SSLH Blog - SSLH Research Bursary Report: Shaun Pitt (Northumbria) on the anarchist movement in Britain

Report: The International Institute of Social History, September 2019

My thesis focuses on intersections between Britain’s anarchist movement and its fledgling ‘New Liberal’ movement at the turn of the twentieth century. ‘New Liberalism’ is a term used to describe the new wave of British liberalism that was more radical, communal and interested in state intervention. At the same time Britain’s anarchist movement was enjoying one of its greatest periods of mainstream popularity and distribution. These two contexts led to the increased overlap of liberal and anarchist participation in networks centred around a diverse array of issues such as evolutionary biology, the development of the social sciences, land reform, prison reform, the campaign against the repression of the Russian government, anti-imperialism and pacifism. As a result, there were some liberal organisations focused on or marginally concerned with these issues that featured anarchists and their ideas. However, the much smaller British anarchist movement centred largely around the publication Freedom soon after its foundation in 1886 and well into the twentieth century. Freedom’s connections to British intellectual society through Piotr Kropotkin (a prominent intellectual, biologist, zoologist and geographer) and other important individuals were very strong and connected it to numerous more moderate political networks. Kropotkin was particularly successful in securing these non-anarchistic connections and through which he sought mainstream distribution of his more moderate political works and ideas.

The Society for the Study of Labour History bursary allowed me to spend three days in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam looking at the archives of Freedom to investigate the extent of the presence of liberals and liberal ideas within the British anarchist movement. These connections have not been studied thoroughly before as historians interested in anarchism or liberalism tend to not be interested in the other and work focused on their overlapping networks, rather than overlapping political philosophies, has barely received any attention at all. I had consulted most of the Institute’s collections before visiting because they have digitised a great deal, but the Freedom papers still remain completely undigitised.

The papers contain a great deal of items relating to the daily running of the publication but also the wider network that sustained it. As a result they mostly centre around the anarchist movement but there are some examples of the presence of liberals. Thomas Keell (editor of Freedom, 1910-1928) retained the addresses of prominent liberal anti-war activist, and Nobel Peace prize winner, Norman Angell and the liberal journalist Henry W. Nevinson. Correspondence with Keell shows the cooperation of the Parliamentary Russian Committee with Freedom through Liberal MP Arthur Ponsonby to distribute publications criticising the repressive Russian regime and also that Keell was friends with the Liberal MP Robert B.C. Graham. Earlier letters also show that the classical liberal individualist Auberon Herbert (father of Liberal MP with the same name) read the publication. In conducting my research at the Institute, I discovered that the presence of liberals and liberal literature in anarchist networks was not as significant as that of anarchists and anarchist literature in liberal networks. This was something I suspected would be the case, but it was very important to confirm this with a visit to the International Institute of Social History. It indicates that anarchists were more eager to distribute their works through these liberal networks and potentially may have been more readily accepted into liberal networks than vice-versa. It does however show, as I argue throughout my thesis, that examples of overlaps between these two political networks normally coalesce around specific political campaigns. The Freedom papers show that the campaign against Russian repression and the pacifist movement brought some liberals into contact and collaboration with anarchistic networks. This supports my findings elsewhere, where organisations and publications exhibiting these overlapping connections tend to focus on these campaigns and issues.

Outside of the Freedom papers I also looked into Nicolas Walter’s papers, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis’ papers and a small selection of Piotr Kropotkin’s papers (the latter of which is fully stored at the Russian State Archive). While neither of these were that useful for finding liberal connections, they all gave further insights into the anarchist network. Walter’s papers were particularly useful for an article I am writing on Freedom’s first editor Charlotte Wilson (1886-1895). Walter was her biographer and his photocopies of her letters have given me a useful insight into her activities and personal feelings about Freedom. This helped me complete my article which focuses on her role as the publication’s main administrator but more broadly the importance of administrative work to political activism. Work in this direction and a better understanding of it is particularly important because historically it is normally work completed by women.

I would like to thank the Society for the Study of Labour History for providing funding for this visit to the International Institute of Social History.

Shaun Pitt