Thomas Spence, Agrarian Socialism, Communism and The Working Class By Laurence Humphries

10/04/2013 by socialistfight

Thomas Spence, Agrarian Socialism, Communism
and The Working Class

Thomas Spence, an Agrarian Socialist was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1750. This period was a ferment of Revolutionary activity influenced by the Revolutionary developments in France. Spence moved to London and became a bookseller and land reformer. He was influenced by the Utopian Socialist ideals of Robert Owen.

Britain in the 1790s was decisive for Revolutionary Politics in Britain. Many middle class radicals like Cobden, Bright, and Place were active for parliamentary reform. The great Reform Act of 1832 was a long way off. Many of these Middle class Radicals were active in the Corresponding Societies which were the germ of future Trade Unionism in Britain.

WinstanleySpence was part of the continuation of Communist politics that had emerged in the 1640s under Everard, Winstanley and the ‘Diggers’. “Like Winstanley and the Diggers Spence and his followers took radical ideology into the world of Socialism” [1]. The Corresponding societies were the embryo of future working class organisations and Trade Unions. Edward Thompson in the ‘Making of the English Working Class’ has shown how the Corresponding Societies were to have a great influence on Working class organisations. “There is some evidence that by the end of 1816 the Spenceans had reorganised their work, in sections and divisions, on the old plan of the London Corresponding Society [2].

Spence a member of the London Corresponding society agitated for Land reform, the abolition of private property and Communism. He formed a group of like-minded followers. They were called Spenceans. They included, Artisans, small producers and journeymen. Working class activity against poverty basic rights and a living wage had led to several insurrectionary movements being formed. The most prominent of these were “The Luddites” amongst textile workers in Lancashire and Yorkshire. They saw their livelihoods threatened with the introduction of the Power Looms and the use of modern machinery. There was very little Poor law relief and these workers would be left to starve together with their Families. The Luddites armed into small bands organised raids to smash the Power looms and even attack the Capitalists in their own homes. Many Workers were shot, arrested and hanged.

The capitalist state used spies, infiltrators and paid agents to infiltrate behead and destroy the movement. This was the climate that Spence and his followers flourished in. Spence advocated a plan called ‘Spensonia’ where there would be common ownership and land distribution. “Such land would be taken into common ownership” [3]. “ Right to equal share of the land is seen first and foremost as a means to give everyone access to productive capital in which they can work for themselves” [4]. These policies were far removed from the reformist ideas of Robert Owen and his factory system at Lanark.

Spence advocated a Utopian Communist society of little farmers and little Master men with parishes of self-government. Spence’s views coincided with many of the Chartist demands advocated by Fergus O’ Connor, Bronterre O’Brien and Julian Harney, Chartist leaders who led the great Working class movement that would emerge after Spence’s death. Both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels paid great attention to the Chartist movement and worked closely with many of their leaders.

“A National assembly would be elected annually by the Individuals in each Parish” [5]. Spence in his writings sought to lay out a concise plan on how his Communist society would be renewed again and again. “Spence envisaged a process of permanent revolutionary upheaval until society had been restructured on the right principles” [6]. Spence was also influenced by the Bourgeois Revolutions of America and France of 1789 and 1777. Spence’s parish system of self-government could be compared to the Parish Commune on which Marx refers to in his essay “The Civil war in France”. The noticeable difference is that the Paris Commune is more advanced than Spence’s ideal of parish government.

“He may have contemplated a Babeuf type dictatorship as a means of bringing about revolution in society” [7]. The Spensonia document further lists his constitutional aims and policies.

“ These rights are equality, Liberty safety and property”

“All human beings are equal by nature and have a continual and inalienable property in the earth and its natural resources”

“Landed property always was originally acquired either by conquest or encroachment on the common property of mankind” [8].

“Hence it is plain that the land or the earth belongs at all times to the living inhabitants of the said country or neighbourhood in one equal manner” [9].

EP Thompson in his Making of the English working class makes several references to ‘Spenceans’ and their aims of a revolutionary Communist Government. “Spence took up Paine’s argument against hereditary Aristocracy and carried them to their conclusion. We must destroy not only personal and hereditary Lordship, but the cause of theirs which is private property in Land” [10].

Spence and his followers supported the insurrectionary movement that was put down with much savagery by the Capitalist state. One of his leading followers, Thomas Evans, was active in the London Corresponding society and advocated insurrection, arming their supporters through drilling and other activities, but there is no evidence that Spence himself supported it. “Whether Spence himself was directly implicated in insurrectionary conspiracy is not clear but he certainly believed in the methods of the underground, the secret press, the anonymous handbill and the Tavern Club” [11].

This working class movement was composed of Jacobin Émigrés, Scottish weavers, English Jacobins and United Irishmen. There were naval mutinies in 1797. “The Spencean advocates had won much support amongst the Trades Clubs especially among the shoemakers. Their policy that all feudality or Lordship in the soil be abolished and the territory declared to be the peoples common farm” [12].

Spence and His “Spenceans” like their predecessor Winstanley and the “Diggers” were utopian Communists and Land reformers. Unlike Winstanley Spence never in practice started a commune like the “Diggers”. Spence was arrested many times for his views and prevented from putting his “Spensonia” into practice. His followers had influence in the London Corresponding Society and amongst sections of the working class.

Informers and paid agents infiltrated many of the Trades Clubs in London and many of the insurrectionary movements like “The Plug Riots” and “The Luddite Movement” was defeated and their leaders hanged or shot. Many working class radicals suffered the fate of the noose because of these informers. In the 1790s Trade Union organisation was illegal, many workers met in secret with an underground press and secret oaths with a special pass words. There would be guards on the doors and you would have to know the password to gain entry. They also armed themselves for protection.

Spence’s revolutionary plan never came to fruition. His idea of common ownership and Utopian Communism was never realised. Scientific Socialism and Marxism would be developed by Marx and Engels. Both Marx and Engels were active in the First International. Marx together with Chartists like Ernest Jones and Julian Harney would develop the ideas of Scientific Socialism during the middle part of the Nineteenth century. Thomas pence like all Utopian Communists believed that Communism would emerge without the need for a disciplined and Centralised Revolutionary party dedicated to the overthrow of Communism. As yet Communism was just developing and without an organised and material and scientific basis ‘The working class’ and its organisations Trade Unions it would be difficult, but none the less Spence and other Utopians made a great contribution to Communist thought and action through his writings ‘Pigs Meat’. Like Winstanley he believed that by written word and the use of the Bible this would be enough to convert Workers, Artisans and Journeyman to his vision of Communism, although unlike Winstanley he was no pacifist “ Both the State and the Land were to be seized by the people and reconstituted under their ownership and control”[13].

1. Spence, Thomas Pig’s Meat Selected Writings p. 12

2. Thompson EP, The Making of the English Working Class p. 613

3. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 23

4. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 23

5. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 35

6. Spence, Ibid. p. 42

7. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 46

8. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 92

9. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 60

10. Thompson EP, Ibid. p. 161

11. Spence, Thomas, Ibid. p. 62

12. Thompson EP. Ibid. p. 614

13. Spence, Thomas Ibid. p. 50.Rebuild The Fourth International

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