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JARED MCGEOUGH “So Variable and Inconstant a System”: Rereading the Anarchism ofWilliam Godwin’s PoliticalJustice Such, I am afraid, is man. Mixed in all his qualities, and inconsistent in all his purposes. . . . [I]t is vain that the philosopher . . . seeks to reduce the shapeless mass intoform, and endeavours to lay down rulesfor so variable and inconstant a system. —Godwin, Italian Letters' F rom blare’s image of a fiery being who “stamps the stony law to dust” to Shelley’s vision of the “sceptreless” man in Prometheus Un­ bound, romantic writing is replete with aesthetic, philosophical, and socio­ political topoi that seem to anticipate what becomes known as “anarchism” in the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, intellectual historians often situate the origins of anarchism and romanticism in close proximity by locating the beginning of the former in William Godwin’s Enquiry Con­ cerning PoliticalJustice, first published the same year as Blake’s “Song of Lib­ erty” (1793), and revised in two later editions of 1796 and 1798.2 Political 1. William Godwin, Italian Letters, or the History of the Count St. Julian (1784), ed. Burton R. Pollin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 32. 2. On Godwin’s historical role as a founding father of modern anarchism, see Encyclopedia Britannica, nth ed., s.v. “Anarchism”; George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History ofLibertarian Ideas and Movements (1962) (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2004); Peter H. Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History ofAnarchism (London: Harper, 2007); John P. Clark, The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); George Crowder, Classical Anarchism: The Political Thought of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). On anarchism’s relationship to romanti­ cism see Marshall, William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (London: Freedom Press, 1988); Mal­ colm Lowy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. Catherine Porter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 80—82. SiR, 52 (Summer 2013) 275 Tib JARED MCGEOUGH Justice caused a sensation when it first appeared in February 1793, and be­ came a highly influential text for both first and second generation roman­ tics, including Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and his son-inlaw Percy Shelley, whose wife Mary dedicated Frankenstein (1818) to her father.3 At the heart of Political Justice lies Godwin’s dual conviction that “man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of perpetual improve­ ment,” and that a universal principle ofjustice supersedes “the shrine of positive law and political institution.”4 Where perfectibility names a dia­ chronic principle of gradual progression through which an individual casts aside his or her dependency on institutions, justice synchronically grounds this movement towards a society in which “immutable reason is the true legislator” (PJ 1798, 1:221). Since the emergence of both deconstruction and new historicism in the 1980s, however, the veracity of romanticism’s proto-anarchistic political ideals has been shown to be tenuous at best.5 A strikingly analogous shift has occurred in recent studies of anarchism.6 Drawing from a diverse set of thinkers usually identified as post-structuralist—including Bataille, Fou­ cault, Deleuze (and Deleuze-Guattari), Lyotard, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Lacan—“post”-anarchist theory begins from a critique of what it sees as a residual essentialism within classical anarchism, specifically its desire for an “innate morality and rationality” which is then opposed to an “inherently 3. For a discussion of Coleridge’s and Southey’s failed attempt at creating a utopian com­ munity based on Godwinian principles, see Tim Fulford, Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 4. Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning PoliticalJustice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, 3 vols., ed. F. E. L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946), 1:86, 13. All ref­ erences to Political Justice (PJ) are from Priestley’s facsimile of the third edition, hereafter quoted parenthetically in the text by volume, page, and the year of the edition cited. All quotations from the 1793 and 1796 editions are followed by the volume number 3 to indicate the third volume of Priestley’s edition, which includes all of the editorial changes that Godwin had made for the two prior versions of the text. 5. See Paul...


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