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  • Red Shelley, Once Again
  • Greg Ellermann (bio)

Published in 1980, at the start of our long era of political reaction, Paul Foot's Red Shelley poses a still-urgent question: what can romanticism offer a contemporary left politics? For Foot, a journalist and organizer for the Socialist Workers Party, Percy Shelley is a herald of the workers' movement. Nevertheless, Foot maintains, "Shelley was a socialist only in the broad sense that he advocated a co-operative society. In the specific sense in which socialism means anything at all—the ownership and planning of society's resources by its working people—Shelley was not a socialist. Shelley was a leveller."1 While in broad sympathy with Foot's project, I propose that Shelley can help us imagine another socialism—one that better meets our needs today.

For Foot, Shelley affirms the workers' struggle. I agree, but in the poetry I also find a serious rethinking of relations among work, wealth, and nature. When Shelley proclaims in Queen Mab, "'[t]here is no real wealth but the labour of man,'" Foot hears hints of a socialism to come (Foot, 87). To my mind, the association of Shelley with a "labour theory of value" (Foot, 87) is tenuous; the note Foot cites is largely devoted to the praise of leisure. Not even Karl Marx—himself a committed Shelleyan—held such a theory. In 1875, Marx insisted "[l]abour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and surely these are what make up material wealth!) as labour. Labour is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power."2 Shelley also aligns "the labor of man" with the [End Page 104] forces of nature, and his politics are decidedly ecological. These points are familiar. What demands further study is Shelley's challenge to our idea of wealth—and the notion of value on which it depends.

Shelley's socialism cannot be defined by "the ownership and planning of society's resources" because he thinks differently about those resources (Foot, 96). This is a necessary thought today, when we cannot be content with schemes for redistribution or democratic planning. There are environmental and human costs to any freedom achieved by "the valorization of value," as Marx puts it.3 This is not an argument for making do with less, as Shelley's leveling is not a "levelling down" (Foot, 96). Rather, Shelley seeks to overturn our sense of value, insofar as it belongs to a worldand soul-destroying regime of work, growth, and profit. In this, he does anticipate Marx, whose critique of political economy is fundamentally a critique of the form of value inherent to capitalism. Thus, Shelley's greatest poems, from Queen Mab to Prometheus Unbound, end with visions of inactivity, cessation of labor, and nature's flourishing. Imagining a "healing paradise" that would welcome all "[t]he polluting multitude," Shelley hopes that "[t]hey, not it, would change; and soon / Every sprite beneath the moon / Would repent its envy vain, / And the earth grow young again."4 For a "Red Shelley" now, we must begin from this insight: only with the end of work do we truly begin to live.

Greg Ellermann

Greg Ellermann teaches at Yale University; he is completing a book manuscript called "Thought's Wilderness: Romanticism and the Apprehension of Nature."


1. Paul Foot, Red Shelley (London: Bookmarks, 1984), 96. Subsequently cited in-text.

2. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Political Writings, ed. David Fernbach, 3 vols. (New York: Vintage, 1974), III, 341.

3. Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1992), I, 254.

4. Percy Shelley, "Lines written among the Euganean Hills," in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald E. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), lines 355–56, 370–73.



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