As a new edition of The Hive of Liberty is published Tom Jennings welcomes renewed interest in 18th century Tyneside radical Thomas Spence.
Pearls Before Swine
Newcastle in the late 18th century was a hotbed of radical political associations (e.g. Constitutional Club, Independent Club) and dissenting church sects. It was also a thriving centre for printing (French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat visited regularly and launched The Chains of Slavery there) and grassroots education. One notable beneficiary of and contributor to this climate of ferment and potential was Thomas Spence (1750-1814), an indefatigable enemy of exploitation and oppression who expounded lower-class insurrection and seizure of the land. The newly-formed Thomas Spence Trust’s The Hive of Liberty introduces his life and work; with the latter scarcely in print over two centuries but now largely reproduced on their website. The pamphlet includes various perspectives on the man, his ideas and their significance – including his virtual disappearance from history and patronising appropriation by authoritarian Marxism – together with extracts from his writing and the responses of others over the years.
One of nineteen children, Spence’s self-education started with his Glassite (dissident Presbyterian) parents, impoverished Scottish immigrant netmakers. Characteristically ahead of his time, he published an educational tract with a new phonetic alphabet to encourage literacy among the poor while working as a teacher on the Quayside. Active in local debating clubs, he gave a talk (later called ‘The Real Rights of Man’ or ‘Spence’s Plan’) to the Newcastle Philosophical Society after the colonial war in America started in 1775, having been the first to use the term ‘the rights of man’ (in a 1782 tribute to Jack the Blaster, an ex-miner cave-squatting at Marsden Rocks, South Shields). He later distributed Thomas Paine’s book of that title, stressing its flaws concerning the private ownership of land – the abolition of which he asserted was fundamental. Regrettably, the Newcastle freethinkers were intransigent in supporting bourgeois property rights; Spence even being cudgelled by his friend, engraver Thomas Bewick, over the issue.
Unable to make headway up north, Spence moved to London and by the time of the 1789 French revolution was busy agitating, educating and organising – though again too extreme for groups such as the London Corresponding Society. Travestying conservative Edmund Burke’s characterisation of ordinary people as ‘the swinish multitude’, Spence called his regular broadsheet Pigs Meat. He also minted hundreds of coins and tokens bearing cartoons, attacks on politicians of the day and general radical mottoes. This propaganda method combined with bill-posting and wall-slogan blitzes proved much more difficult for the authorities to quell than his stream of books and pamphlets, which included The End of Oppression, the proto-feminist The Rights of Infants, and several works about fictional utopias ‘Spensonia’ and ‘Crusonia’ – sequelising Defoe’s popular Robinson Crusoe in revolutionary directions.
Paranoia about the English masses emulating their French counterparts yielded many Acts of Parliament suppressing freedom of speech from the 1990s onwards, when Spence endured severe beatings from government agents and periods of imprisonment, with or without trial, on charges of seditious libel and high treason for distributing his own and Paine’s work. When at large he ran a bookshop (‘The Hive of Liberty’ in Holborn) and stalls selling printed matter along with the drink ‘saloup’. Affinity groups and their missionary work disseminating Spence’s Plan organised via ‘free and easy’ pub gatherings to avoid surveillance, with lectures, debates, songs and poetry. After his death in penury in 1815, supporters expanded their grassroots activity despite relentless suppression – a law even being deemed necessary in 1817 to explicitly prohibit “societies or clubs calling themselves Spencean or Spencean Philanthropists”.
Of course Spence (and most early agrarian socialists) could not tackle questions of industrial development and capital accumulation in complex societies. Static universal principles ignoring historical process in the oppositional politics of the time usually derived from millenarian religious traditions, overcompensating for feudal ideologies of ‘divine rights’ with naïve redemptive faith in rationalist enlightenment. Nevertheless the pragmatic emphases on local, bottom-up control, federalism and direct democracy resonated loudly among the rabble but appalled the contemporary great and good and later leftist intellectual aristocrats alike – who were naturally also contemptuous of his trust in the potential integrity of the common people. The sensitivity to issues of colonial encroachment, land use and ecology, and the social positions of women and children similarly resonates across the centuries; while the perennially unhelpful unhinging of righteous idealism from concrete struggle haunts us still.
Purportedly bringing The Hive of Liberty “up to date”, Newcastle artist George French concludes that: “the Spencean project has failed … we can no longer rely on solidarity, association or community action … The only oppositional space left to exist is in our own heads and … personal action”. Oh, really? Presumably intended to provoke debate, such defeatist sophistry would certainly have Spence spinning in his grave. Whereas the refusal of elitism, twisting of popular culture, and enthusiasm for grass-roots intercourse and the irrepressible anti-hierarchical power of dialogue, humour, and shared enjoyment in spaces collectively created amidst worldly misery remain indispensable – but only given the humility and empathy to resist jaded delusions of intellectual grandeur. As he put it: ‘Can tyrants hinder people from singing at their work, or in their families? Sing and meet and meet and sing and your chains will drop off like burnt thread.’
The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence (edited by Keith Armstrong, with introduction by Joan Beal; 40pp, ISBN 1 871536 15 4) is available priced £5 (+£1.50 p+p) from the Thomas Spence Trust, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD; see also: http://www.thomas-spence-society.co.uk
[book review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 6, March 2007]
[for more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see:]