A short biography of leading Scottish anarchist Tom Bell, a marine engineer and propagandist who travelled the world, finally settling in the US.
Thomas Hastie Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1867. He should not be confused with another Tom Bell, fellow Scot , Red Clydesider and one of the founders of the Communist Party. He acquired fluency in French, Italian, Spanish and German thanks to his job as a ship’s engineer, visiting all the Mediterranean countries, South Africa, the United States and South America.
As a young man he joined the Scottish Land and Labour League and in the 1880s became an anarchist through his association with the Socialist League. He was active in the Freedom group in London. In 1892 he returned to Edinburgh and carried on intense anarchist propaganda with J. Blair Smith and McCabe. He established a friendship there with Patrick Geddes, the biologist and town planner and persuaded him to bring over Elisée Reclus, the anarchist and geographer, to lecture at Edinburgh University. Emma Goldman mentions Bell “of whose propagandistic zeal and daring we had heard much in America”.
Staying in Paris he had urged French anarchists to have open-air meetings, but they were reluctant. He went to the Place de la Republique, one of the most central and busiest squares, after having distributed handbills about meeting there the following Sunday afternoon. There was a big crowd there, also plenty of policemen. He climbed up a lamp-post padlocked to a crosspiece and started speaking. The police called for a file, but he continued speaking till his voice gave out and then nonchalantly produced the key. Police then threatened him with prosecution for “insults to the Army and the law” but all Paris laughed and the authorities decided not to prosecute. After 2 weeks in jail he was expelled as “too dangerous a man to be allowed loose in France”. He married the anarchist John Turner’s sister Lizzie.
On the visit of Tsar Nicholas II to Britain, Bell went with McCabe to Leith where he was landing. Separated and although surrounded by Highlanders, territorials and infantry, Bell and McCabe got through to the Tsar’s carriage and shouted in his face “Down with the Russian tyrant! To hell with all the empires!”. Again the authorities were not inclined to prosecute, because a Scottish jury would probably throw out any charges.
In 1898, Bell, who suffered from asthma all his life, went back to London and got a job as the (long-suffering) secretary to the man of letters Frank Harris, famous for his friendship with Oscar Wilde and his womanising, as revealed in his Life and Loves. Harris is suspected of stealing Bell’s experiences as a cowboy near the Mexican border for his own fake cowboy memories.
Through Harris, Bell got to know Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, George Bernard Shaw and others. Bell wrote a book about Wilde in his Oscar Wilde Without Whitewash in memory of those times, unfortunately never published. After 7 years in that position, he had a disagreement with Harris over the latter’s biography, which he thought was unjust to Wilde.
He went to New York in 1905, and in 1911 finally settled in the United States for good, becoming a farmer in Phoenix, Arizona. He spent the last 20 years of his life in Los Angeles. Both Bell’s wife Lizzie Turner and his sister Jessie Bell Westwater emigrated with him to the USA and were involved in the movement. Throughout his life he remained active in the movement, maintaining lifelong friendships with Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Rudolf Rocker.
Rocker said, “I saw him again in Los Angeles, when he was an old man. He was ill. His mop of red hair and his bushy beard were now white. His giant frame (he was well over six foot) was bent. But his mind was active; he was still working and speaking for the movement”.
In a letter to the Yiddish anarchist paper Die Fraye Arbeter Shtime in 1940, Bell declared, “We become in our old age crabby, blind, deaf, lame or asthmatic. And our movement is now completely overwhelmed in a gigantic world-wide wave of reaction. But, ah, when I look back to the glorious days and the glorious comrades of our young movement, I am stirred to the depths by affection and pride”.
Tom Bell died in 1942 at the age of 75.
This article was taken from Organise! magazine #66