radicalism and socialism in the first international

22 02 2012

Deborah Lavin, Bradlaugh Contra Marx, Radicalism and Socialism in the First International, Socialist History Society, London 2011, 86 pages paperback, 9780955513848, £4. Reviewed by Terry Liddle.

An essential part of the Communist world outlook is the materialist conception of history. We do not study history from a sense of nostalgia or to advance our academic careers. In the here and now we study our past so that today we might struggle for a new tomorrow, a communist tomorrow in which capitalism is itself history
This is a fascinating glimpse into the socialist and radical politics of the 1860s which of course have a meaning for the 21st century. On the one hand there is Karl Marx, a Communist and political exile in London. On the other Charles Bradlaugh who rose from humble origins to become the leading 19th century advocate of Secularism and a MP for Northampton. Both were political giants. In his day Bradlaugh was far better known than Marx. Although the National Secular Society, which Bradlaugh founded in 1866, is still going there is nothing of his prolific writings in print. Marx is still very much in print and in the light of the current economic crisis, his theories are hotly debated.

The First International, albeit short-lived – it lasted less than a decade, was the first attempt by the working class to organise on an international scale. Marx joined almost by accident, being invited to join as a delegate from Germany by Victor Le Lubez, a French political exile and close friend of Bradlaugh who was an active secularist both in Greenwich and nationally. Marx quickly became a leading figure in the International.

Ms Lavin is an undoubted protagonist of Marx and seeks to undermine Bradlaugh as an heroic figure. She shows that Bradlaugh’s role in the trial of himself and Annie Besant under the Obscene Publications Act for publishing and distributing the birth control pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy was far less heroic than his been depicted Besant was related to the Liberal Lord Chancellor Lord Hatherley and Ms Levin alleges that he used his influence to ensure that Mrs Besant, and Bradlaugh, were not imprisoned. On the other hand Edward Truelove, a former Chartist and the International’s printer, got four months for distributing the pamphlet.

Ms Lavin decries Bradlaugh and Besants’ neomalthusianism which sees the sole cause of working class poverty as their being profligate in their reproduction. We hear its echo today in talk of a broken society, chavs and feral kids. She accuses Besant of giving incorrect information in her birth control pamphlet The Population Question. She does not mention Dan Chatterton, a one man revolt against gin and gospel, the monarchy and capitalism who while working with the rather puritanical Malthusian League, advocated sex for pleasure.

Ms Lavin depicts Bradlaugh’s role in the struggle over the oaths question, he wanted to affirm his loyalty to Victoria, her heirs and successors rather than swear a religious oath, as more accidentally than deliberately heroic. Bradlaugh was a leading Reublican but Ms Lavin doesn’t address the conflict been Bradlaugh and John De Morgan, a former member of the Cork Branch of the International, in the Republican movement of the 1870s.

Ms Lavin writes that Marx’s daughter Laura says that Marx went to hear Bradlaugh speak in the 1850s then seeing him as a muddleheaded radical possibly capable of reform. In any event Marx did his utmost to keep professional atheists out of the International, in particular the Holyoake brothers who were opponents of Bradlaugh. Here I think he was wrong. George Holyoake was a pioneer co-operator, when he died some nearly 400 co-operative societies subscribed to erect a building in his memory. He could have brought many co-operators and secularists into the International.

Bradalugh was a leading member of the Reform League which had been formed in 1866 to advocate the extension of the franchise to more working class males. It staged some of the most militant demonstrations since Chartist times Ms Lavin compares these to the anti-Poll Tax demonstrations of the 1990s and more recent student demonstrations against rises in tuition fees.. During one demonstrators tore down the railings in Hyde Park and used them to defend themselves from police baton charges. Ms Levin shows how the leaders of the Reform League were bought by the Liberals to mobilise newly enfranchised workers behind Gladstone and keep independent working class candidates out of the contest. Although initially opposed by the Liberals, Bradlaugh eventually became an official Liberal Party candidate. Nowadays he wouldn’t even get into New Labour.

The first International was wrought with conflict between Marx’s Communism, English trade unionists who in essence remained Liberals, followers of the French anarchist Proudhon and supporters of the Russian anarchist Bakunin. All of these came together to support the Paris Commune of 1871, which was drowned in blood by the forces of reaction. Although Bradlaugh was a Freemason and the French masons supported the commune, he opposed it. This lead to a fierce clash between Marx and Bradlaugh in the pages of the Eastern Post.

Marx’s first battle in the International was against the followers of the Italian nationalist Mazzini. Although Mazzini was religious, he had the support of secularists including Le Lubez and Bradlaugh. The supporters of Mazzini only left the International after Bradlaugh’s application to join had been rejected.

Ms Lavin writes that Bradlaugh was strangely drawn to anyone opposed to Marx, including the French exile Felix Pyat, described by Marx as a fourth rate author of melodramas.

The International soon fell apart and was in a bad way, by 1872 it was in effect dead. At its Hague conference its general council was moved from London to New York. Bradlaugh now tried to form his own International. From 1877 this was muted in Bradlaugh’s weekly The National Reformer. Bradlaugh had wanted to call the new body The International Workingman’s Association, the original name of the International, but it was decided to call it the International Labour Union. Among its supporters were the Rev. S.Headlam, and the anti-socialist trade unionist Edith Simcox, one of the first female delegates to the TUC. The ILU began to slip out of Bradlaugh’s control. It supported cotton workers striking against a pay cut and when George Howell attacked Marx, Harriet Law, who had been involved in the original International, offered Marx space to reply in her Secular Chronicle. Law and Hales, who had been involved in the original International proposed a lecturing circuit to peach socialism and Bradlaugh withdrew his support. After that the ILU faded out of existence.
Marx died in 1883 and the following year Henry Hyndman formed the Democratic Federation, which soon became the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organization. He debated with Bradlaugh and many seem to think Bradlaugh won. But within months two of the triumvirate which led the NSS, Annie Besant and Edward Aveling, had become socialists.

Today we live in a world of growing religious fundamentalism and crisis ridden capitalism. When kids with no stake in society riot against poverty, hopelessness and exclusion the first thing the ruling class does apart from filling the prison is call in the peddlers of religion. But there is no answer in prayer!
Revolutionaries are as much in crisis as that which they are revolting against. But can a new communist movement, which is militantly anti-capitalist atheist and based on the material and mental self-emancipation of the working class emerge? What can we learn from the past to aid this process?

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2 responses

23 02 2012
John Weir

Bradlaugh’s main enthusiasm was anti Church, having been thrashed by his father, for upsetting the Vicar of St Peter’s Bethnal Green at his confirmation. He left home and joined a regiment in Ireland, although under age. He would have been irritated by the fact that Revd Stuart Headlam, also Vicar of St Matthew’s Bethnal Green, was active supporter of the International Labour Union (and paid bail for Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol). Bradlaugh was an angry and confused man, and Marx was quite right to see him as “muddle headed”. He was motivated by whatever he was against, rather than having a clear vision of what he was for, and therefore his influence as Republican, and in Indian affairs was transitary rather than lasting.
Fr John Weir, former Vicar St Peters Bethnal Green.

28 02 2012

Oddly perhaps, Rev Stewart Headlam became friends of sorts with Bradlaugh and acted as a reference for Bradlaugh’s Hall of Science evening classes held at the Old St from 1879-1888
(A reference from an Anglican vicar was required by the Department of Arts and Science which set the external examinations the students took at the end of the year


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