In a narrow pass
- A Spark in the Ashes: The Pamphlets of John Warr edited by Stephen Sedley and Lawrence Kaplan
Verso, 116 pp, £9.95, October 1992, ISBN 0 86091 599 9
Stephen Sedley and Lawrence Kaplan seek to map a new course for the post-socialist Left, and to turn attention away from that beguiling but now exploded theme, egalitarianism. The long fixation with egalitarianism has, they complain, allowed the Right today to ‘appropriate the word liberty and equate it with the acquisition of power’; and the phenomenon of Thatcherism would certainly bear them out. To enable a redirected Left to know itself, they have edited the eloquent works of a pre-socialist exponent of liberty, John Warr, who in the months around the execution of Charles I in January 1649 urged sweeping legal and political reforms. In Warr’s eyes, ‘liberty was the antithesis of power,’ not of property as Winstanley the Digger might have maintained: ‘it represented both the restraint of the mighty by the law and a people’s right to overthrow rulers who abused their power.’
Vol. 14 No. 23 · 3 December 1992
I am not permitted to respond to Derek Hirst’s personal remarks about my judicial doppelgänger (LRB, 19 November), but I wish to say something about his suggestion that my co-editor and I have tinkered with the evidence in our edition of John Warr’s pamphlets, A Spark in the Ashes.
As the introduction makes clear, we have transcribed Warr into modern orthography for ease of reading. It was a careful editorial choice to keep Warr’s capitals for ‘the Everlasting Gospel’. To say that we have done it ‘with no explanation or even announcement’ is a bit silly, since anyone can see the capitals and the explanation is set out at length in the introduction. It is correspondingly untrue to say that with this one exception we ‘modernise and lower-case throughout’, as a flick through the book will show. We use capitals wherever we think a modern writer would.
That the radical millenarian heresy of the Everlasting Gospel was espoused by Warr is, we think, clear from the text (which Professor Hirst, who bases his critique on the premise that Warr or his printer was ‘liberal in the use of capitalisation, for nouns and modifiers alike’, may not have seen in its original form). The two key passages of ‘Administrations Civil and Spiritual’ – the second passage being the pamphlet’s concluding words – read in the original:
Within this Vail are many Secrets, which the fleshly Birth, or the man of Form, neither understands himself, nor can bear in others; for here is hid the Everlasting Gospel, and the spiritual man converses with all the mysteries contained therein.
A particular View of all these, and other secrets of this state (being all parts pf the Everlasting Gospel, not circumscribed in word or letter, but bearing an equal latitude with the essential Will, of which it is the Image,) may be discoursed of distinctly, if the Lord will, another time.
The introduction sets out our reasons for thinking that Warr was referring in these passages to something known and particular, not simply to some inchoate body of doctrine. If Derek Hirst thinks otherwise, it would be courteous to give some reasons rather than resort to the cheap charge that the editors ‘slant their editing to make their point’. A decision to substitute lower-case initials would have been just as much a ‘slant’, but one that Derek Hirst happened to approve of.
Whether you are an advocate or a disinterested scholar (to quote Hirst’s interesting dichotomy), a writer or a reviewer, impugning the standards of people you happen to disagree with is not a good advertisement for your own position.