20 November 2012 — New Left Project
John Bellers, 1654 to 1725, ed. George Clarke. Sessions Book Trust, 1993.
Despite being described by Karl Marx as a ‘phenomenon of political economy’ and regarded by Robert Owen as the forefather of his own co-operative socialist experiments, John Bellers has often been disregarded as a social reformer and theorist. I would argue, however, that contemporary readers may draw value from his work, which had to wait hundreds of years to be properly and sympathetically collated, albeit only through a fairly limited print run in 1993.
In the work of John Bellers, dating from the 1690s to the 1720s, we can see the earliest calls for nothing less than a National Health Service, a peaceful European state-of-states, vocationally-based alleviation of unemployment and poverty and—bravely in such a period—a plea for the richest to be held responsible for the condition of the poorest.
John Bellers was born around the time of the Restoration. Apart from the first five years of his life which overlapped with Cromwell’s Protectorate, the time in which he lived was marked by intensely reactionary tendencies. He perceived the early beginnings of what we know now as industrialization, but was deeply disturbed by the massive inequality he observed as a consequence. John Bellers was a Quaker, and as he got older he saw Friends increasingly drift away from their early radicalism, towards the ‘Quietism’ which became prevalent for almost two centuries. As George Clarke points out in the astute notes which intersperse this collection, Bellers wanted to wake his movement up, to reignite passion for an earthly ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’
Perhaps most significantly from a historical perspective, Bellers was one of the first social thinkers to re-examine the Quaker testament to equality in the circumstances of industrial society. As late as 1659, as Parliament appeared to hover over the question of Restoration, one of the leading Quakers of the time, George Fox, had made a heartfelt plea for the common people to benefit from the Commonwealth. Fox had called for the division of church land and the break-up of the biggest aristocratic estates in the interests of the poorest. With the return of Charles II, such an opportunity for redistribution had been lost—apparently forever. Fox, according to accounts of the time, fell into a deep depression for some months. Years later, it was left to Bellers to translate these demands.The equivalent to the agricultural commons in an industrial society was common production in what Bellers described as ‘Colleges of Industry’—a way for the working classes to educate themselves in emerging manufacturing processes whilst working towards the common wealth. He demanded an interventionist public sector, which would raise capital in order to invest in industry and agriculture.
Being so far ahead of his time in many ways, Bellers used language constructed to draw the least offense. In order to ‘sell’ his idea of industrial colonies to the rich establishment, he promised that they would be able to ‘leave as much of the Profits among the poor as they wished.’ (p. 130) The fact that private investors were to benefit from the poor working in ‘Colleges of Industry’ may look highly dubious to our eyes, but for Bellers, these investors were to be governed by their own moral imperatives. ‘There are three things I aim at,’ he writes. ‘Profit for the Rich, (Which will be Life to the rest). Secondly, A plentiful Living for the Poor, without difficulty. Thirdly, A good education for Youth, that may tend to prepare their Souls into the Nature of the good Ground.’ (p. 53) His pamphlets were usually aimed either at fellow Quakers, or at different branches of the Establishment, in apparently vain attempts to locate the missing conscience of the time. There were some notable exceptions to his caution. Whilst the Biblical phrase ‘he that will not Work, shall not Eat’ may initially recall the language targeted by a New Labour drone or a Jeremy Kyle upon the feckless poor, the real target would have probably been those who, by virtue of inheritance and birth, were gifted places at the top of society in the early eighteenth century. Bellers, along with his contemporaries, was blissfully unaware of the potential for industrial unemployment, whether structural or as a result of externalities.
Bellers was unusual in combining support for industry with a desire for radical social reform in the public interest. As noted by Clarke, actual investment in Bellers’ schemes was pretty minimal, even, it appears, among the Quakers themselves. Perhaps the rich people he approached sensed that underpinning Bellers’ ideas were concepts that could lead to unknown, possibly uncomfortable places. By considering the ideas for ‘College of Industries’ in depth, Bellers realized that those who were unable to work because of sickness would require accessible medical care. This led him to write ‘An Essay towards the Improvement of Physick’ in which he advocates a professional and freely available health service for the entire population. Along with his early advocacy of University College hospitals and long-term care for the disabled, he despaired of the social conditions of the time. ‘The sooner the Poor Man is restored to his Health, he will be the sooner able to provide for himself and his Family; and it will be a more especial Advantage to the Parish, if it shall prevent his Death; by which, else, a Numerous Helpless Family may be left on their Hands’ (p. 187)
Many of his ideas for reform have innate emancipatory tendencies and possibilities, yet if misinterpreted, these structures could, just as equally, be used to create work-prisons for poor orphans, such as those Charles Dickens wrote about later in Oliver Twist. Despite his carefully reasoned arguments on the importance of early education, including advocacy of practice-based instruction and phonetics language learning, Bellers usually wrote against the prevailing ethos of the time, which held that education could be beaten into the children of commoners.
Not only did Bellers translate demands for equality into an industrial, skills-based context, he also translated the economic case against poverty and sickness into a form which financiers and bankers would understand. He may have been the first writer to thoroughly dissect the monetary costs of rural unemployment to the overall wealth of the country.
It seemed at this time that the state was in a condition of permanent foreign expansion. The arguments of the Levellers in the 1640s were buried under the new political realities of constitutional monarchy. The merchant class in the UK was discovering new wealth, largely based upon a global slave trade. Meanwhile, Bellers’ London was often a place of fear and death. It is estimated that with the displacement of rural England, 2,000 people a week starved to death on London‘s streets as people were driven to city slums in search of work or charity. London‘s prisons were filled with starving and sick people, kept in the most desperate and squalid conditions. Up to 30,000 people used to regularly attend public executions. In the face of this, John Bellers became perhaps the first European to advocate the abolition of capital punishment and rehabilitation for offenders. He explicitly made the link between poverty and crime, and saw skilled labour as a way for prisoners to find redemption from idleness and squalor. But in conceptualizing a political economy, he would go further still.
The consequences of Enclosure and the restoration of the aristocracy seemed painfully obvious—a reminder of the burden that the rich placed on society. In Bellers’ opinion, Enclosures in favour of the rich should have been scrapped in favour of ‘Partitions,’ whereby each had a claim to an equal amount of land. Yet Bellers was also a sceptic on matters of finance, and saw money, when used as a commodity in itself, as a dangerous, slippery substance—the source of much evil.
Marx quotes Bellers in Das Kapital. ‘For if one had a hundred thousand acres of land and as many pounds in money, and as many cattle, without a labourer, what would the rich man be, but a labourer? And as the labourers make men rich, so the more labourers there will be, the more rich men … the labour of the poor being the mines of the rich.’ (p. 54) It is only a small step then, for the labourers to perceive that the fruits of the labour are in fact being sequestered—stolen, even. Bellers was some distance from equating the processes of labour with systematic exploitation. Undeniably, he understood that the fates of the labourer and capitalist were intrinsically combined, a relationship which refracted both culturally and financially. The position of the poor and, specifically, the degradation of their humanity is intrinsically connected to the situation of the rich.
The premise of ‘that of God in all of us,’ implying a mystical belief in equality, would surely be recognizable to those familiar with Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. At its core is a personal experience of the divine and the stress upon a universal potential to attain divinity. John Bellers, along with his friend William Penn, argued for total freedom of worship, including those of non-Christian religious persuasions.
The resulting internationalism in Bellers’ work makes modern leftist journalism seem comparatively insular. In his 1710 pamphlet Some Reasons for a European State he makes the first recorded case for a European-wide government. Bellers envisaged something akin to a European Assembly. Rather than attempting to combine military-industrial-financial complexes, it would aim for the maintenance of international law. What emerges from reading Bellers is the concept of a proportionate governing assembly more like the United Nations, sans Security Council, with national representatives discussing ways of achieving peace and co-operation via international agreement. ‘The Princes and States of Europe may settle all the Disputes among themselves,’ he wrote, ‘without Blood or Charge, and prevent the Rash from such Dismal Adventures as are the Consequences of War… that Assembly must go by Arguments (and not Scimitars) grounded upon Reason and Justice…’ (p. 140).
Arguably, Western European governments came closest to realising Bellers’ vision after the Second World War. Provision of universal healthcare, expansion of educational provision and full employment fulfilled many of Bellers’ demands, whilst often leaving political systems and distribution of property untouched. At the same time, Bellers’ lack of foresight in relation to the way that innovation and automation can deprive people of their livelihoods, was reflected in the challenges faced by social democrats from the 1960s onwards.
Perhaps Bellers would have been disappointed by the current generation of the Left, which has tended towards academia, effectively vacating and diminishing industry. He was concerned about the dominance of theoretical knowledge over practice. ‘A multitude of Scholars is not so useful to the Publick as some think,’ he wrote, ‘the Body requiring more Hands and Legs to provide for, and support it, than Heads to direct it; and if the Head grows to big for the Body, the whole will fall into the Rickets’ (p. 64).
The equation that Bellers made between work and virtue, recalling Weber’s ‘Protestant work ethic,’ still stands. Work in a modern society is intrinsic to identity and purpose, despite technological change. For Bellers, making the context of this work meaningful through systematic vocational training and development was key. In the absence of ‘full employment’ as traditionally conceived, there may yet be scope for re-imagining ‘Industrial Colleges’ as relevant for the Information Age. Such schemes could represent a form of transformative guild socialism, with a guarantee of base income and skills.
Like Bellers, we live in an era of transition. He witnessed the emergence of the United Kingdom as a grand imperial project, driven by an all-conquering mercantilism. By contrast, our own epoch threatens to be notable for the decomposition of this state; an unravelling of its gloried privileges and systems of social insurance, leaving exposed a society which is transparently base and vulnerable, but where possibilities for radical change may be emerging once more.
Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.