Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Socialist League was one of several early socialist groups that arose in Great Britain during the 1880s, along with the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Union, the Fabian Society, and the anarchist Freedom Group. Among these, the Socialist League was distinctive for its eclectic membership, comprised of both socialists and anarchists, and its focus on education and outreach as the most effective means of social change. Though its official membership never exceeded 1000, during its four years of greatest activity from 1885 through 1889, its vigorous program of lectures, open-air meetings, and publications, including its journal Commonweal, reached a considerable audience through campaigns on behalf of free speech, miners’ strikes, an international workers’ movement, and the reorganization of society “from the root up.”

 By early 1887, because of a series of miners’ strikes in Northumberland and Lanarkshire, Scotland provided an opportunity to appeal to disaffected workers on a mass scale. In response, the League distributed thousands of leaflets and organized demonstrations in support of the strikers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle and elsewhere, with speeches by J. L. Mahon, Tom Macguire, Morris and others. These meetings initially attracted large crowds; a Glasgow meeting in February 1887 reportedly drew 20,000 sympathizers, and a joint meeting of the Socialist League and Socialist Democratic Federation in Edinburgh attracted 12,000. Such outreach efforts helped to establish local branches, buttress trade union support, and influence public sentiment toward socialism as a means of providing solidarity and meaningful long term goals.

 the Liverpool and Edinburgh Art Congresses of 1888 and 1889
William Morris. Commonweal 1888

Socialism Militant in Scotland

Source: “Socialism Militant in Scotland” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 117, 7 April 1888, p.106-7;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Since a year may make a good deal of difference in the position of a party, even when it is being carried on by quiet propaganda, I give a brief account of my lecturing tour in Scotland and my impressions of the position of Socialism there. On the 21st March I lectured at Kilmarnock, a not very important town on the edge of the mining district. The chief industry in the town itself is that of the railway works — a tolerably good indication, by the way, of labour being cheap in the neighbourhood; accordingly I was informed that the iron-miners in the neighbourhood are earning about nine shillings a-week working four days a-week, and that the coal-miners in the neighbourhood are not much better off. I spoke in the church of Mr Forrest, my inviter. The audience was fair as to numbers; they were not demonstrative, and it was found impossible to get them to ask any questions; they were, however, very attentive, and showed their interest in the subject by buying over 10s. worth of literature. A large proportion of the audience seemed to me to be of the middle-classes. A branch of the Scottish Land and Labour League has just been formed here, but I was told that the town was hard to move.
The following Friday produced a failure. Our Edinburgh comrades had taken a large hall for my lecture in Leith (not being able to get a smaller one), but only five persons turned up besides the branch, who showed up well; so the money was returned and we gave it up. However, seeing plenty of people hanging about in the street as we went homeward rather sadly, we started an open-air meeting, and got together upwards of 200 persons, who listened for an hour and a half to me and some of the members of the branch, though the snow presently began to come down fast.
The next day I went to West Calder, a mining village some half-hour’s railway ride from Edinburgh. We did not expect much of a meeting on a Saturday evening in such a place, especially as a very moderate amount of advertising had been used; but some of our Edinburgh comrades got down there, and did their best to get an audience by beginning in the open air; the bell-man — or rather, the bell-boy — was sent round also, and we got together some sixty persons, all work-men, into the room, which was thought very good considering the circumstances. They made an excellent audience as to attention and spirit. In the ensuing discussion, one person put forward as an objection a point which I see is made the most of by a well-known hand in To-day — to wit, that Socialism will produce wealth so abundantly and easily that we should not find work enough to do, and should deteriorate in consequence. The audience, mostly miners, obviously thought that this was an objection which might be passed over for the present, and were much tickled by the objector’s persistency in his threats of a life of ease.
The Edinburgh Whig rag, the Scotsman, by the way, paid me the compliment of publishing a paragraph on this meeting, which implied that I could not get an audience and came away with nothing done; and when I wrote to contradict its statement, favoured its readers with an explanation which was a model of the suppression of truth and suggestion of untruth. It is a matter of course that this journal goes out of its way to treat our friends unfairly.
On Sunday I went to Glasgow; and here I had every reason to damn ‘the nature of things’ as heartily as Porson did when he hit his head against the doorpost; for it came on to snow at about one o'clock and snowed till the time of meeting harder than I ever saw it snow, so that by 7.30 Glasgow streets were more than ankle-deep in half-frozen slush, and I made up my mind to an audience of fifty in a big hall; however it was not as bad as that, for it mustered over 500, who passed nem. con. a resolution in favour of Socialism. Owing to the weather, our comrades could not attempt the preliminary open-air meetings which they had intended to do; so I passed the day with them in their rooms in John Street, very much to my own pleasure, as without flattery they were, as I have always found them, hearty good fellows and thorough Socialists. All political parties in Glasgow have been depressed of late, they told me, and the Socialists have partly shared in this depression, though not as much as other bodies; but the knowledge of the movement and sympathy with it have grown very much, and our comrades are in good heart about it. The first novelty of the subject has worn off, and those who attend the meetings now are those who look upon the matter seriously. This is the view taken by our comrades wherever I went, and from all I could see I thought it the accurate one.
Perhaps the next day’s meeting (Monday) at Edinburgh tended to show this. It was a miserable night again, and we did not expect an audience of dilettanti — and did not get it. It was about as numerous as I got last year under better circumstances, but differed from that in having scarcely any middle-class persons in it. As to quality, it was one of the very best audiences I ever spoke to, and missed no point in the lecture. In fact in Edinburgh at least I seem to have exhausted the sympathies (?) of those who came at first to amuse themselves over the eccentricities of a literary man, and only those are left who really want to take counsel about the one question worth considering — how to free our minds and bodies from capitalistic tyranny. We had the usual treat afforded us by one Mr Job Bone, who attends and opposes all meetings, and who used to be thought a nuisance, but is now accepted as a convenient shoeing-horn to a discussion, and whose malicious folly is useful in drawing out the lecturer to explain matters that might otherwise remain unnoticed.
The next day I went to Dundee, where I had much the same kind of audience, except that there were more middle-class persons amongst it, who made themselves useful by asking questions easily answered, but (I hope) in a way not satisfactory to them, though very much so to the working-men present. One of the questioners was the sub-editor of the Radical paper, and I answered an unfair question of his with some warmth, so I was not surprised at getting a very curt report next morning; whereas the Tory journal reported us fairly and well. The audience was very hearty and appreciative. There is a branch here of the Scottish Land and Labour League, manned by energetic workers, whose work, however, is difficult, because ordinary party politics run high in Dundee, and the Radicals there have not got further than the Gladstoneite programme, if it can be called a programme.
From Dundee I went to Aberdeen, where I found another branch of the SLLL, including some energetic and intelligent men, a good deal kept down, as might be expected, by the ordinary Radicalism of the place, and some of whom, I think I may say consequently, are rather eager to try parliamentary agitation. Another stormy and wretched evening made me expect a thin audience; but the hall, which was a small one, was filled. The audience was mostly middle-class here, and rather heavy to lift, though attentive and not disposed to carp. The press reported the meeting carefully and well next morning.
If I could have, I would have visited Carnoustie, a mere village between Aberdeen and Dundee, but which has a good branch; but time was getting on, and I had promised to assist at a social gathering of our Edinburgh comrades on Thursday evening. I had a pleasant and interesting evening with them; and so finished what I came to do.
On the whole, in spite of some poor audiences (though the weather largely accounts for that), I was very favourably impressed by the outlook for Socialism in Scotland. There can be no doubt that much progress has been made since last year, in the teeth of great difficulties. As aforesaid, the novelty has worn off; respectability is beginning to see what Socialism really means, and doesn’t like the look of it at all; the press is deadly hostile, and not ashamed of any meanness in its treatment of the movement those who are dependent on ‘employers’ need expect no mercy from them if they are spotted as Socialists; the traditional puritanism of the country throws additional obstacles in the way of propaganda, — and with all this the movement is gaining ground steadily, and has an appearance of solidity about it which is most encouraging. I saw most of our Edinburgh comrades, and they seem to me to have entered on a new stage of the movement, and to promise to be as staunch as may be. The progress they have made since last year is remarkable.

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