During the last decade of the eighteenth century, following the French Revolution in 1789, there was an upwelling of interest in radical ideas throughout Britain. Even natural conservatives like the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge – men from the professional middle classes – were swept up in it for a time, though they were soon backtracking.
Among groups of working people – the artisans, wage-earners, small tradesmen – of the rapidly expanding cities, (the same groups in whom revolutionary fervour had reached red heat during the French Revolution) the interest brought the foundation of new clubs and societies.
Reform Clubs, Correspondence Societies, the Friends of the People, the Society for Constitutional Information (the latter already in being, but revived). Of these, the Correspondence Societies have the strongest relevance to the Occupy! Movements today
By 1792, there were active Correspondence Societies in cities such as Sheffield, Manchester, Leicester, Coventry, Derby, Nottingham, and Norwich – the last having a strong background of radical Dissent. There were, of course, several branches in London. Letters were being regularly sent between the various societies; some were also corresponding with groups in Paris.
Many of the British Correspondence Societies were invigorated by the ideas expressed in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. In this work, Paine speaks for the governed, and assumes that the authority of government derives from conquest and inherited power in a class-divided society.
‘There are two distinct classes of men in the nation’, he says, ‘those who pay taxes, and those who receive and live on taxes … it is a bad Constitution for at least ninety-nine parts of the nation out of a hundred.’ The Occupiers should find the last sentence particularly resonant.
Paine also speaks of the ordinary, the ‘common’ people, who are ‘a mass of sense lying in a dormant state’, and of mankind as a whole as being ‘corrupted by Governments … human nature is not of itself vicious.’ But – and here Paine differs from the French followers of Marat and Robespierre – he did not preach the extermination of ‘those who receive and live on taxes.’
Paine and his followers were internationalists; they wanted arbitration instead of war; they wanted religious tolerance. They wanted freedom of speech: ‘mankind are not now to be told they shall not think, or they shall not read.’
As E P Thompson writes, this ‘was an English agitation, of impressive dimensions, for an English democracy.’
By mid-1792, the authorities were worried. The democracy agitation was spreading, with many towns and villages now affected, including rural areas like Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. Were troops, especially in the North of England, dependable? After all, most were drawn from the working people.
After three years of peace, the French Revolution was becoming much more radicalised, with troops from Austria and Prussia having invaded France. The French King and Queen were arrested; the September Massacres heralded the start of the Terror. Clearly, war was imminent.
There were, as we have already seen, links between the Correspondence Societies and French ‘moderate’ groups. In November 1792, delegates from London and Scotland had attended the French Convention, a French deputy was speaking about ‘the new republic soon to arise on the banks of the Thames’ and Thomas Paine had been elected as a deputy to the French Convention.
But in late 1792, the moderate Girondins, with whom the Societies had much in common, were tried and executed. The link was weakened.
And by February 1793, the French and the British were at war.
By August 1793 the Correspondence Societies were trying to find ‘a safer mode of conveyance of our letters than the post.’ But their support for Paine’s ideas was waning; most of their letters now spoke of the ‘purity’ of the British Constitution as being their main object.
However, Pitt’s Government feared that that the English Correspondence Societies would combine together in an alliance with their Scottish and Irish equivalents. This would be very difficult to counteract.
However, the law in Scotland was more favourable to a prosecution for sedition than that of England. It was therefore in Edinburgh that the first prosecutions took place.
Thomas Muir and the Rev. Palmer, both professional men, were sentenced to transportation. The warning was clear; co-operation between middle and lower classes was not to be tolerated.
But at first the Correspondence Societies refused to be cowed; a Convention was called in Edinburgh, late in 1793. The London Societies’ delegates were Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot; the societies of other cities contributed funds. Also present were observers from the United Irishmen.
As the meeting was in Scotland, the outcome was inevitable. Arrests were made; trials followed. Margarot and the Scottish leader Skirving were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. Gerrald, who insisted on returning to Scotland as he had been granted bail, argued at his trial that Jesus Christ was a reformer; Braxfield, the Scottish Lord Justice-Clerk, responded: ‘Muckle he made of that; he was hanged.’
Truly Christian sentiments.
Both Gerrald and Skirving died at Botany Bay.
In May 1794 the Government struck at the English Correspondence Societies. Members from Norwich, Sheffield, and London were arrested.
Of the London group, Thomas Hardy and John Horne Tooke were the first tried for high treason; on conviction, that would mean a death sentence. The trial began on 25 October 1794, it lasted eight days. The jury were out for three hours. Verdict: Not Guilty.
Other trials followed, with the same result. John Thelwall, Daniel Eaton, Thomas Walker. The Government were baffled of their prey.
Were the Correspondence Society members true revolutionaries? This is John Thelwall:
‘I adopt the term Jacobinism without hesitation … though I abhor the sanguinary ferocity of the late Jacobins in France, yet their principles … are the most consonant with my ideas of reason, and the nature of man, of any I have met with. … I use the term Jacobinism simply to indicate a large and comprehensive system of reform, not professing to be built upon the authorities and principles of the Gothic customary.’
Reform, not revolution, then.
E P Thompson has this to say:
‘The Jacobin …, who implied the threat of overwhelming numbers but who held back from actual revolutionary preparation, was always exposed, at some critical moment, both to the loss of confidence of his own supporters and the ridicule of his opponents.’
And herein lies the danger for the Occupy! Movements. Ridicule they are attracting in considerable quantities. So far their supporters continue to have confidence in them. But would the Occupiers go so far as to prepare for an actual revolution?
They must consider this with great care. At present it must be said that the forces ranged against them appear overwhelming in terms of physical force; but intellectually and morally, it is the Occupiers who have the high ground. It is with those tools that they must discover the weaknesses in the plutocracy’s armour, and undermine their positions.
Today we do not have the time-lag between a letter’s composition and its arrival. Tahrir Square has shown us the power of social networking. There are other ways of circumventing authority: of achieving revolution.
Otherwise we may be quoting William Blake:
‘What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither’d field, where the farmer plows for bread in vain’,
as we watch the young, the disabled, the long-term sick struggle to perform the work that is to be extorted for the pittance of unemployment benefit.
Must we wait for that sort of Experience?
Perhaps we should be saying – ‘WE ARE ALL OCCUPIERS NOW!’
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