Godwin's 'Polictical Justice'
by H. S. Salt
Among those political philosophers of the eighteenth century whose speculations heralded the growth of Socialism, none, perhaps, was more remarkable than William Godwin, the husband of the famous Mary Wollstonecraft and the father-in-law of Shelley. His great work on ‘Political Justice’ was published in 1793 and created a marked sensation, “carrying,” as De Quincy described it, “one single shock into the bosom of English society, fearful but momentary.” The whole book is still well worth reading; but the part which is of most interest at the present time is that which deals with the question of property, treated from a distinctly Communistic point of view, though the remedies suggested by Godwin are not such as commend themselves altogether to modern Socialists.
Promising that the distribution of comfort should be as far as possible equal, and that every man has a right to the means of improvement and pleasure, provided always that he respects the equal right of his neighbour, Godwin points out in clear and powerful language the terrible evils that result from the present system of social inequality. “However great and extensive,” he says, “are the evils that are produced by monarchies and courts, by the imposture of priests, and the iniquity of criminal laws, all these are imbecile and impotent compared with the evils that arise out of the established administration of property.” Foremost among the disastrous effects to which Godwin refers are the “servile and truckling spirit” which brought home to every house in the nation by the contrast between wealth and poverty; the wide-spread demoralisation caused by the perpetual spectacle of injustice, and the pernicious love of money-making thus engendered in men’s hearts; the immense amount of vice produced “by one man’s possessing in abundance that of which another man is destitute”; the encouragement given by large accumulations of property to the warlike ambition of aggressive governments; and, above all, the loss of those intellectual enjoyments which might be shared by all mankind, but are now monopolised by the few. “Accumulated property treads the powers of thought in the dust, extinguishes the spark of genius, and reduces the great mass of mankind to be immersed in sordid cares, beside depriving the rich of the most salubrious and effective motives to activity.” Elsewhere in his ‘Enquirer,’ written a few years later than ‘Political Justice,’ Godwin insists strongly on the fact that the rich are in reality the pensioners and dependants of the poor. “It is a gross and ridiculous error,” he says, “to suppose that the rich pay for anything. There is no wealth in the world except this—the labour of man. What is misnamed wealth is merely a power, vested in certain individuals by the institutions of society, to compel others to labour for their benefit.” Knowing this, Godwin could not fail to see the hypocrisy of that blatant system of “charity” which is one of the most unhealthy features of our modern pseudo-philanthropy; and he speaks with bitter irony of this “accommodating doctrine,” which enables the rich “to make a show of generosity with what is not truly their own.” This system he describes as one of clemency and charity, but not of justice. “It fills the rich with unreasonable pride by the spurious denominations with which it decorates their acts, and the poor with servility by leading them to regard the slender comforts they obtain, not as their incontrovertible due, but at the good pleasure and grace of their opulent neighbours.”
In the course of his remarks on property Godwin anticipated some of the common and fallacious objections so often made to the possibility of a Socialist State. He points out the folly of the talk of our “sinking into idleness” when the stimulus of gain is withdrawn, whereas, even now, the love of distinction is seen to be so powerful a motive, and would become still more so in a reformed society. He laughs at Malthus’s warnings about the danger of excessive population, since “three-fourths of the habitable globe are now uncultivated,” and the difficulty of a population-limit would not arise for many centuries to come. He is at one with modern Socialists not only in his impeachment of the cruelty and folly of the commercial and competitive system, but also in his desire to substitute a new and purer state. When, however, he proceeds to indicate the methods by which he would secure the desired reform, it will be found that his doctrines are no longer in accordance with the Socialist policy, but are rather precursory of the opinions held by Comte and the Positivist school.
In the first place, the system advocated by Godwin is essentially a voluntary one. He believes that there is but one mode of improving society, which consists in “rendering the cession by him that has to him that wants, an unrestrained and voluntary action.” He is a thoroughgoing Individualist in his dislike of all government and all action of society in its corporate capacity, except for the suppression of bodily force. He believes that the rich can be induced to be unselfish by what he calls “illumination of the understanding and love of distinction,” and to these two instruments he would accordingly entrust the whole process of regeneration. So great is his dread of all popular violence and the massacres which, as he says, are “the too possible attendant upon revolution,” that he strongly deprecates the use of any kind of force, or of any agitation that could possibly lead to the adoption of forcible measures by the people. He seems entirely to have overlooked the consideration that there are more methods than one in which “force” can be applied, and that the wealthy classes, who have the policemen, the soldier, the gaoler and the hangman, at their beck and call, are in reality in their exploitation of the working-classes under cover of a legal form, employing the very force, ay, and the very massacre, which he considered, rightly or wrongly, to be the worst of all possible calamities.
But though Godwin thus failed to grasp the full significance of the problem with which Socialism has set itself to deal, all Socialists must honour him for his noble enthusiasm in the cause of humanity, and his unanswerable exposure of the folly and wickedness of the capitalist system. In the very choice of the word justice as the title of his philosophical treatise, he instinctively struck a true note, and showed that he had correctly divined that this principle of just dealing between the State and the individual, and between man and man, was destined to become the crucial question of nineteenth century politics.
Published: The Commonweal, April 16, 1887