Thursday, 22 December 2016

Thomas Hastie Bell on 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
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.

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