Clarkson, Cambridge and the International Movement for Human Rights

[Lightly edited transcription of a recording of an improvised lecture]


Much of what I have to say is the result of some collaborative work that I undertook with a former colleague Dr Salah Bander in the African Studies Centre. He was responsible for many of the factual discoveries that we made and this work was done as part of an enquiry into the roots of Cambridge University’s involvement with Africa. It led us inevitably to the abolition movement and to some remarkable discoveries about the importance of anti-slavery in Cambridge two hundred years ago. I won’t be talking very much about Cambridge and Africa today, although it is a very rich history which after abolition takes in, as Hugh Brogan mentioned, the expanding imperial commitment of Britain and Cambridge’s particular significance as a centre for evangelical Christianity, for an Anglican evangelicalism which was nourished over a period of many decades by Charles Simeon, a Fellow of King’s and Vicar of Holy Trinity here, one of whose protégés was Henry Martin, St John’s Research Fellow who translated the Bible into the principal Indian languages and who is commemorated as the eponymous founder of missiology here. So Cambridge in the 19th century was a major source of missionaries and it has been a major source of other people deeply engaged in Africa since.

What I am going to talk about today however, is Clarkson as the original founder of what can be taken to be the modern international movement for human rights. I want to consider abolition and Clarkson’s role in it, in particular as a contribution to the human rights movement and as a decisive moment in the history of political intervention. He was instrumental in developing many of the methods of single issue politics which are now recognised to be so important in our societies. As well as looking at abolition and Clarkson as part of the movement for human rights, I want to place that movement very definitely within the context of the late 20th century crisis of academic intellectuals. That is to say, we generally experience our own worth as being rather less than that of our predecessors. Academics are on the whole narrow and trivial — we do not engage seriously with the world’s major problems and there is some sense perhaps that we ought to. I engage with this question in the specific context of Cambridge, not just because Clarkson was at Cambridge, but also because we are here and because, as I have discovered, there is an alternative history of Cambridge which includes radical engagement with the world’s major problems. So one of the aims of this lecture is to suggest that Clarkson’s example might inspire us in our own attempts to be more relevant today.

The general drift of my lecture will go as follows. I will start by making some impressionistic remarks about the dialectic of conservatism and innovation in Cambridge’s institutional history. Then I will go on to the abolitionist caucus which flourished in Cambridge in Clarkson’s time and which undermines many of our presumptions, even myths about the nature of this institution and of its relationship to society, especially in the way that this abolitionist caucus crossed divisions of town and gown and of academic life and politics. Then I will go on to talk briefly about Clarkson, having the framework of Hugh Brogan’s lecture still fresh in your minds and as an excuse for not having to go into it so deeply, and what I will focus on there is his method, the method of campaigning that he pioneered and which is still central to any understanding as to how to change the world today. From that I will go on to try to place the abolition movement as Hugh did within its general history, within a history of evangelical Christianity, of imperialism, of the rise of industrial capitalism and ask what it was really about and whether we can look at it in a new way and examine some of the ways in which the arguments about political economy can be reconciled with issues of humanitarianism and religious devotion. And from that, skipping right across a century and a half, I want to talk briefly about the anti-slavery movement as an aspect of the on-going international movement for human rights. I want to make a comparison between anti-slavery and anti-apartheid, because that is the nearest thing in our recent history that we have to a sort of mass mobilisation and it is one which takes on an even greater international scope than the original abolition movement. Then by way of that I will come back to the final question which is, if we are now in Cambridge University as academic intellectuals with some degree of engagement with the pressing problems of our age, what are they, and what can we learn from someone like Clarkson about how to take advantage of the special opportunities that present themselves to us to insert our knowledge, that thing which he was so concerned to accumulate, to insert our knowledge into movements to make this a better world. So, as you can see, that is quite a scenario and I will be winging it generally by means of anecdotes and massive ellipses.


Almost every week I encounter disillusioned graduate students in Cambridge University. They are quite often Indians or Africans, quite often natural scientists, this is after all a natural science university, and they are serious people who intend to grasp what is necessary to change the world in a material sense; but they also have a very heavy sense of their duty, of the inequalities that exist in this world, of the need to transcend them, ameliorate them and they get very depressed. They come to see me because I have a big mouth and a sort of reputation and they say, Well look, isn’t Cambridge the pits? I ask, What do you mean? Well it is so conservative, so heavy in its traditions, so establishment-oriented. Everything moves so slowly; they are all living in the past; they don’t want to touch anything that is relevant in this world. And not only that, they break us up socially, they isolate us, they alienate us, they break us up into disciplines which are highly specialised. Even within the disciplines, if you are in the Physics Department, people in one branch cannot talk to the other. Then, if that weren’t enough, they break us up into colleges, stick us with a whole bunch of public schoolboys who just want to drink beer; and we end up feeling lonely and depressed and isolated. We feel that we are not getting what we want.

And I say, Well, you are wrong. This place is absolutely crowded with people like you. There really are lots of people here who are progressive, who are engaged, who want to make a difference, who have extraordinary backgrounds, come from all over the world, especially the graduate students, junior research fellows and so on. They are all over the place; but the point is, if you are not looking for them and if you don’t know how to find them, or if you don’t have a particular outlook on how to construct your own social world in Cambridge, you can spend your whole time here thinking that the world as you experience it is all there is. I’m thinking of when I was an undergraduate here in the early 60s, there were all these people like Michael Howard, Kenneth Clark, these Conservatives going through the Union and building a lifetime in politics. There were all these rugby types getting drunk and rowdy in Trinity Street. You could easily have gone through that time thinking that that was all there was to Cambridge. I didn’t know that Crick and Watson were inventing DNA and stuff like that. I didn’t know that Cambridge was changing the world in all kinds of ways.

The interesting thing about Cambridge is that it is extremely decentralised; you have to make your own social world and many people don’t know how to do that. If you think there is a social structure that you have to learn to adapt to you will spend all your time here learning no better. So I take these students and I say, Look, how would you think it came to be such a famous natural science university? Why do you think you are here in the first place, do you think natural sciences always existed? Well they didn’t. Natural sciences were invented by a couple of northerners here, William Whewell and Adam Sedgwick. They more or less decided between themselves and with a few collaborators to establish a Natural Science Tripos. That was in the 1860s and a decade or so after that Maxwell established the Cavendish Laboratory, Darwin’s son Horace set up his instruments factory and started supplying the equipment that was needed and at the turn of the century the whole thing was cooking. Even then, if you read Gordon Johnson’s introduction to Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica, you would see that Cambridge in 1900 was still the pits. This was a place in which the male students were ripping up Newnham’s gates in protest against allowing women any sort of academic rights whatsoever, never mind admission into the University. This was a time when the Senate House was locked into an earnest debate for decades on the issue of the religious affiliation of academics. You would have got no idea from the general tenor of the place then that twentieth century physics was being invented here. And this is my general point.

The point is that it may apply only to a minority perhaps, but Cambridge is a place that encourages innovation by simply leaving certain networks of individuals to organise themselves and get something new done. I have been thinking about all this for some time, about whether there is something in the history of the institution that encourages this. Obviously the fact that it is a medieval institution and there is no strong central bureaucracy is a great help. But I like to think — and this is really just an invented myth of my own — that the monks who split from the monastery by the river here, St John’s it was called I think, and formed Peterhouse, the beginning of this university, they split with the orthodox church and set up their own establishment because they were fed up with the narrow, backward-looking, conservative, establishment-orientated approach to religion that was current orthodoxy and sought to strike out in the name of a greater universality, a greater sense of relevance and connection with the world. And if you take another of my favourite coteries, the provincial notables assembled around Lady Margaret Beaufort, who set up not only this college, but several other establishments such as my own school, Manchester Grammar School. These people essentially had a vision of how to get beyond the limitations of the existing system of education. If you go further to the puritan divines in Emmanuel college, people like John Harvard, and the mission that they had in the 17th century to break away again, what you can find is a general history in which each new college, or at least some of them more than others, made a difference, right up to up to even Downing college. I find Downing uplifting, It is the only college that broke with the medieval cloister; it had the courage to open it up and do a kind of Jeffersonian architecture in the middle of Cambridge. These people had a way of opening up and breaking out of the establishment and I like to think that that dialectic is intrinsic to the development of Cambridge University. The thing which has consolidated this idea for me more than any other was the discovery of Cambridge’s centrality in the abolition movement around the time of the French Revolution.


Hugh Brogan has already alluded to some of the facts of this, so there will be some repetition. But he mentioned Peter Peckard who is an extraordinary character. He was Master of Magdalene college; he had been the Dean of Peterborough Cathedral, he was pushing 70 when he became the Vice Chancellor. He was a well-known advocate of religious freedom, supported the rights of Jews, Gypsies and Methodists. In the course of this he took on the cause of the abolition of slaves. He gave a sermon in Great St Mary’s in 1784 under the title ãAm I not a man and a brother?ä which was recognised at the time as the greatest sermon to have been preached in Cambridge since the reformation. (Did you know by the way that the first sermons in the English reformation were preached in Cambridge at that little church, St Edward’s, between King’s and the Guildhall? So the tradition of radical intellectualism goes back at least to that time.) This was a real rabble-rousing speech given by the Vice Chancellor of all people, a man in his late 60’s, and it galvanised everyone. The next part of the story I think you know, which is that he set up an essay competition to answer the question “Who has the right to enslave someone against their will?”, the essay competition that Thomas Clarkson won. I will come to Clarkson later.

Peckard was connected to all sorts of people. The most unlikely person he was connected to was Olauda Equiano, the famous black activist of the late 18th century, an Igbo freed slave whose book An Interesting Narrative, which was his autobiography, was published in 1789; and it was published by a team of subscribers of whom the chief was Peter Peckard. Peter Peckard in other words was the person who organised and financed the publication of the leading black activist literature of the 1790’s. This book went into eight editions, it sold many thousand copies and Peckard was indispensable to it. Equiano married a Cambridgeshire woman, a woman from Soham; and if you are interested there is a plaque on the wall next to the door of Chesterton Church (St Anne’s) and it is a 16-line poem commemorating the death of Equiano’s four year-old daughter. So this is quite a remarkable set of connections. Peckard does deserve much more recognition than he gets. As far as I know, he is not widely known in Magdalene — I have spoken to some historians and library staff who hadn’t heard of him.

There were others, for example Isaac Milner. Isaac Milner was the President of Queens’ college, he was a real Tory bastard basically. He once told Wilberforce to warn off Clarkson from appearing to be a supporter of the French revolution. He was Wilberforce’s mentor, which says something interesting about the nature of college life then, that Wilberforce was here in St. John’s and his mentor was at Queens’. Isaac Milner was a very strong abolitionist and one of the leading members of a society organised to make petitions to Parliament from Cambridge on this subject. It is important to recognise here — and it is a point I will be coming back to — that abolition seems to have united people of highly disparate and conflicting religious views. He was a high Tory churchman. There were other people in this who were non-conformist dissenters and evangelicals and so on; but they could find a point of agreement there. Then there is George Tomline who was Master of Pembroke, Pitt’s college. Pitt we are going to hear more of. George Tomline was the equivalent of a White House chief of staff for Pitt throughout his political career. He was his political advisor as well as having been his Master when Pitt was at college. Pitt and Wilberforce each came up to Cambridge at the age of 17 and they both had Hull connections. In fact, Pitt wrote to his mother soon after he got here; in a letter he said ãMother, I have seen that this town is ripe for the kind of politics that we practice in Yorkshireä. He obviously decided that Cambridge was a suitable place for him to be, because he became the University’s MP. Indeed he was the University’s MP at the time of this activity of Peckard and subsequently Clarkson and others. Pitt’s role in all this, I think, is of tremendous importance. He is the éminence grise of the abolition movement. It is quite clear that he was strongly in favour of it, especially at the beginning. He was one of very few members of his own Tory Party to vote for abolition eventually. The main point however about Pitt was that he was strongly in favour and I would put it to you, and I will come back to the point, that it was because he had these connections with Hull. He was a very close friend of Wilberforce. He, as we know, put Wilberforce up to supporting anti-slavery as a vocation.

Isaac Milner was also Vice Chancellor, Tomline was a Master of a college, Peckard you know about. So you have got these heavy establishment figures in the academy strongly involved in abolition. In addition to these grandees, there were some very prominent figures in Cambridge more generally. The Mayor, thirteen times, was a man called John Mortlock. He was the political representative of the Duke of Portland and he owned the bank in Benet Street which is now occupied by Barclays, so you can see he was not a pauper. He used to meet his friends in the Eagle Pub and in fact Mortlock’s coterie in the Eagle was one of the chief focal points of this Cambridge abolitionist network. He eventually became an MP. In addition to him there was a man called Robert Robinson who was a non-conformist preacher and who formed the Cambridge Constitutional Society which was one of the first to send an abolitionist petition to Parliament. He and Peckard worked very closely together. They once gave anti-slavery sermons at the same time in two different places in Cambridge, illustrating the degree of their co-ordination. Then there was a journalist called Benjamin Flower who was the owner and chief writer for what was one of the most radical magazines in Britain in its day. It was called The Cambridge Intelligencer and it flourished from 1793 to 1803. It was extremely radical in its views. For example, in 1801 Flower advocated slave emancipation by means of revolution, which in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars was quite a risky thing to do.

So here we have quite a remarkable group of people which I think when taken together might suggest that Cambridge was one of the leading centres of abolitionist sentiment, if not perhaps the leading one. And, if you look at the composition of these people, you will see that it undermines our favourite myths about what Cambridge is and was: an isolated fenland town, completely detached from the world and from any engagement in national politics or issues of any contemporary relevance, a place split into an irreducible gap between town and gown. All of these things are undermined. So I think that more research is needed into this network. The reason I have taken some time to lay it out is not simply to celebrate Cambridge but to reinforce Hugh Brogan’s point that what we are talking about here is a series of overlapping networks that sustained the abolition movement both locally and nationally and ultimately internationally. We had better latch onto that, because if we are hoping the problems that face us in our day are going to be solved by the miraculous appearance of a heroic humanitarian leader, I don’t think we will be very successful, because such a leader would have to feed on already existing activist networks.


How did Clarkson fit into all of that? I’ll tell the story in semi-mythical vein. Clarkson was basically a St Paul’s scholar. He was a bright boy, he did very well in maths and he was one of the best Latinists in the University. He won the Latin Essay Prize in 1784 and he entered it in 1785 because he wanted to win two in a row. In other words this was an achiever, a man who was not particularly geared to the substance of the question on slavery. But in the course of researching the essay he read a number of things, notably a book by an American Quaker called Anthony Benezet, An Historical Account of Guinea; and in the course of it he became quite seriously engaged in the question. After he had been awarded the prize, he rode on horseback to London and stopped to water his horse at Wades Mill in Hertfordshire and he propped himself up against a tree, the tree is important for the symbology of all this, this by his own account; and he said to himself that, if he meant what he had written, he should devote his life to it; and he decided that he would. This account struck a chord with me, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen it before. Then I remembered: it is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of how he won the Dijon Prize. The Dijon Prize was established to answer the question, “What has been the contribution of the arts and sciences to civilisation?” Jean-Jacques is walking along a road in rural France and he suddenly gets this blinding answer, so devastating that he bursts into tears, collapses by the side of the road and leans against a tree. The answer that he came up with is that the arts and sciences make a negative contribution to civilisation. So he then tried it out on his friend Dénis Diderot and he said, “What do you think, Dénis, do you think I am going to win with this one?” “I’ll tell you what, nobody else is going to be pushing that line, so you have got a chance.” Anyway, what this is, whether consciously or not, is the Saul on the road to Damascus story with the tree of knowledge thrown in. We have walking along the road, the vision, the life unfolding itself and, of course, the tree.

Clarkson was not a precipitous individual. The first thing he did was to translate into English and expand his Latin prize-winning essay and publish it. That is an important part of this story. Then he inserted himself into the predominantly Quaker network of abolitionists in London, which opened up a network of 50,000 Quakers in the rest of the country. As Hugh said, it is not just the Quakers in all this, but it is hard to see how the networking exercise as Clarkson developed it would have succeeded so easily without their support. Then, as you have been told, he eventually went on a series of fact-finding and publicity trips on horseback, a total of 35,000 miles, it is estimated, over seven years. The first one of these was to Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. This is the only part of his speech that I resent Hugh for, because I was hoping to make some chauvinist remarks about Manchester, but he gave all the plugs that my home town could have ever wanted.

I would just like to take time out at this stage to examine what Clarkson’s method was in this campaigning. Hugh has mentioned some of the most important parts of it, but there is more to it. The first thing that I would emphasise is that these were fieldwork trips, that he insisted on going to see for himself. That is the motto of modern social anthropology and Clarkson knew it instinctively. Secondly he wanted evidence, he wanted first-hand knowledge. But he also wanted to show it to people, so right from the beginning he started buying knick-knacks. In Liverpool he found a nice line in thumb screws and whips and all kinds of things; and he developed what was almost a personal portable museum, a chest that he used to carry around with him to use for demonstration in which he could show both the evils of the slave trade and the positive benefits of the legitimate trade with Africa — all the artefacts and crops and other things that we could gain from legitimate trade. He had a very strong sense for collecting visual things that would shock his audience into recognition.

Clarkson was concerned, as Hugh said, with petitioning, which he may not have invented, but he played a very major role in developing and articulating it. Other methods that were developed at this time (and Clarkson was involved in) included boycotts. In particular, there was a boycott of West Indian sugar. The Wedgewoods were quite heavily involved in the abolition movement at one level or another — Josiah Wedgewood made the medallion with the famous inscription ãAm I not a man and a brother?ä. They boycotted West Indian sugar; they only ate East Indian sugar or none at all. I think it is important to recognise that there were techniques of this kind being developed at the time for influencing the political process. Apart from that of course, we have already heard that he was a tremendous pamphleteer, and that he and others in his network perfected the art of lobbying. One thing that strikes me as very familiar is when I see evidence of delegations from certain parts of England going to the Houses of Parliament and threatening their representatives with de-selection if they don’t toe the line on abolition. This is very much like left-wing Tory MPs being attacked for not being Euro-sceptic enough and threatened with de-selection. So the method of campaigning that Clarkson developed, a method involving petitions, lobbying, pamphleteering, display and so on, is in some ways the best example of pioneering single-issue politics we have; and there is a great deal to be gained from examining and looking at it.

I think above all what Clarkson did was he recognised that there was a need for someone to personify the movement. He saw himself as a manager, he saw that so many things in this kind of network don’t get done unless somebody takes on his shoulders the responsibility for originating, developing and managing the process of getting things done. That was what everyone recognised as his tremendous contribution. He knew that this movement needed someone to take personal responsibility and it is that kind of leadership that earned him the gratitude of so many.


The next question Hugh Brogan has already addressed and it is this: what was the importance of the abolitionists themselves in the tremendous changes that took place at this time? One of the things that I have latched onto in all this, which I think is quite important, is that the West Indies lobby which had so much power in Parliament was under attack from certain quite identifiable sources. Indeed there was evidence in the 1790’s supporting the view that, however great the wealth that was being generated from slavery and the slave trade at that time, it was a declining asset and one that could prevent Britain from moving effectively into a new posture to the world, not simply as an industrial manufacturing power, but in altering the whole geographical scope of its orientation to the world. Somebody mentioned Haiti earlier. It’s one of the great discoveries of the West Indian revolutionary CLR James, in his book The Black Jacobins which was published in 1938, that the Santo Domingo slave revolution of 1791 and afterwards had an immense impact on how people thought about their institutions and their future. The British lost 60,000 soldiers in the West Indies, most of them sent to Santo Domingo to fight the slave revolution. The loss of this army was so great (greater than the total losses of the Peninsular war) that it had severe consequences for the conduct of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe for a number of years. The developments in Santo Domingo in the 1790’s were thus not trivial side events. In any case I think it is fair to say that Pitt from the beginning had as one of his main political strategies to undermine the West Indies lobby in favour of other interests. His own origins were of course in India.

Hull is the only major British port that had nothing whatsoever to do with the slave trade. Wilberforce’s family were merchants in the Baltic fur trade. The Hull merchants and the Yorkshire parliamentary tendency, which was quite powerful throughout this story, had a different orientation to the world than Bristol, Liverpool and London, especially London. They wanted to open up towards Europe and Russia and they also saw the potential of the east and of India in particular far more strongly. So I think we can move beyond the kind of gross explanations that focus on humanitarian activists who for religious principle or whatever were able somehow to move the British Parliament. There is another story which is not quite the Manchester story about industrial capitalism and free wage labour and the fact that slavery could be seen as an impediment, but which is also concerned with conflict between different elements of capital within Britain itself, of which Pitt and Wilberforce were I think fully paid up members. So the issue of abolition does have more play when seen from a political economy perspective; but, as Hugh insisted and I think he is right, it has to be seen also in the light of the religious changes which were taking place at this time.

There is a magisterial book by Boyd Hilton called The Age of Atonement which is about the influence of evangelical religious thinking on social and economic thought in the period roughly speaking from the 1780’s to the 1850’s and he points out quite rightly the very strong correlation that can be found at the ideological level between a certain kind of salvationist evangelicalism and economic individualism. I think that although that book does acknowledge the importance of the anti-slavery argument, it doesn’t push it far enough. It is interesting when you get to people like the Darwins, connected of course to the Wedgewoods, that they often started their meals with a prayer for the emancipation of slaves. Once again slavery provided a focus within a very highly contested range of religious ideologies and practices which nevertheless linked to the idea that human progress is best served if people are left in control of their own economic decision-making. I don’t really have the time to explore this very important question any more than simply to throw it out. It is my belief that there was a revolution going on in Britain from the 1780’s well into the 19th century which had many dimensions, but the most visible dimension of it was the abolition movement. It also has as one of its dimensions Methodism, evangelical Christianity of various kinds and of course the triumph of an ideology of economic individualism. All of these things were combined in the thought and practice of someone like Clarkson. When he made his speeches trying to convert people, he sought to show them that it is in our commercial economic interests to replace the slave trade with a legitimate trade involving Africa. He accepted the arguments of economic individualism and used them at the same time as he was deeply involved in theological matters and felt that these too had to be sorted out as part of the process of thinking things through.

At the same time as there are these arguments, it can’t be denied that very many people were moved by the demands of abolition to quite amazing heights of self-sacrifice. I can only think of the Lancashire cotton famine which took place later at the time of the American Civil War, when from 1861 to 1864 cotton supplies to the Lancashire textile mills were interrupted by a blockade of southern ports. The Lancashire bourgeoisie was lobbying Parliament very heavily to send battleships to break the blockade in favour of the south in order to get the cotton through. Now these were towns, like Burnley, Blackburn and Bury, that had nothing else than textiles. They had been formed just to make cotton goods and there was no cotton. There was tremendous deprivation, yet these workers and their political representatives, agitators and so on, were quite single-minded in prosecuting the case of abolition and the victory of the north in the American Civil War. I think it is really very sad if we imagine that there were not generalised humanitarian impulses, which by all means may well be rooted in social interests, but which nevertheless need to be articulated by someone and were by these leaders.

So the position that I have been moving towards is an argument that abolition was part of a series of overlapping ideological movements linked to a massive transformation in British society. I think it is fair to say that this anti-slavery movement was Britain’s equivalent of the French revolution in its political significance. The fact that it had an international scope made it an interesting reflection of what British society was at that time. For me the reason why people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to speak to each other in terms of political and religious sympathies, were able to come together so often around the issue of abolition was that it was an object that existed outside their normal society. In other words, they could be against it, they could seek to destroy it (unless they happen to be working for a living in Liverpool or Bristol) without actually damaging themselves. I think this is one of the keys to successful social movements. It is very hard for us to engage with an evil that is in ourselves, very hard for us to objectify something that we practice. If you can identify an object that is significantly external and say, we want to do away with the slave trade then ultimately slavery itself, that is something that people can come behind quite easily.


It seems to me that that was also the appeal of anti-apartheid — that South Africa was somewhere else. If you look at what apartheid was, it was just an exaggeration of the political principles that organise 20th century society everywhere. In other words, it was the idea that we govern society by separating people, that society can tolerate massive inequality, that physical separation and restriction of movement is indispensable to the political organisation of society. The South Africans went further than anyone along those lines and created something we could easily recognise as an abomination. But the principles they were applying were applied in some degree everywhere and are in fact intrinsic to the political organisation of our world today. As far as I am concerned, there isn’t all that much difference between apartheid and our own immigration policies today. I find them shameful. But you try mobilising people against our immigration policies in the way that you could get them to boycott Chilean grapes or South African wine. I say this, not to be cynical nor to disparage, but to express what seems to me to be an anthropological truth, that people mobilise themselves most effectively against a negation, against something which they experience negatively. And they can do it most effectively if that negation is external to themselves. I think that slavery occupied such a role in mobilising the first international human rights movement and anti-apartheid functioned very similarly. Because, if you think about it, since Mandela was released and for the last five years, that whole anti-apartheid sentiment, all the methods of mobilisation, all the support has virtually evaporated. We don’t know what to do with South Africa now; it is not so clear what kind of problem it poses for world society. In my view South Africa requires our engagement now even more than before. But it is very hard for people to get their heads round it, because it isn’t something simple that we can stamp out and because it forces us to ask how our societies are organised; how is the world that we are living in organised?

Let us go back to those research students from India and Africa, people who come to Cambridge and say I can’t engage with the world through this place; it is just stopping me from doing it. What is it stopping them from doing? It is stopping them from confronting what they know is the crisis of our civilisation. What is this world that we are living in? I would say it is the moment of the formation of world society. We are the lucky generation that actually was there when the world became unified for the first time. I don’t think there is anybody on this planet who isn’t now part of a single network of exchange of goods and services and information. After all, it is only about thirty years since we first saw the Earth as a whole from the outside and saw it as an objective unity. We are the generation that discovered universal connection and movement, with the transport and communications revolutions of our time. We are in a position first of all to experience the world as it has never been experienced before; and second we have means of communication at long distance within it which are quite without any parallel, which change the whole nature of our social relations.

Imagine what Clarkson would do with the internet! Clarkson was extremely limited; look what the poor man had to do, he had to jump on a horse and go charging all round the country very laboriously over very bad roads; he had to risk being beaten up by Bristol seamen and so on. He had to get out books and pamphlets and the rest of it. The point about Clarkson is that he made the best of every opportunity that was available to him and those like him; and that was his tremendous achievement. What about us, what are we doing in all this? Setting up little mailing lists on the internet to discuss the price of fertiliser in Malawi. Well actually people are using the internet in all kinds of ways to mobilise and to pass information and transform the nature of knowledge. So the first thing that I would argue is that we are in a new stage of human society. It is just breaking for us, it is hard for us to see, but it is clear enough what is going on. This makes our time as radical a period in the history of the world as any other, including that of the 1790’s.

But what is the other main feature of this world? It is incredible, mind-boggling inequality, the inequality of a world which leaves the vast majority of its people almost completely devoid of material resources, people who don’t have a cent to spend, more or less. We have been sitting through a prolonged depression of the world economy, despite the fact that some privileged industrial societies have been making remarkable developments. But have these things transformed the world economy? No. We are still sluggishly moving along and in the meantime the number of poor people in the world is becoming greater and greater. If in the 1930’s the politicians of this country were frightened enough by unemployment and poverty to do something about it, through Keynesian economics or in other ways, when if ever are those who currently sit on this widening inequality going to do something about it? When are we going to recognise that the future of humanity depends on reducing the obscene material inequalities that exist on this planet?

Do you know what people in Central Africa experience for a living, in terms of their exposure to violence, disease, hunger? How can we live in such a world with those people and not feel that we want to do something about it? We can be indifferent to all that because we believe in the methods for separating ourselves from them, that is, the political organisation of movement, the international controls that keep the poor people out and keep us, we hope, in and safe. We know that this isn’t going to work: the leakage is already massive from Africa into Europe and from Central America into the United States. We know that we can’t keep them out. The only way that they can be kept out is if they want to stay at home. And yet we still have territorial states governed by politicians who imagine that they can appeal to the conservative instincts of their own constituencies, to keep out the world’s poor and preserve whatever they can of the homogeneity of their own rich national societies.

This, as far as I am concerned, is an obscenity. It is something that we are all implicated in, because this is how we live, we all live by these structures. I can’t see that they will survive; they won’t survive. So it does seem to me, in conclusion, that there is a role for engaged intellectuals. First of all, we have to acquire a better grasp of what is actually going on in this world now. And I think that Cambridge University is extremely poorly placed as an official organisation to do that job. The way we have organised the disciplines, the way we have organised our curricula and our courses makes it virtually impossible for this university, as it is officially constituted, to address that question. But the fact is that Cambridge University, as I said when I started out, is also all these other people living in the cracks, people who are not defined by the official syllabus, people who are driven to seek a new and expanded universality, who know that 20th century academic life is all washed up now. We have done well: we have got molecular biology, we have got physics, we did well; but it isn’t going to see us through to making some new understanding of the world in which we are going to live in the 21st century. I happen to think that Cambridge University will make this transition, will rise to the challenge because I have actually met people around here who are engaged in this question on one level or another.

I will have to end with the observation that I think it is very unlikely we will get another Clarkson. There was a time in the past when social movements could be personified in that way. I suspect in the conditions that I have just outlined very briefly, the new social opportunities that exist for communication and making relationships, that individual personality will matter rather less than it did in the abolition movement. I think Hugh Brogan has indicated, as I have, that the abolition movement in any case was only superficially those leading personalities; and, if we want to consider the relevance of that period to our own, then we have to move towards an analysis of the social context of intellectual life.

One Comment

  1. [...] In 1996 I gave a not dissimilar lecture in the same place: Cambridge, Clarkson and the international movement for human rights. [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.