Percy Bysshe Shelley Belongs to Us, the Many
Karl Marx, Jeremy Corbyn, 19th-century Chartists, and 20th-century ILGWU strikers agree that the Left should read Percy Bysshe Shelley. Following the 200th anniversary of his death, we look at the great Romantic who brought poetry to the class struggle.
In April of 1888, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling prepared a speech establishing one of the nineteenth century’s greatest writers as a socialist and identifying his work as a weapon of class struggle. Their subject was Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their audience the Shelley Society — an organization of the poet’s most active and prominent admirers, which had begun to confront the topic of Shelley’s political allegiances and their expression in his work.
Marx and Aveling wrote in response to a fellow member who viewed Shelley’s popularity with working-class readers as an opportunistic offense to the poet’s artistic project — and a threat to the entire craft of poetry. “I think the greatness of his writings,” A. G. Ross had claimed before the society a year earlier, “affords a rough measure of his inability to manage the world’s affairs.” Ross intended to rescue Shelley’s poetry from the “socialism of the streets,” whose tawdry aims of social reform he considered at odds with the demands of the poetic form. Reducing Shelley’s poetry to a blunt instrument of political messaging, he argued, would prevent the appreciation of that poetry on its own terms.
Two hundred years have passed since Shelley’s death at the age of twenty-nine, and in those years, Ross’s worst fears have been realized. Shelley’s verse has filled activists’ pamphlets and speeches, from the Chartist movement of nineteenth-century England to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike of 1909 New York and beyond. To express the brutality of tyranny, the imperative of popular resistance, and the material conditions of freedom, two centuries’ worth of working-class organizers have found greatness in Shelley’s writings, and in turn, they have used these writings to shape the world’s affairs.
It’s thanks to these upheavals of street socialism that Shelley’s work has encountered its most lively and insightful interlocutors, those who can imagine the relationship between poetics and politics as something beyond oil and water. And it’s essential that today’s socialists — like Marx and Aveling, and like the hundreds of thousands of working-class Shelleyans in labor movements around the world — recognize the poetic genre as an arena of class struggle.
Read as a set of political statements, Shelley’s work does not present a complete or even coherent playbook for popular resistance. But his ingenious use of the poetic form to attack exploitation in fiery, elegant language and to voice a ringing outcry for solidarity against the tyrant make him indispensable socialist reading. Eleanor Marx remembered Friedrich Engels saying, “We all knew Shelley by heart, then.” We should still.
“Ye Are Many, They Are Few”
On September 9, 1819, in Livorno, Italy, Shelley sat down to compose a poem. Four days earlier, he had received news of a massacre just outside Manchester, England, in which 420 people were badly hurt and eleven killed. Sixty thousand peaceful protestors had joined a demonstration on August 16 at St. Peter’s Field, calling for universal suffrage and the abolition of the Corn Laws, which drove bread prices to devastating highs. They were met by the Manchester yeomanry, which had been ordered to arrest the protest leaders but instead charged directly into the unarmed crowd — a massacre that came to be known as Peterloo.
“I wait anxiously to hear how the country will express its sense of this bloody, murderous oppression of its destroyers,” Shelley wrote to his publisher, Charles Ollier, on September 6. “Something must be done. What, yet, I know not.” Three weeks later, he finished writing “The Mask of Anarchy” and mailed it to his friend Leigh Hunt, meaning for Hunt to publish it in his paper, the Examiner. Fearing censorship, Hunt withheld the poem. It would not be read in Shelley’s lifetime; Hunt eventually published it a decade after his death.
In “The Mask of Anarchy,” a poet dreams of supreme evil mounted on a pale horse. The figure is deathlike, but he is not Death; he is Anarchy, the state of chaos in which wealth and corruption replace democracy and justice. Before him come the masked figures of Murder, Fraud, and Hypocrisy, each adorned with the symbols of apocalyptic cruelty. Murder throws human hearts to an entourage of seven bloodhounds, Fraud’s tears turn to millstones that crush the children he passes, and after them follow more “Destructions” in the semblance of contemporary religious and political figures.
The motif of disguise allows Shelley to establish a vivid connection between abstract concepts of evil and the architects of human suffering that dominated his political moment. Murder is concealed by “a mask like Castlereagh,” the reprehensible viscount who crushed uprisings and tortured the United Irishmen to protect British rule in the late eighteenth century. In order to entrench his extremely unpopular regime, he bought out the Irish Parliament, securing the votes for its dissolution into the British Parliament. Fraud’s counterpart is Lord Eldon, who launched an outright war against the British working class as attorney general: he suspended habeas corpus, banned political protest, and classified complaints about the unaffordability of food as treason. It’s said that Eldon shed tears as he condemned his victims — the poor, the dissident, the wrongfully accused — to death. Accordingly, Shelley is not subtle in his representation of those tears’ weight on the lives of the innocent.
Shelley’s evisceration of Castlereagh and Eldon in “The Mask of Anarchy” shows that the poet aimed to do more than denounce tyranny and corruption in theory. In her speech for the Shelley Society, Eleanor Marx notes that Shelley “was the child of the French Revolution,” but unlike some of that movement’s other intellectual inheritors — here Marx names Lord Byron — Shelley had an advanced understanding of the material conditions upon which the Revolution’s ideal of freedom depended. Castlereagh’s suppression of Irish democracy, achieved through his vast wealth at the Irish expense, entrenched his power to exploit and terrorize his subjects. Eldon wielded his political power to criminalize public dissent against the starvation and suppression of the working class.
As their real-life counterparts had done in the years leading up to Peterloo, Shelley’s Anarchy and his procession terrorize the English people on their way to London, where lawyers and priests bow before him, recognizing his authority. Anarchy sends his slaves to loot the Bank of England and retrieve the crown jewels, but he is met along the way by Hope, who throws herself before the horse’s feet and summons “a Shape arrayed in mail,” a vision of light that leaves Anarchy dead on the ground. It’s her following speech to “the prostrate multitude” that has become a fixture of socialist literature, and that offers perhaps the finest articulation of class struggle in the poetic genre.
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.
The refrain of “Ye are many — they are few” at once speaks to capitalism’s great inequality and its great weakness. The political system that allowed for the corrupt consolidation of power under wealthy peers like Eldon and Castlereagh ensured the suffering of millions of working-class people under their heel. Within “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley makes barbed reference to the debts incurred by the young, frivolous prince regent, millions of pounds paid back from public coffers. The prosperity of the few depended upon the material exploitation of the many.
“Ye are many — they are few” lands as a battle cry from Hope to the people, as it has landed with centuries’ worth of Shelley’s readers. It is a direct call for mass disobedience against a hostile ruling elite. The people’s power is in their numbers, and their goal is freedom. Because the exploitation that Shelley describes has the character of class-based oppression, the freedom that he envisions is expressed in the language of material conditions. “What is Freedom?” asks Hope:
For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.
Shelley’s freedom is tangible and intangible. Expressed in the following stanzas of the poem, freedom is the curtailing of power among the wealthy, laws untainted by corruption, the end of wars in which the poor spill blood for the profit of the rich. But the starting place Shelley chooses to explore his idea of freedom is one in which the worker prospers from the benefits of his labor. Other freedoms extend from this immediate right to food and housing, and that stability provides the crucial foundation for human liberty.
The Trumpet of a Prophecy
Shelley himself was unconvinced that poetry held revolutionary potential. In her essay “Poetic Form and Political Reform: ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and ‘England in 1819,’” Romantic scholar Susan Wolfson notes his shifting views on the topic, particularly his belief that “nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse.” Wolfson’s reading of this statement’s inverse, though, suggests a strong case for poetry’s role in social reform: “When poetry is the expression, it communicates something mere prose cannot.”
History tells us that “The Mask of Anarchy,” along with “Queen Mab” and Shelley’s other political verse, conveyed something to working-class and socialist organizers that prose could not. It did not, for example, offer a model for reform or revolution. “The Mask of Anarchy” ends with that ringing cry — “Ye are many — they are few” — but by the poem’s end, the cry rallies its newly awakened, newly militant masses for a peaceful protest that ends in wholesale slaughter. Loathing violence, Shelley envisioned a movement of civil disobedience in response to Peterloo. His Hope urges the people to absorb their tyrants’ attacks, unmasking them as bloodthirsty fiends by offering themselves as targets:
And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, —
What they like, that let them do.
Shelley’s faith in this method of contesting power has certainly not been shared by many of his politically active admirers. They have instead found inspiration and clear, elegant articulation of class struggle in Shelley’s verse, giving that verse a sustained place on working-class and socialist bookshelves. In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn documents the use that the women workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory found in Shelley’s poetry, strengthening both literacy and political consciousness. Pauline Newman, a union organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), recalled the presence of Shelley’s poetry at her meetings with fellow workers:
We tried to educate ourselves. I would invite the girls over to my rooms, and we took turns reading poetry in English to improve our understanding of the language. One of our favorites was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy.”
She goes on to cite the poem’s final, ringing stanza — which must have been in the minds of some of those twenty thousand workers, mostly women, who walked off their jobs in the garment industry in late 1909. It was a solidarity strike with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, who had been on strike since September to demand safer working conditions, union representation, and fair pay.
The chilling familiarity of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory name tells us that the strikers of 1909 did not win the union representation and the working conditions that they needed to survive on the job. But the shock of the 1909 garment industry strike brought tens of thousands of women workers to an insurgent labor movement, and organizers like Newman turned to Shelley’s words in order to animate their urgent material struggle against the bosses and in favor of the prosperity of the working class.
The resonance of those words has endured through generations of socialist organizers and militants in the class struggle. Jeremy Corbyn ended his 2017 campaign as Labour Party leader by reading the same lines of Shelley that Pauline Newman and her Triangle Shirtwaist Factory comrades had recited to one another more than a century earlier. That campaign, which rejected Labour’s neoliberal turn in favor of a robust democratic socialist platform, did more than earn a larger portion of the votes than it had since 2005. It reestablished Labour as a party of mass politics for the well-being of ordinary people — a program that the party’s more liberal members had fought to prevent and are still fighting against now. Corbyn’s choice of slogan for the campaign — “For the many, not the few” — feels apt, and its wording feels familiar.
Perhaps the element of Shelley’s poetry most certain to strike a chord with a leftist audience is the poet’s ability to mine moments of uncertainty and despair for their potential to yield present hope and a revolutionary future. The final line of his “Ode to the West Wind” leaves an open question: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” In his political writing, Shelley did not foreclose the possibility of brutal struggle, misery, and suffering in the overthrow of tyrants and the liberation of the working class. He did not even establish the certainty of triumph: Hope “looked more like Despair” as she threw herself to the mercy of Anarchy. We know the gutting cost that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers paid for the greed of their bosses, when in 1909 they fought tooth and nail for the very protections that would have prevented tragedy two years later. They fought not because success was certain but because they had no other choice but to fight.
In other words: our victory is not a foregone conclusion. But it’s the process of gaining consciousness and hearing the incendiary call to struggle that Shelley draws upon as an access point to a better, freer life. Time and time again, from the rooms of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers to Labour campaigns and public demonstrations from Tahrir to Tiananmen Square, organizers and revolutionaries have heeded that call in Shelley’s own work, and they have passed it along to us. We often refer to artistic endeavors like poetry as the “roses” that socialist organizing struggles to win for working people. But we can’t forget that poetry like Shelley’s has helped us to win our bread, too, and as our own time pits the many against the few, it is sure to do so again.