Freedom and the Fabians

Following on from Donald Rooum’s more general writeup, this extract is from John Quail’s Slow Burning Fuse, currently out of stock at Freedom (though we intend to print more at some point). It goes into a bit more depth about the founding of the Press in the 19th century and its relationship with the socialist movement. As Donald noted in the last blog, Freedom was in part founded after the folding of Henry Seymour’s individualist-minded Anarchist magazine. 

The first number of Freedom in October 1886 was very different from Seymour’s Anarchist. It was sober, respectable and theoretically coherent. All contributers were anonymous — except that everyone knew Peter Kropotkin wrote for it. The keynote of its long life was given in its first article. After a review of the contemporary situation, man’s constant struggle for freeeom and the uselessness of participation in the structures of repression for achieving freedom, the piece finishes:

“Such, in rough outline, is the general aspect of the Anarchist Socialism out paper is intended to set forth and by the touchstone of this belief we propose to try the current ideas and modes of action of existing Society.”

Here it is made clear that the paper is not considered so much an agitational newspaper but as a general propagandist paper reviewing events as they take place outside. Unlike Commonweal or The Anarchist it was not designed as a newspaper of combatants. Neither did it consider itself at any time the newspaper for the anarchist movement but as the newspaper of the Freedom Group. The Group was not open, it’s “membership was always limited and confidential.” The Group included in addition to Kropotkin Dr Burns Gibs, Mrs Dryhurst, Frank Hyde and his wife, and Charlotte Wilson who was effectively the editor of Freedom. Charlotte Wilson remained editor of until 1895 and it was largely due to her efforts that the paper appeared consistently over that time. She had first become interested in anarchism during the trial of Kropotkin and other anarchists in Lyons in 1883, and by 1884 had become an anarchist. Born Charlotte Mary Martin in 1854, the daughter of a surgeon, she received “the best education then available to girls.” During 1873-4 she attended the institution at Cambridge which a few years later became Newnham  College. After leaving university, she married Arthur Wilson, a stockbroker, and settled in Hampstead, a fashionable suburb of London. By 1886 they were living a somewhat expensively appointed simple life  at Wildwood Farm (later renamed ‘Wyldes’) on the edge of  Hampstead Heath.

She had joined the Fabian Society in 1884 and in December was elected to its executive. In addition to her two contributions to Justice on anarchism she also wrote the section on anarchism in the fourth Fabian tract ‘What Socialism Is’ which was published in June 1886. At this time the Fabian Society had not firmly espoused Social Democratic electioneering and was basically a discussion group for socialist intellectuals with no fixed programme or ideology. It was its openness at this time which made the publication of anarchist material possible. But this openness was too open for some of the members and steps were taken to find out the extent of Mrs Wilson’s influence and so establish a policy of parliamentary activity.

fabian-society.jpg

At a meeting in London in September 1886 the parliamentarians proposed that the Fabian Society should organise itself into a political party. William Morris proposed and Charlotte Wilson seconded an amendment which stressed the need for the education of the people as to their position and to steadily keep the principles of socialism before them and whereas no Parliamentary party can exist without compromise and concession which would hinder that education and obscure those principles: it would be a false step for Socialists to attempt to take part in the Parliamentary contest.” This amendment was overwhelmingly defeated. Charlotte Wilson resigned from the executive of the Society in April 1887.

The Freedom Group, however, betrayed distinctly Fabian tendencies — not so much in any penchant for electioneering as in its exclusiveness and its commitment to ‘permeation* of other bodies with anarchist ideas as opposed to using the paper as the nucleus for the organisation of other autonomous groups. It can be guessed that this was Charlotte Wilson’s natural preference. Kropotkin, who had taken part in more direct agitational and organisational work in the past, now also seemed to prefer a more discreet role. This was partly due to his desire not to upset the authorities with regard to his residence in England, to failing health and to his difficulties with English. French was the court language in Russia and with it he had no trouble. English was another matter: “His pronunciation was peculiar until one grew used to it. ‘Own’ rhymed with ‘town’, ‘law’ was ‘low’, and ‘the sluffter fields of Europe’ became a kindly joke amongst us.”

Manuscripts in the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam show his written English to have been defective. In order to write English propaganda he needed sub-editors and the Freedom Group represents from this point of view a ‘front organisation’ for Kropotkin. Whatever the difficulties, though, he had great personal prestige at this time in the English socialist movement and it was his presence that rubbed some of this prestige off on to the other Freedom Group members. His discretion by no means forced him completely into the background, however. In the 1880s he is to be found lecturing to a large number of meetings, bad English or not. He also formed friendships with the Hyndmans and William Morris. The S.D.F. regularly reprinted his Appeal to the Young over the years. William Morris and he met at a celebration of the Commune shortly after his arrival in England. Soon they were to have long discussions and were in close contact, Kropotkin speaking occasionally at the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League and attending some of the Sunday suppers at Morris’s home. “It is doubtful that Morris made any systematic study of Kropotkin’s anarchist writings, but he did have ample access to Kropotkin’s ideas, and arguments during the last years of his participation in League affairs.” It was probably through this early contact with Morris that the Commonweal press facilities were used to print Freedom. As time went by the Freedom Group also used branches of the Socialist League to distribute Freedom — Freedom certainly reached Scotland and Norwich by being ordered through the Socialist League office. It is doubtful whether this ‘permeation’ would have been possible without the prestige of Kropotkin.

Friedrich Engels wrote in April 1886: “… the Anarchists are making rapid progress in the Socialist League. Morris and Bax — one as an emotional socialist and the other as a chaser after philosophical paradoxes — are wholly under their control for the present.” Yet a rather different view is given by Max Nettlau of this period. He points out that Kropotkin had the choice of working with the Socialist League and preferred to work with first Seymour and then the Freedom Group. Indeed Kropotkin wrote to Morris in reply to a request for articles for Commonweal saying he had too much work on hand with La Revolt and the Anarchist together with the scientific articles by which he earned his bread. Reasonable though this refusal might sound, it nevertheless represented a political choice, a choice Nettlau described as:

… regrettable, for in 1886 and 1887 the League contained the very best Socialist elements of the time, men who had deliberately rejected Parliamentarianism and reformism and who worked for the splendid free Communism of William Morris or for broadminded revolutionary Anarchism. If Kropotkin’s experience and ardour had helped this movement we might say today Kropotkin and William Morris as we say Elisee Reclus and Kropotkin. Unfortunately we cannot say so. There was a latent lack of sympathy between the Anarchists of the League and those of the Freedom Group in those early years; the latter were believed by the former to display some sense of superiority, being in possession of definitely elaborated Anarchist-Communist theories… if both efforts had been coordinated a much stronger movement would have been created.

Thus it is made clear that the Freedom Group in no way wished to become organically linked with the Socialist League but were prepared to use the branch organisation of the League to distribute their paper. When members of the Socialist League were recruited — as, say, John Turner and Alfred Marsh were in 1887 — their activities in each body were kept separate. Thus it was not from the group round Freedom that the ‘anarchists’ in the League received consistent encouragement and support or received their political education — except as general readers of the paper or through attendance at Anarchist meetings.

It is more than likely that Nettlau is naive in ascribing the “latent lack of sympathy” between the Freedom Group and the Anarchists in the League to the alleged “sense of superiority, being in possession of definitely elaborated Anarchist Communist theories” of the Freedom Group. This amounts to an accusation of inverted snobbery and philistinism. With the exception of Kropotkin, the militant anti-parliamentarians in the League seemed to have looked on the Freedom Group with some suspicion not as clever theorists but as “middle class faddists” to use Nicoll’s phrase. He wrote:

“… neither Kitz, Mowbray or I were particularly friendly (to the Freedom Group). We looked upon them as a collection of middle class faddists, who took up with the movement as an amusement, and regretted that Kropotkin and other ‘serious’ people ever had anything to do with them. But they called themselves ‘Anarchists!’ and that had great influence with many of our international comrades.”

This was a suspicion which extended to many of the middle-class members of the League. William Morris was acceptable because he was completely free of pretension, and seemed prepared to take the risks and do the work. More to the point perhaps, he seemed to understand what it meant to live the worker’s life. “The whole of his poetry and prose is permeated with sympathy and love of the poor,” wrote Frank Kitz, “the victims of landlord and capitalistic greed. This note of sympathy distinguishes him from many who surrounded him and who babbled of art and culture, but were mere tuft-hunters devoid of any desire to raise the status of the working class… Morris’s preference for the society of his humbler confreres gave great offence to some superior persons.” Kitz is here referring to Fabians of the George Bernard Shaw type. But one can see the reasons for suspicion of the sincerity of anarchists like Charlotte Wilson on the part of working-class militants in the face of her middle-class life-style. A contemporary, Margaret Cox, later Lady Oliver, wrote of a time around 1886: “She seemed to me a peaceful sort of anarchist and so did all the others who came to meetings, some of them Russian. Someone read a paper and this was followed by discussion, often very vigorous and exciting, lasting until Mrs Wilson interrupted with sandwiches and drinks, after which we all turned out on the Heath.” It all seemed a little too genteel.

It really seems then that the anarchism which was developing in the League received only passing encouragement from the Freedom Group. In fact, as anarchism grew within the League the Freedom Group finally disengaged from it. The anarchists in the League developed their anarchism in their own way, and in response to their own needs. Briefly, they were due to the need to develop the ideological counter-attack to the parliamentarians in the League and the need for a wider vision of a new libertarian society under the pressure of events.

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