for the great majority, political coercion warped men’s character and judgement, political coercion, therefore, could not be a means of emancipation and all organisation carried with it the seeds of coercion. Reason was the only cure for irrational society. With the spread of reason men would learn the futility of superfluous wealth and the joy of moderate, creative labour. As the new ideas caught hold, a new pattern of living would develop. Freed alike from property and government, men would become fully human.

“The vices which are inseparably joined to the present system of property,” wrote Godwin, “would inevitably expire in a state of society where all shared alike the bounties of nature. The narrow principle of selfishness would vanish. No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide, with anxiety and pain, for his restless wants, each would lose his individual existence thought of general good. No man would be an enemy to his neighbour, for they would have no subject of contention, and in consequence philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her.”

Godwin’s ideal communities were to be small and individualistic. Co-operation would be ad hoc, voluntary, not institutionalised. The standard of living would be frugal, not luxurious, but poverty would disappear. Intellectually and morally, if not materially, man would reach for the stars.

Politics, by its nature, implied coercion and the subordination of individuality. They were therefore rejected. In 1795 Godwin went so far as to publish an anonymous pamphlet (signed, significantly, “Lover of Order”) supporting the Government’s repressive measures against democratic agitation. Two years earlier, Pitt had refused to ban Political Justice. The masses, he believed, were unlikely to be subverted by an abstract philosophical treatise costing three guineas.

Yet Godwin became the centre of an intellectual movement with profound repercussions. The poets Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge were, for a time, under his spell, during the period in which they welcomed the French Revolution as the dawn of a age of human freedom. Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, became the first advocate of women’s emancipation. His daughter Mary, married Shelley, who translated the philosophy of Political Justice into undying poetry. Robert Owen learned from Godwin that private property must be abolished to create an environment worthy of human beings. Francis Place, brought up in an atmosphere of Godwinian libertarianism, applied some of his political practice. In his essay on Avarice and Profusion, which appeared in 1797, Godwin denied that manufacturing progress under capitalism would benefit the poor. On the contrary, it perpetuate poverty and lengthen the working day, an idea which was to provide a central theme for Marx’s Capital. The rich would benefit the poor, Godwin showed, not by employing them in factories but by getting off their backs. And in his most famous novel, Caleb Williams, which had far wider circulation than any of his political writings, Godwin exposed the cruelties of the system of transportation and helped to initiate the movement for penal reform.

One celebrated figure, who became a parson, was worried by Godwin’s conclusions. Thomas Robert Malthus, in 1798, wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population to prove that social progress was impossible and perpetual poverty inevitable unless the poor had fewer children through voluntary, moral self restraint.

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Last updated: 21 June 2014