02. The Labour Emancipation League

Submitted by Steven. on October 7, 2009

Frank Kitz and his associates were not the only British revolutionary propagandists in London by the time the Rose Street club was formed. The importance of Kitz in the 1870s was that he provided an active link between the veterans of the International ( and veterans, too, of earlier movements ) and the new socialism of the 1880s. In the mid-1870S there might not have been much young blood about - on a visit to Oxford, Kitz was introduced as 'the last of the socialists' - but by the later 1870s there were new and interesting developments and new figures were emerging. One such was Joseph Lane. Born in 1850 in the village of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, he spent his early life 'working on the land under the most enslaving poverty. Soon, by necessity, he took an interest in the infamous game and land laws and quickly developed into a thinker and a rebel'. He was attending local political meetings at the age of fifteen. 'In 1865 he came to London arriving at a time when vigorous fights for free speech were in progress. He participated in the struggles at Hyde Park when the authorities tried to stop meetings being held there.' [1] These were the same Reform Riots that Frank Kitz had taken part in.

According to one source Lane joined the English remnant of the International in 1871. 'In the early 1870s he took an active part in the republican agitation accompanying Dilke on one of his tours ( ... ) earning the nickname of "Dilke's Boy".' Later he became a member of the Manhood Suffrage League where he met Frank Kitz. [2] In January 1880 he was chairman at a meeting which founded branch number three of the Marylebone Radical Reform Association, with Edwin Dunn as secretary. This branch split from and veered sharply left of its parent body. The spirit and something of the politics of Joe Lane at this time can be gathered from an incident he relates in his memoirs. He, Kitz and Jack Williams were going to all the election meetings called by the two Liberal candidates in Marylebone in 1880 and frightening them by asking them to support abolition of the House of Lords, Home Rule for Ireland and land nationalization - all 'extreme Radical' demands. On one occasion, one of the prospective members asked Lane if he really wanted the abolition of the House of Lords. He replied 'Yes, and the House of Commons too !' The result was a riot : 'They threw all they could lay their hands on at us on the platform and smashed up furniture and mirrors ( ... )' After a fight the three hecklers were thrown out. Lane, it would appear, had already started on the path of anti-statist ideas. By 1881 he was apparently calling himself a socialist, since in that year, having moved to Hackney, he founded the Homerton Social Democratic Club. He attended the Social Revolutionary and Anarchist Congress in July 1881 as the delegate of the Club, the Congress taking place in the private room of a pub in Charrington Street, Euston, London.

The International Congress was basically an affair of and for Continental and Russian revolutionaries. The minutes of the proceedings reveal that the English delegates played little part; yet many of the people involved were more or less permanent exiles in London and it was partly through contact between them and the British socialists that a more sophisticated libertarian philosophy was to develop relevant to British conditions. Thus though the Congress did not precipitate anything like an eruption of Anarchist activity in Britain it can be seen as part of a developing process.

The English delegates were Joe Lane and Price from the Homerton Social Democratic Club; Frank Kitz, Edwin Dunn and John Lord [3] from the Rose Street club, together with a rather suspicious unknown called C. Hall who could well have been the English counterpart of the French police spy Serreaux who also attended the conference. The forty-five foreign delegates included John Neve, Malatesta, Louise Michel, Peukert and Kropotkin. The latter in his memoirs puts the early socialist initiative in England into perspective :

Aided by a few English workers whose acquaintance we had made at the congress of 1881 or whom the prosecutions against John Most had attracted to the socialists, we went to the Radical clubs speaking about Russian affairs, the movement of our youth toward the people and socialism in general. We had ridiculously small audiences, seldom consisting of more than a dozen men. Occasionally some grey bearded Chartist would rise from the audience and tell us that all we were saying had been said forty years before and was greeted then with enthusiasm by crowds of workers, but that now all was dead, and there was no hope of reviving it. [4]

Yet in France, whence Kropotkin had come, a new socialist movement was well under way. In England it was only just starting. Inevitably Kropotkin's feelings were coloured by comparison and he was to leave England later in 1881 with the sentiment 'Better a French prison than this grave.' Joe Lane, on the other hand, was about to start work on a project of some importance in the history of English socialism, the Labour Emancipation League. This emerged out of Lane's contacts with yet another emerging socialist grouping in East London, the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club. This had been formed as a result of a split in the Stratford branch of the National Secular Society, where the leading dissentient was a young man called Ambrose Barker. The National Secular Society was by no means devoted only to anti-Christian theology. Its members

were renowned for their 'advanced' views on all the leading questions of the day ( ... ) They were closely associated with every species of metropolitan Radicalism and led political demonstrations, for example in Hyde Park against royal grants in 1875 and against war during the Eastern crisis [circa 1880] ( ... ) The Secularists were definitely identified with and indeed in the late 1870's were the chief upholders of the Radical-Republican cause. They attacked monarchy, hereditary privilege and class oppression and in London secured wide general support among the working men's clubs. [5]

The undisputed leader of the N.S.S. was Bradlaugh, who was by all accounts a brilliant orator and organizer of the republicans and 'infidels'. He was not above opportunism, however, and it was this that withered the heart of the young Ambrose Barker. Ambrose Barker had been born and brought up in the village of Earls Barton near Northampton, the scenes of Bradlaugh's epic electoral battles. His father had been a Chartist and had helped to found a cooperative shop and bakery in the village. Barker remembered his father taking 'a party of Radicals to Northampton to support Bradlaugh at the hustings in October 1868'. [6] In 1878 he went to London at the age of nineteen to take up a job as assistant master at a school in Leyton. On his arrival he joined the N.S.S. He writes in his memoirs : 'One can well imagine our joy in the election of Charles Bradlaugh for Northampton and the great satisfaction generally that a great majority had overthrown the Tory government in 1880. But that satisfaction was soon to be shattered. Reaction had ruled so long that great things were expected of the Radical-Liberal Government. But the people were soon to be disillusioned. They were looking to the Government to bring forward social reforms, instead of which a most stringent Coercion Bill for Ireland was introduced ( ... )'

And Bradlaugh supported the Coercion Bill. Ambrose Barker attacked him in print and - a brave thing to do at the shrine of the Bradlaugh supporters - proposed a motion at the Hall of Science condemning him; but could find no seconder. [7] This 'betrayal' by Bradlaugh came on top of discussions within the Stratford Branch which had been going on for some time over the question of whether religion alone or the wider 'social question' should be their central concern. The majority favoured 'this worldism' and the more restrictedly secularist members left, taking the name of the branch with them. The remaining 'this worldists' formed themselves towards the end of 1880 into the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club. This, writes Ambrose Barker, who became secretary to the club, 'marks the inception of the Socialist movement in East London'.

'We now commenced our propaganda work in dead earnest' he writes. 'For myself I lectured on "Labour", "Social Democracy", "The French Revolution" and many other subjects.' One lecture he gave - on 'Government' - was, he claims, 'the first lecture of the kind in East London or for the matter of that in London itself on the basis of Anarchism. I said "Governments were popularly supposed to be for the protection of the people. A knowledge of the past and the bitter experience of the present seemed to point out that it was against rather than by Government that protection was necessary. The lecturer," reported the Radical of February 19, 1881, "argued that people made a great mistake in looking to Government for help. It had always been the destroyer of independence." [8] The language here remains within the bounds of Radical thinking and at best represents only an ur-Anarchism. On the other hand it was to men, like Ambrose Barker, with fairly well-developed socialist and anti-statist ideas that Anarchism was later to appeal.

To the club were invited speakers and writers well known to the Radicals of London. These included James and Charles Murray, Frank Kitz, Herbert Burrows, George Standring, Edwin Dunn, Dan Chatterton, and Miss Le Compte, the American delegate to the International Congress. Later on - in April 1882 - Kropotkin was also to speak at the Stratford Club, but on 'Russian Exiles' rather than Anarchism. In fact, the first systematic propaganda defining itself as Anarchist that had any effect within the Socialist movement came from America in the shape of Benjamin Tucker's paper Liberty. Joseph Lane seems to have been the first to procure copies of the paper from the United States. He introduced Ambrose Barker to it - and probably others too - in late 1881 and Barker became a regular subscriber and commenced a regular correspondence with Tucker. Tucker was a Proudhonist and thus fundamentally committed to a society based on small proprietorship. In the American context, however, where the small landowner was often locked in battle with large capitalist interests, this did not represent the reactionary position it often did later where it could easily degenerate into an 'Anarchism for small businessmen'. Tucker had a keen sense of the right of the oppressed to struggle against oppression and a good eye for revolutionary humbug. Away from his hobby-horse of private property versus Communism the paper was lively and far ranging and even on this topic he was prepared to give space for the Anarchist Communist view. The introduction of specifically Anarchist ideas into the working class movement was thus going on well before the alleged Year 1 of English Anarchism, 1886, which saw the foundation of Freedom.

Yet the socialist groups were too small and, it must be admitted, too theoretically imprecise for there to be any practical outcome of theoretical differences. The immediately felt need was for a wider spread of socialist ideas of any variety. For these purposes specifically socialist clubs in pubs, etc. could have their uses. For example in 1881 James MacDonald was told by the landlord of a pub in Tottenham Street, Soho, that in another room there was a meeting of 'some of the most red-hot Fenians and dynamiters in England'. Intrigued, he and some of his friends investigated and found Frank Kitz, the Murray brothers and others enthusiastically denouncing the Coercion Bill. At first opposing them, he gradually became converted and from this contact stemmed his long connection with the socialist movement. [9] But it was fairly obviously going to take quite some time for socialism to spread if all its recruits came this way. It was necessary to take the message out to the people. One way of doing that was by providing speakers for the Sunday evening meetings of the Radical clubs. As Frank Kitz remarks, they 'had still a leaven amongst them of Chartists and Republicans and their platforms were at our disposal'. [10] Many of the early socialists made good use of this opening. The Murray brothers, Kitz, Dunn, Barker and many others were regular speakers.

There was, however, another way of reaching the masses : public speaking in the streets. Street speaking was, by and large, the preserve of the religious or temperance sects, who not only had muscular Christian support but also friends and patrons higher up the social scale on whom they could rely. Secularist speakers had occasionally held meetings in the open air and the Radicals had their rallies and demonstrations but there had been no 'regular weekly outdoor meetings at which Socialist addresses were given, followed by questions and discussion - when nothing more untoward took place !' [11] The Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club decided to extend its work in this direction 'and began to hold meetings in Mile End Road which were well attended. It was there,' writes Barker, 'early in 1881 that I first met Joseph Lane and formed a friendship that only ended with his death.'

Joe Lane had transferred his attentions from Homerton to Mile End as a result of the forcible closure of his club. As he puts it : 'The Police exerted so much pressure [on] the landlord we had to leave Homerton - the police inspector said because we printed "Socialism" so large on our bills. Another thing : we had just had a large demonstration in Hyde Park against the Liberals' coercion in Ireland. Me and Kitz made a banner, "Homerton Socialist Society - Labour is the source of all wealth therefore all wealth belongs to Labour" and several other mottoes. But the one that frightened the members as well as the police was "Blessed is the hand that dares to wield the regicidal steel that shall redeem a nation's sorrow with a tyrant's blood." [12] As Kitz tells the story, as a result of objections to the latter inscription there was a more or less pitched battle with more moderate elements taking part in the demonstration.

As a result of the success of the open-air meetings at Mile End, Joe Lane suggested follow-up discussions and a room was booked at a pub opposite their speaking pitch. After a few of these meetings the participants formed themselves into the Labour Emancipation League. This marked the beginnings of a real penetration of socialist ideas into the East End of London's poverty stricken, crowded, violent and miserable streets in which only those who shared or instinctively understood the lives people led could hope to communicate the new socialism. The success of the Labour Emancipation League was due largely to the energy and determination of Joe Lane and more particularly in his choice of open-air speaking as a means of getting a hearing. There was some nervousness at his approach : 'James Murray told him he was young and didn't know anything about it; that the propertied classes were like a pack of wolves and would tear them apart if they went out into the streets and parks. Lane, Kitz and others went out nevertheless and blazed a trail of revolutionary action. The days of Chartism were near enough still to intimidate men who were not really courageous. Peterloo was even yet a living memory.' [13]

Joe Lane proved himself to be a ferociously committed organizer. He later described his mode of operation : 'Take a room, pay quarter's rent in advance then arrange list of lecturers for the three months, then get bills printed, one for each week, then paste up bills in streets all round. By the end of 3 or 6 months I had got a few members and [I would] get them to take it over and manage it as a Branch. I generally had two or three Branches on my hands in this way.' [14] And this is put in its proper context when we understand that, as a contemporary put it, 'He did this out of his wages as an ordinary carman [cart driver], which at that time would probably be nearer 20 shillings than 30 shillings per week.' [15]

The programme of the League was : equal direct adult suffrage; direct legislation by the people; abolition of the standing army, the people to decide on peace or war; free secular and industrial education; liberty of speech, press and meeting; free administration of justice; the nationalisation of land, mines and transport; society to regulate production and wealth to be shared equitably by all; the monopoly of the capitalist class to be broken and the means of production transformed into collective or public property. The object of the League was 'the establishment of a Free Social Condition of Society based on the principles of Political Equality with Equal Social Advantages for All'. Thus no matter what some of its members may have claimed later, the Labour Emancipation League was not at its inception an Anarchist organization. The concerns with suffrage, free administration of justice, liberty of speech, etc., clearly have their origins in the Chartist demands and even earlier with the constitutions and bills of rights of an earlier revolutionary era. They sit a little uneasily with the demands concerning the expropriation of the capitalist class. Ambrose Barker was later to claim that 'Parliamentary action was a constant topic of discussion in ( ... ) the Labour Emancipation League from 1881 to 1884 ( ... ) the members were fairly unanimous as to its futility.' This may well have been a position that was reached by 1884 but its programme ( which remained unchanged ) by no means expresses an anti-parliamentary position. The fundamental importance of the Labour Emancipation League was that it provided a forum for discussion and mutual education. This has to be borne in mind when we assess its programme. The political ideas of the working class were in transition and the Labour Emancipation League was in the best sense transitory.

The League rapidly established branches at Mile End, Canning Town, Hoxton, Bethnal Green, Millwall, Stamford Hill and Hackney. There was regular open-air propaganda at Mile End Waste, Clerkenwell Green, Stratford and Millwall with occasional meetings in Hyde Park and Regent's Park.

[1] Mat Kavanagh in War Commentary, 5 May 1945. Lane himself says both that he arrived in London 'around 1867' and that he saw the railings pulled down in the Reform Riots.

[2] From verbal reminiscences of Ambrose Barker to E. P. Thompson. See the latter's William Morris, p. 325.

[3] John Lord was the treasurer of the Freiheit Defence Committee. The minutes of the International Conference are given in Nettlau, Anarchisten and Sozial-Revolutionäre, Berlin, 1931.

[4] Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p. 411.

[5] Shipley, op. cit., pp. 34-5.

[6] Ambrose Barker, MS. Subsequent quote. Memoirs same source.

[7] Shipley, op. cit., P. 36, footnote.

[8] Joe Lane was involved with the production of the Radical.

[9] Justice, 11 July 1896.

[10] Freedom, February 1912.

[11] H. W. Lee and E. Archbold, Social Democracy in Britain, London, 1935, p. 50.

[12] Joe Lane, various memoirs, International Institute of Social History, ( I.I.S.H. ) Amsterdam. Punctuation added.

[13] Mat Kavanagh, War Commentary, 5 May 1945.

[14] Lane memoirs.

[15] Lee and Archbold, op. cit., p. 50.