Thomas Spence (1750-1814): Utopian Communist and Radical Reformer

 

By Joseph Adams, August 2019, www.thecommunists.net

 

 

 

Spence’s Life

 

Thomas Spence was born in Newcastle before the emergence of trade unions and the working class movement. Spence advocated a revolutionary socialist society. His writings on land reform and a planned socialist society marked him out as a revolutionary who sought to transfer the wealth of society from the rich to the labouring poor.

 

Spence followed the traditions of Gerrard Winstanley’ Digger movement during the Cromwellian revolution of the 17th century. “Like Winstanley and the diggers Spence and his followers took radical ideology into the world of Socialism”. [1]

 

 

 

Spenceans and Spensonia

 

 

 

The Spenceans, as Spence’s followers were called, were active during the Napoleonic years in France. “Quite explicitly Spence saw himself as a spokesman for the common people. When speaking of them he referred to either the poor or the Labouring poor in particular”. [2]

 

In all his writings on common ownership of production and land reform Spence argued that “such land would all be taken into common ownership and let the real rent varying not only with the quality but also with the quality of land”. [3]

 

 

 

Spensonia

 

 

 

Spence’s philosophy was referred to as Spensonia. He advocated a form of parish self-government. “Providing educational and cultural facilities such as a library, school and assembly rooms”. [4]

 

Spence was opposed to private property and like Winstanley and Munzer before him advocated communal ownership of land and possessions. “Private property in the land was not only the fountainhead of tyranny but also the monstrous hydra of corruption”. [5]

 

In much of his writings Spence pushed for revolutionary action. “Spence envisaged a process of permanent revolutionary upheaval until society had been restructured on the right principles”. [6]

 

Spence and his followers echoing the views of Winstanley vehemently opposed any return to a Private property system of poor artisans and small businessman as the Levellers had argued for. For Spence and his followers on the other hand the private property system (established by conquest) was the cause of inequality and poverty”. [7]

 

 

 

Thomas Evans and the Spenceans

 

 

 

Edward Thompson in his book “The Making of the Working Class” identifies Spence and his followers with the growing protests amongst artisans and the labouring poor. Thomas Evans was the first to advocate Spence’s agrarian socialism. Evans was one of the secretaries of the growing London corresponding societies which were to be the germ of Trade Unions in the early 19th century.

 

Oppression in the 1800’s led to starvation and destitution for the Labouring poor. This was the period of the parish work house which Charles Dickens so eloquently described in his writings. The combination acts were introduced by government to prevent workers organising together to form societies in a common struggle against poverty and death.

 

Strike movements were developing in the working class mainly amongst cotton workers and Weavers who feared the introduction of the new machines leading to hardship for workers who were thrown out of work through recession and slump. This was when the Luddites formed secret societies and organised individual assassinations of employers. It was referred to as ‘Captain Swing’. These weavers and cotton workers fought to create disorder by arming themselves and forming insurrectionary movements against the ruling class.

 

“Spenceans were believed to have instigated bread riots in 1800 and 1801. In 1817 once again a secret committee of the House (of commons) detected a conspiracy by the society of Spencean Philanthropists”. [8]

 

“The Spencean advocates had won much support amongst the trade clubs especially amongst shoemakers that all feudality or lordship in the soil be abolished and the territory declared to be the people’s common farm”. [9]

 

The Spenceans after Spence’s death were more active amongst the local societies and trade clubs and were winning support amongst tradesman and artisans. Evans was now the acknowledged leader of the Spenceans. “Evans was without doubt a disciple of Spence and he and his son were pursued with exceptional vindictiveness by the authorities because he had the courage to advocate in print the expropriations of the Landowners”. [10]

 

The bourgeoisie was seriously worried about the Spenceans and their activities for the overthrow of Capitalism through some putsch. “A traitorous conspiracy has been formed in the metropolis for the purpose of overthrowing by means of a general insurrection the established government, laws and constitution of this Kingdom”. [11]

 

Many of the middle class reformers like Place and Cobbett capitulated and wanted to work with the government. This showed their opposition to real change and the weakness of these so called petit-bourgeois reformers.

 

 

 

Robert Owen

 

 

 

Robert Owen, a social reformer and joint owner of the enterprise New Lanark Mills in Scotland, was denounced by Evans and his comrades because Owen refused to engage in direct political activity leading to insurrection. Owen, a utopian socialist much admired by Frederick Engels and Karl Marx the founders of scientific socialism, wanted to practise his views with the cooperation of government. The Rochdale pioneers, the founders of the cooperative movement, would take as their inspiration both of Owen’s enterprises New Lanark Mills and New Harmony in the United States.

 

As Thompson comments. The Spenceans and radicals of 1817 proved to be wrong in their estimation of Owen and Spence’s and Evans’s preoccupation with agrarian socialism was inadequate for industrial England but the Spenceans were at least willing to pose the problems of ownership and class power”.[12].

 

The weakness of Spence and his followers was their reliance on Babeuf conspiratorial politics of secret societies and oath taking and the use of individual terror that both the Luddites and others used against capitalists. They were mainly fighting for the small artisan and shopkeeper. They failed to see what Robert Owen and the great chartist leaders saw that you needed to build a unified political working class movement and a revolutionary workers party. Both Engels and Marx knew this when they built the First International as a revolutionary international working class party. Many chartists were active in it like Brontere O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor. Owen in his later years would found the Grand Consolidated Trade Union.

 

Spence was the forerunner of trade unionism and the great working class movement of Chartism that would develop in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Robert Owen, Brontere O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor would dominate in this period. Both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels paid great attention to these developments in Britain. In future articles I will consider the contribution of Robert Owen and the Chartist movement.

 

 

 

Footnotes

 

1) Thomas Spence: Pigs Meat. Selected writings of Thomas Spence, Radical and Pioneer Land Reformer, edited by GI Gallop: Spokesman Books Socialist Classics No 2, p. 12

 

2) Ibid, p. 21

 

3) Ibid, p. 22

 

4) Ibid, p. 29

 

5) Ibid, p. 30

 

6) Ibid, p. 42

 

7) Ibid, p. 51

 

8) E.P. Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class: Vintage Books, p. 497

 

9) Ibid, p. 614

 

10) Ibid, p. 615

 

11) Ibid, p. 639

 

12) Ibid, p. 806