A Northumbrian Enlightenment

Alastair Bonnett
reproduced from The Northern Correspondent, 2015

Each side in the Scottish independence debate agreed on one thing: that Scotland has a distinct political and intellectual heritage. That Scots can be rightly proud of the fact that their country has been home to thinkers, men like Adam Smith and David Hume, who shaped the world.

The point is that a people’s sense of identity and purpose relies on knowledge about their past, not least knowledge of their intellectual inheritance. It’s a pressing question for the north east of England. The north east doesn’t just need a political and economic make-over. It needs a re-awakening of its own, barely grasped, sense of intellectual and political heritage.

It’s easy to wander through Newcastle and not realise that this too was once a centre of bold and world-changing ideas. Part of the problem is that the boldest voices from our Northern past don’t fit comforting clichés, they weren’t landed gentry, the great and good, but nor were they simple “proto-socialists”. They were angry, odd, eccentric; utterly different from our expectations of bouffanted philosophers.

Any wander round Newcastle ends up, eventually, under Lord Grey’s patrician gaze. But it’s oddly liberating to learn that it was once proposed that his statue should be knocked to the ground, and replaced with the most stubborn and awkward of the region’s Enlightenment voices, Thomas Spence. This year, 2014, saw the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Spence, who was born on the Quayside in 1750. His is a rags-to-rags story of imprisonment and poverty. But Spence’s “Plan” for the common ownership of the land and local, democratic politics struck such a cord with ordinary people, right across England. It was seen as such a threat by the powers that be, that in 1817 “Spenceanism” became the only political ideology ever to be outlawed by the British parliament.

Spence’s insistence of localism, on the need for power to be devolved to the smallest units, touches many chords today. Our alienation from Westminster politics could scarcely be more profound. Spence offers a timely reminder of a very different vision of how democracy could work.

Plenty of Spence’s works are on the web, so take a look. He speaks to us directly because his passions are direct and plain-spoken. His insistence on children’s rights is a prime example. Spence never forgot the grinding poverty of his own childhood, and is often called the father of children’s rights (his pamphlet from 1796 “The Rights of Infants” was way ahead of its time). A conference on Spence held in honour of Toulouse in November also discussed some other achievements: he published his own dictionary using his own phonetic system; issued his own unique coinage; and was the first English person to write about “the rights of man”.

That’s right: a conference in Toulouse. Attended by scholars from across Europe. And in Newcastle? Deep silence; yawning ignorance. The poet, Keith Armstrong, and I have edited a new book, Thomas Spence: The Poor Man’s Revolutionary (published in London), to mark this extraordinary and extraordinarily overlooked story. But the story of Spence should not be seen in isolation. He was part of a wider community of thinkers in late eighteenth century Newcastle. Together they formed a Newcastle Enlightenment; although I prefer the term Northumbrian Enlightenment, since it points out that these figures worked and lived across the region. Enlightenment movements shed light on old traditions and augured a new age of rational thought. They were nearly all top-down affairs. Educated middle class and wealthy individuals were firmly in charge, handing down their wisdom to the rest of us.

The Northumbrian Enlightenment was different. While Spence developed the political values of the era Thomas Bewick took up the Enlightenment fascination with observing and accurately describing the natural world. Like Spence he was of relatively humble stock. Thomas Bewick was born in Mickley, the son of tenant farmers. Another charismatic figure, who exerted a protective influence over Spence, was a legendary preacher, the Reverend James Murray. His support for American independence had already made him a dangerous figure. This status was enshrined by his Sermons for Asses, a set of outspoken populist and radically egalitarian sermons that had a national audience.

These three men are the tip of the iceberg. Around them were writers, publishers, musicians, ministers, inventors. The north east had a distinctive and significant Enlightenment movement. It was started by ordinary people and dedicated to the betterment of ordinary people. And it’s high time that ordinary people, like you and me, knew about it.


Spence died nearly two hundred years ago. Why should we care about him today?

There is something blisteringly raw about Spence's demand for human rights and human freedom that answers this question for me. He was an angry man. And he was right to be angry. What would he make of us today? He would certainly not consider us free or democratic. My best guess is that he would side with a more recent angry man, Guy Debord, and see in our modern world so many 'anthills of motorized slaves'.

Our own list of ideas on Spence include the following questions and provocations:

1. Spence was a revolutionary. But what kind of socialist was he?The left have long claimed him as a 'proto' figure, an embryonic working-class radical or Marxist. For Frederick Engels (letter to Henry Hyndman, 13th March 1882) he was 'that glorious old Tom Spence'. But has this meant we stopped seeing him on his own terms? State centred socialism was the last thing Spence was about. Thomas Knox (1977) goes so far as to claim that 'Spence appears less as a harbinger of modern revolutionism than as a mutation of the past, testimony to the latent and diverse radicalism of England's traditions and institutions'. Yet this too rings hollow: just because Spence wasn't a proto-Marxist doesn't make him a 'mutation' of the past (whatever that might mean). To approach Spence we need to reassess two centuries of socialist thought and practice. He is part of the socialist tradition but he also stands as a critic from the past, lambasting some of the pathways that tradition has taken. If his voice is to renew the socialist tradition then it must act as an attack of the way socialism became dulled into elite anti-popularism as well as the kind of dreary orthodoxies associated with the defunct socialist states.

2. How would the common ownership of land work today? The obvious answer is that it wouldn't. But this is too glib: we are seeing the private ownership of more and more aspects of life: of genetic information, of public space ... yet it is claimed we also want things like 'communities', 'equality' and 'cohesion'. It would seem reasonable to suppose that common ownership is the best way of achieving these social goals. The problem is not common ownership but how it would work, which takes us back to point 1 above: if common ownership means state control, the 'authorities', then who isn't going to be very cynical?

3. Grist in the mill, or spokes in wheels: Spence defended private property (though not of course in land, or wealth or riches, which he hated with a passion) ...  one of his ditties runs as follows:

All Men, to Land, may lay an equal Claim;/ But Goods, and Gold, unequal Portions frame : /The first, because, all Men on Land, must live; /The Second's the Reward Industryought to give.

... Spence was also a fanatic when it came to individual rights, was a Christian (the egalitarian dissenting community his family belonged to fostered his radicalism) and an English 'patriot'. Radicals always called themslves patriots in Spence's day, the term suggested they were of the people and against the elite.

4. Spence was an urban figure, coming from Newcastle, spending his most active political life in London. But his political ideas are profoundly concerned with agricultural land. More than this, he offers the village, the small rural community, as the arena of radical democratic politics. It is as if Spence cannot see how communities and, hence, grass-roots democracy can survive in the city. The Marxist tradition offers a very different worldview. In 2006 we find the world's population is 50% urban. Yet there remains a telling nostalgia for small communities in even the largest of conurbations ...

5. Spence offers us a model of local democracy and local control over the economy: could this actually work? Our experience of local democracy is so threadbare that Spence's localism can seem a rather worrying prospect. Even so, many small economies, small regions and small nations do exist and seem well adapted to both play a role in the global economy and survive. Localism and regionalism needs to be reinvented in (or, indeed, to replace) big nation states (especially in Britain) and, perhaps, the ideas of Spence can help. Spence arrived at localism from a practical knowledge of how social and economic systems were run locally, all be it in the interest of the landed classes. However his localism was also deeply political, designed to avoid 'giantism.

In an article on Spence published in Past and Present in 1977 Thomas Knox offered a very different interpretation, which runs as follows:

[The] provincial matrix disposed Spence to localise rather than nationalize collective ownership of the land. It also gave him a model of abrupt social transition that stopped short of violent and conspiratorial revolution. London changed neither the end nor the means. The French Revolution and metropolitan Jacobinism should, perhaps, have fertilized this local growth and yielded a mature revolutionary. But his obsession with his 'plan', well-rooted by his middle-age, stunted Spence and produced instead a radical crank. (Knox, 1977)

We quote this because it ranks as the most irritating remark ever made about Spence. The absurd conflation of Spence's concern for local democracy with an 'immature' 'provincial matrix', the inability to see that Spence voiced the aspirations of vast numbers of people and the determination  to find him an 'infertile' hanger-on to the more advanced community of 'educated' metropolitan socialists ... if only English socialism had never succumbed to such assumptions we'd all be a lot better off. 

alastair bonnett

Rev. James Murray



by Malcolm Chase

Every generation re-assesses its history and 2010, the year in which a permanent memorial to Thomas Spence has finally been placed, near his birthplace on the city’s Quayside, is a good point to reconsider his reputation and relevance today. This is also the year that The People’s Farm (a book I published in 1988) has appeared in a new edition. Spence’s thought and influence was a central theme of that work. I would like to sketch how historical understanding of him has changed since this book first appeared, and to consider what he may mean in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The prevailing interpretation in the early 1980s was that Spence was a marginal eccentric who had had ‘little practical bearing on the contemporary development’ of radical politics. This had been the opinion of the distinguished labour historian G. D. H. Cole, in his History of Socialist Thought, first published in 1953 but of which a new edition had appeared in 1977. The American historians Terry Parssinen and T. R. Knox, had reached much the same conclusion. Knox had even gone so far as to describe Spence as obsessive, and a ‘stunted . . . radical crank’, this in the highly influential journal Past & Present (1977, p. 75). Even so empathetic an historian as E. P. Thompson, in his magisterialMaking of the English Working Class had commented that ‘it is easy to see Spence . . . as little more than a crank’.

The principal voice against this assessment came from Communist East Germany. Phyllis Mary Kemp Ashraf, cousin of the famous composer (and sometime Trotskyist) Sir Michael Tippet and a professor at Humboldt University, had devoted much study to Spence. However, her works about him were scarcely easier to find than those of Spence himself. The University issued the first in 1966 as a supplement to a volume of Essays in Honour of William Gallacher, the only member of the Communist Party ever to have been elected an MP.

The second, published by the indomitable Geordie left-winger and historian Frank Graham as The Life and Times of Thomas Spence in 1983, was easier to find but achieved hardly any more impact. (The Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History published the sole review, two years later.) Mary Kemp Ashraf was still working on this when she died. The book was seen through the press by Eddie and Ruth Frow (whose life work is embodied in a huge range of publications and Salford’s Working Class Movement Library). Both Eddie Frow and Frank Graham expressed to me their frustration at what Eddie described as ‘serious defects in her work’. These had to be left unchanged because of instructions she left at her death. As Alastair Bonnett has shown, Kemp Ashraf’s research was formidable but her interpretation distorted him into a proto-Marxist caricature that conformed to East German ideology concerning the class consciousness and state ownership of the means of production.

We should strive to let Spence speak to us uncluttered by any particular political preconceptions. The first stage in this is to take Spence seriously and on his own terms. At least it is now generally accepted Spence’s views formed a coherent political philosophy which endured after his death in 1814. His followers the London Spenceans have been the subject of important studies, also receiving their due in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where Harry Dickinson’s essay on Spence himself is almost three times the length of that in the original dictionary. The years since 1988 first appeared have also witnessed the discovery of a surviving copy of Spence’s seminal 1775 lecture, which had supposedly been lost. Retired doctor and Tyneside local historian, Dr David Gardner-Medwin, stumbled across Property in Land Every One’s Right (to give the lecture its full title) in the library of the Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society in 2007. It had never been catalogued and was bound into a volume of miscellanea inaccessible to general readers.

While it is unlikely that there ever will be adequate material from which to construct a full-length biography of Thomas Spence, his life and thought have become part of the common currency of modern thinking about political reform at the close of the long eighteenth century. Alastair Bonnett’s lively website dedicated to Spence has been hugely helpful here (http://thomas-spence-society.co.uk/index.html). Eighteenth-century British history is an ever-expanding field and several publications since 1988 cast further light on Spence and the development of his ideas. An important insight into the society into which he was born is offered in Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, culture and Imperialism in England, 1715-85 (1995). The cumulative portrait of Spence’s mentor James Murray that emerges in her work is the best available.

By demonstrating that, under Murray’s leadership, anti-Catholicism on Tyneside ‘was shared by men and women of all ranks’, Wilson offers a powerful steer away from regarding Spence in a wholly uncritical light. He warmly supported the Newcastle Protestant Association, which Murray led, and signed the petition it presented to Parliament in 1780 (the year of the infamous Gordon Riots). This demanded that penal laws against Roman Catholics be restored to ‘preserve the succession of the illustrious House of Hanover . . . and to secure our civil and religious liberties’. The strongly Calvinist household in which Thomas Spence was raised, and his close association in early adulthood with Murray, make his anti-Catholicism explicable. Furthermore, as Wilson reminds us, militant Protestantism of this nature, was ‘bound up with arguments and fears about the nature of arbitrary power and its relationship to Catholicism that had been engraved in public consciousness for two centuries. Equally important . . . [it] was a vehicle for a number of dispossessed or excluded communities in Newcastle and its environs to assert their status as members of the body politic’. Among these excluded communities were both religious dissenters and Scottish immigrants, the latter a group that ‘in particular retained an “outsider” status in Newcastle as in the nation more generally’.

This perspective on Spence is helpful in making sense of one of the textual variations between the recently discovered 1775 lecture and his 1793 Rights of Man (hitherto the earliest known version). In Property in Land Every One’s Right, each parish is to maintain from its revenues a ‘building, clergymen etc. for the established religion of the country’; and in a remark that suggests a definite wish to obscure his dissenting Calvinist roots, Spence also proposes that, ‘dissenters if they set up any other religion, must bear the expenses of it themselves’. The 1793 and subsequent editions of the lecture, however, are devoid of any mention of religious activities.

Most of Spence’s later amendments to the 1775 text simply refined his prose. The main other change of significance was to substitute or supplement the word Parliament with Senate, or Congress, National Congress or house of representatives. This indicates a clear internationalization of his perspective. Given how dangerous it was even to imply admiration for the post-revolutionary American and French constitutions, it also indicates the final emergence of a robustly independent-minded political writer. Although he did issue token coins celebrating Lord Gordon, he had otherwise cast-off the anti-Catholic views he espoused while in Newcastle. Spence paid for this, of course, as Harry Dickinson skilfully summarises:

He was arrested three times between December 1792 and December 1793, but was released each time without going to trial. He was again arrested on 20 May 1794, on suspicion of treasonable practices, and was kept in Newgate prison for seven months without trial, an injustice the authorities could perpetrate because habeas corpus had been suspended. He was arrested again in 1798 and released soon afterwards, but was arrested again and this time convicted for publishing The Restorer of Society to its Natural State. Accused of seditious practices and disaffection, he defended himself with great courage and impudence. None the less, he was sentenced to a year in Shrewsbury gaol, where he suffered severely.

Thomas Spence, then, was an outsider in several ways: in Newcastle as a member of an impoverished Scottish dissenting family; in London as a political radical who refused to be intimidated or silenced; and always as an autodidact whose education derived from self-sacrifice, not privilege. The prime driver of his political philosophy was the desire to reverse social exclusion. This is abundantly demonstrated by Joan Beal in writings on Spence's phonetic publications. It was also an underpinning consideration in his striking choices of non-print media to disseminate his message. As Marcus Wood pointed-out in his book Radical Satire and Print Culture (1994), ‘Spence was a multi-media artist’. His token coins are rightly celebrated, but we mostly forget his hammering into legal coinage slogans such as ‘SPENCE’S PLAN AND FULL BELLIES YOU ROGUES’; ‘LAND IN PARTNERSHIP AND FAT BAIRNS’; ‘SMALL FARMS AND LIBERTY’; ‘NO LANDLORDS’. Wood has also discussed how Spence produced cheap etchings developing icons and slogans from his tokens, and skillfully used graffiti to introduce his ideas to new audiences.

Clearly, understanding and appreciation of Thomas Spence has come a long way since the 1980s. And beyond historical writing, his ideas have also become a tool to think with for a wider spectrum of political writers. Brian Morris (Ecology and Anarchism, 1996) has examined what he terms ‘the agrarian socialism of Thomas Spence' from a libertarian perspective. Articles in the International Journal of Social Economics (2008) and History of Economic Ideas(2006) argue that his proposals to distribute revenues from the public ownership of land constitute a primitive version of universal grants or citizens’ dividend. (Citizens’ dividend attracts contemporary scrutiny not least because of the controversial ‘Permanent Fund Dividend’ operated by the Alaskan state legislature, with which it has some similarities.) Spence’s work is now anthologized by John Cunliffe and Guido Erreygers in their 2004 collection The Origins of Universal Grants, exploring the evolution of concepts invoked in philosophical and policy discussions on stakeholding and basic income.

It is perhaps not too-fanciful to regard New Labour’s Child Trust Fund (already subject to corrosion from the UK’s recent change in government) as a very faint echo of Spence’s proposals to confer a basic income as of right on citizens. The echo is faint because Spence, like all utopian authors, dares us not so much as to reform existing politics but to tear up completely our ideas about it. At a time when, if people criticised landowners at all, it was for failing to fulfil their responsibilities to wider society, Spence was arguing that whole idea of their having responsibilities at all was trickery. Time did not confer innocence upon private property. His central argument is that the continued appropriation of the earth’s natural resources is an act of theft from generations as yet unborn. To agree to the privatisation of such resources is to deny posterity the certainty of survival. Any ascendancy over land is an ascendancy over people’s lives.

Spence did not wish to nationalize the land (here Kemp-Ashraf was as wilfully mistaken as later nineteenth-century land reformers like JM Davidson, Henry George and Frederick Verinder who sought to enlist him to their cause). Nor did he endorse collective farming. Rather the land was ‘the people’s farm’: its ownership should be vested in the community at the local level, with each community empowered to use the land and revenues from it for the equal benefit of all. Responsibility for this precious resource would make each community, as Spence put it, ‘a little polished Athens’. In a world where control of natural resources is increasingly monopolised and remote from the populace, and where failure to use those resources with anything but immediate profit remains the norm, Spence should be no remote, historical figure. Our essential humanity and dignity are protected and preserved only where government answers not merely to the propertied and wealthy but to all people. Thomas Spence was among the first modern thinkers to recognise that profound truth. His precise and particular solution may no longer be practicable (what eighteenth-century social planning would be?) But his vision of a different way of organising society, without the centralising vortex of government, is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was more than two centuries ago. We should not mistake the simplicity of the media he chose – street literature, tokens, graffiti, ‘Coally Tyne Poetry’ – as indicating simplicity of intellectual outlook. As we continue to grapple with issues around the accountability of governments and global enterprise, not least in the custodianship of the earth’s resources that they assume and assert, Thomas Spence should walk with us still.

Professor Malcolm Chase

University of Leeds

 (this essay first appeared in The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Works of Thomas Spence, edited by Keith Armstrong. 2010)

The Awkward Radical: Spence in and against Revolutionary History

by Alastair Bonnett

We cannot see Spence directly. We peer at something that resembles him through two centuries of revolutionary history. And it is hard, most likely impossible, to talk about Spence without using words that would have meant nothing to him. Words like ‘socialist’, ‘working class’, ‘communist’, ‘proletarian’ are all creations of the nineteenth century. Spence was a product of an earlier period: he had his own vocabulary and his own traditions, some of which can seem very remote today.

So there he is: an odd, diminutive and hazy figure, a reassuringly distant subject for historical archival murmuring… and yet … his anger, his visceral disgust at oppressors of all types, still leaps off the page and slaps us in the face.

It’s ironic. Spence has been covered over by nearly two hundred years of Marxism, Bolshevism, Maoism, et al.But today it is these ‘isms’, not Spence, that seem wheezy and grey with age. To read Spence is to be reminded of the earthy, ever fertile, roots of radicalism. It is also to be confronted with the stark fact that Spence was a mortal enemy of tyranny and ‘giantism’ of all kinds. Later left-wing ideologies fitfully claimed him as an eccentric forefather. But Spence is awkward. He doesn’t fit our stereotypes; and he still has the power to break our moulds.

What I want to do is look at the way one particular radical ideology, Marxism, tried to lay claim to Spence. I argue that this attempt was always ill conceived. Spence was not a grunting Neolithic ancestor of the more sophisticated and long-winded radicals of later years. He was a fully formed political critic and what he had to say presents as much a challenge to state-centred socialism as it does to capitalism.

To trace the misappropriation of Spence is to take an increasingly uncomfortable journey. It starts well, with creative intellectuals, like Marx himself. But it soon takes us into the territory of those wishing to carve out new bureaucracies. Before long we are deposited in the wastelands of Marxist-Leninist modernity; and in states in which Spence, who always prided himself on being ‘as free as a cat’, would have surely spent even more years locked up than he did in England.

Spence was already dead four years when Karl Marx was born, in 1818. But Spence’s name lived on in English radical circles as a legend of incorruptible defiance. In The German IdeologyMarx included Spence in his short roll call of early English communists. In Theories of Surplus Value he speaks warmly of Spence as the author of a tract called Private Property in Land, and as a ‘deadly enemy’ of this form of property. This odd title - Private Property in Land - is presumably a reference to Spence’s lecture The Rights of Man. The lecture’s original title, when first delivered in Newcastle in 1775, appears to have been ‘Property in Land Every Man's Right’.

It is worth staying with this variously titled lecture a moment. It is Spence’s earliest statement and he stuck to its basic principles thereafter. It isn’t hard to grasp: Spence’s language is very plain and addressed to the ‘free liberty’ of the ‘whole people’. Spence wants to see land ownership in the hands of democratic parishes: ‘Thus are there no more nor other lands in the whole country than the parishes; and each of them is sovereign lord of its own territories’. In keeping with his consistent ‘anti-giantism’ Spence envisages that ‘the land is let in very small farms’. Spence was not ideologically opposed to government but he was deeply suspicious of power that is not exercised at a local level. Thus he looks forward to the time when,

    the government … having neither exisemen, customhouse men, collectors, army, pensioners, bribery, nor such like ruination vermin to maintain, is soon satisfied, and moreover there are no more persons employed in offices, either about the government or parishes, than absolutely necessary.

    What Spence wants is the return of the land to a free, self-governing, people. The idea that parishes could largely regulate their own affairs had considerable popular appeal in a society where locality and land still meant a great deal. But Spence had to repeatedly defend the possibility that ordinary people were capable or fit to be trusted. In the following dialogue from his The End of Oppression (1795), he uses a wondering ‘Young Man’ to elicit a Spencean defence of this principle:

      Young Man: Some seem to apprehend the mismanagement of the Parish Revenues, and so discourage People from thinking of that System.

      Old Man: That is the natural work of the Enemy, and must be expected. But it does not become Democrats to doubt concerning it. For if Men cannot manage the Revenues and affairs of a Parish, what must they do with a State? It is almost as absurd to answer such quibbles as to make them. How strange that Men will turn the world upside down to get the management of a Nation, and yet pretend to despair concerning a Parish!!! It is too bad. The villainy is too barefaced. I am weary with combatting the vile sophistry of Scoundrels that are Oppressors, and of Scoundrels that would be Oppressors.

      Spence’s ideal of democratic and local self-management found a place in the hearts of the labouring poor in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, it made few inroads into literate, polite society. Thus, when the British Marxist Henry Mayers Hyndman came across Spence’s work in the British Museum Reading Room in the early 1880s it was a bolt from the blue. Hyndman ‘discovered’ Spence and began shaping the way he was to be interpreted. He issued a work in 1882 called The Nationalisation of the Land in 1775 and 1882, which reprinted Spence’s 1775 lecture. In this way Spence became an advocate of ‘nationalisation’; a strange fate for an arch-enemy of big government.

      Engels enthused to Hyndman (in a letter of the 13th March 1882) that he was ‘very glad that glorious old Tom Spence has been brought out again’. But what was happening to Tom Spence? He was developing what the Marxist historian Max Beer called ‘a thoroughly honest, proletarian and consistent character’ (Social Struggles and Thought 1750-1860). Thomas Spence, dismissed and impoverished in his lifetime, was being recognised, but as what? Spence was praised because his thought ‘can justly be regarded as leading onto Marx’ (as William Stafford put it, in Socialism, Radicalism and Nostalgia). We meet a similar Spence in E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class : an embryonic working-class militant, a crude prototype, impressively dogged yet prevented from gaining political maturity (a.k.a. Marxism) by an ‘inadequate’ ‘preoccupation with agrarian socialism’ and that baffling nostalgia for organic community that Thompson (like Marx) casts as the Achilles heel of English popular radicalism.

      Others were less generous. Spence was a matter-of-fact radical: his ‘Plan’ was a practical fix, a remedy for a broken society. The elaborate verbiage of Marxism, which places so much emphasis on abstract economic ideas, is a far cry from his practical, sociable invective. Marxism encouraged an elevation of theory and the ability to theorise within radical life. By this measure Spence was ‘a poor creature of little capacity and less gifts’ (Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition), with ‘little practical bearing on the contemporary development of British radical or working-class thought’ (G.D.H.Cole, Socialist Thought).

      Thus, Spence is misappropriated and dismissed in similar terms. Once one has cast his political beliefs as a kind of primitive fumbling towards the true light of proletarian consciousness, it becomes a matter of personal taste whether to patronise him (‘glorious old Tom Spence’) or dismiss him (‘a poor creature’).

      The most diligent attempt made to pull Spence into a Marxist lineage was by Mary Kemp-Ashraf, an English communist historian who died in the GDR (i.e., the former East Germany) in 1983. The year she died, Kemp-Ashraf’s marvellously detailed little book The Life and Times of Thomas Spence, was published by Frank Graham, in Newcastle. Kemp-Ashraf had been a researcher at the Institute for Marxism-Leninism in Moscow, where she undertook a study on the history of black radicals in Britain. She then moved to a university post in the GDR. Her most well known work is The History of English Working-Class Literature. A number of Marxist historians in the USSR were already familiar with Spence: he was a part of an existing debate on the origins of revolutionary communist consciousness. Kemp-Ashraf was challenging the view associated with V. P. Volgin (1928) that Spence was an egalitarian but not a socialist (because he did not reject private property in anything other than land).

      With Kemp-Ashraf we have finally arrived at the end of our journey. Here is Spence being put to work to legitimise authoritarian state socialism. It is a depressing lesson in how even the most prickly and oppositional views can be absorbed and neutralised. Kemp-Ashraf knew Spence’s work inside out. But she remained determined to see him as blessing her own political journey. Thus she fills in holes in Spence’s account, such as the ownership of non-agricultural industry, with her own conjecture:

        It seems clear that Spence intended large-scale industry to be public property or if not managed by the Parish as a whole, to be run by 'corporations’ of workers collectively. From land confiscation which included these larger industries intimately associated with land tenure but already long established on capitalist lines, there is not a great step to the concept of the workers’ ownership of the means of production.

        This is not innocent academic inventiveness. It is the kind of history the authorities in the USSR/GDR needed, expected and duly got.

        But Spence will always disappoint this kind of analysis. Indeed, there is an undertow of frustration in Kemp-Ashraf’s attempts to corral him. For Spence is not a good enough proto-Marxist; he is too wild in his determination to bang on about freedom, liberty and democracy, too localist, too contemptuous of authority. Kemp-Ashraf expresses a certain disappointment with her would-be hero:

          Spence himself is evidence that a consciously working-class point of view was taking shape and becoming articulate. Its actual demands naturally rejected the liberalism of the new democratic ideology of capitalism. But the conflict was often expressed as a condemnation of the old order which still prevailed, or in passionate denunciations that made no distinction between one method of accumulation and another.

          Spence tries to ‘articulate’ but he can’t; he’s unfinished, ill formed, not really ‘one of us’. But he is a taunting figure. And between the lines I’d hazard a guess that Kemp-Ashraf didn’t want him to entirely fit into the GDR’s state sanctioned socialism. Between the lines was how criticism expressed itself in that society. Perhaps, then, Kemp-Ashraf was using Spence to voice criticism of the regime in the GDR. What a sad end for Spence. From being ‘ as free as a cat’ to being flattened out to fit tiny, uncertain, millimetres of freedom.

          The attempt to appropriate Spence’s name must be judged a failure. Even Kemp-Ashraf’s diligent attempts seem to prove that Spence is as at least as much a challenge as a forerunner to state socialism. In the first decade of the twenty-first century Spence stands unscathed by the grandest narrative of the last hundred years, the rise and fall of Soviet communism. Today just over 30% of the world’s population live in countries run at one time or another by Marxist regimes. Marxist government has been tried a hundred times over. People are no longer prepared to listen to the drone of balcony hogging revolutionaries. But they are also sick of capitalism and wage-slavery. It is time we tried to hear Spence’s voice uncluttered by the debris of subsequent theorists and state-makers. It can be hard going. For his voice is travelling from a long way away and we don’t quite catch everything he says. Some of the things he is talking about refer to ideas and practices so old, so forgotten, that they seem to have nothing to do with our lives. But other parts are coming through loud and clear. Common ownership of the land and local democracy are ideas as radical today as when Spence first offered them. Indeed, in many ways, people need these ideas now more than ever. We have little sense of control over our own localities; indeed, many of us have little sense of connection to anything beyond our immediate family circle. Reading Spence can remind us what we are missing and what liberty and democracy might look like.

          (reprinted from: The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Works of Thomas Spence, edited by Keith Armstrong. 2007)

          (the argument developed below can also be found in Bonnett, A. 2010 Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia Continuum)


          The Discovery of Thomas Spence’s Lecture

          Property in Land Every One’s Right (1775)


          also published in Labour History Review, 2009, 74, 1, pp.134-136

          by Alastair Bonnett 

          One of the founding statements of English socialism, a one-penny pamphlet of a lecture delivered by Thomas Spence (1750-1814) to The Philosophical Society in Newcastle in 1775, has recently been discovered. [note 1] This report details the differences between this edition (titled Property in Land Every One’s Right), long presumed lost, and the next known existing edition (which is the fourth edition, titled The Rights of Man, published 1793). [note 2 ]

          Thomas Spence’s reputation has waxed and waned since his death in 1814. Part of the problem has been the scarcity of Spence’s original work. Spence lived in poverty throughout his life and his support was drawn from the labouring classes. Although his influence was considerable his published work appears to have had ephemeral or limited circulation. However, throughout the nineteenth century Spence’s name lived on in English radical circles as a legend of incorruptible defiance. In Theories of Surplus Value (1861) Marx speaks warmly of Spence as the author of a tract called Private Property in Land, and as a ‘deadly enemy’ of this form of property. The fact that Marx uses a slightly mistaken version of the 1775 title (and does not use the later title, ‘The Rights of Man’) may be taken to suggest he was drawing on verbal or other second hand reports of the years (the first thirty years of the nineteenth century) when the Spenceans were at their most active. 

          Spence was famous for his stubbornness and unswerving commitment to his radical ‘Plan’, which he first set out in the 1775 lecture and which he stuck to until his death. Hence we would not expect to find big difference between the first and subsequent editions. Spence’s Plan looked forward to the local and common ownership of land by democratic parishes. These parishes would elect delegates to a national senate but seem to have been thought of by Spence as largely self-governing. 

          The title of the original pamphlet can now be confirmed as Property in Land Every One’s Right. Given Spence’s limited but steadfast support for female suffrage (he supported it at the parish level but opposed at the national level) the gender neutrality of the title may or may not have been deliberate. No author is indicated on the 1775 pamphlet. As expected, the changes in the main text between the first and later editions are small ones. However, a number of interesting deletions and additions can be pointed to, all of which flesh out our knowledge of the development of Spence’s thought. Some (if not all) of these changes are suggestive of how Spence was influenced by unfolding events in France. It seems that Spence’s view of his Plan of parish democracy may have been internationalised between the two dates. The largest passage added to the later edition is a long paragraph concerning how parishes should deal with ‘strangers from foreign nations, or people from distant countries’. This issue does not arise in the 1775 pamphlet. It should also be noted that the first edition refers to parishes electing representatives to Parliament. In the later edition ‘Parliament’ is replaced or supplemented by one of three new terms: ‘National Congress’, ‘house of representatives’ ‘Senate, or Congress’. 

          Given Spence’s dislike for blood-letting and revolutionary ‘giantism’ in France, it is at least arguable that his knowledge of the French revolution may have also provoked a small but significant deletion from the 1775 edition. In both editions Spence writes that, under his Plan, the government ‘allows to each parish the power of putting the laws in force’, but only in the first edition does he add ‘even to the inflicting of death’. 

          Another idea unique to the first edition is that parishes should be required to maintain clergy. Spence writes of the requirement that parishes should be ‘paying its clergymen, schoolmasters’. This requirement is gone by 1793, as is the following sentence: ‘Building, clergymen etc. for the established religion of the country, are maintained by each parish out of its treasury; but dissenters if they set up any other religion, must bear the expenses of it themselves.’ There are no references whatsoever to the clergy in the later edition. These deletions do not necessarily imply that Spence was moving away from Christianity. However, they do suggest that he felt he and/or radical politics had outgrown the need for an explicit accommodation with established religion. 

          Finally, the first edition commences with a quote from Milton. It is highly characteristic of Spence's conviction belief that his Plan was the obvious solution to the problems of his and every age. 

          Th’ invention all admir’d, and each, how he 
          To be the inventor miss’d; so easy it seem’d 
          Once found, which yet unfound most would have thought 
          PAR. LOST 

          1. The discovery was made in June 2005 by Dr David Gardner-Medwin, a retired physician and local historian. Dr Gardner-Medwin chanced upon it in a bound volume of miscellaneous eighteenth century pamphlets held in the library of The Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne. In February 2007, having read an article by myself on the missing status nature of this work, Dr Gardner-Medwin rang me to tell me he had found it. The present report is based on a comparison of the 1775 and 1793 versions conducted in February 2007. The find was first announced in Bonnett, A. 'The other Rights of Man: The revolutionary plan of Thomas Spence', History Today, September 2007, pp.42-48. I must also add that the pamphlet is in a worn and fragile condition and deserves the attention of a library conservationist. 
          2. This edition may be found at http://thomas-spence-society.co.uk/7.html. This website also includes a photograph of the newly found edition, see http://thomas-spence-society.co.uk/index.html 


          The Town Moor

          Newcastle upon Tyne

          The battle to save the Moor in 1771 from enclosure was Spence's first taste of political conflict. His life-long conviction that common property can be defended was established at this time. In later life he recalled that he ‘took a lesson’ from the Town Moor affair ‘which I shall never forget’. Here is Louis holding a kite on the Moor.

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