George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.

3 The Man of Reason

Like Tolstoy and Stirner, William Godwin is one of the great libertarian thinkers who stand outside the historical anarchist movement of the nineteenth century, yet, by their very isolation from it, demonstrate the extent to which it sprang from the spirit of the age. He had little direct influence on that movement, and many of its leaders, whose theories so closely resembled his own, were unaware of the extent to which he had anticipated them. Proudhon knew Godwin by name, but his single reference to him in Economic Contradictions (1846), in which he dismissed him as a 'communist' of the same school as Robert Owen, suggests that he was not familiar with his work. There is no evidence that Bakunin knew even as much about him as Proudhon, while it was not until comparatively late in Kropotkin's life, after his own theories were fully formed, that the latter encountered Political Justice and realized the deep affinity between his own thought and Godwin's. After Kropotkin, Godwin became recognized by the more intellectual anarchists as one of their predecessors, but his influence, which was potent, has lain mostly elsewhere.

Godwin never called himself an anarchist; for him 'anarchy' retained the negative meaning given to it by the polemicists of the French Revolutionary period. It meant, whenever he referred to it, the disorder that results from the breakdown of government without the general acceptance of a 'consistent and digested view of political justice'. Like subsequent libertarial thinkers, Godwin saw society as a naturally developing phenomenon which can operate in complete freedom from government, but he did not share the faith of his successors in the spontaneous instincts of the untutored people. In this sense he remained a man of the Enlightenment; education was his real key to liberation, and he feared that without it man's 'ungoverned passions will often not stop at equality but incite them to grasp at power'.

Yet so rooted was his conviction of the life-destroying [57] propensities of authority, that he would not wholly condemn even an anarchy conceived in negative terms. Extreme disorder, for this believer in an ordered life under the aegis of impartial reason, was infinitely more to be desired than extreme subordination.

Anarchy is transitory, but despotism tends towards permanence. Anarchy awakens mind, diffuses energy and enterprise through the community, though it does not effect this in the best manner. ... But in despotism mind is trampled into an equality of the most odious sort. Everything that promises greatness is destined to fall under the exterminating hand of suspicion and envy.

In the positive sense in which anarchism is now understood, Godwin stands at the head of the tradition, for the arguments he put forward in 1793 with the publication of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice embraced all the essential features of an anarchistic doctrine. He rejected any social system dependent on government. He put forward his own conception of a simplified and decentralized society with a dwindling minimum of authority, based on a voluntary sharing of material goods. And he suggested his own means of proceeding towards it by means of a propaganda divorced from any kind of political party or political aim. Essentially, this doctrine, which thrilled the Romantic poets from Coleridge to Shelley, and for a brief period during the 1790s became a kind of secular gospel for English radicals, was the same as that which Proudhon proclaimed during the revolutionary 1840s. Godwin anticipated the whole of nineteenth-century anarchism when he summarized in his resounding Latinized language the hope that lay at the core of his doctrine:

With what delight must every well-informed friend of mankind look forward to the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!

In Godwin one can see, more clearly than in later libertarian writers, the various currents that came together to produce the anarchist point of view. The French Revolution certainly gave Godwin the immediate impulse to write Political Justice, and [58] provided the audience ready to receive it with an enthusiasm which still astonishes us when we look back on those years in which, as Hazlitt said in an off-quoted passage of recollection, William Godwin 'blazed in the firmament of reputation'. But the ideas put forward in Political Justice had been established in Godwin's mind long before the French Revolution.

As early as 1784, when his passion for education ran on more conventional lines, he planned to set up a private school, and published a curious little prospectus entitled An Account of tht Seminary That Will Be Opened on Monday the Fourth Day of August at Epsom in Surrey. For reasons which are evident when one reads it, this school prospectus did not attract a single pupil, but it has its place among the more curious early examples of anarchistic literature. Godwin devoted very little space to the kind of practical details parents expect to find, and was much more concerned with putting forward his theories on the nature of society and the general function of education. As a result, An Account of the Seminary reads in places like a preliminary exercise in the arguments regarding government which Godwin was to extend in Political Justice and in the proposals on free education that he was to elaborate in The Enquirer (1797). The following paragraph clearly reveals the direction which his thought had taken five years before the outbreak of the French Revolution:

The state of society is incontestably artificial; the power of one man over another must be always derived from convention or from conquest; by nature we are equal. The necessary consequence is, that government must always depend upon the opinion of the governed. Let the most oppressed people under heaven once change their mode of thinking, and they are free. ... Government is very limited in its power of making men either virtuous or happy; it is only in the infancy of society that it can do any thing considerable; in its maturity it can only direct a few of our outward actions. But our moral dispositions and character depend very much, perhaps entirely upon education.

Here the key ideas of Political Justice already exist in embryo. A natural, egalitarian society is opposed to an artificial governmental society. The power of thought is stressed. Education is given a peculiar importance because of Godwin's idea [59] that human character is determined by environment rather than heredity, and that human faults are imparted by bad training. (Elsewhere in the same prospectus he remarks: 'The vices of the young spring not from nature, who is equally the kind and blameless mother of all her children; they derive from the defects of education.') And, while Godwin had not yet reached the logical destination of deciding that government is positively evil, he is already prepared to argue that it contains little that is positively good.

The language and even the framing of ideas in An Account of the Seminary have a French ring, reminiscent of the writers -- Helvetius, d'Holbach, and Rousseau -- whom Godwin had been reading since 1781. But it would be wrong to assume that Godwin was ever a mere disciple of the French social philosophers of the eighteenth century; to the utilitarianism of Helvetius and d'Holbach (and of Bentham as well, for that matter), he opposed the view of man as part of a system of universal moral order and maintained that immutable truths must be the criteria of our actions; to the social contract of Rousseau he opposed the idea of a society living according to moral law, and to Rousseau's idea of education as a process of imposing a certain cast upon the pupil's mind he opposed an interplay between master and student which would encourage the mind of the child to develop according to its natural bent. 'The gentle yoke of the preceptor should be confounded as much as possible with the eternal laws of nature and necessity.'

In fact, Godwin shows, perhaps more than any other writer of his time, the modification of French eighteenth-century liberal thought by the radical elements in English dissent. He belonged to a family of dissenting ministers. His grandfather and one of his uncles had been famous preachers; his father was the uneloquent but strict pastor of a series of rural Independent congregations. Godwin himself showed early a tendency to follow the family profession. His favourite childhood game was the preaching of heartrending sermons by which he hoped to convert his schoolfellows. Later, like Hazlitt, he attended Hoxton Academy, the best of those excellent colleges which the Dissenters founded during the eighteenth century when their beliefs still debarred them from the universities. He [60] emerged with his intention of following the ministry unchanged, and from 1778 to 1783 he presided, with a growing conviction of unsuitability, over a succession of small nonconformist chapels in East Anglia and the Home Counties. At Beaconsfield he finally decided that he had lost whatever vocation he might have had in the beginning, and set off to London to live as a writer. To the end of his life he continued to dress and to look like a noncomformist minister.

Godwin's abandonment of the ministry was preceded by his conversion -- through the arguments of Joseph Priestley -- from his original Calvinism to the doctrines of Socinius, who denied the divinity of Christ and held that the soul of man was born pure -- a belief that accorded with Godwin's later idea of the infant as a kind of tabula rasa on which experience writes its story. But it was not until 1790, the very year before the beginning of Political Justice, that he finally abandoned any kind of Christian belief and, under the influence of his close friend Thomas Holcroft, became an avowed atheist, a position which he only modified so far as to retreat into a vague pantheism that dominated his later life.

But, though the 1780s show Godwin progressively shedding the actual dogmas of his youthful religion, we should not assume that he shed also the intellectual influence of the dissenting tradition. His individualism, his distrust of the state, his stress on sincerity as a rule for the conduct of human relations, were all acquired in his youth among the Independents and were eventually to become the most prominent pillars of the anarchistic vision he constructed in Political Justice. But there is one particular influence to which students of Godwin have in the past paid too little heed.

When he was eleven, Godwin's parents withdrew him from the last of a succession of rural schools and sent him to Norwich to become the sole pupil of Samuel Newton, pastor of the Independent congregation. Newton was one of those men, curiously combining political radicalism and religious bigotry, whose presence has been one of the distinctive features of English left-wing movements since the Civil War. He was a supporter of John Wilkes; he was also a disciple of Robert Sandeman, the linen-draper apostle of a small fundamentalist [61] sect which had been expelled by the Presbyterians for opposition to any form of Church government and had eventually become attached to the Independents. The Sandemanians remained Calvinists at heart; their conception of election was so rigorous, Godwin claimed, that 'after Calvin had damned ninety-nine in a hundred of mankind', Sandeman had 'contrived a scheme for damning ninety-nine in a hundred of the followers of Calvin'.

To this creed Godwin was early converted, and he remained faithful to it from his early teens until his middle twenties, for he tells us that he came out of Hoxton at the age of twenty-three with his Sandemanian beliefs unchanged and only began to abandon them some time afterwards. In fact, he never wholly shed the influence of this radical sect, and a glance at some of their basic beliefs and practices suggests that many aspects of Political Justice were little more than Sandemanianism secularized.

Sandeman held that the Bible contained all that was necessary for salvation; here, of course, Godwin parted from him, but he agreed with many of the conclusions drawn from this belief. The Sandemanians denied the validity of Church government; Godwin denied the validity of all government. They maintained that the religious man had no business with the state; Godwin maintained the same for the moral man. They established an organization of independent congregations, with no ordained ministers; Godwin envisaged a network of independent parishes, without rulers, as the ideal basic structure for a libertarian society. Finally, the Sandemanians believed in community of property as a desirable ideal and taught that it was sinful to save money, since a surplus should be distributed to those who needed it; it appears to have been a practice in Sandemanian congregations for poor members to be supported by their relatively better-off co-religionists. Once again there is a close parallel with the Godwinian system, which envisages a community of goods to be shared according to need, which lays specific stress on the moral evils of 'accumulated property', and which maintains, not so much that a poor man has a right to be supported by those more fortunate, but rather that the latter have a positive duty to support him. [62]

Sandeman's doctrine was only one among the many influences that contributed to the eventual form of Political Justice. Yet it clearly contains the first sources of some of the most important elements in Godwin's system; it also demonstrates that Godwin was familiar since boyhood with one form or another of the anti-authoritarian and communistic ideas he later developed. He became an anarchistic thinker by no sudden conversion, but by a gradual process of drawing the logical conclusions from concepts with which his receptive mind had long been familiar. In this sense the French social philosophers, and even such English writers as John Locke and Thomas Paine, were not so much giving him new ideas as providing the rational arguments and the logical framework in which he could develop the individualism that reached him by way of the Dissenting tradition. Of Dissent in its radical form he retains almost all but the religious element -- the sense that all we do is a preparation for a Heavenly Kingdom.

Political Justice is in fact linked with religion only in terms of its discarded origins. In itself it presents a characteristically anarchistic combination of the political and the moral, criticizing forms of governmental organization but also achieving a solution based on the changing of personal opinion and the reformation of personal conduct. And thus Godwin appears as the earliest important social writer to pose consciously within his own work the extreme implications of that post-Reformation world in which, as F. W. Maitland said, 'for the first time the Absolute State faced the Absolute Individual'.

Thus, springing from the stem of English Dissent, nurtured by two decades of assiduous reading in the Greek classics and in English and French literature from the late seventeenth century onward, Political Justice finally bore fruit in the energizio sunlight with which the French Revolution first rose upon the Western world.

In the early phase of the Revolution, when bloodshed was slight and the factional struggle had not yet culminated in the Terror, Godwin's enthusiasm was almost unalloyed.

My heart beat high with great swelling sentiments of Liberty [he later recollected, in words reminiscent of Wordsworth's confession]. I had read with great satisfaction the writings of Rousseau, [63] Helvetius and others, the most popular authors of France. I observed in them a system more general and simply philosophical than in the majority of English writers on political subjects, and I could not refrain from conceiving sanguine hopes of a revolution of which such writings had been the precursors.
Yet he continued, as he remarked, to disapprove of 'mob government and violence', and to desire 'such political changes only as should flow purely from the clear light of the understanding and the erect and generous feelings of the heart'.

But, as we have seen, it was not the French Revolution itself that made Godwin a libertarian; he merely saw it as an event by which his already developing ideas might be realized; and this fact largely explains the steadfastness with which, in the days after 1797 when political reaction reigned in England and most of the former friends of the revolution became its enemies, he maintained his radical beliefs. His ideas had been conceived independently of events in France, and when the Revolution declined into violence and dictatorship, this did not force him to abandon any of his basic beliefs; on the contrary, it offered a support to his original contention that political changes are fruitless unless they emerge from changes in moral attitudes.

While the French Revolution produced an appropriate climate, there is some doubt as to the precise impulse which started Godwin on the writing of Political Justice. He himself claimed that the original conception 'proceeded on a feeling of the imperfections and errors of Montesquieu, and a desire of supplying a less faulty work' than the French writer's L'Esprit des lois. On the other hand, it has generally been thought, without any actual confirmation in Godwin's own words, that Political Justice was meant as a comprehensive answer to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. Godwin was certainly conscious of the need for Burke to be answered, since he served on a small committee which arranged for the publication of Paine's Rights of Man, an avowed reply to the Reflections. But this tells us nothing about his own intentions in writing Political Justice, and the most we can fairly assume is that a desire to refute Burke may have been one among a number of motives that set Godwin to work. [64]

Once begun, the whole conception of Political Justice developed in the process of writing, and, like most of the great seminal works in the world's literature, it took on a life of its own which carried it far beyond Godwin's original intent. Indeed, the logically developed structure of anarchist thought that now seems to distinguish the book only appeared as the theme was gradually worked out in the process of writining. Godwin was conscious of this, particularly since the chapters of Political Justice were printed as soon as they were written, a process which did not allow him to eliminate the inevitable contradictions that appeared as his opinions matured.

The ideas of the author became more perspicacious and digested as his inquiries advanced [he explained in an apologetic preface]. He did not enter upon the work without being aware that government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of individual mind; but he understood the full meaning of this proposition more completely as he proceeded, and saw more distinctly into the nature of the remedy.

Political Justice appeared in February 1793. Already the political reaction had begun, and the government was persecuting radicals who had sympathized with the French Revolution. Barely two months before, Paine had been sentenced to death for publishing The Rights of Man; he had already crossed to France, thanks to William Blake's timely warning that the officers of the crown were searching for him. Godwin had to expect that he too might suffer for a book as direct as Political Justice, but moral cowardice was not one of his faults, and his preface embodies a calm challenge to the enemies of literary freedom.

It is to be tried, whether a project is formed for suppressing the activity of mind and putting an end to the disquisitions of science. Respecting the event in a personal view the author has formed his resolution. Whatever conduct his countrymen may pursue, they will not be able to shake his tranquillity. The duty he is most bound to discharge is the assisting the progress of truth; and if he suffer in any respect for such a proceeding, there is certainly no vicissitude that can befall him that can ever bring along with it a more satisfactory consolation.

Such philosophy in the face of possible persecution was [65] perhaps another gift of his Dissenting heritage; some at least among Godwin's ancestors must have faced similar moments of risk for the sake of their nonconformity. In the event, Political Justice went unprosecuted. A famous tale runs that when the possibility of proceeding against it was discussed in the Cabinet, Pitt brushed it aside with the remark that a book that sold at three guineas would have little influence. How far Pitt was wrong we shall see later.

In the account of Political Justice that follows I shall concentrate as far as possible on the aspects that establish Godwin at the beginning of the anarchist intellectual tradition. The astonishing completeness with which the book anticipates the various facets of the libertarian point of view -- so that it still remains one of the most thorough expositions of anarchistic beliefs -- will explain the space I devote at this point to a single memorable treatise.

It is impossible to begin a satisfactory discussion of Godwinian anarchism without considering the idea of Necessity which pervades his masterpiece. Necessity, as Godwin saw it, was really the immutable and impersonal moving force of the universe which expresses itself through natural laws and determines the actions of human beings. Necessitarian beliefs of various kinds have not been uncommon among anarchists, for many of Godwin's successors accepted the scientific determinism of the nineteenth-century evolutionists. Indeed, the general anarchist tendency to rely on natural law and to imagine a return to an existence based on its dictates leads by a paradoxical logic toward determinist conclusions which, of course, clash in a very obvious way with the belief in the freedom of individual action.

It is clear from Political Justice that Godwin's own idea of Necessity was by no means uncomplicated by such contradictions. A Necessitarian viewpoint came easily to a former Calvinist, and was also comforting for a man who longed for philosophic detachment, who preferred to pity people as victims of circumstance rather than as wilful transgressors. But, while his intellectual heritage and his own nature impelled Godwin toward Necessitarianism, he was quite evidently aware of the difficulties that assail any attempt to wed anarchism [66] and determinism. If Necessity exists, and is the law of nature, how are we to explain that the human situation went so far astray that artificial systems of authority have replaced natural social organizations? How, on the other hand, if government is inevitable -- as all things that exist must be to a complete Necessitarian -- can we condemn it realistically? Finally, how can personal freedom and responsible choice, for which all the anarchists, Godwin included, have struggled, have any meaning in a Necessitarian world? Can one in fact be a political liberatarian and a philosophic Necessitarian at the same time?

Anarchists have tried to solve this problem in a variety of ways. Few have taken what one might have thought the logical step of accepting the absurdist or existentialist view of an undetermined world where natural law does not exist. Most of them seem to have elected for an attitude which relegates determination to certain limited aspects of life. Natural determination cannot be avoided. We grow old and die; we musl recognize our physical and perhaps even our moral weaknesses. Once we voluntarily accept such limitations we are free within them, and then it is only the avoidable that can enslave us. The greatest kingdom of the avoidable and the artificial is human society, and this precisely is the realm where freedom is possible, since it is the realm where will can operate effectively. Men, in other words, cannot deny their physical or even their psychological determination, just as they cannot deny natural disasters; on the other hand, they can deny slavery to humaa institutions and to other human beings.

In practice Godwin, like these later anarchists, presented a compromise between determination and freedom which is not always evident when one listens to his invocations of Necessity as if it were some blind, mechanical, and all-ruling goddess. No one has better explained this aspect of Godwin's thought than Dr F. E. L. Priestley in his introduction to the 1946 facsimile edition of Political Justice. Priestley suggests that Godwin places so much emphasis on Necessity because, following Hume, Hartley, and d'Holbach, he conceives of free will as meaning 'complete irresponsibility of behaviour, the ability "to will or choose without motive, or to be able to prevent motives from acting upon the will" '. To such a conception, Dr Priestley [67] opposes, as more truly representing the idea of liberty, Locke's definition of freedom 'as determination by the "last result of our own minds" ... with its logical difficulty of a free but determined will'. What Godwin is anxious to avoid, he suggests, is making 'the will independent of the idea of understanding', and there is nothing in his application of the idea of Necessity that would contradict a limited but genuine freedom of the will as defined by Locke.

Of the two sorts of determinism, that in which the mind is determined by past experience, and that in which it is determined by a judgement of the future [Dr Priestley continues], the latter is of greater fundamental importance to Godwin's scheme. At the same time, his eagerness to construct an exact science of morality, based on predictability of behaviour, discovery of general principles, and control of process, leads him towards the more empirical form. The distinction he draws between voluntary and involuntary actions suggests that involuntary behaviour exhibits one sort of necessity, that dictated by past experience, while voluntary actions are always determined by a judgement, and proceed 'upon the apprehended truth of some proposition'. This second type of determinism, rational and teleological, is hard to distinguish from what is usually considered free will. In fact, Godwin's whole doctrine is essentially the same as the Thomist doctrine of free will as outlined by Professor Taylor; we are usually biased in our choice of actions by the factors upon which the various sciences lay stress, but we can on occasion eliminate this bias and impartially weigh the merits of alternatives. In making the estimate of their various merits, the will is determined solely by the superior goodness of the alternative chosen. This ability to be determined solely by the good is all that the advocate of free will can fairly claim. Upon this view, Godwin must be classed with the upholders of free will.

Dr Priestley's view is confirmed by Godwin's later writings, particularly Thoughts on Man (1831), the last volume of essays published during his life. Man's actions, he contends there, are indeed involved in a necessary chain of cause and effect, but the human will is emergent from this process and in turn takes its place in the series of causes; man's actions become voluntary -- and by implication free -- in so far as he can alter the direction of the chain, even if he can never break it asunder. [68]

Will, and a confidence in its efficiency, 'travel tiirough, nor quit us till we die'. It is this which inspires us with invincible perseverance and heroic energies, while without it we should be the most inert and soulless of blocks, the shadows of what history records and poetry immortalizes, and not men.

Free will is an integral part of the science of man and may be said to constitute its most important chapter. ... But, though the doctrine of the necessity of human actions can never form the rule of our intercourse with others, it will still have its use. It will moderate our excesses, and point out to us that middle path of judgement which the soundest philosophy inculcates. ... We shall view with pity, even with sympathy, the men whose frailties we behold, or by whom crimes are perpetrated, satisfied that they are parts of one great machine, and, like ourselves, are driven forward by impulses over which they have no real control.

Godwin, in other words, accepts in his old age the essential division in the Necessitarian attitude -- that, though philosophically one may see no alternative to determination, in practice one acts as if men were free. He admits that 'we can never divest ourselves of the delusive sense of the liberty of human actions', and that 'it is not desirable that we should do so'. In other words, he grants the contradiction between a universe dominated by immutable law and man's sense of his own freedom, and he pragmatically welcomes the contradiction, thus creating one of those states of equilibrium between opposing conditions or ideas that delighted many of his libertarian successors, particularly, of course, Proudhon.

It is within this chosen region of suspense between the necessary and the voluntary that Godwin builds the structure of Political Justice. He begins with the assumption that 'the happiness of the human species is the most desirable object for human science to pursue', and of all forms of happiness he gives pride of place to the 'intellectual and moral'. The most potent enemy of such happiness he detects in 'erroneous and corrupt government', and so his book has really a double purpose; it is an inquiry into the political functioning of society but it will also be, Godwin hopes, 'an advantageous vehicle of moral improvement ... from the perusal of which no man should rise without being strengthened in habits of sincerity, fortitude, and justice'. From a melancholy consideration of the [69] historical record of governments, of their endless wars abroad, of the endemic poverty and periodical repression they produce at home, Godwin concludes that, while the evils of political life may possibly never be ended, the faintest hope of replacing that 'history of crimes' by a society of 'true freedom and perfect equity' is worth following. But the confidence with which he proceeds suggests that Godwin, at least in this noontide of his career, was far from believing himself the spokesman of a forlorn hope.

He begins with four basic propositions. First, he claims that 'the moral characters of men are the result of their perceptions', and that neither good nor bad is born into us. If this is the case, the elimination of harmful external factors can also eliminate criminal tendencies from the characters of human beings. But it is not merely a question of acting upon people by changing their environments. We have to awaken their minds as well, for voluntary actions originate in judgements of goodness or desirability, and are therefore acts of reason. As such, they can be changed by rational persuasion, and even the power of environment can often be countered by the proper influencing of opinion.

This brings Godwin to his second basic proposition. Of all the means of 'operating upon mind', the most potent is government. Here is a significant shift from An Account of the Seminary, in which he had given education the advantage. He now explains that 'political institution is peculiarly strong in that very point in which the efficacy of education was deficient, the extent of its operation'. It is only this power of 'positive institutions', Godwin claims, that keeps error so long alive in the world, for, like all anarchists, he believes that, left to itself, the human mind will naturally tend to detect error and to approach steadily nearer to truth.

Injustice therefore by its very nature is little fitted for a durable existence. But government 'lays its hand upon the spring that is in society and puts a stop to its motion'. It gives substance and permanence to our errors. It reverses the genuine propensities of mind, and instead of suffering us to look forward, teaches us to look backward for perfection. It prompts us to seek the public welfare, not in innovation and improvement, but in a timid reverence for [70] the decisions of our ancestors, as if it were the nature of mind always to degenerate and never to advance.

Godwin's third proposition is really a corollary of the second; government is as bad in practice as it is in principle. In demonstrating this, he concentrates mostly on the vast economic differences between the classes of his own eighteenth century world. Both legislation and the operation of laws work in favour of the rich, and, indeed, it is in the nature of politic institutions, by giving power and privilege to individuals, 'greatly to enhance the imagined excellence of wealth'. Godwn| was one of the first to describe clearly the intimate link between property and power which has made the anarchists enemies of capitalism as well as of the state.

The fourth basic proposition is the celebrated statement on the perfectibility of man. 'Perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as well as the intellectual state of man may be presumed to be in a course of progressive improvement.' Godwin reinforces this bold statement by a comparison between primitive and the civilized states of man, and maintains, with a naivety worthy of the early Ruskin, that even in the arts a constant improvement has been evident. Subsequently, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, he was to deny any such Utopian intent and to maintain that he meant merely that man was capable of indefinite improvement. And even here his progressivism differs from the customary Victorian type in that it is primarily moral, and envisages as its principal goal an inner change in the individual that will take him to the condition of natural justice from which his subjection to political institutions had diverted him.

It is on Justice that Godwin lays the stress as he begins to develop from his four basic statements a discussion of the principles of society. Society, he maintains, originated in men's consciousness of the need for mutual assistance, and its moving principle -- a moral principle -- is Justice, which Godwin defines as 'a rule of conduct originating in the connexion of one percipient being with another'. Justice demands that we do everything in our power to assist other individuals according to their need and worth; it sees our persons and our property as things [71] we hold in trust for mankind. 'I am bound,' Godwin declares, 'to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of general good.' Yet we should beware of setting up the general good, or society itself, as something above or outside individuals. It is always what is good and just between individuals that is good and just for society. For 'society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. Its claims and duties must be the aggregate of their claims and duties, the one no more precarious and arbitrary than the other.' The purpose of society is to do for its members 'everything that can contribute to their welfare. But the nature of their welfare is defined by the nature of mind. That will most contribute to it which enlarges the understanding, supplies incitements to virtue, fills us with a generous conscience of our independence and carefully removes whatever can impede our exertions.'

Society, in other words, is best employed when it assists man to be a moral being. But here we come to another direction of relationship. If man's links with society are a kind of horizontal pattern of magnified connexions between individuals, his relationship to morality is a vertical one. For, Godwin insists,

Morality is, if anything can be, fixed and immutable; and there must surely be some strange deception that should induce us to give an action eternally and unchangeably wrong the epithets of rectitude, duty and virtue.

The difficulty arises when we come to consider how man, bounded by the limits of his perception, is to establish the vertical relationship with those absolute truths that constitute ideal morality. Clearly, duty can only demand that we serve the general good according to the full extent of our capacities. On the other hand, neither incapacity nor ignorance can give the quality of justice to an unjust act. And so, while men cannot expect to be absolutely virtuous, they should endeavour to form 'virtuous dispositions'. But a virtuous disposition cannot be imposed; it can only be cultivated by each man within himself. It 'is principally generated by the uncontrolled exercise of private judgement and the rigid conformity of every man to the dictates of his conscience'. [72]

If we insist on this autonomy of the individual judgement, then we follow the path of the radical Dissenters to a declartion of the moral equality of men. Physically and mentally men may be unequal, though Godwin believes that such differences are exaggerated, but morally all men are equal because of their essential independence. Justice must be applied to them in equal measure, and opportunities and encouragement should be given without discrimination.

Man has duties to truth and to morality, which is an aspect of truth. But has he rights? No man, Godwin answers, has the right 'to act anything but virtue and to utter anything but truth'. What he does have, strictly speaking, are not rights, but claims on the assistance of his fellows under reciprocal justice. Many things commonly regarded as rights, such as freedom of conscience or speech, should be sought not because men have a right to them but because they are essential for the attainment of moral truth.

Society and government have neither claims nor rights. They exist only for the convenience of individuals. And here Godwin comes to the perennial confusion between justice and humas law. The first, he argues, is based on immutable moral truths, the second on the fallible decisions of political institutions. Man must recognize what is right by his own understanding, and here it is evidence, not authority, that should move him. It follows from this reasoning that governments have no right to our obedience. Reason, exercised independently in the discovery of justice, is the only true role of conduct. If every man listened to its voice, there would be a society of unconstrained concord.

But it may be granted that in the present imperfect state of human judgement these principles cannot always be applied. Crime occurs, and, though punishment is in its nature unjust, restraint may be unavoidable. Yet men are what they are, Godwin insists, because of the environment that has shaped them, and we must therefore abolish the social causes that make restraint necessary. 'He that would reconcile a perfect freedom in this respect with the interest of the whole, ought to propose at the same time the means of extirpating selfishness and vice.'

In considering the question of necessary restraint, Godwin [73] asks in what manner the supercession of private judgement for the sake of public good may, where necessary, be carried out. And this in turn leads him 'to ascertain the foundation of political government'. He begins with three hypotheses commonly advanced. The first two -- that government originates in the right of might and that it originates in divine right -- he dismisses as alien to the concept of an immutable justice. The third hypothesis is that of the social contract, deriving from Locke and Rousseau and commonly held by radicals in the eighteenth century. Godwin departs emphatically from the men of his age on this point, and anticipates the anarchists of the nineteenth century by dismissing the social contract also as a basis for political justice. It seeks to bind one generation by the promises of another. It negates the obligation of each individual to exercise his private judgement on what is right. It is based on the fallacious idea that we must fulfil our promises, whereas we should make no promises at all, but perform acts only because they are just.

Godwin hastens to add that an emphasis on the duty of private judgement does not preclude common action. Indeed, when measures have to be adopted for the general good, they must be deliberated in common, and there is a close resemblance between the exercise of private judgement and common deliberations properly carried out. Both are 'means of discovering right and wrong, and of comparing particular propositions with the standards of eternal truth'. But they are no more than this, and neither an individual nor a deliberative body has the authority to make laws. The only just law is the law of Reason: 'Her decrees are irrevocable and uniform. The functions of society extend, not to the making, but to the interpreting of law; it cannot decree, it can only declare that which the nature of things has already decreed. . . . .' Thus the authority of the community is strictly executive, and is confined to 'the public support of justice'. Where it assures this, every reasonable man must cooperate; where it does not, every reasonable man must resist its decisions.

With the idea of resistance we come to the beginning of the long anarchist controversy on ends and means. Godwin stands with Tolstoy, and to an extent with Proudhon, among those [74] who place moral persuasion and passive resistance above violent and active resistance. He does not actually deny active resistance. But he counsels extreme caution in its use. Force is no substitute for reason, and its use by people who seek to establish justice does not make it any better. It should never be used without the prospect of success, and even then only 'where time can by no means be gained, and the consequences instantly to ensue are unquestionably fatal'. Violence, then, is the last, desperate resort of just men.

The appropriate form of resistance, which should be attempted in every instance, is the spreading of truth, the 'censuring in the most explicit manner every proceeding that I perceive to be adverse to the true interests of mankind'. Tha revolutions we should desire are those which proceed by changing human opinions and dispositions; used with sincerity and persistence, reason will accomplish all that violence can only attempt with the most dubious chance of success.

But persuasion must as far as possible be direct and individual. Godwin distrusts political associations, which seek to persuade by the weight of numbers rather than by propagating the truth. The only associations he admits are those created in an emergency to resist encroachments on freedom, but these should be dispersed as soon as the need for them has ended, lest they ossify into institutions. The method Godwin suggests is the formation of loose discussion-groups of people awakened to the pursuit of truth; these might eventually form a universal movement, acting potently for the improvement of individual! and 'the amelioration of political institutions'. But any attempt to create a uniformity of thought in such groups should be avoided. 'Human beings should meet together not to enforce but to inquire. Truth disclaims the alliance of marshalled numbers.' By such means social change may be gradual and tranquil. But this does not mean necessarily that 'the revolution is at an immeasurable distance'. 'The kingdom of truth comes not with ostentation,' and its growth may produce great results when these are least expected.

Such extreme faith in the power of unaided reason is almost peculiar to Godwin's century. We find few even among anarchists in the nineteenth century maintaining it quite so [75] trustfully. But in his opposition to highly organized political parties and his insistence on small, loosely formed groups, coalescing naturally into a wider movement, Godwin was sketching out the first plan of all later forms of anarchist organization.

Having laid the moral foundations of his argument, Godwin proceeds to discuss what he calls 'the practical details of political institution', and here he deals in turn with four aspects of political life: general administration, or government; education; crime and law; and the regulation of property. His discussion of government begins with an uncompromising statement of clear opposition:

Above all, we should not forget that government is an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgement and individual conscience of mankind; and that, however we may be obliged to admit it as a necessary evil for the present, it behoves us, as the friends of reason and the human species, to admit as little of it as possible, and carefully to observe whether, in consequence of the gradual illumination of the human mind, that little may not hereafter be diminished.

Thus, in his examination of the various forms of government which he distinguishes -- monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy -- Godwin is seeking not the greatest good but the least evil. His objections to monarchy and aristocracy do not depart materially from criticisms of these forms of government voiced by other eighteenth-century thinkers. It is in discussing democracy that he is original and characteristically anarchistic.

Democracy clearly is the form of government under which we have the best prospect of advancing to something better, and, as Godwin presents it in his ideal definition, it has already within it the seeds of a better society. It is 'a system of government according to which every member of society is considered as a man and nothing else. So far as positive regulation is concerned, if indeed that can with any propriety be termed regulation which is the mere recognition of the simplest of all principles, every man is regarded as equal.' In history there have been at best only approximations to this ideal, yet even imperfect and turbulent democracies have been infinitely superior in their achievements to monarchies and aristocracies. [76]

Democracy restores to man a consciousness of his value, teaches him by the removal of authority and oppression to listen only to the dictates of reason, gives him confidence to treat other men as his fellow beings, and induces him to regard them no longer as enemies against whom to be upon his guard, but as brethren whom it becomes him to assist.

Yet so far democracy has never produced a condition of true social justice. This failure, Godwin suggests, stems partly from the lack of a due sense of the power of truth and the value of sincerity; it is this which makes democracies cling to the support of institutional forms, which makes them loath to accept with Godwinian confidence the proposition that 'the contest between truth and falsehood is of itself too unequal for the former to stand in need of support from any political ally'. For this reason we have the lingering not only of religious fictions, but also of political myths, with all this implies in the division of men between an enlightened elite and an ignorant subject caste. Here Godwin stands far apart from Plato, with his theory of the 'noble falsehood'.

Why divide men into two classes [he asks], one of which is to think and reason for the whole, and the other to take the conclusions of their superiors on trust? This distinction is not founded in the nature of things; there is no such inherent difference between man and man as it thinks proper to suppose. The reasons that should convince us that virtue is better than vice are neither complicated nor abstruse; and the less they be tampered with by the injudicious interference of political institutions, the more they will come home to the understanding and approve themselves to the judgement of every man.

Turning to the actual functioning of democratic government, Godwin advocates the simplification and the decentralization of all forms of administration. Great, complex, centralized states are harmful and unnecessary for the good of mankind. As they dissolve, localized forms of administration should take their place, in which the disadvantages of government may immediately be mitigated by a diminished scope for ambition. 'Sobriety and equity are the obvious characteristics of a limited circle.' An enlightened localism of this kind, Godwin thinks, would not lead to a narrow parochialism; on the contrary, it would turn the world into a single great republic [77] in which men could move and discuss freely without the impediment of national barriers.

In the local units of society -- the 'parishes' as Godwin calls these ancestors of the 'communes' of later anarchists -- legislation would rarely be needed; the whole community would participate as far as possible in administration, and officials -- where they existed -- would be concerned with providing information and attending to concerns of practical detail. The only form of parish organization really necessary would be some kind of jury to deal with offences against justice and to arbitrate in controversies.

In exceptional emergencies it might indeed be necessary to go beyond the parishes and to call a general assembly. But Godwin sees great dangers in such bodies, and in his warnings anticipates the anti-parliamentary tone characteristic of the anarchist tradition. Under the best circumstances assemblies present grave disadvantages. Their actions are based on the fictitious unanimity of majority decisions. Even more sinister is the real unanimity which arises when delegates form themselves into parties and accept the shackling of individual thought. As for the practice of voting, Godwin declares with great moral indignation that 'the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers' is an 'intolerable insult upon all reason and justice'. For these various reasons, national assemblies, even while they are still necessary, should be used 'as sparingly as the case will admit'.

At first, in the extreme democracy which Godwin envisages, both assemblies and juries may have to issue commands. But the need for force arises not 'out of man's nature, but out of the institutions by which he has already been corrupted'. When these institutions are reduced to a dwindling remnant, men will progress to the condition in which it will be necessary merely to invite them to refrain from acting prejudicially to their fellows. And in the end we shall reach a society where wisdom can be transmitted without the intervention of any institution, the society of moral men living in just relations -- or, as we may say in modern phraseology, the society of pure anarchy.

All this depends on our attitude to education, and it is to this aspect of political life that Godwin now proceeds. He [78] begins with a discussion of how the vital process of forming just opinions may be carried out. Society is unqualified by its very nature for this function, for its acts are conditioned by the men who compose it, the vicious as well as the virtuous, the just as well as the unjust, and it has therefore no claim to moral superiority. Society's only advantage lies in its authority. But we do not make a man virtuous by command, and in usinj force we do positive harm by inhibiting sincere human intercourse and limiting freedom.

Godwin contends that in all these respects the small social group has the advantage over the extensive political institution. But the way he talks of the operations of such groups arouse! one's deepest misgivings. In circles of this kind, he says, 'opiniom would be all sufficient; the inspection of every man over th# conduct of his neighbours, when unstained by caprice, wouM constitute a censorship of the most irresistible nature. But thti force of this censorship would depend upon its freedom, not following the positive dictates of law, but the spontaneouj decisions of the understanding.' Even Godwin's assurance that such a process would be free and spontaneous does not entirely erase the distasteful picture of a future where mutual inspection and censorship will be the order of the day and public opinion will reign triumphant. Perhaps this passage reflects the influence on Godwin's mind of a Puritan childhood, during which his own actions were so far censored -- without any corporal punishment -- that he was rebuked by his father for caressing the cat on a Sunday. But the image he creates recurs with disquieting frequency as we pass on through anarchist history.

In this connexion, George Orwell once wrote an essay on Swift (a writer, incidentally, much admired by Godwin),in which he pointed out that in the anarchistic society of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels, 'exhortation' was as powerful as compulsion in any other society. Orwell continued:

This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is implicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of Society. In a Society where there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by 'thou [79] shalt not', the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity; when they are supposedly governedljy 'love' and 'reason', he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone does.

There is a good deal of truth in what Orwell says, even if his way of saying it is characteristically dogmatic. The anarchists accept much too uncritically the idea of an active public opinion as an easy way out of the problem of dealing with antisocial tendencies. Few of them have given sufficient thought to the danger of a moral tyranny replacing a physical one, and the frown of the man next door becoming as much a thing to fear as the sentence of the judge. And some of them have undoubtedly been positively attracted by the idea of radiating moral authority; anarchism has had its Pharisees like every other movement for human regeneration.

However, while Godwin places an unwise stress on the virtues of mutual censorship, his criticism of state interference in the cultivation of opinion is acute enough, and when he comes to discuss the application of such interference by the foundation of state educational systems, he points to dangers which have only become more obvious during a century of experience. Here a long quotation seems justified, since in developing a point of view held fairly consistently by his Dissenting forebears, Godwin at the same time sketches out an attitude that recurs among his anarchist successors, most of whom have taken the problems of education just as seriously. He comes to the core of the problem when he indicates the dangerous uses to which governments may put education once its control falls into their hands.

The project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of Church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behoves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hands and perpetuate its institutions. If we could even suppose the agents of government not to propose to themselves an object which will be apt to appear in their eyes not merely innocent but meritorious, the evil would not the less happen. Their views as institutors of a system of education will not [80] fail to be analagous to their views in their political capacity; the data on which their conduct as statesmen is vindicated will be the data upon which their instructions are founded. It is not true that our youth ought to be instructed to venerate the commonwealth, however excellent; they should be instructed to venerate truth, and the constitution only so far as it corresponded with their independent deductions of truth. Had the scheme of a national education been., adopted when despotism was most triumphant, it is not to be be|| lieved that it could have for ever stifled the voice of truth. But it would have been the most formidable and profound contrivance for that purpose that imagination can suggest. Still, in the countries where liberty chiefly prevails, it is reasonably to be assumed that there are important errors, and a national education has the most direct tendency to perpetuate those errors and to form all minds upon one model.

The practice of totalitarian states in our own time leaves no reason to suggest that Godwin in any way exaggerated the perils of education falling into the hands of political leaders. For him the small, independent school, like the small discussion group, remained the desirable unit, and individual instruction was the best of all.

The last book of Political Justice, in which Godwin examines the institution of property, is the most celebrated section of his masterpiece, because of its supposed anticipations of socialist economics. But only in his exposure of the effects of private property and in his insistence on the close relationship between property and systems of government does Godwin really anticipate socialism, if we use that word in its present connotation of state ownership. His positive suggestions about changes in the property system are uniformly anarchistic.

Godwin begins by remarking that the abolition of 'the system of coercion and punishment is intimately connected with the circumstance of property's being placed on an equitable basis'. Hence every man is 'entitled, so far as the general stock will suffice, not only to the means of being, but of well-being'. But this claim to an equitable share of the common property presupposes a duty to assume a full share of the common tasks.

Justice directs that each man, unless perhaps he be employed more beneficially to the public, should contribute to the cultivation of the [81] common harvest, of which each man consumes a share. This reciprocity ... is of the very essense of justice.

In Godwin's roughly sketched picture of the functioning of a propertyless society one sees the same agrarian vision as runs through More, Winstanley, Morris, and Kropotkin -- the vision of men working together in the fields and then taking, according to their own estimates of their just needs, from the common barns and store-houses, without any mechanism of currency or exchange, for exchange is 'of all practices the most pernicious'. Like later anarchist writers, Godwin envisages a drastic simplification of life, for luxury is a corrupting condition -- we must pity the rich as much as the poor -- and work is necessary for human happiness. The ideal situation is that in which a man has 'independence of mind, which makes us feel that our satisfactions are not at the mercy either of men or of fortune, and activity of mind, the cheerfulness that arises from industry properly employed about objects of which our judgement acknowledges the intrinsic value'.

'Accumulated property' -- Godwin's pre-Marxist phrase for what we call capitalism -- is hostile to the qualitative enrichment of life. By its perpetuation of economic inequality it 'treads the powers of thought in the dust, extinguishes the sparks of genius, and reduces the great mass of mankind to be immersed in sordid cares'. Against its baleful reign Godwin paints the idyllic picture of his own Utopia. With luxury brought to an end,

the necessity for the greater part of the manual industry of mankind would be superseded; and the rest, being amicably shared among all the active and vigorous members of the community, would be burthensome to none. Every man would have a frugal yet wholesome diet: every man would go forth to that moderate exercise of his corporal functions that would give hilarity to the spirits; none would be made torpid with fatigue, but all would have leisure to cultivate the kindly and philanthropical affections of the soul and to let loose his faculties in the search of intellectual improvement. ... Genius ... would be freed from those apprehensions that perpetually recall us to the thought of personal emolument, and of consequence would expatiate freely among sentiments of generosity and public good.

Such a system, Godwin contends, would also remove the principal causes of crime, which arises mainly from 'one man's possessing in abundance that of which another man is destitute'. Envy and selfishness would vanish along with anxiety and insecurity; corruption would disappear, and the principal incentive to war would be removed. 'Each man would be united to his neighbour in love and mutual kindness a thousand times more than now; but each man would think and judge for himself.'

As Godwin continues, he fills out the details of his egalitarian Arcadia. He anticipates Veblen by remarking that property usually desired, not for its own sake, but for the distinction it confers; in an egalitarian society, however, men will seek distinction in the service of the public good. He also goes into a long disquisition on the length of the desirable working day, and presents the rather surprising estimate that, in a life without luxury, it may well be reduced to half an hour!

In reaching his conclusions he is assisted by a prophetic glance at the industrial developments of the future, which also prompts him to suggest a way in which excessive cooperation may be avoided. For, like Proudhon and Stirner, and unlike Bakunin and Kropotkin, Godwin was led by his individualism to a profound distrust of any kind of collaboration that might harden into institutional form. In this connexion he indulges in some delightful absurdities, doubting whether a man of independent judgement can play in an orchestra or act in a play, but he does make the valid point that a free man should not be tied more than he can help to the convenience of others. And he sees in technological progress a possible means of providing the individual with greater independence.

At present, to pull down a tree, to cut a canal, to navigate a vessel requires the labour of many. Will it always require the labour of many? When we look at the complicated machines of human contrivance, various sorts of mills, of weaving engines, of steam engines, are we not astonished at the compendium of labour they produce? Who shall say where this species of improvement must stop? ... The conclusion of the progress which has here been sketched is something like a final close to the necessity of human labour.
[83] Standing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Godwin has the same kind of wondering vision as H. G. Wells at the beginning of the Technological Revolution.1 Science, he even ventures to suggest, may yet discover the secret of immortality!

In spite of his distrust of cooperation, Godwin is far from seeing liberated humanity living in mutual isolation and suspicion. On the contrary, he envisages the possibility of specialization in the various crafts, which would lead to a man's following the task for which he had the greatest aptitude, and distributing his surplus products to whomever may need them, receiving what he himself needs of other things from the surplus produced by his neighbours, but always on the basis of free distribution, not of exchange. It is evident that, despite his speculations on the future of machinery, Godwin's ideal society is based on the economics of handcrafts and cultivation.

But above all, intercourse between men remains necessary for the maturing of thought and the building of character by means of frank conversation and the exchange of ideas. Such intercourse, of course, precludes possessive personal relationships, and it is for this reason that Godwin makes his celebrated condemnation of marriage, which endeavours to give permanence to a past choice and which is, moreover, 'the worst of properties'. Men and women will live as equals in friendship, and the propagation of the species 'will be regulated by the dictates of reason and duty'. As for children, they too must be liberated from the domination of parents and teachers. 'No creature in human form will be expected to learn anything but because he desires it and has some conception of its utility and value.' [84]

This is Godwin's sketch of the world of universal benevolence, toward which justice marches, and which it behoves every man of wisdom to advance by his teaching. In a tone of majestic rhetoric and in a mood of calm confidence in the powers of reason, Political Justice draws to its end. In it, as Sir Alexander Gray has said, 'Godwin sums up, as no one elsa does, the sum and substance of anarchism, and thus embodiel a whole tradition.' More astonishingly, he embodies it prophetically. Political Justice was to remain for half a century an isolated work. Godwin himself wrote nothing else like it, though his first novel, Caleb Williams, a pursuit story of almost Kafkaesque power, in which an innocent man is hunted by all the hostile forces of society, has a claim to be considered an anarchist parable. But after Caleb Williams had appeared in 1794 its author began to recede into the shadows of Grub Street, and his later novels, his painstaking biographies, and his bad plays (which he perversely considered the best of all his works) belong to the history of minor English literature.

Nor did he leave any movement of social protest behind him to link in recognizable form with that which grew up in the 1860s from the seed of Proudhon's thought. Political Justice was immensely popular for a few years after its publication, until the political sky became clouded over by war between Britain and revolutionary France. The year when Godwin's brief an idyllic marriage with Mary Wollstonecraft came to a tragic end, 1797, marked the turning-point. The popular vogue of Political Justice ended abruptly. Coleridge and Wordsworth and Southey, fair-weather Godwinians all, recanted quickly, and their fleeting adherence to the principles of Political Justice merits no more than a mention in a history of anarchism. The circles of working men, who clubbed their threepences to buy copies of Political Justice for reading and discussion, disappeared with the rest of the radical movement in the dark days at the end of the century. Godwin himself, clouded in calumny, reduced to lifelong indebtedness, and writing mostly for the means of sustenance, maintained his views with exemplary fortitude, supported by the regard of men like Hazlitt and Lamb and Coleridge, who departed as a disciple and returned as a friend. Though Godwin twice revised Political Justice for [85] new editions, he never, despite the sensational accusations of writers like De Quincy, withdrew or mitigated the anarchistic conclusions he had drawn in the first edition.

jt was, in fact, not in the years of what Hazlitt aptly called 'a sultry and unwholesome popularity' that Godwin wielded his most important influence, but in the period when his public reputation had sunk to its lowest ebb. In 1811 it was with astonishment that Shelley found the author of Political Justice to be still alive. There followed a relationship scarred by the sensational facts of Shelley's elopement with Godwin's daughter, and Godwin's endless borrowing from Shelley, but also marked by the consolidation of a Godwinian strain in Shelley's verse which even the Platonism of the poet's final phase never completely displaced. On one level at least, Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, and Prometheus Unbound are all transmutations into verse of the creed of Political Justice, and even Hellas could not have been what it is without the Godwinian influence. Other writers -- H. N. Brailsford and Frank Lea in particular -- have traced the poet's intellectual debt to the philosopher, which more than cancels out the philosopher's financial debt to the poet. Here it is enough to say that, through Shelley's Godwinism, anarchism first appears as a theme of world literature. And, though Shelley must perhaps cede to Tolstoy the honour of being the greatest of anarchist writers, he remains the greatest of anarchist poets.

A less obvious influence leads from Godwin to the English labour movement. It is likely that many of the working men who had read Political Justice in the 1790s remained Godwinians at heart, while at least three influential early socialists came under Godwin's sway in his later years. One was Robert Owen, who knew him personally. Owen was no anarchist, but he absorbed Godwin's distrust of political movements, and through him a libertarian element was transmitted to the early trade unions and particularly to the Grand National Consolidated. Francis Place, another devoted fighter for the right of workers to combine, was also a disciple of Godwin and at one time undertook the thankless task of trying to disentangle his financial affairs. William Thompson, the early socialist economist, developed his ideas on property largely from Book VIII [86] of Political Justice, and it may have been through Thompson, who certainly influenced the economic theories of Karl Marx, that the frail anarchistic phantom known as 'the withering away of the state' came to haunt the imagination of that most authoritarian of socialists.

When English socialism revived during the 1880s, it took on a peculiarly libertarian tone, and echoes of Godwin appear in the works of many of its leading exponents. Morris's News from Nowhere reads like a medievalized adaptation of the Godwinian Utopia, and, as Dr F. E. L. Priestley has pointed out, Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man Under Socialism is 'a thorough rehearsal of Godwin's whole system'. Bernard Shaw picked a Godwinian theme for development in Back to Methuselah, and H, G. Wells, in Men Like Gods, brought the ideal Godwinian society into line with the speculations of Edwardiaa scientists.

In recent years, since the Second World War, English writers have returned to Godwin with greatly renewed interest. John Middleton Murry, Herbert Read, and Charles Morgan have all pointed out how timely his criticism of 'positive institutions' appears in a state-ridden world, and critics like Angus Wilson, Walter Allen, and Roy Fuller have recognized in his pioneer novel of crime and pursuit, Caleb Williams, a remarkable anticipation of the anxieties that haunt a great deal of contemporary fiction. A century and a quarter after his death in 1836, Godwin is more securely established than at any time since 1797 as a landmark not merely in the development of political thought, but also in the history of English literature.

Yet the irony remains that the influence of Political Justice, the most complete early exposition of anarchist ideas, should have been diffused in English literature and in the English socialist movement, but should have been absent from the anarchist movement itself until very late in its history. For Stirner and Proudhon do not take up where Godwin left off; each of them begins anew on his own road to freedom.


1 Up to now history has not entirely followed Godwin's vision. The effect of industrial development has been in the main to tighten the net of cooperation by increasing the division of labour. Moreover, Godwin's view ignores the fact that complex machinery, even if it can be operated by one man, must be made by many men. However, it is worth remarking that some of the more imaginative modern writers on social and economic relations, such as Lewis Mumford, have suggested that the eventual result of technological progress may well be a breakup of the monolithic structures of contemporary industry, accompanied by geographical decentralization, a dissolution of the metropolis, and a return to an organic social order in which the individual will develop more freely than in the recent past. If this happens, Godwin may well be vindicated in his long view of the machine as a liberator.