Book Review: ‘The Slow Burning Fuse’

Fizzling out

‘The Slow Burning Fuse’ by John Quail. Paladin, £1.95

Quail’s aim to present “the lost history of the British anarchists” between 1880 and 1930. His account is primarily a narrative one, with little emphasis on theoretical matters — which is just as well, since the theoretical discussions are the weakest part of the book. Quail’s researches have led him to uncover a number of near-forgotten incidents and personalities, some of which are recounted interestingly here. Particularly noteworthy is the tale of the Walsall Anarchists arrested in 1892 and sentenced to terms of imprisonment (ten years in three cases) for a bomb-making conspiracy that was largely the inspiration of a police agent provocateur.

Most of the book is devoted to events and groups around such journals as Freedom and Commonweal, and to anarchist influence on organisations such as the Socialist League and the Social Democratic Federation. It is in the context of the latter that a passing reference is made to the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. Quite apart from Quail’s jibe that we “never escaped from the status of completely uninfluential sect”, his account is inaccurate in implying that the founders of the SPGB were motivated merely by dissatisfaction with the group round H. M. Hyndman that ran the SDF. In fact two matters of principle were at stake: that a socialist organisation be thoroughly democratic and have no leaders and that a revolutionary party should not advocate reforms. If Quail had mentioned the SPGB’s anti-reformism, allied with our insistence on gaining control of the machinery of government through the ballot box, we might have been spared his simplistic equation of reformism with electoral activity and revolution with anti-parliamentarism.

A little clarity on this score would have improved what is in any case the interesting part of the book, the account of earlier events in the SDF and the Socialist League. The League was founded early in 1885 by a number of people (including William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling) who had shortly before left the SDF. This revolt was largely a matter of personal opposition to Hyndman, and the new organisation was by no means agreed on political strategy. The Avelings drafted a constitution committing the League to electoral activity, and this was adopted by the Council but then rejected by the League’s first annual conference in July 1885. Unlike the SDF, though, the League was genuinely opposed to reformism. Its circular To Socialists stated:

    “We believe to hold out as baits hopes of the amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be wrung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous.”

Dissension between pro- and anti-parliamentarists plagued the League, but by 1888 it was completely committed to an anti-parliamentary policy. William Morris left in 1890, signalling his opposition to both reformism and violent revolt, and with his departure the League ceased to exist as a national body. Morris, with his emphasis on education and “making socialists”, held views far removed from those of the direct-actionist members of the League. It took the latter “impossibilist” revolt to establish an organisation uncompromisingly opposed to the policy of seeking reforms and committed to making socialists as the condition for the establishment of socialism.

One of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the SDF was that the party’s journal Justice was owned by a private group over which the members had no control. It is interesting to see from Quail’s account that anarchist practice led to exactly the same situation with regard to Freedom. This journal was founded in 1886 by the Freedom Group, which had strictly “limited and confidential” membership. By 1897, when it was the only anarchist journal still being published, anarchists in the wider movement suggested that it become more popular in character. But the Freedom Group would not respond to such criticisms; according to one critic of Freedom:

    “It was edited and managed by an inaccessible group of arrogant persons worse than the Pope and his seventy cardinals and written by fossilised old quilldrivers.”

In spite of a number of shortcomings, the book is informative and well worth reading.

Paul Bennett

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