A short biography of Alfred Marsh, English anarchist communist who doggedly kept the Freedom newspaper going for many years
Alfred Marsh was born in Clerkenwell ( like Guy Aldred, another anarchist communist) on 3rd November 1858. His mother died whilst he was young and his father, of Radical persuasions, was a close friend of the Freethought pioneer George Holyoake. His second marriage was to a daughter of Holyoake. Alfred was to say that he had the “good fortune to enter life with a secularist education” with “ the advantage to read and and hear discussed the principles of Free Thought from early childhood on”. As a result he was influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen and Dr. Henry Travis.
In around 1883 he read Bakunin’s God and the State which left a lasting impression on him. At the same time he was thrown out by his father , who despite his “advanced “ opinions, would not countenance the relationship of his son with one of the women workers from his brush factory.
For the next twenty years Alfred had to support himself with his earnings from working as a violinist in theatre orchestras and by giving music lessons. In fact, whilst these earnings were not considerable, he used them to finance the Freedom newspaper for periods of time.
He joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1886 but soon departed, disgusted by the machinations of H. M Hyndman and co. He was much influenced by the Chicago martyrs and became an anarchist-communist as a result. He met John Turner in that year at the Phoenix Social Democratic Club in Hatton Wall, Hatton Gardens. This started a friendship that lasted until the death of Marsh.When the group around the Freedom newspaper set up discussion meetings in February 1888, he was among those who attended regularly. His first talk at Farringdon Hall attacked the labour leader John Burns and his view of social democracy as a stepping stone to communism. He remarked that advocates of a stepping-stone policy often took a step backwards instead of forward. In September he read a paper on ‘Work and Social Utility’, which then became his first article in Freedom in October. He started contributing regularly to Freedom usually anonymously , for example his Anarchism and Organisation, or as DIABOL or M.
Freedom stopped publishing in January 1895 but he soon re-started it in May of the same year and on the advice of William Wess, asked the ex-members of the defunct Commonweal to join him- John Turner, Tom Cantwell, and Joseph Presburg.
As well as editing Freedom for the next twenty years he also edited the first eight numbers of the paper geared to workplace agitation that was published by Freedom Press, the Voice of Labour. He was a firm believer in the value of cheap anarchist propaganda and when his father died he was able to touch an inheritance. He used this to finance Freedom and to bring out the first complete edition in English of God and the State as well as being able to reprint all the Freedom Press pamphlets, as well as a series of propaganda leaflets, in 1909.
In early 1910 he was already in poor health and he went with his wife on his only journey abroad to Paris and the South of France, going on to visit Kropotkin in Rapallo. He was dismayed to find him surrounded by rich sycophants and with little time to see his old anarchist friends.
His deteriorating health meant that he had to pass the editorship of Freedom over to Tom Keell, although he still acted as adjudicator over controversial articles.
His health now began to seriously worsen and the cancer from which he was suffering meant that he could rarely be in London, spending most of his time in Hastings. In September 1914 he was operated on but he died not long after on 13th October 1914.
He was always considered a modest and retiring person by his comrades. During the worst days of the anarchist movement in that period with the Jingoist reaction of the Boer Wars he managed to see that Freedom kept on appearing. The Notes that appeared on the front page were penned by him.
As Tom Keell was to testify the existence of Freedom was almost completely down to Alfred Marsh , to “his courage and his faith in Anarchism. His pen and his purse were always at its service, and on several occasions his last half-sovereign ensured the publication of the paper... As a writer he was simple and clear. To him, the Social Revolution meant a revolution in ideas and a clean sweep of the mass of superstition-economic, religious and sexual- which clogs the minds of people”. ( Quoted by Becker).
The most concise summary of his ideas appeared in the article Anarchist Communism: its Aims and Principles which appeared in the Reformers’ Year Book:1902.
Quail implies that Marsh was an unquestioning associate of Kropotkin, aiding and abetting the latter’s grip on Freedom. Nettlau, who knew Marsh well ,contradicts this, saying that he was clear sighted about Kropotkin’s faults and that he was one of he few people who could make Kropotkin understand what was not possible. Guy Aldred’s nasty comments about Marsh being a dilettante are not borne out by Marsh’s commitment in both time and money to the editing of Freedom.
Aldred, Guy. Alfred Marsh in Dogmas Discarded Part II. Glasgow.
Becker, Heiner . Alfred Marsh 1858-1914 in Freedom : a hundred years October 1886 to October 1986. Freedom Press.
Oliver, Hermia. The international anarchist movement in late Victorian London. Croom Helm.
Quail, John. The Slow Burning Fuse. Paladin Granada.
Photograph of Alfred Marsh from: Becker, Heiner . Alfred Marsh 1858-1914 in Freedom : a hundred years October 1886 to October 1986. Freedom Press.