William Godwin: Political Justice, anarchism, and the Romantics

by Simon Court

William Godwin was a major contributor to the radicalism of the Romantic movement. A leading political theorist in his own right as the founder of anarchism, Godwin provided the Romantics with the central idea that man, once freed from all artificial political and social constraints, stood in perfect rational harmony with the world. In this natural state man could fully express himself. This idea was first articulated in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793, and was immediately seized upon by Coleridge as an inspiration for his misplaced venture into ‘pantisocracy’. Later, it heavily influenced Shelley in his political poems.

Godwin’s impact was personal as well as intellectual. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was one of the earliest feminist texts. He was good friends with Coleridge and later became the father-in-law of Shelley when his daughter, Mary, married the poet in 1816. Yet despite the idealistic ambitions of his principles, Godwin singularly failed to match up to them in his own life, behaving particularly hypocritically towards Mary and Shelley.

Godwin’s political views were based on an extremely optimistic view of human nature. He adopted, quite uncritically, the Enlightenment ideal of man as fully rational, and capable of perfection through reason. He assumed that “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 the course of progressive improvement”. For Godwin, men were naturally benevolent creatures who become the more so with an ever greater application of rational principles to their lives. As human knowledge increases and becomes more widespread, through scientific and educational advance, the human condition necessarily progresses until men realise that rational co-operation with their fellows can be fully achieved without the need for state government. And, Godwin thinks, the end of the reliance on the state will also herald the disappearance of crime, violence, war and poverty. This belief in the inexorable perfectibility of man and progress towards self-government knew no bounds. Thus we find Godwin speculating that human beings may even eventually be able to stop the physical processes of fatigue and aging: for if the mind will one day become omnipotent, “why not over the matter of our own bodies….in a word, why may not man be one day immortal?”

On the other side of this sparkling coin lies the corrosive state, and here Godwin asserts that the central falsehood, perpetuated by governments themselves, is the belief that state control is necessary for human society to function. Rather, Godwin claims, once humanity has rid itself of the wholly artificial constraints placed upon it by the state, men will be free to live in peaceful harmony. For Godwin, “society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals”, whereas “government is an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgement and individual conscience of mankind”. The abolition of political institutions would bring an end to distinct national identities and social classes, and remove the destructive passions of aggression and envy which are associated with them. Men will be restored to their natural condition of equality, and will be able to rebuild their societies in free and equal association, self-governed by reason alone.
Godwin’s utopian portrayal may be highly radical, but he was not a revolutionary. He believed political revolutions were always destructive, hateful and irrational – indeed, the immediate impulse to write Political Justice came from the murderous bloodshed in the recent French Revolution. And whilst Godwin never called himself an anarchist – for him, ‘anarchy’ had a negative meaning associated with French Revolutionary violence – his vision was recognisably anarchist. For Godwin, social progress could only be obtained through intellectual progress, which involved reflection and discussion. This is necessarily a peaceful process, where increasing numbers come to realise that the state is harmful and obstructive to their full development as rational creatures, and collectively decide to dissolve it. He was convinced that eventually, and inevitably, all political life will be structured around small groups living communally, which will choose to co-operate with other communities for larger economic purposes.

In addition to the artificial constraints placed on man by political institutions, Godwin identifies the private ownership of land, or what he termed “accumulated property”, as a major obstacle to human progress. And here, like all utopian thinkers, we find that Godwin’s criticism of the present reality proves to be far more convincing that his predictions of the future. For he observes that “the present system of property confers on one man immense wealth in consideration of the accident of his birth” whilst “the most industrious and active member of society is frequently with great difficulty able to keep his family from starving”. This economic injustice leads to an immoral dependence: “Observe the pauper fawning with abject vileness upon his rich benefactor, and speechless with sensations of gratitude for having received that, which he ought to have claimed with an erect mien, and with a consciousness that his claim was irresistible”. For Godwin, only the abolition of private property and the dismantling of the hereditary wealth which goes with it will free mankind from “brutality and ignorance”, “luxury” and the “narrowest selfishness”. Yet once freed:

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 philanthropic affections of the soul, and let loose his faculties in the search of intellectual improvement. What a contrast does this scene present us with the present state of human society, where the peasant and the labourer work, till their understandings are benumbed with toil, their sinews contracted and made callous by being forever on the stretch, and their bodies invaded with infirmities and surrendered to an untimely grave?

In this utopia, or egalitarian arcadia, all the immoral vices of the present world, oppression, fraud, servility, selfishness and anxiety, are banished, and all men live “in the midst of plenty”, and equally share “the bounties of nature” – “No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide with anxiety and pain for his restless wants, each would lose his own individual existence in the thought of the general good”, and “philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her”. In this agrarian idyll, “the mathematician, the poet and the philosopher will derive a new stock of cheerfulness and energy from recurring labour that makes them feel they are men” (a world, incidentally, in which only “half an hour a day, seriously employed in manual labour by every member of the community, would sufficiently supply the whole with necessaries”).

Another highly radical idea raised by Godwin in Political Justice is the immorality of marriage. For Godwin: “Co-habitation is not only an evil as it checks the independent progress of mind; it is also inconsistent with the imperfections and propensities of man. It is absurd to expect that the inclinations and wishes of two human beings should coincide through a long period of time. To oblige them to act and to live together, is to subject them to some inevitable portion of thwarting, bickering and unhappiness. This cannot be otherwise, so long as man has failed to reach the standard of absolute perfection.” As such “the institution of marriage is a system of fraud”, and “the worst of all laws”. Moreover, “marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties” (although this didn’t prevent Godwin marrying twice, first Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and then Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801). Inevitably, Godwin asserts, the institution of marriage will be abolished with all the other types of “accumulated property” in the new, free society. And although sexual relationships will continue because “the dictates of reason and duty“ will regulate the propagation of the species, “it will [not] be known in such a state of society who is the father of each individual child”, because “such knowledge will be of no importance”, with the “abolition of surnames”.
The vision of political society portrayed in Political Justice served as a direct and immediate inspiration for the Romantic ‘pantisocrats’ Coleridge and Southey, and contributed to their youthful flirtation throughout 1794 with the idea of migrating to North America to set up a rural commune (see Coleridge and the Pantisocratic pipe-dream). On a personal level, Coleridge first met Godwin and wrote the appreciative poem ‘To Godwin’ in 1794, but it was from 1799 onwards, when Godwin’s public reputation had waned, that they became good and mutually supportive friends (see Coleridge and Godwin: A literary friendship ).

By contrast, Shelley’s personal relationship with Godwin was far more turbulent: beginning in adoration but ending in despair. In 1811, Shelley started corresponding with Godwin, who was now a bookshop owner with a modest income, and offered himself as both an admirer and provider of financial support, which Godwin accepted in equal measure. A year later they met. Unsurprisingly, Shelley took Godwin’s pronouncements on marriage and ‘free-love’ to be a rational justification for him abandoning his first wife Harriet and eloping to Europe with Godwin’s sixteen-year-old daughter Mary, in July 1814. But Godwin reacted as furiously and as disapprovingly as any protective father would, and he refused to see Shelley and Mary on their return (whilst still being prepared to demand that money be sent to him under another name, to avoid scandal). By August 1820 Shelley was in such extreme debt himself, having previously obtained credit on the (false) assumption that he would soon inherit the family estate from his father, that he was finally forced to refuse Godwin’s constant demands for money, writing “I have given you ….the amount of a considerable fortune, & have destituted myself.” Within two years Shelley was dead.

Yet at least in the permanence of the printed word Godwin’s influence on Shelley remains. It is most apparent in Shelley’s political poems, which echo Godwin’s views on the state and his anarchistic vision of society. For instance, in The Masque of Anarchy (1819), which was written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, Shelley describes how non-revolutionary, passive resistance can morally defeat tyrants, and how men can become free:

“Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
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!”

A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon SimonCourt indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.