After long silence, and times of terror, grief and despair for those of us who, like Thelwall, aspire to a more just, fair, egalitarian, tolerant, open society, I am inspired again to speak, on his behalf and my own. Sparked by the results of two recent elections which, while ambivalent and tentative, offer more hope than we have seen for some time, I have chosen now to relaunch this blog, which will soon be attached to a renewed Thelwall website.
First, in the world of Nova Scotia, I recently cheered the small but significant gains made by the New Democratic Party under its new leader, my friend Gary Burrill, an oldtime socialist not afraid to appeal to the better instincts and cooperative roots of our economically and geographically marginal province. His energizing slogan “we can do this,” and his resounding election-night message that despite losing in seats and vote count “we have won, for only the NDP has opened up a door to hope,” echo forward to what happened less than two weeks later, on a wider stage, in Britain. On June 8, Jeremy Corbyn stood up in the face of disdain, cynicism, intolerance and crony capitalism to vindicate too-long-forgotten values of working-class cooperation and solidarity, while inspiring an new generation with his “radical responsible programme of hope” that resounded the words of Shelley (and his maniac maid who echoes up through suffragette sisters to our own women marchers): “ye are many–they are few.”
But let us not forget, for his part, Shelley echoed the cadence and substance of John Thelwall’s lectures. Though long silenced and almost forgotten, Thelwall’s voice still speaks powerfully to our current moment, as my friend Elias Grieg posted on social media the eve of the election, from the other side of the world:
Here’s hoping for an end to austerity politics and its relentless immiseration of the already vulnerable. In the words of John Thelwall, the most notorious radical democrat of the 1790s:
“Is this government […] which dooms the mass of mankind to incessant toil, and comfortless assiduity, and assigns the leisure, and the means of any degree of information or discussion, to a tenth-part only of the inhabitants? […] every man, and every woman, and every child, ought to obtain something more, in the general distribution of the fruits of labour, than food, and rags, and a wretched hammock, with a poor rug to cover it: and that without working twelve or fourteen hours a day, six days out of seven, from six to sixty. – They have a claim, a sacred and inviolable claim, growing out of that fundamental maxim, upon which alone all property can be supported, to some comforts and enjoyments, in addition to the necessaries of life”
One of my favorite passages in Thelwall’s 1796 The Rights of Nature, that quotation is part of a memorable argument against the oppression of the many by the few (we talk about 99% and 1%, Thelwall of 90% and 10%), and like so many of his works, it is both pragmatic and optimistic: “the fact is, that the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands, like all diseases not absolutely mortal, carries in its own enormity, the seeds of a cure.” That cure, according to Thelwall, lay in freedom of speech and information, cultivating “practical fluency” and employing social media: since we are, by our nature “social and communicative,” whatever presses us together is “favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty.” Hence in every workplace and social space, a “Socratic spirit” of shared knowledge will arise, whereby “each brings into the common bank his mite of information, and putting it to a sort of circulating usance, each contributor has the advantage of a large interest, without any diminution of capital.”
Of course I know that social media too often tastes of hemlock these days, its promise of democratic cooperation coopted by capital. Nevertheless, hope remains. As it did for Thelwall, into his old age, knowing defeat again and again, and never giving up his Hope of Albion — not only an unfinished epic poem but his unfinished dream to found a sacred dome “where Freedom’s voice / (Twin with immortal Justice) shall be heard” calling all lands and peoples “alike to share/ The best reciprocation: equal laws, equal rights, / And like protection to the strong and weak.”
For myself, in this time of darkness, with dreams like his so frail and apt again to be snatched away, it is not Thelwall’s victories but his endurance that gives me hope. He speaks to us not simply as one of the unsung heroes of a revolution still to come, but because in the face of so much defeat and persecution, he maintained his values, holding firm for 40 long years, waiting, willing, hoping, passing the torch in the darkness.
So I am taking up that torch again in reviving my Thelwall blog, and then my Thelwall website, hoping to make it, in linked collaboration with that of the Thelwall Society, a Socratic space for the sharing of mites, and the promotion of rights. As I am just beginning a long-awaited sabbatical year in which I will be following in Thelwall’s footsteps, gathering materials toward my biography of his remarkable life, I will use this space to share some of the highlights of my peripatetic research. And I invite you to share it with me, to contribute some of your favorite quotes and ideas for how Thelwall speaks to our moment, and how he can energize us to resist and to act for change in the difficult months and years to come.
By that aspiring hope, which oft creates
What it forebodes, feel I my kindling bosom!
–Some spirit stirs within me …