Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter V
Personalities of the Socialist Movement in England

THE first place in any characterization of the individuals who have played a part in the Socialist movement in Great Britain must be given to the man who is in every way the founder of that movement, Henry Mayers Hyndman. I first became acquainted with Hyndman in 1882. He was then living in Devonshire Street, Portland Place, and was regarded generally by Liberals and orthodox Radicals as an eccentric political freelance who was working in the Tory interests. This was largely owing to the fact that he had strongly opposed the Russophile agitation of Gladstone from 1876 to 1878, during the crisis which led up to the Russo-Turkish War, and during the war itself. His pro-Turkish and anti-Russian views on the war had naturally thrown him into contact with the Tory party and with Beaconsfield, at that time its leader. His relations with Beaconsfield, Salisbury, and other Tory celebrities will be found given in detail in his two autobiographical volumes entitled respectively The Record of an Adventurous Life and More Reminiscences. Another circumstance which led with some enthusiastic Radicals to suspicions as to the thorough-going character of Hyndman’s democratic sentiments was that at the preliminary meeting at which the Democratic Federation was founded in the Spring of 1881, over which he presided, he had opposed a motion to place the immediate abolition of the monarchy on the practical programme of the Federation. This was imagined at the time by some of those present to be an expression of Tory respectability and loyalty to the throne. It was really nothing of the kind, but simply due to a desire not to encumber the new platform with “planks” for the time being inexpedient. The old Dilke Republican agitation of the seventies had comparatively recently “petered out” from lack of public interest. As a matter of fact, a year or two later, opposition in principle to all monarchical forms of government was inserted with Hyndman’s full approval as one of the objects of the organization, though not on its programme for immediate agitation. It must not be forgotten, moreover, that the Democratic Federation was not founded at first as a Socialist body, but with the object of uniting the Radical and workmen’s clubs of London, first of all on a general Democratic programme wide enough, if possible, to include them all.

At the time I speak of, Hyndman was not merely the prime mover and the director of the affairs of the new organization founded under his auspices, but also its chief financier. Heavy pecuniary losses subsequently disabled him from continuing this assistance, but it lasted long enough to place the Democratic Federation on a sufficiently stable footing to attract important new recruits, among them William Morris, also a man of means, whose financial assistance for a year or two subsequently, that is, until the “split,” was timely and valuable.

The special characteristic of Hyndman has always been his perennial buoyancy of temperament. Throughout all his career one hardly ever found Hyndman downhearted. Many have laughed at the expression so often heard from him in the early eighties, “things are getting hot,” an expression used at a time when there were little or no signs of revolutionary perturbation, outside the local question of Ireland, on the political horizon. It was all that the Socialist advocate could do to raise a small section of the working classes out of their apathy to take any interest whatever in their position and in the means to the attainment of a state of society in which they should cease to be mere wage drudges. But his very buoyancy of disposition, which saw things moving much faster than they were doing in reality, undoubtedly helped to sustain the flagging energies of many of Hyndman’s followers in the Federation. Indeed, some thought that these expressions of confidence in the rapid progress of the elements of disruption in our capitalist society, as in the mental preparedness of the masses for social reorganization, were made with express calculation for the purpose of encouragement. I do not think, however, this, if at all, was more than partially the case. Hyndman’s optimism was undoubtedly the result of his natural temperament, and a very desirable temperament it is for one engaged in the uphill work involved in the advocacy of an unpopular cause, or at least a cause towards which the mass of men are for the time being apathetic. The “never say die” attitude which takes no discouragement is certainly one of the most striking characteristics of the man Hyndman alike in connexion with public and private affairs.

Hyndman’s sincere enthusiasm for the cause to which he has so zealously devoted his life is in nothing more crucially exhibited than in his conduct after the “split” had deprived the SDF of Morris’s financial assistance and of many workers on its behalf. He ranged himself alongside of the proletarians of the organization, not only in open-air speaking in the parks and elsewhere, but even in the selling of Socialist literature along Fleet Street and the Strand. This reminds me of one of Hyndman’s traits that has often been the subject of jest and animadversion among the profane. I allude to his partiality for the frock-coat, the pot-hat, and the linked shirt-cuff. It was in this garb that he was on more than one occasion to be seen selling Justice in the thoroughfares named. Now, speaking personally, nothing would induce me to don this to me hideous and sordid uniform of the capitalist era. But then I suppose I should be termed Bohemian in such matters. There is, however, nothing of the Bohemian in the usual sense of the word about Hyndman. Whiles therefore, it might justly be considered a censurable affectation on the part of myself, and of those of like temperament with me, on public occasions to deck ourselves in a costume of this description, to Hyndman, who, as regards ways of living, distinctly has his conventional side, it was natural, and he might well have been accused of affectation (just as was Keir Hardie when he drove up to the House of Commons in 1892 in cycling knickerbockers and cloth cap) had he appeared otherwise. Anyway, those Bohemians who, like myself, are individualists in the matter of dress to the extent of claiming for themselves and conceding to every other man the social right to dress as he likes and as he deems suits him best, have no claim to cast stones at Hyndman for choosing to array himself in the conventional vesture of the privileged classes of his day and generation. While on the subject I may mention a couple of further illustrations of the conventionally “respectable” side of Hyndman’s attitude in the matter of ways and manners. Hyndman is a great raconteur, and has always a store of amusing stories on hand. Now, most great raconteurs have a selection of risqué or smoking-room stories on their repertoires. With Hyndman this does not seem to be the case. Although I have often listened to stories of his, many of them very good ones, yet I have rarely if ever heard him relate anything calculated to bring the proverbial blush to the proverbial maidenly cheek. Not that Hyndman is by any means in general a votary of the Nonconformist conscience. He is, and claims to be, simply an ordinary man of the world. It is viewing him as such that I note this peculiarity as interesting.

Then, again, in the matter of drink. Hyndman is not an abstainer, or at least not on principle. On the contrary, he rather prides himself on his good taste in wines. Yet nevertheless he has often shown himself a rigid disciplinarian in the matter of temperance, especially as regards the proletarian. Always a man scrupulously moderate himself, he is inclined to be hard, many think excessively hard, not on drunkenness, which of course is out of the question, but on anything suggesting the idea of the very slightest excess in liquor in others, especially if those others happen to be working men. Of the above the following may be taken as an example. There had been a meeting somewhere in the Midlands one Sunday evening at which several members of the organization, including Hyndman, had taken part. They all returned to London in the same third-class saloon carriage on the Monday morning. Having some few hours’ journey before them, some of the working-class members of the party bethought themselves to while away the time with a game of cards. No sooner had they taken their places alongside the narrow centre table than one of the “comrades” produced a bottle of whisky. Glasses and some water were procured, and the party proceeded to enjoy themselves. Our friend Hyndman, who was in another part of the carriage, passing along and observing the alcoholic debauch, could not restrain his indignation, and rebuked the men in well-set terms as acting in a disgraceful manner. Well, seeing there were some five or six persons among whom the bottle of whisky had to be divided in a three or four hours’ journey, one would have thought that the potations per man could not be regarded in the light of a serious transgression. Hyndman, it would seem, thought otherwise. I was not present myself on the occasion, but have heard the story from two or three members of the party who strongly resented Hyndman’s attitude. Of course, it must not be forgotten, as regards the story, that Hyndman has an original and quite peculiar aversion to the Keltic spirit above all other alcoholic beverages. So this may have had something to do with what to some may seem the extreme severity of his criticism on the conduct of the “comrades” on the occasion in question. Such are the minor merits or defects, according as we regard them, of our friend Hyndman’s character. The importance of the role Hyndman has played as the protagonist of Socialism in England, and his influence generally on Labour politics, lends an interest even to small traits of character that in a lesser man would be unworthy of the attention of the recording angel. For the rest, Hyndman’s career alike as a politician, an expositor of, and agitator for, Socialism, no less than as a journalist and writer on political and social questions in general, is an open book to the British public, and hence it is unnecessary to dilate upon it at greater length in these reminiscences.

One of the men who in the early days of the Social Democratic Federation was most active as a speaker and organizer was H.H. Champion, before referred to, the son of the late General Champion, and himself an ex-artillery officer. Champion had been out in India, and, I believe, resigned his commission in consequence of his disapproval of the Egyptian War of 1882, commonly known as the “Bondholders’ War.” This fact alone spoke for the man and rendered him sympathetic to Democrats and Radicals. On leaving the Army, Champion occupied a position in a publishing house, and before long bought an interest in a printing-office, where he continued to work as acting partner for some years. Champion had a short, incisive manner with him which undoubtedly impressed those with whom he came in contact. He was also an effective speaker, partly, doubtless, owing to the incisive manner spoken of, with many audiences. At first a devoted adherent of Hyndman, he seemed always possessed, as Hyndman himself put it, with an impatience to make twelve o’clock at eleven. This temperament of his caused him after a few years to tire of the slow and more or less monotonous business of agitating and organizing in the interests of Socialism, a kind of labour for which he possessed undoubted ability. Instead of continuing the work to which he had set his hand, after his first enthusiasm had spent itself, he developed a tendency for political intrigue with a view, as he in all probability sincerely thought, of obtaining immediate results in the improvement of the condition of the working classes and in general progress. The habit of intrigue once having laid hold of him, the tendencies which nearly always accompany it were not slow in showing themselves, and issued in acts towards former fellow-workers and friends of a nature which not only destroyed old ties of intimacy, but which no considerations of political expediency or anything else could, as most of us thought, morally justify. Owing perhaps to early family associations, Champion’s intrigues were mainly connected with the Tory party, and conducted through acquaintances of doubtful political antecedents on the fringe of that party. In this way Champion became, from our point of view, politically completely demoralized, and the habit of political intrigue unfortunately, as already indicated, seemed not without a repercussion, for a time at least, on his general character and conduct. In himself Champion was by no means a bad sort. He had a certain brightness and charm of manner combined with a ready mother-wit which made him good company in whatever society he found himself. I can well recall how, some years after the period here specially referred to, Champion was the life of a party of English delegates to the Zurich International Socialist Congress of 1893, one afternoon, in an excursion to Küssnacht, on the lake of Zurich. Notwithstanding that many of those present disliked and suspected him politically, all were more or less for the nonce under the spell of his personal magnetism. The Congress spoken of in Zurich, in the Summer of 1893, was, I believe, the last occasion, in Europe at least, when Champion figured at any Socialist function. Shortly after he emigrated to Australia, where he now lives in Melbourne. To me Champion was always friendly, and of his own accord sought to renew our acquaintance by correspondence a few years back; but the correspondence lapsed, owing, I imagine, to his dislike of my attitude in the matter of Female Suffrage and probably on the woman question generally. For Champion, since he has been in Australia, has apparently developed into a fanatical Feminist, owing perhaps, in part at least, to the family ties he has formed out there.

Another man also associated with the early days of the Socialist movement in England was James Leigh Joynes, who unfortunately died prematurely of heart-disease, now well-nigh a quarter of a century ago. Joynes was a master at Eton, as was his father before him. Of thoroughly Democratic sympathies, Joynes was practically compelled to resign his mastership owing to the action against him taken by the late Dr. Hornby, who was at that time head master of the college, in consequence of the publication of a little book by Joynes on the subject of a recent visit of his to Ireland – the Irish question being then uppermost – in which he strongly took the side of the tenants against the landlords and championed Home Rule and the Land League. As a matter of fact, the whole atmosphere of Eton was uncongenial to a man of Joynes’s view’s and temperament. The same remark, I believe, applies to Joynes’s brother-in-law, Mr. H.S. Salt, the founder of the Humanitarian League, who also resigned from his Eton career at about the same time as Joynes. On leaving Eton, Joynes came up to live in London and devoted himself energetically for some time to political work as a member of the Federation. He did a good deal of free-lance journalism at this time, writing much for Justice, besides letters to the daily Press. He was the author, too, of many witty verses dealing with social questions, while his translations of the poems of Freiligrath, Herwegh, and others belonging to the period of the ’48 movement in Germany, are admirably done. In January 1884 Joynes, in conjunction with myself, started the magazine To-Day as a monthly Socialist review. The list of contributors for the first six numbers embraces the names of Kegan Paul, Paul Lafargue, William Morris, William Archer, H.M. Hyndman, Boyd Kinnear, Edward Carpenter, Michael Davitt, E. Lynn Linton, “Stepniak,” Havelock Ellis, etc. It may be interesting to note that the first publication of George Bernard Shaw’s, viz. The Unsocial Socialist, was run as a serial through the first volume of To-Day. The story, the appearance of which in To-Day was the first introduction of Shaw to the public (if we except perhaps isolated letters to journals), excited considerable interest, and Hyndman declared that in Shaw lay the makings of an English Heine. How far time has confirmed this opinion may be left to the judgment of the reader. The review To-Day held its own throughout the year fairly well, but the “split” in the Socialist movement dealt with in the last chapter adversely affected it, and subsequently it passed into other hands, the late Hubert Bland ultimately becoming its editor. It appeared finally in a reduced form and at a lower price as the International Review, dying a natural death, I believe at the end of the eighties.

Joynes himself began to fail in health at the close of ’81, and went in consequence, for change of air, to stop with some relations on his mother’s side at Wiesbaden. He afterwards undertook a tour in Italy, returning to England in the Summer of 1885 apparently benefited. He spent some time with me at Worthing, where I was at that time staying, soon after his return. On going back to London he conceived the idea of studying for the medical profession and entered himself at Middlesex Hospital. He continued his studies for a year or two, but the work was too much for him, and his health this time seriously broke down (he suffered from valvular disease of the heart), the result being that he had to abandon all idea of the medical profession and devote himself to invalidhood. Till now Joynes had been a strict vegetarian, but was induced by his medical adviser, perhaps under the circumstances with doubtful wisdom, henceforth to adopt a diet of butcher’s meat. The change at least did him no good. Poor Joynes, it is true, lived on for a few years in Sussex, but as a confirmed invalid. He died on the 12th of February 1893 at East Grinstead, beloved and regretted by all who had known him.

John Burns, who had previously been active in the Secularist propaganda of Charles Bradlaugh, joined the SDF early in 1884. He is, as is well known, one of the best mass-meeting orators the country has produced. For the next three or four years from ’84 onward Burns used his powers untiringly in the Socialist cause. Many of us can still remember the emphasis with which he insisted on Socialism, on a revolutionary reorganization of society, as the only hope for the working classes. He would have nothing of those who pretended that Teetotalism, Malthusianism, or even Trade-Unionism, would suffice to effect any essential improvement in the lot of the working class as a class. “I am a Trade-Unionist,” he would say, “a practical Malthusian, a Teetotaller, and have always been so, and yet I remain for all these things what I was – a member of the working class, subsisting on a weekly wage.” But as time went on, in spite of the part he played on the occasion of the disturbances of the 8th of February 1886 and the 21st of November 1887for his action on which latter occasion he suffered a month’s imprisonment – towards the end of the eighties Burns slacked off in his revolutionary ardour. Like Champion, he became afflicted with a desire to effect immediate results in practical politics, but, unlike Champion, he did not adopt a policy of intrigue with the fringe of the Tory camp. He made friends with certain Liberal and Radical politicians and proceeded to contest his native place, Battersea, as a Labour candidate, smiled upon by the Liberal party. His subsequent career is written in English political and labour history during the ensuing years.

Much severe criticism has been directed on Burns from the Socialist side, on account of his desertion of the SDF and of Socialist propaganda generally, for work on the lines of ordinary Liberalism. The criticism is doubtless well founded up to a point. Burns did in fact in practice, if not directly in theory, turn his back on the principles he had professed and the cause he had served for years past. It is only natural that his action should be resented by those who are convinced that the complete Socialist reorganization of society is the only thing seriously worth working for. On the other hand, I am unable to sympathize with the personal attacks, involving accusations of deliberate dishonesty, with which Burns has been assailed. For a Revolutionary Socialist by conviction it may be difficult to explain a change of front such as that of Burns otherwise than by the suggestion of personal motives of a questionable character. But let us look at the matter fairly. After four or five years of hard work at preaching the pure doctrine of Revolutionary Socialism, a man of Burns’s energy of character sees little apparent result. He dwells on this aspect of things as it appears to him. Finally, the thought suggests itself, Would it not be better to let my revolutionary principles slide into the background for a while and throw in my lot with the ordinary Radical politicians by whose aid I may at least be able to effect some palliative reforms? This may be a commonplace attitude to take up, but it is undoubtedly one which appeals to a good many persons, and there is no ground, I contend, for assuming the man who adopts it, however much we may disagree with him, to be actuated necessarily by personally interested motives. Once in the swim of parliamentary life, we all know the facilis descensus effected by surroundings, including direct personal influences, to which most men are more or less amenable, in one way or another, without always themselves realizing that these influences are the real cause of modifications in their views and tendencies.

Burns, doubtless, has his faults, like other humans, but as far as my acquaintance with him goes, they seem to be mostly on the surface. He is often accused of having too good an opinion of himself. But after all, this probably refers to a certain, breezy self-confidence of manner not without bonhomie and hence not offensive. There is nothing “smug” about Burns, and “smug” conceit is after all the most intolerable form in which personal egotism manifests itself. As has been more than once remarked to me, Burns’s entrance into the Cabinet made no difference in his manner. It never caused him “to put on side.” As for mere material considerations, it must not be forgotten that Burns resigned his seat in the Cabinet with its £5,000 a year on a point of scrupulousness. There was nothing fundamental in his views either past or present which would not have justified him remaining in the Government, as Lloyd George and others did. He had never professed to be a Pacifist as some men count Pacifism. Neither did he find any extenuating circumstances for the Prusso-German Government in precipitating the war. He simply thought that a Labour member ought on principle to vote against appropriations for military purposes, and also that the country was unprepared for war on a great scale, as in fact it was. After all said and done, Burns, unlike some others, after he once turned to parliamentary life and current politics, never pretended to represent Socialism while acting the part of a bourgeois politician. He was at least honest in this way. The reader must not suppose from the foregoing that there is not much in Burns’s political, and more especially administrative, action that I strongly disapprove. But there have been so many, as I consider, unfair attacks and insinuations respecting Burns’s personal character on the part of Socialists, that I have felt bound to enter my humble protest on the other side.

Adolphe Smith, the expert on matters of sanitation, has already been alluded to in a forever chapter. From the time when he took part in the Paris Commune to the present day he has always been ready to give his services in any direction to help the Socialist movement.

Among the “old guard” of the SDF must not be forgotten the Viennese comrade, Andreas Scheu. An able and zealous open-air orator, Scheu was a personality who impressed himself upon all who came in contact with him chiefly through his vigorous utterance and the obvious sincerity of all he said. Whatever view he took up, he did so whole-heartedly, but he was a man withal of strong personal sympathies and antipathies. He was a great friend of William Morris, who liked his bluff and trenchant way of putting things as well as his inexhaustible enthusiasm.

A word must be said of the late Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx, with whom Aveling lived in relations of free marriage. The tragic end of Eleanor is well known. During the two last decades of her life she laboured unceasingly not only in the Socialist movement proper, but in the general working-class and Trade-Union movement. She it was who helped to found what is known as the New Unionism, being especially active in connexion with the Gasworkers and General Labourers’ Union, at the meetings of which her speeches were often greeted by the men with the cry of “Good old stoker!” In appearance she was stout and took strongly after her father’s side of the family, bearing a marked Jewish impress.

As for Edward Aveling, there is not much that is good to be said, save that he worked hard at times, although in a rather mechanical way, for Socialism, as he had before done for Secularism, when he was associated with the late Charles Bradlaugh. His reputation, financial, amatory, and otherwise, was very bad, but was kept afloat partly at least by the fact that stories ever and anon got into circulation about him which people believed on the ground of his general character, but which, as it happened, were not true, and when this was discovered it naturally had the effect of negatively improving his reputation by conveying the impression that if this story were false others might be so also, and that the man, after all, might be the victim of malicious tongues. As an illustration of this I will quote a story that went the round about Aveling at the time of the “split” in the SDF. It was to the effect that cheques were continually being drawn by William Morris in his favour. Now, it came out on the evidence of Morris himself that up to this time he had never given Aveling a single cheque or furnished him with money in any way. This was, of course, a great triumph for Aveling, who obtained credit and loans in various quarters in consequence. It is only fair to say that he also later made amends for his previous reticence in the matter of exigent borrowing in the case of Morris himself, All this shows the danger of crediting specific stories about a man on insufficient evidence, or merely on the strength of his general reputation, a habit that often has the effect of undeservedly buoying up a bad man’s character. It is a habit, however, most people are very apt to acquire.

One of the early members of the SDF was Helen Taylor, stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill. Of a thin spare figure, her self-conceit was unbounded. She had a lofty smugness about her which had to be seen to be appreciated. Lecturing once at the Eleusis Club, she informed her audience that she would never marry, as she thought there was no man worthy of her. Elected a member of the School Board for London, she related one day at a meeting of the SDF council in my hearing that she had that morning been driving through the Borough to a meeting of the School Board, and had noticed groups of workmen sitting or standing (it was dinner-hour) at the side of the road, who looked up as she drove past and then turned to each other and nodded, as much as to say “There she is at her work!” The last phrase was delivered with a special empressement of the haw-haw tone which was habitual to her. The fact that the honest proletarians in question may not even have noticed her noble self, but merely indicated by their nods that they were agreeing that Challenger rather than Paladin was likely to win the chief race of that day, seems never to have entered the worthy lady’s swelled head. And the funny part of it was that this preposterous creature, with her airs of pseudo-dignity, succeeded in imposing on otherwise sensible people, who at the council meetings of the SDF used to rise from their chairs as she majestically flaunted into the room. Morris did this at first, but on my remonstrating with him promised me not to do it any more. The good woman died, I believe, some years ago, in the bosom of the Catholic Church, attracted thither probably by the cult of the Virgin. The Christian Trinity of itself would have been doubtless much too masculine a proposition for her. Poor Mill!

A typical specimen of the London proletarian was J.E. Williams, an indefatigable as well as a popular agitator in the parks and at the street corners, in every way to which he could lay his hand in the cause of the working classes and of Socialism. He took part in public movements from his earliest years, and has remained true to his convictions from start to finish.

Another man of a different type who in his own way contributed his quota of work for the cause of Socialism at this time was Herbert Burrows. He was a member of the Democratic Federation from the beginning and did excellent propaganda service, especially in the Midlands, where his calling as a civil servant often took him. He is a well-known figure at Socialist congresses and Socialist funerals.

The proletarian leader of Socialism in this country with whom I was in closest personal touch was my old friend Harry Quelch. I have already given a sketch of his life and of my own relations with him, as an introduction to a volume consisting of a selection of his articles and short stories published shortly after his death by Messrs. Grant Richards & Co. Born at Hungerford, in Berkshire, in the late fifties, successively cattle-drover in his native place and, on coming to London as a young man worker in a tan-yard, and later on warehouseman packer to a firm in Cannon Street, then Trade Union secretary, and finally editor of Justice, Quelch was one of the most remarkable instances of the successfully self-educated man that I have ever met. He had a fine intellect, which readily grasped a subject in all its bearings, and was quick at assimilating new ideas when once placed before him. We used, whenever I was in London, to lunch together regularly once a week and discuss current events and the editorial policy of Justice. Quelch remained in harness almost to the last. When already struck by mortal illness, he accepted the invitation to deliver a course of lectures on Socialism at Ruskin College, Oxford, for which, at his request, I drew up a detailed syllabus that he seems to have closely followed. He died a few months after this, and was buried on September 20, 1913. His funeral was attended by a large concourse of Socialists of every shade, and speeches from the representatives of all the various Socialist organizations were made at the grave-side. Quelch is one of those men whom one never forgets. Always scrupulously loyal to his convictions, he was at once a clear thinker and an able and logical exponent of the views he professed.

No account of the history of Socialism in England would be complete without the mention of the indefatigable secretary for thirty years of the SDF, Henry William Lee. One cannot emphasize too much the debt that the old organization and the Socialist movement in England generally owes to the steady work of this energetic man. After the death of Quelch, Lee left the secretaryship of the old body to become the editor of the weekly paper Justice, where his abilities have proved equally effective in his new sphere of party usefulness.

Among the early pioneers of modern Socialism in Great Britain, George Bernard Shaw was conspicuous. At a later period successively journalist, critic in music, painting, and the drama, novelist, and last but not least, dramatic author, Shaw first became known to the British, and especially the London, public mainly as an eccentric; and unattached exponent and advocate of Socialist principles. He was zealous in attending meetings at this period and taking part in all discussions as they arose. There was scarcely an evening throughout the week when his voice and mother-wit were not to be heard in some hall or place of discussion in the metropolis or the suburbs, from the then existing Dialectical Society to the humblest workman’s club where beer was drunk and pipes smoked. His Sundays were regularly booked for this latter class of resort. The audience was not infrequently poor alike in numbers and intelligence. He would even sometimes find clubs at which he had been invited to speak utterly unprepared to receive him. On one occasion he discovered the members of the club for which he was announced playing billiards, and arriving five minutes before the time fixed for the meeting, he inquired of the billiard players when and where the lecture he had been invited to give was to be held, receiving for reply the observation that they didn’t “want no damn’d lecture,” but intended going on with their game.

However, in spite of such small rebuffs as these, Shaw continued with praiseworthy diligence, and without receiving a penny of material reward, in his endeavours to instruct the London proletariat in the economics and politics of Socialism as he conceived it. At first, Shaw lectured often for the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League on general Marxist principles. Later on he attached himself to the group of Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas, Hubert Bland, and others, who founded the Fabian Society, the policy of which was opportunism and “permeation” of existing political parties and the intelligent middle classes generally with Socialist aims and policy, postponing direct propaganda for the realization of Socialism itself till a more convenient season. He and Sidney Webb concocted between them a new economic groundwork of Socialist theory based on Stanley Jevons’s conception of “scarcity value” as being the measure of all value, which he designated by the name of “final utility.”

Shaw at this time lived with his mother and sister in Fitzroy Street, N.W., and it was there that his earlier writings were produced, though some of them were not published until later. I may here relate an anecdote from this time illustrative of Shawesque humour. One evening Shaw and I had been to a meeting or a concert (I forget which), and on coming out we found it was a wet night. Shaw, although never at any time showing the usual symptoms of impecuniosity, happening at the moment to be short of pocket-cash, borrowed half-a-crown of me for a cab. The next day I duly received from G.B.S. a post-office order for the half-crown. Happening to meet Shaw again two or three evenings later with others, I mentioned the fact, and rallied him on his somewhat pedantic scrupulosity in taking the trouble to buy and forward a post-office order when he knew he would be seeing me again in a day or two and might have settled the matter then. “Oh!” said Shaw, “it is my habit to show punctilious accuracy in small money matters, so that when the time comes I may pull off my big coup with success. To achieve that it is absolutely essential to acquire a reputation for rigid and undeviating accuracy in small debts. The commonplace man does not understand that!”

The fame and fortune that have later come to Shaw through the brilliancy of his plays have doubtless to some extent spoiled him for general purposes. When a man has to live up to the character of being a perennial fountain of wit, the quality of the wit is often apt to become strained. As a matter of fact, if you analyse them you can reduce many of Shaw’s effects to variations on one or two well-marked types. For instance, what I may teen the “paradox-joke” is a staple with Shaw. The following may be taken as a rough illustration of what I mean. The conversation turns on natural scenery, and especially mountain landscapes. On some one expatiating on these natural beauties, Shaw would, it is likely, at once start and maintain the thesis that Mont Blanc from the point of natural beauty is not a patch upon Primrose Hill. If you analyse it you will be astonished how much in Shawesque humour is reducible to the type of this “paradox-joke.” This he runs rather hard at times, as, for instance, when he asserts that he likes snobs. A paradox, of course, in itself often enshrines a profound truth which has been overlaid or distorted by the conventional thought of interested classes or of the multitude. It is the function of the paradox to unmask current pseudo-wisdom and to emphasize its real character. Now, it is the very importance of this true function of paradox in showing the hollowness of much in current opinion that passes for truth that renders it effective when used in the sense of a reductio ad absurdum – in other words, in the form of a joke. But the thing can be overdone, and when it is overdone it begins to pall. Once you detect the mechanism its effectiveness evaporates. It may fairly be questioned whether Shaw does not run at least very near the limit of the legitimate employment of the “paradox-joke,” if it is to be an efficient instrument of wit and wisdom.

But apart from this side-issue, as many will regard it, the question arises, Is Shaw’s work as literature likely to survive in the sense of becoming an English classic? This is a difficult question to answer with anything like decision. Yet I think there is some ground for believing that some at least of it will. Shaw’s points, though many of them are topical and hence are destined increasingly to lose their force, have nevertheless a present freshness in them which will give them a good start, and probably run them through at least a couple of generations with their smartness but slightly dulled. This was the case with Dickens, who is only now beginning to show sere and yellow to the appreciation of the younger contemporary generation. Such, of course, is the inevitable fate of all literature dealing essentially with contemporary manners and customs or with contemporary issues. But the warding off of the time when “points” begin to be blunted and interests dulled is itself an evidence of genius of no mean order. The further problem then is, Will the work, having lost its special kind of interest when written, renew its youth like the eagle’s, in acquiring the riper and more dignified position of a classic? Will mankind ever place Shaw in the rank of Dickens, Thackeray, Heine, Balzac, etc.? Time will show. Meanwhile the question remains an interesting subject of speculation for the literary-minded.

I come now to talk of the man who, after H.M. Hyndman, occupied the most prominent place in the public eye as a pioneer of Modern Socialism in Great Britain, though the prominence attached to the name of William Morris in this connexion was originally largely due to his already acquired fame as a poet and authority on decorative art. I first met Morris in the early Spring of 1883, and later at the annual conference of the then Democratic Federation, which he had recently joined. As stated on a former page, I induced him to allow himself to be nominated for the Executive Council after he had first declined. In view of later developments, and of the way in which the Socialist movement absorbed his time and energies during the ensuing years, Morris often used to chaff me with what I had let him in for, remarking of himself, “he little thought when he set out of running such a rig.” In his connexion with Socialism the typical vehemence of energy and enthusiasm of Morris’s nature were conspicuously exhibited. Whatever he took up with, he threw himself into it heart and soul. For four or five years after he had definitively joined that movement, Socialism both in its theory and as a practical propaganda occupied the first place in his thoughts. All his other work fell for the time into the background. To relate all the incidents of my close association with Morris during the years in question would occupy too much space in these reminiscences, but a few illustrative of Morris’s character may be given.

If there was one trait especially characteristic of Morris’s disposition it was his good-heartedness and genial jollity. He liked good cheer for himself and others. The thing he hated most as a view of life was Puritanism in all its aspects. While in no way countenancing intemperance, or for that matter serious excess of any kind, he abominated teetotalism as he did every other form of ascetic fanaticism. He was a thorough Pagan in the best sense of the word, who believed in living and letting live. With the mortification of the flesh in any form he had no sympathy. Such being Morris’s general attitude to life in its everyday aspects, it will surprise no one to hear that he would never meet a friend without “standing drinks.” He was indeed generous to a fault in every way. Being regarded as a good quarry by impecunious anarchist refugees from the East of Europe, he would keep a drawer full of half-crowns for almsgiving in this kind. They called in, he told me, and began to narrate stories in unintelligible English, which he generally cut short by the production of one or more of these half-crowns, according as the personality of the visitor seemed sympathetic or not, and this generally had the effect of causing him to leave with thanks. Morris kept open table at which visitors used to call in casually to take “pot-luck.” He was strongly averse to all formality, and neither gave dinner-parties in the ordinary sense nor attended them if he could help it. But he was always glad to see his friends drop in at any meal. Evening dress he never wore, or a frock-coat. In fact, it is impossible to picture Morris otherwise than in his well-known garb, consisting of a dark blue serge suit and blue shirt without cravat and a “wide-awake” hat. Morris was a Bohemian through and through. But good-natured and warm-hearted though he was, Morris could at times become a prey to the most violent fits of passion, in which he objurgated freely. As a rule, however, these fits, probably attributable to gout (uric acid in the system), only lasted for a few minutes, after which hiss habitual bonhomie reasserted its sway. In fact, if anything, he seemed to think it incumbent on himself to be more than usually amiable to the objurgated person after one of the fits in question.

Morris’s solicitude for his friends’ safety and welfare was always a noticeable trait in his character. On one occasion I had the intention of going to Sicily especially to visit the ruins of Agrigentum (Girgenti). Now at the time there had been some talk of brigandage in Sicily. Morris, on my mentioning my idea to him, insisted upon my not deciding to go before consulting his friend Richmond, the painter, who knew Sicily well. Accordingly, we repaired forthwith to Mr. Richmond’s house in Hammersmith. We found the distinguished artist suffering from gout and sitting up in bed reading Jowett’s Plato. The upshot was that, although the danger did not seem very great, Morris thought, all things considered, I had better abandon the idea of Sicily for the time being. “There is another point, Bax,” he said; “if anything should happen it might mean my having to stump up a thousand pounds or so cash at a moment’s notice, which, though of course I should do it if necessary, would still be inconvenient to me just at the present time.” I should mention that some such sum had shortly before been paid as ransom for an Englishman captured by brigands. Needless to say, after this expression of Morris’s view the projected expedition was abandoned.

Another less pleasant incident illustrating the same forethought I may here give. Once, during a few days’ walking tour in Sussex, somewhere between Pulborough and Midhurst, we were passing through some fields by the side of a stream. Suddenly Morris became morose and unsociable in manner. A little while after again coming upon the highroad we turned into an inn for luncheon. Sitting after the meal, I asked Morris the reason of his grumpiness. He replied that he was much exercised in passing through those fields in that he saw bulls regarding us in a more or less menacing manner, and that although he himself could have escaped by swimming across the little river, knowing that I could not swim, he was perplexed as to what course to pursue in the event of a bovine attack. Hence his surliness.

Morris was all his life an indefatigable historical student. His knowledge of the by-ways of history was marvellous. To this he added, especially latterly, the study of comparative mythology and what may be termed the newer anthropology. His love for the Middle Ages as well as for early society generally, but especially as exemplified in early Gothic and Germanic life, is notorious, and is notably enshrined in some of his later prose works. However, I discussed with him once what historical surroundings one would wish to be reborn into after the manner suggested in Plato’s myth of Er, and on the question being raised whether it would be preferable to be reincarnated as a mediaeval baron of the twelfth century or an Athenian Eupatrid of the fifth century B.C., to my surprise he seemed inclined to “opt” for the “Athenian gentleman,” on the ground of the general intellectual life of the classic epoch, as against the rudeness of existence in the medieval castle. The choice would be an obvious one to the average cultivated man, but for Morris, with his love of the Gothic, the barbaric, and the medieval, it came to me somewhat as a surprise. For my own part I should always choose to be reborn into a country retreat somewhere on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean in the second century under the Antonines. Friedrich Engels once observed to me that so far as he was concerned he should give his vote for a new lease of life to the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century.

The falling off in Morris’s vigour during the last year or two of his life was painful to witness. As the kidney disease from which he suffered advanced, in spite of occasional flashes of his old energy, his powers were obviously ebbing away. He died on the 21st of September 1896. A cruise he had taken a few weeks before in Norwegian waters for the benefit of his health not only failed in its object, but – which shows the complete decay of his powers, mental and physical – did not seem to excite any special interest in him.

Morris’s views on literature were decided and peculiar. Among English poets he did not care for Wordsworth, while his admiration for Byron and Shelley was moderate. Of Coleridge he had a very high opinion. Among the moderns, Tennyson he liked, but Browning failed altogether to appeal to him as a poet. He thought him a vain man personally. He used to say that when he met him in society Browning always pretended to have forgotten who he was. For the smaller fry he did not care much. Among novelists, Dickens held an especially high place with him. He was, it should be said, an omnivorous novel-reader. Of the old painters Giotto was his great hero, and among contemporaries his old friend with whom he used to breakfast religiously every Sunday morning, Burne-Jones. To William Morris, when one thinks of him, the somewhat hackneyed quotation from Hamlet seems notably to apply – “He was a man, take him for all in all,” we “shall not look upon his like again.” For Morris was a specially striking personality. As a friend of his expressed it to me, “by his death one felt as though a piece of one’s own life had been cut out.”

In the present chapter I have gathered together impressions of the most prominent leaders of the Socialist movement at the time of its inception in this country. They all, with the exception of Shaw, originally belonged to the Social Democratic Federation. Of course, names will be missed of men who have subsequently become identified with one or another form of Socialism in Great Britain. The Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society have both produced many such. To have included them in this place would have carried us too far. Of many, their Socialism is open to criticism, to say the least, and although the present writer has had no personal quarrels with any of them, their introduction into the present chapter would have necessarily suggested polemical discussions which lie outside its scope and purpose.

An exception may be made, however, in the case of one figure, namely that of Ben Tillett. Ben first came into prominence through the part he played in the Great Dock Strike of 1889. The account of the strike and its inner working he has himself given in an ably written pamphlet. Ever since this great landmark in the history of English labour, Ben Tillett, the secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, has been to the fore in all labour disputes. At first, while recognizing his ability as an agitator and an organizer, I was not altogether impressed with his attitude, in which I thought I detected signs of a certain philandering with the Nonconformist conscience and the section of the bourgeoisie connected therewith. Whether this were so or not at that time may be doubtful, but in any case the fault, if it ever existed, was short-lived with Tillett, who has since come out as a thoroughgoing Socialist and a member of the Socialist movement. I first became personally acquainted with Tillett in 1903, on the occasion of a meeting of the Labour party of Southampton to choose their parliamentary candidate for the next election. The two men in the field were he and my old friend Harry Quelch. I may confess that before going to the meeting both Quelch and I regarded the nomination of Tillett as a hostile move and Tillet himself as a dangerous adversary. What was our surprise when, on joining Ben before the meeting, we found that though he had accepted the nomination in form and had come down to Southampton ostensibly as a counter-candidate to Quelch, he had done so with the intention of throwing the whole weight of his support into the scale for Quelch In a brilliant speech Tillett proclaimed his Socialism and urged his hearers to vote for Quelch as the best man they could have to represent them. The chivalrous and unselfish conduct on this occasion of Ben, who up to this time had not been regarded as a declared Socialist, naturally endeared him throughout the ranks of the SDF.

As a raconteur Ben is in his way inimitable. I shall never forget his description of the trial of a Chinaman in Australia, brought up before a police-court for a petty theft; the lengthy colloquy of the prisoner and his interpreter being given in due style, with reminiscences of the Chinese language, which on the final demand of the weary magistrate as to what the prisoner really had to say for himself, resulted in the interpreter’s laconic reply, “Please, your Honour, he says he didn’t do it!” The duologue with its anti-climax was given as only Ben can give it.

There is probably no one in England who has the same power of holding and managing the most unruly or the roughest crowd with the magic of his words as Ben Tillett. In a strike he is the one man most hated and most feared by the capitalist class. The popular idea is that Ben Tillett is the typical fomenter of strikes. Nothing can be more untrue. For instance, in the Transport Workers’ strike of 1912 Tillett, as secretary of the Union, strongly opposed the strike. It was only when once decided upon by the Union against his own wishes that he threw himself, as in duty bound, heart and soul into it, in order to make the best of things. As a matter of fact, no labour leader wants a strike for its own sake. He has everything to lose and nothing to gain by it. If it fails or anything goes wrong, all the blame of the men falls upon his shoulders. If it is successful – “Well! He’s only done his duty.” (Voilà tout.) The hatred and abuse of the employing class and their Press he receives in full measure in either case. This notion of the labour leader being a strike promoter is one of the most foolish of the many foolish ideas entertained by the middle classes on labour matters. But, as Trinculo says in the Tempest, “adversity makes us acquainted with strange bedfellows,” and one is strongly reminded of this when one reads of the obnoxious strike-promoting Ben being smiled upon, and his recruiting meetings presided over, by dukes and other pillars of the State, as has been the case during the great European War.


Last updated on 28.3.2004