It was Raphael Samuel who last persuaded me to contribute to New Left Review eighteen years ago, and I am prompted by his essay on ‘British Marxist Historians’ (nlr 120) to do so again in the form of some comments on his discussion of the relationship between Marxist intellectuals and the free-thought movement.
To begin with, while there is an obvious connexion between British Marxism and Protestant Nonconformity, some of the individuals mentioned in this context are as good if not better representatives of the connexion with free-thought. Belfort Bax may have come from a Calvinistic Methodist background, and his attitude may have ‘remained ethical and religious’, but he was closely associated with the rationalist movement for several decades, as were such old leftists as Robert Blatchford and Pat Sloan. Several other former Christians were equally active as moderate Marxists and ethical humanists: F. J. Gould, Herbert Burrows and John Lewis, for example, who also remained respectively Positivist, Theosophist and Unitarian. Guy Aldred may have begun his career as a Christian boy-preacher, but he quickly made a reputation as a secularist speaker and writer before moving on to politics. Joseph Needham may be identified with Taoism and High Anglicanism, but also with scientific humanism. Jack Lindsay has been a frequent contributor to the free-thought press, and F. A. Ridley, who was trained to be a priest, became both a leading revolutionary socialist and a leading militant secularist (President of the National Secular Society and Editor of the Freethinker thirty years ago). E. P. Thompson may still show signs of his Dissenting missionary background, but also of the tradition of rationalist humanism—as in the titles of his papers in the 1950s (noted by Samuel) or in the Foreword to The Poverty of Theory (1978). The point is that many leading free-thinkers have had strong religious antecedents, so the emergence of leading Marxists from the same background is as often a symptom of anti-religious as of religious affiliation. (It has of course been argued that free-thought is itself a form of Protestant Nonconformity, but that is another story.) On a more topical level, it might be worth mentioning that Anthony Blunt’s father was an Anglican priest!
Turning to the overt free-thought connexion, it is relevant that the main rationalist organization, the Rationalist Press Association, and its associated publisher, C. A. Watts (not ‘C. and A. Watts’), always remained deliberately non-political—unlike the secularist and ethical movements, which were always on the (non-Marxist) left. This made it easier to accommodate Marxists, because there was no fear of infiltration or capture (the only serious threat, fifty years ago, was easily brushed off, and led indirectly to the formation of the Progressive League). Hence the large number of leading Marxist and fellow-travelling intellectuals found on rationalist platforms and
A few other points ought to be clarified. The ‘anti-biblical exegesis’ characteristic of polemical free-thought was ‘a staple fare of rationalist publications’ not just ‘in the 1920s’ but continuously from Paine’s The Age of Reason in the 1790s until the present day; it still appears also in some Marxist publications, such as the Socialist Standard. Joseph McCabe’s translation of Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe was probably the most successful of all the publications of the rpa—first published in 1900 (not 1903), reprinted in the Cheap Reprints series in 1902 and in the Thinker’s Library in 1929, and still selling thousands of copies a year after the Second World War. Incidentally, the Thinker’s Library, which was published from 1929 to 1951, included many new books as well as classics. G. J. Holyoake wasn’t a ‘radical secularist’ but a very moderate one, coining the term in 1851 in an entirely ‘positive’ sense; his paper the Reasoner appeared not just in ‘the 1850s’ but from 1846 to 1861 and it was preceeded by the Oracle of Reason from 1841 to 1843 and followed by the Reasoner and Secular World in 1965. Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid was first published not in 1939 but in 1902, and his Modern Science and Anarchism not in 1912 but in 1901. It seems a pity not even to mention Bernal’s huge book Science in History, published by Watts in 1954, or that Raymond Williams edited a New Thinker’s Library in the 1960s.
The essay is refreshingly non-sectarian, but I must take up the one sectarian reference to anarchists: the footnote mentioning ‘the vagaries of present-day North London and West Coast libertarianism’, strangely contrasted with the puritanism and rationalism of Spanish anarchists eighty years ago rather than with the same qualities in British and American anarchists today. It would be easy to mention some of the vagaries of present-day Marxism in the same places, even in at least one of the individuals he discusses—but chivalry forbids.
But my general concluding comment—as someone brought up in the intellectual milieu where Marxism coexisted with other forms of socialism, including anarchism, and overlapped with the various strands of free-thought, including progressive religion—is that to understand British Marxism it is necessary to set even wider horizons, so as to include more rigorous analysis of the relevant aspects of progressive religion and free-thought and more careful attention to the fellow-travellers who straddled so many ideas at once and who influenced so many Marxists and non-Marxists.
How far, in the end, has British Marxism been just one episode in the long history of the idea of progress, falling between Herbert Spencer and Winwood Reade in the nineteenth century and Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley in the twentieth century? This, at least, is what it looks like from outside.