Paul Anderson, review of The Offbeat Radicals by Geoffrey Ashe (Methuen, £17.99), Tribune 22 June 2007
The Offbeat Radicals is a book I can imagine being published in the 1930s. It is an erudite introduction for the general reader to a vast swathe of English radical writers from the French revolution to the early years of the 20th century who would once have been labelled “romantic”. It’s rather like what H. N. Brailsford or G. D. H. Cole used to do.
Footnotes are sparse; précis is the norm. The autodidact who reads it from cover to cover will get a very good idea of what a large number of (broadly speaking) 19th-century polemicists and poets had to say – some of them, such as Blake and Shelley, read widely today but rarely put into context; others, such as Godwin, Carlyle and Bradlaugh, very much forgotten; still others, such as Morris, acknowledged but largely ignored.
Ashe is a specialist in Arthurian myth and a great enthusiast for G. K. Chesterton. His theme here is the persistence with which, after the French revolution went sour for English radicals, the latter adopted a rhetoric and a way of looking at life that were borrowed from dissident Christian myths of a pre-capitalist world of co-operation, equality and social cohesion. They were alternative medievalists, precursors of “small is beautiful” and dead keen on tradition.
Some Tribune readers will recognise this as an old anti-socialist tune. And indeed Ashe’s target, if there is one, is those who would subsume the Godwins, the Blakes, the Shelleys and so on, right up to William Morris, into a narrative of class struggle and proto-Marxism. My hunch is that he wants to capture them for something mistily and nostalgically Eurosceptic.
If you, like me, are still there with Edward Thompson in your reading of the 19th century, you will have a problem with this. Although Ashe is right when he argues that there is a tradition of radicalism that goes beyond left and right as we now know them, he underplays the extent to which it influenced working-class culture in the early and mid-19th century and socialism (and indeed modernism) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His calling it “offbeat radicalism” is also annoying: the old tag “romantic radicalism” works much better, not least because it is familiar. (It is also as flexible, if not more so, than his clumsy coinage.)
But these are small points. There is no better recent introduction to the radical writers of 19th-century England than this. It is beautifully written, difficult to put down, and more books like this should be published.