The first Socialists: Owen, Southwell, Holyoake…

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George Jacob Holyoake

In the 1820s and 1830s, by far the most important figure on the British left was Robert Owen, Born into relative poverty (his father was a saddler), Owen became in 1800 a manager at the New Lanark textile mill, near Glasgow. New Lanark became famous as a model workplace, where work was well paid, the workers were productive, their children educated, and there were neither police nor courts. In 1817, Owen announced his conversion to socialism, after which he toured the United States and Europe arguing for similar utopian communities.

The Owenite newspaper The Pioneer told its readers to break apart the great houses of the rich and to share their wealth: “At a very early period, we shall find the idle possessor compelled to ask you to release him from his worthless holding.”

“Every pupil,” Owen wrote, “shall be encouraged to express his or her opinion.” Religious instruction would not be imposed on anyone. Everyone would be encouraged to learn, irrespective of their career or their parents’ standing: “All shall be treated with equal kindness. Both sexes shall have equal opportunities of acquiring useful knowledge.”

We can get a sense of the appeal of the Owenites by looking at the lives of some of the movement’s recruits, for example George Jacob Holyoake, how had been employed from the age of ten as a metal-worker Eagle Iron Foundry, one of two dozen factories in Birmingham making pots, safes, weights, garden rollers, gear wheels, gates and fire hearths.

In June 1836, George Jacob heard Owen speak for the first time. Six months later, aged 19, he recorded in his diary that he himself “spoke for the Owenites” at a meeting.

Holyoake followed Owen in advocating Mechanics’ Institutes, in other words, part-time colleges providing teaching at evening and weekends to an audience largely composed of skilled workers who had left education (as was common) before their teenage years.

In February 1838 Holyoake joined Owen’s new Association of All Classes of All Nations. He also participated in the Chartist movement, which was demanding a vote for every man, for annual parliaments, for secret ballot, for payment of MPs and for reform of electoral districts. A petition delivered to Parliament by Birmingham’s Radical MP Thomas Attwood, was signed by 1.3 million people. Holyoake attended Chartist rallies in Birmingham.

He walked to Derbyshire, dreaming of liberating himself from the factory, and all workers from slavery. “Over the foundry walls where I worked had come gleams of the sun, which had made me long to see the outlying world on which it shone unconfined. Now I was in that world: happy days were those, for my heart was as light as my purse.”

In 1840, the Owenites thanked Holyoake for collecting funds to enable the purchase of a socialist chapel in Lawrence Street. In August he lectured in Worcester, after which the Owenites there invited him to join them as a full-time worker. The socialists in the town offered him 16 shillings a week, enough to feed his wife and their daughter, Madeline.

In 1841, the Owenites made him a “social missionary” in Sheffield, and his salary doubled to £80 per year. The Owenite headquarters was in Sheffield’s Rockingham Street, with a school with fifty pupils which held meetings in the evening and at weekends.

From the early 1840s onwards, it is possible to trace a decline of Owenite radicalism. Chartism may have provided the socialists with a mass audience, but they struggled to recruit within it. A movement of hundreds of thousands of people, hazy as it was about its end goal, seemed more attractive than building a smaller caucus of the convinced.

Part of the problem for the Owenites was that they struggled under attack from their opponents in working-class districts. Increasing numbers of churchmen made it their business to denounce the socialists and demand their prosecution. This posed a sharp tactical question to the Owenites: should they ignore religion, or counter it with attacks of their own?

Owen argued that his followers should ignore the Church, and win converts by appealing to the areas of socialist strength – their programme of mutual aid and social transformation. Several of Owen’s followers, including Holyoake, disagreed.

In 1841, Holyoake’s friend Charles Southwell had also been made a social missionary, in Bristol. The first issue of Southwell’s newspaper The Oracle of Reason had sold six thousand copies, in large part because of the atheism which ran alongside and obscured its socialism. In his paper, the Bible was described as the “disgust of wise men. It is a history of lust, sodomies, wholesale slaughtering and horrible depravity.”

Southwell was arrested and charged with blasphemy. Holyoake demanded that the Owenites support Southwell. William Galpin, General Secretary of the Owenites, replied with tepid reassurance that the Owenite Central Board would “not fail to assist Mr Southwell all they can.” Nevertheless, Southwell’s chosen course of confronting the Church, “was in direct opposition from what the Board have always advocated.”

In January 1842, Southwell was convicted, fined £100, and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. In Sheffield, Holyoake renounced all religion. He had been “born pious, and nursed in orthodoxy,” but any beliefs he had once held “in the humanising tendency of Christianity” had been destroyed. “The persecution of my friend has been within these few weeks, the cradle of my doubts, and the grave of my religion … my faith is no more.”

Holyoake left Birmingham to help Southwell. In May, he addressed a meeting of the Cheltenham Mechanics’ Institution on ‘Home Colonisation’, the Owenite proposal that poverty be resolved with a positive programme of public works taking the form of self-sufficient working-class villages. Around 100 Chartists and socialists were present to hear him. A Mr Maitland (a “sort of local preacher”) noted that Holyoake’s speech had made no mention of chapels. Did the socialists, he asked, see no role for religion in their future society?

At first Holyoake stuck to the Owenite script, acknowledging that he had avoided all talk of God in the body of his speech. But why was he here, if not to help his friend Southwell? He said, “I appeal to your heads and your pockets if we are not too poor to have a god? If poor men cost the state so much they would be put like officers on half-pay. I think while our distress lasts it would be wise to do the same with the Deity.

On 26 May, after a meeting with Southwell in Bristol, Holyoake saw the Cheltenham Chronicle’s third-page report on his lecture on Socialism, under the title ‘ATHEISM AND BLASPHEMY’. Socialism, yelled the newspaper, was “more appropriately termed, Devilism”.

Holyoake was tried for blasphemy in August 1842. He spoke for nine hours in his defence, expounding the doctrines of socialism, and appealing to the principle of free speech: “What can we think of the morality of a law which prohibits the free publication of opinion?” At the end of the hearing the judge sentenced him to six months imprisonment.

1842 also saw another great wave of Chartist activity, a second petition was signed, this time by three and a half million people, there were strikes in the Midlands and the industrial North and riots in the Potteries (with 116 men and women imprisoned), and Feargus O’Connor and almost every member of the national executive was prosecuted.

On release Holyoake toured Gloucester and Cheltenham before giving a lecture in Rochdale to the Socialist Society, on the merits of Owenite land colonies and co-operation. The following year, 28 skilled artisans, with Owenite socialists prominent among them, would establish the first modern cooperative society, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

In 1846, having settled in London, Holyoake founded his own newspaper, its first issue declaring: “The Reasoner will be Communistic in Social Economy – Utilitarian in Morals – Republican in Politics – and Anti-theological in Religion”. This communistic social economy was a reference to Owenism, and early articles addressed themselves to supporters of the movement: “The late retardation of our views has opened our eyes, not damped our ardour.”

When Chartism and the battle for the People’s Charter surged again in 1848, Holyoake had become one of its best-known speakers. On 10 April, some 20,000 Chartists marched from Kennington Common in South London, along a route lined by more or less sympathetic 200,000 spectators. The government signed up 85,000 special constables to prevent disorder, and placed 7,000 soldiers around Westminster.

After this last flowering, the campaign declined. The press attacked the Chartists, insisting that the petition’s numbers had been inflated. Mocked, the Chartists came to believe in their defeat. Feargus O’Connor, their best-known leader, became an alcoholic. In 1852, he struck three of his fellow MPs, after which he was held in an asylum. The same year Robert Owen converted to spiritualism. He had never stopped believing that human beings could live under fairer conditions; he now presented the dead as their allies in that struggle, titling one pamphlet, The Future of the Human Race; or Great Glorious and Future Revolution to Be Effected Through the Agency of Departed Spirits of Good and Superior Men and Women.

The socialists splintered; many emigrated. Holyoake sought to keep the movement going by mixing his socialism and atheism, and moderating his opinions. He ceased to be a socialist pioneer, and became a leading figure in the emergence of secularism.

The generation below – including Holoyoake’s nephew, Horatio Bottomley – were to split in yet further directions as the century wore on, but that’s another story.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

[I’ll also be speaking about the book at a meeting of the Socialist History Society, this Thursday – all welcome].

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