Edinburgh anarchist Thomas Hastie Bell (aka Tom Bell) describes his experiences meeting Peter Kropotkin and gives insight into the Socialist League in Edinburgh in the 1880s and 1890s. Appears to have been published in 1942.
Centennial Tribute to Kropotkin.
Centennial Expressions on Peter Kropotkin 1842-1942 published 1942.
MY FIRST MEETING WITH KROPOTKIN
By Tom Bell, Author:
—Edward Carpenter, The English Toistoi
—Oscar Wilde Without Whitewash
If, after you read this article, you declare that there is nothing to it, that it is made up of chatter and frivolity, an old man's garrulity about times long past, don't blame me! Jump on your Editor — who wanted it; and upon his minion, H. Yaffe, whose mission it was to hold my nose down till I dictated an article or what he thought to be an article.
Yes, I suppose I can speak of having known Kropotkin longer than anybody else in this Country. I should say rather, properly spea-ing, that I made his acquaintance, a long time ago; though I was then too young, and too new to the Movement to have any real understanding of his talk.
I was then a member of the Scottish Land and Labour League, in Edinburgh, Scotland. It must have been in the very early Eighties I guess in 1883. The Scottish Land and Labour League was the first body in Scotland to take up the "New" Socialism, that is to say, it was the first to study Marx. Das Kapital had not yet been translated into English; we studied it from the French translation. We had affiliated ourselves with the Socialist League in London. The old Democratic Federation had been split into two two bodies,---one the Social Democratic Federation (Marxist Reformists) headed by H. M. Hyndrnan, and the other the Socialist League (Non-Parliamentarian) headed by William Morris. Not Anti-Parliamentarian, notice; not distinctly Anarchist, but skeptical of the Parliamentarian method.
Edinburgh was a University town and a City with a high reputation for scholarship and culture. We had some very distinguished members: Leon Melliet, who had been Maire of an Arrondissement in Paris during the Commune and had escaped "by the skin of his teeth" from the butcheries of the suppression. The Communards you know, who escaped, carried revolutionary doctrines all the world over, and Melliet was an exceptionally brilliant man. We had Andreas Scheu, formerly of Vienna, who, with his brother, had helped materially to establish Marxism in England ; Patrick Geddes, considered in his later life one of the four of five "brainiest" men in Great Britain ; Sidney Mayor who had a distinguished career in Canadian Universities and is well known through the "History of Russia," which he wrote. We had Tuke; Garay ; J. H. Smith (you will find his books on Socialist Economics in the Public Libraries) ; we had Howie, as clever a man as Bernard Shaw, but tied down to his job; John Ferguson, the Mason, a man of the strongest intelligence; and we had old John Smith, another Mason, who later was my partner in the Aranchist Propaganda of our City.
I was the Librarian for the Branch. It sounds quite a dignified position, I know: but then so did that title I always received in every Colony I joined, of Sanitary Officer, in which I officiated with a shovel and a suit of clothes which was to be changed before I sat down with the other people. I was Librarian, and it is true that there was a Library; but my real job was to receive and distribute the weekly paper coming from London, The Commonweal, edited by William Morris, and containing some of his finest writing.
Well, I called one day at the building in which we had our rooms and the janitor told me that a man had been enquiring for us, a stranger, a foreigner evidently. He had left his name and address, — Kropotkin; a Pole or Hungarian or Russian I supposed. The name conveyed nothing to me, but I called at the address, a "Temperance" Hotel in High Street, (High Street had once been artistocratic [sic] but was now just a working-man's rooming-house) and I saw this man Kropotkin. The name meant nothing to me — I had not heard it before, and I cannnot remember that I grasped any of his ideas but I coud see that he was a personality all right — so I went around to some of our most active members and a little party was got up to meet him. Some of them were better informed of our Peter Kropotkin than I was. The party was held at the house of Rev. John Glasse, yes, that's quite right, the Rev. John Glasse! He was the Minister at the old Greyfriars Kirk, one of the old historic Churches of the City. He had been converted by his own reading of Socialism, rather suddenly; and rather suddenly had changed over his sermons from sin and salvation to attacks upon exploitation and a call for brotherhood. That did not suit his highly respectable audience at all! They got together to throw him out — now if he had belonged to the Free Church or the United Presbyterian Church or the Baptists or the Methodists he would have been thrown right out upon his head ; but, on the contrary, he belonged to the Established Kirk of Scotland. (The King you know is an Episcopalian when he is in England, but when he crosses the Tweed he becomes a Presbyterian, a member of the Church of Scotland). Please note: the Church is not the State, no, but it is connected sufficiently with the State, to give its Ministers a certain position. John explained to me long years afterwards, laughing at the affair himself, that his congregation soon found that a Minister of the Established Church could be ejected from his pulpit on one ground only — heresy. Now John was not at all a heretic; he had been a rather naive and simple man who had not thought of heresy so that in the long run it was not John who left the Church, but his congregation, and that did riot matter — his pay come to him anyhow; and his eloquence soon filled the Church to the brim with another congregation much more intelligent. John knew all about Kropotkin evidently. I was present at the party and I remember that there was a good deal of discussion after Kropotkin spoke but I was young and innocent and I couldn't make out what it was all about. Kropotkin went back to London after a week or two, and there you have all my story about our first meeting, save for one episode, which I forgot altogether but which Kropotkin remembered, and brought up to me at our next meeting as you will see when I write about that in my next article.
If you have read his "Memoirs," you will remember that on escaping from Russia he went direct to Granton, one of the two ports of Edinburgh, and that he lived in Edinburgh then for some time. But it could not have been on that occasion when I saw him ; much later. Probably he explained then what he was doing, but if he did I have forgotten. I put two and two together however : Stepnick appeared two are three years later (I found the Hall for him in which he made his first address to an English audience. And much later came Tcherkesoff. Now I remember what Tcherkesoff came for. Edinburgh is a garrison town with a regiment of infantry in the Castle and a regiment of cavalry in one of the outskirts; and among the officers there were always some studying Russian. These were paid a handsome premium when they succeeded. That is what brought Tcherkesoff. I have forgotten whether he was tutoring or examining. Probably all three of them came for that purpose. Former Officers of the Czar's Army would do them no harm if they were known as Prince Kropotkin and Prince Tcherkesoff.
That episode I will tell you about in my next article.
In my last article I told you about meeting. Kropotkin some time in the early Eighties. I met him for the second time in 1890, about seven years later. But these seven years were the years of a young man, and a good deal of water had been flowing under the bridge. When I first met him, as I told you, I understood but little of the discussion that took place; so little, that none of it left any permanent impression on me. I was already an ardent Marxist Propagandist; I became a very keen student of Marx. Unfortunately I had pushed my studies a little too far. To enable me to repy better to the enemy I had been reading up all that I could find in the way of objections to "Marxism. Most of these objections were the objections of the bourgeois, — weak, if not insincere or absurd. But I was startled once or twice. Once when I came r cross a book of Proudhon's and once, again, when I came across the Gevonian Theory of Value. These set me off thinking more seriously, and after a bitter struggle with myself, I had been obliged to recognize that Marxism would not do. In the course of time, I became an Anarchist — the first one in my native Scotland. I was now going back there, after having spent a year in Paris, after being expelled from France in fact, and I was passing through London, when I called on my warm friend and fellow-Anarchist, James Blackwell.
Blackwell, too, had been a Marxist from the start of the Social Democratic Federation. He had been the compositor and the real editor of Justice the Organ of Social Democracy, and for years, had worked for it both day and night on a starving pittance; but he too, in the long run, had recognized the fallacies of the doctrine; he had developed in an Anarchist direction, until he had to speak out, when, of course, he was instantly dismissed. Later he had become the Editor of Freedom, a little Anarchist Monthly.
I have often quoted him in connection with Marxism and Anarchism. He explained to me: "When you meet a man who has not been a Marxist and who calls himself an Anarchist, well, he may be, he may be. But if you meet a man who has been a Marxist and now calls himself an Anarchist, then you know positively that he is one all right!"
When I wrote him from Paris, when I was there, about the new movement projected (Syndicalism) it had brought him over too; he got a job and both of us had been closely connected with the new development. Now here he was, back in London before me. When I visited him, he proposed that the next evening we should go out to see Kropotkin. I told him that I should be delighted indeed.
But next evening when I called for Blackwell. I found that his cousin, with whom he was very much in love, had come up from Cornwall. Naturally he begged off. "Why shouldn't you go by yourself? It would be all right," he assured me. I should have been too shy to go entirely on my own hook, but I was loathe to give up what I had been look-ing forward to so eagerly. So finally off I went to Bromley.
It was Winter, and by the time I got out, quite dark. When I knocked, the door was opened by Sophie herself (Madame Kropotkin). She looked at me very piercingly, and asked who I was, and what did I want? I suppose I hesitated and stumbled a bit. Any-how for a while she was evidently suspicious and very doubtful about admitting me, and questioned me a good deal. I am quite sure that Sophie's woman's intuition told her from the beginning that I was an undesirable person for her husband to have as a visitor. She was quite right, as you will see! But what she had in her mind that night, of course, was something different. She had two dangers in mind in guarding the door as she did. First of all she feared assassination, yes, assassination! She knew that Kropotkin's life had been in danger while he was in Switzerland. Trotzky was not at all the first to be slain by order from Russia, and in a later article I will tell you of one of my own friends assassinated in America, I feel very sure by an agent of the Russian Government. When Stephaniak, too, was found dead on the railroad tracks near his home, there was a good deal of doubt as to it being an accident, and an investigation was actually made in regard to the matter. Sophie was quite right in being cautious! The other danger was not so serious, but still annoying: it was the danger always present in England from the "Tuft-Hunter." What the devil in a "Tuft-Hunter"? A "Tuft-Hunter" in England was the man seeking to make the acquaintance of some titled person or celebrity so that he Could boast of his high-grade acquaintances. The acquaintance of a Prince was much sought after.
But finally Sophie, against her better judgment, as I say, agreed to take my name to her husband, who was working upstairs. When she took it up, Peter recoRnized it. I had been pretty active for a while. He came downstairs at once. People talk sometimes about the manners of an aristocrat being delightful, and that may be true, but of course it was merely the comradely spirit of the man that made his welcome always seem so genuine and put one so much at one's ease. He shook hands with me warmly and told me that he knew my name. He spoke of an ex-ploit I had been in not long before that, and complimented me on it in terms which I am still too modest to repeat. But all of a sudden he broke out "Why I know you, I know you all right, you are the lad that wanted to give me the overcoat!" The overcoat! I did not remember at first about my overcoat, but Kropotkin had not forgotten. It came back to me. That time he was in Edinburgh and we got him to spend an evening with us Comrades, we noted that he had no overcoat. Well, the climate of Edinburgh is not arctic; a man will not freeze to death without an overcoat. Nevertheless, the boys had got together and each put up something towards an overcoat for him. Just why after that they should have selected me for the delicate mission of inducing him to accept it is not clear to me; but I suppose it was because it was I who had first got acquainted with him and they imagined that I knew him better. In those days hand-me-down, the ready made, was not so common. Garments were made more to measure at the time. Gilray gave me an order on his tailor for a good overcoat. Of course Kropotkin had merely laughed the idea away, when I brought it up. No, he could not accept the overcoat; he was doing all right and did not need assistance in that way. I had forgotten the whole affair. But the old man had remembered. We could not induce him then to give up his hotel room and stay with one of us, but I am glad to say that later he became better acquainted with our Scottish hospitality. On a later visit he stayed for a week with Harry Campbell, one of our working-men Comrades, and evidently had quite a happy time with Harry and Harry's fine wife, and even with the two little devils, Harry's boys, now grown up in New Zealand, into fine brave men like their father. I had a long and animated discussion with Peter that night; I shall tell you about it in my next.
I went abroad again soon and saw but little of Kropotkin for some years. But sometime in the later Nineties, I was settled in London for a while and I went to live at Hither Green which is not far from Bromley. My wife, Lizzie Turner, a sister of John Turner, knew the Kropotkins well and was very fond of them as they were of her, so we had the habit of going over to the old man's on Sunday afternoon, along with Harry Kelly and his Mary. There we met many of the most interesting people and heard Peter's discussions with them — with Malatesta. Tchaikovsky, Torrida del Maronol, for instance. I shall try to tell you about it.
for the original see, http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/kropotkin/KCentennial/Pages/23.html