Archive for June 17th, 2010


Secularism Versus Marxism Debated

Secularism Versus Marxism; Bradlaugh Versus Marx

By David Morgan

 The great battle of ideas between Secularism and Socialism waged in the Victorian era by the leader of British Secularism, Charles Bradlaugh, on the one side, and Karl Marx, on the other, was painstakingly explained in a tour de force by Deborah Lavin at a meeting of the Socialist History Society on 10th June.

Deborah, a SHS member, writer, poet and researcher into 19th century revolutionary politics, made excellent and entertaining use of her formidable dramatic talents for verbal impersonation as she read extracts from letters of the many personalities involved in the bitter rivalry between Bradlaugh and Marx in the run up to and the aftermath of the Paris Commune and its political ramifications in Britain.

In Deborah Lavin’s colourful account, what was at stake was far more than a clash of personalities; it was a confrontation of ideologies and entrenched class positions, she argued, as they both flourished around about the same time and operated in similar circles of London.

Now largely forgotten except in specialist circles, Bradlaugh was towering figure in his day, a freethinker, an atheist and a dominant figure in the Secular movement which was a real force in the British radical politics of the mid to later 19th century. But although he came from a relatively impoverished background as the son of a solicitor’s clerk from Hoxton, leaving school very early and never having any private income to draw upon, Bradlaugh became a fierce opponent of Socialism and never appreciated the “class politics” propounded by Marx and his allies. Emerging as rivals, each vied for the allegiance of the working class with Bradlaugh exploiting his position more effectively among the public on the political stage where his reputation as an orator and agitator was high.

Marx in contrast never had the same opportunities to address a mass audience in Britain mainly because of his status as a German refugee; in fact he was much more widely known on the continent than in the country in which he made his home. His writings, written in German, were only translated into English years later and sold only a few thousand copies, while Bradlaugh’s National Reformer sold thousands each week making him a household name. He addressed huge audiences all over the country on an almost weekly basis, while the activities of Marx were much more limited. Bradlaugh’s influence was thus far greater and he was far more visible as a public figure.

Today, the status of the two men has been tellingly reversed, Deborah Lavin was keen to stress, which indicates that Marx was after all simply in a different league as his rival.

 Bradlaugh remains famous today for the “birth control” trial of 1877 where he stood in the dock alongside Annie Besant; although ostensibly a progressive cause, proponents of birth control were often social Malthusians who argued somewhat like Dickens’s Scrooge that the “surplus population” should be eliminated and that it would be achieved if the poor acted responsibly and practised birth control. The arguments of Bradlaugh on this issue were deeply anti-Socialist, Lavin stated.

Bradlaugh and Marx first clashed on the issue of Sunday opening, which the former regarded as a fight against religion, while Marx argued that it was a class issue as Sunday was the only day when the workers were free to do their shopping. Bradlaugh was prepared to advocate direct action in the Hyde Park demonstrations that took place over the issue, while Marx ridiculed this resort to violence for such a paltry cause.

Later, in contrast, the roles were reversed when Bradlaugh denounced Marx for allegedly glorifying the violence of the Paris Communards in his renowned pamphlet, The Civil War in France, which was written for the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), but was little read in its day.

Bradlaugh had sought to join the IWMA in the 1860s but when he realised that he would not be able to dominate it, as he liked to do with any organisation in which he was involved, Lavin said, he turned his fire on Marx seizing on an opportunity during the debates surrounding the fate of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Bradlaugh showed little or no concern for the massacres of thousands of innocent Parisian citizens, men, women, old and young, by the avenging French troops, a stark fact which truly exposes a lacunae in Bradlaugh’s outlook. His only concern was to undermine Marx, making absurd and vindictive charges that he was a police spy in the pay of Bismarck and other demagogic accusations.

Bradlaugh was always a “radical”, whose limitations as a creed Deborah mercilessly exposed as obsessive constitutional reformers who largely excluded social and economic questions from their concerns; he was certainly not “intrinsically anti-capitalist”, she contended, speculating that this was perhaps why he so easily ended his career in respectability as a Liberal MP staunchly opposing the eight hour working day and other progressive measures.

Radicals in the 19th century could be profoundly “unpleasant” like the radicals of today, she said, pointing out that Margaret Thatcher used to style herself as a radical, as did Tony Blair. Bradlaugh himself was equally unpleasant, with few redeeming features, Deborah Lavin insisted.

The talk was rich in its arguments and hugely entertaining with the speaker showing a full grasp of her subject matter and a command of the audience who greatly appreciated the large number of slides depicting the personalities, events, social conditions of Paris and London and in particular those showing full horrors of the downfall of the Paris Commune. The speaker had some harsh words for Bradlaugh, with which many no doubt will strongly dispute, but his apparent failure to sympathise with the suffering of Communard dead certainly weakens any sympathies for him. And in the end, of course, it seems, Marx was the winner in the popularity stakes, at least in terms of name recognition.

The Socialist History thanks the South Place Ethical Society for helping publicise the event and was pleased to see that some Secular Society members in the audience.

June 2010