From LSHG Newsletter #45 (Summer 2012)
Bradlaugh contra Marx:Radicalism and Socialism in the First International
By Deborah Lavin
Socialist History Society Occasional Publication No 28,
London 2011, 86 pages paperback £4
The National Secular Society and the politics of atheism constitute a feature of modern British society, thanks to the work of Richard Dawkins and others. The NSS was founded by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866, yet he remains a relatively obscure historical figure in the early twenty-first century.
Deborah Lavin has produced some important new research on Bradlaugh’s role in late Victorian politics and Marx’s successful battle to keep him off the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association.
Lavin’s book is a work of historical recovery and I won’t spoil it for readers by providing a blow by blow account. Suffice to say she traces Bradlaugh’s progress from a rising young radical in the 1850s, through his early job as a clerk for a dodgy solicitor, to his position as probably the most charismatic radical platform speaker of the day and eventually Liberal MP for Northampton.
Lavin argues that at every turn his actual activities were far less honourable and radical than it appeared to his audience of artisans and craft workers. She notes that while he risked jail with Annie Besant for publishing James Knowlton’s book on contraception The Fruits of Philosophy, in reality he was a neo-
Malthusian not an advocate of the rights of working class women. Further he was reasonably sure, as turned out to be the case, that he would not actually serve a jail term.
When it comes to Bradlaugh’s long battle not to swear an oath on the Bible as an MP but affirm, Lavin does not deny his tenacity but points out that from the first, he was prepared when it came to it, to swear on the Bible.
In short, Bradlaugh’s radical image was rather different from his actual practice. It was his politics that drew the attention of Marx. In the 1850s a young Bradlaugh and Marx shared some political positions, for example around the Sunday Trading riots.
Bradlaugh did not fully articulate his anti-socialist and pro-individualist politics until his debates with H.M. Hyndman in the 1880s. In between he became perhaps the leading opponent of socialist politics in the radical and working class movement.
Marx clashed with Bradlaugh, particularly concerning the Paris Commune of which Marx was a prominent defender, while Bradlaugh was a leading opponent and supporter of the French Government.
This clash is at the centre of Lavin’s work. Bradlaugh was a very well known figure in late nineteenth Victorian politics. Marx, by contrast, was largely unknown. As Lavin points out, it was more or less impossible for a radical worker to get access to any writings of Marx in English in this period. Marx was known to the English authorities but not to a working class audience.
Yet in the International Working Men’s Association Marx had built the leading organisation for radical working class political sentiment. If Bradlaugh was to cement his position as the leading figure of Victorian radical working-class politics he needed to play a role in it.
Lavin shows that Marx went to great efforts to block Bradlaugh and his supporters from the IWMA, an endeavour in which he was successful. This is a work of historical re-discovery, as neither the Collected Works of Marx nor books on him make much play of the dispute between the two men.
In general Lavin makes a good argument for the existence of the dispute and its importance, although on occasions she strays over into polemic in favour of Marx’s position against Bradlaugh. I don’t have an issue about that but it doesn’t really strengthen the historical points being made.
In fact Lavin’s case may well have been strengthened by arguing a case for the importance of Bradlaugh. The National Secular Society may well have been the leading proletarian organisation in London in the later 1860s and 1870s. The fact that the majority of its supporters held ideas which were opposed to those of Marx, underlines why he was so interested in Bradlaugh and vice versa.
Even so this is an important piece of research that deserves a wide audience.