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William Godwin: Communist or Individualist?

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05/06/2010Jeff Riggenbach
William Godwin

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "William Godwin (1756–1836)."]

William Godwin died 174 years ago last month, in the year 1836, at the age of 80. He was largely forgotten by the time of his death, but in the years since, his reputation has slowly grown back, if not to what it was in his prime, in the 1790s, then, at least to something a good deal more impressive than anything he could muster in the 1830s. Godwin had been born in Wisbech, England, a small town on the River Nene about a hundred miles north of London, on March 3, 1756. He was the son, grandson, and nephew of Dissenting, or Nonconformist, ministers — that is, ministers who rejected both the doctrines and the practices of the Church of England, the kind of Protestants who looked back with longing on the period, a hundred years before, when Oliver Cromwell had run the English government, the kind of Protestants who, in the 17th century, often pulled up stakes, got on a boat, and left England altogether for, say, the wild and primitive conditions of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In the middle of the 18th century, when William Godwin was born, though Dissenters, or Nonconformists, were legally tolerated — they had been for nearly 80 years — "the Dissenters were unable to have their births registered, to enter the national universities, or to hold public office." Or so, at any rate, reports Peter Marshall, Godwin's latest biographer, whose book William Godwin was first published a quarter-century ago, back in 1984. Marshall writes that as a "result … [the Nonconformists] formed a separate and distinct cultural group" which "defended at all costs the right of private judgement" and "made up a permanent opposition to the State of England." Marshall reports that "as a boy," Godwin, the 7th of 13 children in his family, "was deeply religious and intellectually precocious" and "aspired from an early age to follow" his father, uncle, and grandfather into the ministry.

And so he did. Entry to Cambridge was denied him on religious grounds, regardless of how "intellectually precocious" he was, so he trained for the ministry at the Dissenting Academy at Hoxton instead, which Peter Marshall describes as "one of the best centers of higher education in eighteenth-century England."

Then he tried out as a minister in three different rural communities in the south of England. All three congregations rejected him. His sermons were serious and high-minded and all that, but perhaps a trifle radical for most small-town Noncomformists of the day to swallow. Godwin had been continuing his education on his own, you see, reading voraciously. Peter Marshall writes that Godwin's "intellectual development was rapid. The political debate raging over the American War of Independence at the time soon led him to support the Whig opposition to the war."

But "the most important influence was to come from a reading of the French philosophes," the 18th-century French intellectuals — the most famous is probably Voltaire — who promoted deism, classical liberalism, and reliance on reason as the best means of learning the truth about anything. The ideas of these French philosophes influenced the activists responsible for the American and French political revolutions of the late 18th century. And, as Marshall puts it, when Godwin "closed the covers of their books, his whole world-view had changed. They immediately undercut his Calvinist view of man."

What's more, the churchgoers in the three small towns where Godwin tried out as a minister found him a bit remote, a bit chilly, lacking in the warmth, the openness, the kind of caring exterior one would tend to prefer in one's clergyman. It wasn't long before, as Marshall puts it, Godwin "realiz[ed] that he was not cut out to be a minister." He "decided to go to London and try to earn his living by teaching and writing."

"The project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged, on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of church and state."
William Godwin

It was 1782. Godwin was 26 years old. He set to work with energy and determination. He published a collection of his sermons that touched on topics in English history. He wrote a biography of William Pitt the Elder. He wrote three short novels. He plunged into journalism, writing about politics, cultural trends, and current books and ideas for various weekly and monthly magazines. He put together a prospectus for a school he hoped to open, and though, as Marshall reports, "no pupils turned up, the prospectus remains one of the more incisive and eloquent accounts of libertarian and progressive education."

Godwin believed that "liberty is the school of understanding." He believed that "the child from the moment of his birth is an experimental philosopher: he essays his organs and his limbs, and learns the use of his muscles. Everyone who will attentively observe him will find that this is his perpetual employment. But the whole process depends upon liberty." Godwin believed that

liberty is the parent of strength. Nature teaches the child, by the play of the muscles, and pushing out his limbs in every direction, to give them scope to develop themselves. Hence it is that he is so fond of sports and tricks in the open air, and that these sports and tricks are so beneficial to him. He runs, he vaults, he climbs, he practises exactness of eye and sureness of aim. His limbs grow straight and taper, and his joints well knit and flexible. The mind of a child is no less vagrant than his steps; it pursues the gossamer, and flies from object to object, lawless and unconfined: and it is equally necessary to the development of his frame, that his thoughts and his body should be free from fetters.

Godwin believed also that

the project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged, on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behooves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hands and perpetuate its institutions. If we could even suppose the agents of government not to propose to themselves an object, which will be apt to appear in their eyes, not merely innocent, but meritorious; the evil would not the less happen. Their views as institutors of a system of education, will not fail to be analogous to their views in their political capacity: the data upon which their conduct as statesmen is vindicated will be the data upon which their instructions are founded. It is not true that our youth ought to be instructed to venerate the constitution, however excellent; they should be led to venerate truth; and the constitution only so far as it corresponds with their uninfluenced deductions of truth. Had the scheme of a national education been adopted when despotism was most triumphant, it is not to be believed that it could have for ever stifled the voice of truth. But it would have been the most formidable and profound contrivance for that purpose that imagination can suggest. Still, in the countries where liberty chiefly prevails, it is reasonably to be assumed that there are important errors, and a national education has the most direct tendency to perpetuate those errors, and to form all minds upon one model.

By the early 1790s, Godwin had attracted sufficient attention as a journalist and as a writer of books that he was able to arrange funding to enable him to devote his full time for nearly a year and a half to writing a book-length reply to Edmund Burke's notorious, book-length Reflections on the Revolution in France, which had been published in 1790.

It wasn't that Burke's Reflections had not already provoked libertarian reply. There had been, in 1790, "A Vindication of the Rights of Men," an essay published as a pamphlet by the leading woman journalist of the day, Mary Wollstonecraft. There had been the two volumes — one in 1791, the other in 1792 — of Thomas Paine's book The Rights of Man. Godwin had served on the committee that had worked to find a printer willing to take the chance of being prosecuted for sedition for putting out an English edition of Paine's work.

But Godwin still felt the need to write a reply of his own to Burke. He wanted to attend less to the historical particulars of the French Revolution, as Wollstonecraft and Paine had done, and instead devote the lion's share of his attention to what he thought of as the fundamental, underlying principles of the debate over the French Revolution. His publisher, who was paying him to write the work, decided to have each chapter typeset as Godwin finished it, so that once he finished the last chapter, the entire book could go almost immediately to press. According to Peter Marshall, the publisher's decision to "set the type and even beg[i]n printing the sheets long before the composition was finished" was based on his belief, shared by Godwin, that "much of the benefit of the work would depend upon its early appearance."

Godwin acknowledged in his preface to the finished book, which appeared in 1793 under the title Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, that "some disadvantages" had "arisen from th[e] circumstance" that "the printing was … commenced long before the composition was finished." Chief among these "disadvantages," Godwin wrote, was the fact that

the ideas of the author became more perspicuous and digested as his enquiries advanced. The longer he considered the subject, the more clearly he seemed to understand it. This circumstance has led him into some inaccuracies of language and reasoning, particularly in the earlier part of the work, respecting the properties and utility of government. He did not enter upon the subject without being aware that government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of individual intellect; but, as the views he entertains in this particular are out of the common road, it is scarcely to be wondered at that he understood the proposition more completely as he proceeded, and saw more distinctly into the nature of the remedy. This defect, together with some others, might, under a different mode of preparation, have been avoided.

In effect, Godwin set out to write one book and wound up writing another. When he began writing, he believed in what a libertarian of today would call a "minimal state." When he finished writing, 16 months later, he was an advocate of total abolition of the state. As Marshall puts it, Godwin "set out very close to the English Jacobins like [Thomas] Paine only to finish a convinced and outspoken anarchist — the first great exponent of society without government."

And so we arrive at the reason for William Godwin's appearance in this audio series on the libertarian tradition. He was the first great exponent of society without government — the first advocate of such a thing to write out at length his reasons for advocating what he advocated. He was, then, one of us. That's why he can lay just claim to a place in the libertarian tradition. Right?

Alas, it's not that simple.

Godwin has been a controversial figure since the moment he first burst upon the public consciousness in 1793, at the age of 36, with the publication of his Enquiry Concerning Politcal Justice. For the more than 200 years that have passed since then, Godwin has been like the proverbial elephant that found itself being closely examined by three learned blind men. One of the blind scholars, you'll recall, had put his hands on the elephant's trunk and insisted that an elephant was a type of snake. Another blind scholar, having seized upon one of the elephant's legs, was convinced that an elephant was more like a tree than like anything else in all of nature — snakes emphatically included.

Godwin is a lot like that elephant. One expert says he's an individualist. Another says he's a communist. And the problem is they're both right. Just as the elephant in the old story is both like a snake and like a tree, so Godwin is both an individualist anarchist — one of us — and a communist anarchist, a person of whom people like us are usually very suspicious, to say the least.

This is, at least in part, because, as has been noted, Godwin's thinking changed and grew while he was writing his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. He worked off and on, over the years, at the task of revising his book to reconcile its conflicting sections. But it was no good. It couldn't be done. The man who wrote the final chapters of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was not the same man who wrote the opening chapters of that work. Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice is really, as I have said, two different books at the same time — the book it started out to be and the book it ended up being. The result cannot be rendered fully coherent except by completely rewriting either the first half or the second half — or, maybe, by rewriting the whole thing. No amount of mere revision and touch-up will do the trick.

Thus, when Murray Rothbard, for example, dismisses Godwin in one throwaway line in a short article on Edmund Burke in a 1958 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, calling him "the late eighteenth-century English founder of communist anarchism," it's not hard to figure out why Rothbard might have believed that. He might, for example, have read this passage:

[Man — the human animal] is said to have a right to life and personal liberty. This proposition, if admitted, must be admitted with great limitation. He has no right to his life, when his duty calls him to resign it. Other men are [duty] bound … to deprive him of life or liberty, if that should appear in any case to be indispensably necessary to prevent a greater evil.

Or, perhaps, Rothbard might have read this passage:

"Justice is reciprocal. If it be just that I should confer a benefit, it is just that another man should receive it, and, if I withhold from him that to which he is entitled, he may justly complain. My neighbour is in want of ten pounds that I can spare." Therefore, "unless it can be shown that the money can be more beneficently employed, his right is as complete … as if he had my bond in his possession, or had supplied me with goods to the amount."

Or perhaps Rothbard saw this statement of Godwin's:

"For any man to enjoy the most trivial accomodation, while, at the same time, a similar accomodation is not accessible to every other member of the community, is, absolutely speaking, wrong."

The problem is that these passages don't tell us the full story. If Rothbard had read a bit further, he might have come upon this passage:

Every man has a certain sphere of discretion, which he has a right to expect shall not be infringed by his neighbours. This right flows from the very nature of man. First, all men are fallible: no man can be justified in setting up his judgement as a standard for others. We have no infallible judge of controversies; each man in his own apprehension is right in his decisions; and we can find no satisfactory mode of adjusting their jarring pretensions. If everyone be desirous of imposing his sense upon others, it will at last come to be a controversy, not of reason, but of force. Secondly, even if we had an infallible criterion, nothing would be gained, unless it were by all men recognized as such. If I were secured against the possibility of mistake, mischief and not good would accrue, from imposing my infallible truths upon my neighbour, and requiring his submission independently of any conviction I could produce in his understanding. Man is a being who can never be an object of just approbation, any further than he is independent. He must consult his own reason, draw his own conclusions and conscientiously conform himself to his ideas of propriety.

Godwin continued:

For that purpose each must have his sphere of discretion. No man must encroach upon my province, nor I upon his. He may advise me … but he must not expect to dictate to me. He may censure me freely and without reserve; but he should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his.… Force may never be resorted to but in the most extraordinary and imperious emergency. I ought to exercise my talents for the benefit of others; but that exercise must be the fruit of my own conviction; no man must attempt to press me into the service. I ought to appropriate such part of the fruits of the earth as by an accident comes into my possession, and is not necessary to my benefit, to the use of others; but they must obtain it from me by argument and expostulation, not by violence. It is in this principle that what is commonly called the right of property is founded. Whatever then comes into my possession, without violence to any other man, or to the institutions of society, is my property. This property … I have no right to dispose of at my caprice; every shilling of it is appropriated by the laws of morality; but no man can be justified, in ordinary cases at least, in forcibly extorting it from me.

You'll note that in this second set of passages, Godwin still believes that humans have a duty to give any property they don't need to those who do need it, and that those who need it have a "right" to it. When Godwin still believed in limited government, he wanted it to protect these "rights." But after he saw that coercive government should be abolished, he began to espouse a view that modern libertarians should have no difficulty sharing: if you want my property, you have to get it from me by convincing me to give it to you or sell it to you; you may not take it from me by force. Godwin was still a communist of sorts, but the communism he advocated was purely voluntary.

I don't know about you, but I can live with that. It reminds me of something certain libertarians used to say to each other back in the 1970s, when they were discussing the need to increase our recruitment efforts among leftists. Many leftists, we used to assure each other, are really just libertarians who don't understand economics. This seems to me to be a very good description of William Godwin. And just as, back in the '70s, I favored welcoming leftist newbies, so today, I favor welcoming William Godwin into the libertarian tradition.

"I ought to exercise my talents for the benefit of others; but that exercise must be the fruit of my own conviction; no man must attempt to press me into the service."
William Godwin

Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was a big success, as was his next book, a novel — a thriller, really — with social, political, and philosophical implications, called Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. During the 1790s, Godwin was famous. His fiction might even be described as popular. And he was in demand as a writer for the magazines and as a lecturer on any number of local platforms.

The English journalist and essayist William Hazlitt recalled, looking back on the '90s, when he himself had been a teenager, that in those days, Godwin "was in the very zenith of a sultry and unwholesome popularity; he blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation; no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not far off." It was a good deal more than 15 minutes of fame. But it was almost as fleeting.

As Peter Marshall puts it, "it was Godwin's misfortune to have his name closely linked to the French Revolution." Basically, "he was thrown up by the vortex of [that] Revolution, and he sank when it subsided." As the reaction against the Revolution built up, Marshall reports, Godwin "was at first vilified and then rapidly forgotten. By 1812 his eclipse was so great that it was with 'inconceivable emotions' that his future son-in-law [the poet Percy] Shelley found the author of [the Enquiry Concerning] Political Justice was still alive."

Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice had been published in 1793, when Shelley was an infant. Now Shelley was 20, had read Godwin's book, and wanted to meet the author. He found the author in London, married for the second time, writing, running a bookshop, and running also, with the assistance of his wife, a small publishing company that brought out educational children's books. Shelley met Godwin, as he had hoped to do. He also met Godwin's 16-year-old daughter Mary, the product of a brief marriage in the '90s to the girl's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died less than two weeks after her daughter's birth.

When Shelley eloped with the 16-year-old Mary, Godwin was only 57 years old. He still had another 23 years to live. He managed to support himself for 20 of those 23 years. But by 1833, when he was 77, he had run out of both money and realistic prospects of getting any more of the stuff. He found it necessary, if somewhat distasteful, to accept an offer from the British government to become Office Keeper and Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer at an annual salary of ₤200 for little or no actual work. As Peter Marshall writes, "he was given lodgings in the New Palace Yard next to the Houses of Parliament. It was the supreme irony of Godwin's complicated life that he should end his days looking after an obsolete institution which he wished to see abolished."

He "died in obscurity," as Marshall puts it, on April 7, 1836, at a time when the world's attention was elsewhere. "His final request," Marshall writes, "was to be buried next to his greatest love, Mary Wollstonecraft: in death as in life, the union of the first great anarchist and the first great feminist symbolized the common struggle for the complete emancipation of men and women."


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.