By Stephen Basdeo
It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814–79). His prolific writing career has been overshadowed somewhat by his contemporaries such as Charles Dickens, whose writings, while they manifested a bit of a social conscience, were hardly radical. Reynolds’s name, by contrast, was, in Dickens’s words, ‘a name with which no Lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.
But why was Reynolds’s name so dangerous to a man like Dickens? After all, in their fictional works, they both railed against the injustices of the poor law and the workhouse, the oppression of the working class, and the exploitation of children. They should have been natural bed-fellows. But Reynolds was a committed radical, democrat, and borderline revolutionary who sought a fundamental change in society’s constitution, and importantly not a racist (evident by his comments in Grace Darling, published in 1839, in which he criticises those who believed that black people were inferior). Dickens, who had questionable views on race, was a paid-up man of the establishment who merely argued that the upper classes should be philanthropic where possible. Not without justification did Reynolds call him
“That lickspittle hanger-on to the skirts of Aristocracy’s robe—‘Charles Dickens, Esq.’ —originally a dinnerless penny-a-liner on the Morning.”[i]
(The Morning refers to Dickens’s work for the conservative Morning Post newspaper, which was taken over by The Telegraph in the 1930s). Reynolds maintained a firm and unshakeable belief in the rights and sovereignty of the people. His influences in this regard were writers such as Thomas Paine—the intellectual force behind both the American and French Revolutions—and, having spent the early part of his career as a struggling journalist in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This naturally entailed a belief in the sanctity of the ballot and truly universal suffrage, which for Reynolds also included women—something which would not be achieved until after Reynolds’s death:
“Every community has the right to choose its own institutions, its own form of government, and its own rulers.”[ii]
Of course, in the early Victorian era, few could vote. It is true that the ‘Great’ Reform Act was passed in 1832, which extended the franchise to large sections of the middle classes, or those who either rented or owned property worth 40 shillings. But for the Chartists, this was not enough and they kept on campaigning for vote, and neither should the people accept anything less than full universal suffrage, according to Reynolds.
But who were ‘the people’? Interestingly, Reynolds only infrequently uses the term ‘working class’ in his novels and newspaper articles, and opts instead for a much wider term: ‘the industrious millions’.[iii] While Reynolds was a passionate advocate for working-class political enfranchisement, evident through his significant involvement with the Chartist cause, most of the time ‘the oppressed’ or ‘industrious millions’, a term which he uses in The Mysteries of London (1844–48), comprises both the working and middle classes. They occupy a place beneath royalty and aristocracy, as he maintains in the same novel, in which a character named ‘the Republican’ declares that:
“I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”[iv]
Reynolds probably saw something of himself in his republican character. This idea of aristocracy against the people (working and middle classes) is a constant theme throughout his journalism. Both his fiction and his journalism were melodramatic; he had to present a clear ‘bad guy’ or evil class of people, while the industrious millions he depicted as a saintly yet passive oppressed people. It was the aristocracy, in Reynolds’s view, who were responsible for every social ill: poverty, crime, injustice.
Reynolds’s radicalism evidently looks back to earlier, more bourgeois forms of it which were influenced by the likes of Paine and various French thinkers from the 1830s. So, while Reynolds does often criticise capitalist society and its attendant social ills, he has no advanced theory of the existence of a ruling class and the class conflict between them and the industrious millions. The best he can do is to map his criticisms of capitalism on to older discourses of ‘Old Corruption’. The idea of Old Corruption held—with much justification—that a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats elected by only a very small proportion of the population pursued their own landed interests at the expense of the people-at-large. In Reynolds’s worldview, in spite of the rise of capitalism, it was still the aristocracy who held sway over the people, as he wrote in 1851:
“As I have often said, England is in reality a despotism—this despotism consisting, not of an autocrat, but of an oligarchy—not of an individual, but of a few hundreds of aristocratic families.”[v]
The caveat for Reynolds was the aristocracy consolidated its power by more often than not allying themselves with the capitalists. In some of his later writings we find references to two types of aristocracies: the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of money:
“The Birth Aristocracy sees that the helm is escaping out of its hands; and therefore, rather than allow the slightest chance for the infusion of a democratic element into the system, it will enter into political partnership with the Moneyocracy. This arrangement will be for the perpetuation of tyranny and class-legislation; and the two Aristocracies of Birth and Money will unite with the common object of riveting the chains about the industrious millions.”[vi]
We have to remember that Reynolds’s most biting political commentary came before the first English publication of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). The first English translation of this was published in the Chartist magazine, The Red Republican, but it would not be until the 1870s, which was the decade that Reynolds died, before a fully-fledged English socialist movement would emerge. It would not be until the writings of Marx and Engels’s found their way into mainstream radical thought in Britain after the 1850s that the idea of class conflict between two classes—a bourgeoisie and a proletariat—would be clearly articulated. Thus, Reynolds’s radical philosophy was an early attempt to diagnose the social ills of modern industrial society while taking into account earlier forms of aristocratic, oligarchical oppression.
If we are viewing Reynolds’s politics through a modern lens, we might fall into the trap of thinking that he was what we might call left wing today. Some of his views do indeed correlate with those espoused by prominent members of the left. However, where he would have differed from today’s so-called radicals is in his views on taxation. He was an advocate of what we would now call a low-tax society. One of the primary reasons for this is that he hated the idea that taxes went to fund an idle and profligate monarchy and aristocracy. In an editorial for Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1851, he asked how it could ever be just for the taxes of the working poor should
“Swell the coffers of the Illustrious Beggars and Serene Paupers of Saxe Coburg Gotha.”[vii]
Now, taxes in the Victorian era were, if we look at it objectively, not too onerous. Income tax was first levied during time by the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel at a rate of 7d in the pound. The tax threshold was an income of £150 per year which exempted almost all the working class. Direct taxation was somewhat unpopular in Victorian Britain and some chancellors toyed with the idea of abolishing income it; however, it proved too convenient and lucrative. Yet Reynolds hated all forms of tax: in the middle of many of his novels, he often broke the narrative to enter into a political rant. Perhaps the best articulation of his opposition to all forms of taxes comes in The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (1848):
Taxation is a vampire that loves to feast on the blood of a nation’s heart, and prey upon the vitals of an industrious population. It is an avaricious, grasping, griping fiend that places its finger on every morsel of food which enters into the mouth, on every article of clothing which covers the person, and on everything which is pleasant to behold, hear, feel, taste, or smell! It interferes with our warmth—our light—our locomotion—the very printed paper which diffuses knowledge! It roams over the land to claim its share of the produce of our fields and manufactures and it awaits on the [quays] of our seaports for the unlading of vessels bringing things from abroad. The moment the industry or intelligence of man originates something new, the fiend Taxation overshadows it with its loathsome, hat-like wing. It plunges its hand into the rich man’s dish and the poor man’s porridge … Oh! Insatiate is that fiend, for he attends at the death bed when the will is made, and in the spiritual court when it is proven:—he has his share of the price paid for the very marble which covers the grave of the deceased:—and it is only there—in the grave—that the victim of Taxation can be taxed no more![viii]
In sum, Reynolds was a democrat; the people—the working and middle classes—should be granted the vote. They are prevented from achieving political equality due to the machinations of the aristocracy who conspire with the interests of big capital to oppress the industrious millions. And he hated all forms of tax: it made food more expensive; it restricted the exchange of knowledge through the Stamp Act; and it stifled commercial and industrial innovation.
[i] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’s Miscellany, June (1851), cited in Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1992), p. 356.
[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Duty of the French Republicans’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 29 December 1850, 1
[iii] As he progressed throughout life, however, he does opt for the term ‘working class’ with greater frequency.
[iv] G. W. M. Reynolds, Mysteries of London, 2 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1846), I, p. 70
[v] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Necessity for the Ballot’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 22 June 1851, 1.
[vi] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The People’s Rights’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 April 1851, 1.
[vii] G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘A Word to the “Liberal Minority” in Parliament’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 16 March 1851, 1.
[viii] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Days of Hogarth; or, The Mysteries of Old London (London: John Dicks [n. d.]), ch.5.