Was Clarion socialism really 'more social and cultural than political?'

Was Clarion socialism really 'more social and cultural than political?

What follows is a sort of offshoot of the exploration I am engaged on currently about the Clarion during the First World War. This has been made a great deal easier since the whole of the paper has at last been made available online by British Newspaper Archive.


The 2021 annual conference adopted a statement about the origins of our Club which acknowledged the original commitment to socialism but declared that 'Clarion socialism was more social and cultural than political' What might this mean? Can the statement be justified? I believe it can and will cite in support a number of statements made in the paper in June and July 1916 and in January 1917. There will of course be many who disagree with all the views expressed and positions taken – including the one the paper took on the war itself. But I'm confident that the quotations from the paper do illustrate the 'social and cultural' nature of the Clarion's version of socialism.


At this time Robert Blatchford and Alexander M. Thompson were joint editors – described as such on the paper's masthead. Usually Blatchford wrote a front page piece and Thompson indicated the Clarion's position on current issues on an inside page under the title 'Our Point of View.' The paper had warned about the 'German Menace' in the years before 1914 and once war broke out it believed that Britain and its Allies should be supported against a 'Prussian militarism' that had invaded Belgium and France. This put the paper and its adherents at severe odds with much of the socialist movement, notably the Independent Labour Party (ILP), whose foundation in 1893 had owed something to the Clarion and the now dominant element of the British Socialist Party (BSP). For the Clarion they were both irredeemably 'pacifist and pro-German.' In 1915 Thompson chaired of the Socialist National Defence Committee. The following year this became the British Workers' National League and for some time the paper included its reports and a form to fill in if you wished to join.


The sequence of events, comments and letters this article is concerned with began in an apparently inconsequential way not untypical of the Clarion. Fred Hagger for the past year had been running the paper's 'Maintenance' campaign which sought contributions from readers to help keep the paper going. It had tried, and just failed, to raise £1000 in 1915 – a lot of money in those days. But on 9 June 1916 Thompson was able to acclaim what he called 'A Journalistic Marvel' and announced that 'Fred Hagger's prodigy has passed the £1,500 mark....' And he ended his 'Our Point of View' piece with 'The CLARION'S debt to Fred Hagger is beyond compute'


Hagger replied to 'Dangle' – as Thompson had been called since the earliest days of the Clarion. Thompson then issued 'A Call to Arms' in his editorial column. The British Socialist Party - formed in 1911 with the SDF as its chief component – had split with the anti-war majority in control . The veteran socialist, Hyndman had made an appearance at the Easter Meet earlier in the year after the BSP conference where the' split' occurred.. Hyndman's 'pro-Ally' minority, Hagger had argued in his letter to Thompson, and the League were 'mutually nullifying.' Thompson's response was to declare that 'Ours is the only Socialist organisation that is not disruddered, disreputed, disrupt or suspect,' and to sever his 'connection with the Workers' League.' Then he went on: 'If, as Hagger suggests the Clarion Fellowship has now purged itself of its disgruntled elements, my undivided allegiance necessarily returns to the Clarion Fellowship.'


The following week (30 June) featured an article on 'The Clarion Fellowship' by Tom Groom, the founder of our Club who is commemorated in the Tom Groom Trophy. Groom's piece began 'At last! After much tribulation and sore questioning of the spirit A.M.Thompson has decided that the

only real, genuine party in which a Clarionette can feel happy is the Clarion Fellowship.' In the past, Groom went on they had gone out of their way to help create other organisations 'no one of which can be said to embody the CLARION spirit'.' Groom himself had participated in the 'Unity Conference' that formed the BSP in 1911. This had come about, argued Groom, because of 'impatience with propaganda work and a desire to hurry things up by political action.' Thompson included two letters praising Hagger from F.L.Willoughby, who called for 'Three cheers for Hagger and the Fellowship' and Arthur Bleasdale who identified himself as a ''Manchester Clarionette.'


All seemed in line with Hagger and Groom but Bleasdale ended his letter 'When we have consolidated our force; when we have increased our numbers sufficiently to justify it, we may ask to be affiliate with the Labour Party - not as a political organisation, but as a party supplying new recruits to aid the Labour Party in the stern and inevitable fight that will have to be waged once this war is over.' That might be OK - possibly - with Hagger, but Blatchford felt it necessary to respond to Bleasdale's suggestion the following week (7 July) in a front page piece with the title 'The “Clarion” and the Fellowship.' He was not, he insisted, out to dissuade people from forming parties but 'I do not think any new parties are wanted.'


He agreed with Groom that the 'proper business' of both the paper and the Fellowship was 'to teach Socialism and make Socialists.' But what did Hagger mean when he talked of the need to 'organise the Fellowship?' Blatchford was not sure what that meant. But he hoped it didn't mean political parties which were best left to politicians. He hoped Hagger agreed that 'The Fellowship exists for fellowship among its members and for the teaching of Socialism.' He and the paper had in the early days believed in 'a great party of the workers' - but they no longer did.

'We do not believe so much in parties as in education. The real controlling power in this democratic country is public opinion. When public opinion is in favour of Socialism we shall get Socialism.' Meanwhile 'he was full of this awful war.' He had 'a son in the trenches and many dear friends in the field or at sea.'


Originally, I meant to end it at this point. But since writing this piece I have moved on with what I've called my 'exploration of the wartime Clarion. Early in January 1917 (5 Jan) a piece on 'The Clarion Fellowship' appeared which endorsed much of Fred Haggar's proposals but announced a 'row' with him before announcing that Haggar would argue his case the following week. The fundamental disagreement? 'I prefer leaving politics to the other chap.' I assumed this was Blatchford himself, but Haggar's article the following week (12 Jan) made it clear that it had been written by Tom Groom. Groom at his stage had a regular feature ' Clarion Cyclorama' and was Chair of the Fellowship.


Haggar's piece (19 Jan) included a letter from 'Pa Bennett – North Islington N.S.P. and Clarion Cycling Club' - supporting Hagger's more 'political' line and quoted also in support Shaw-Maxwell who had been the first secretary of the ILP. Then (26 Jan) Blatchford made clear, once again, his belief in a 'non-political' Clarion Fellowship in a front page article

'Ought the Fellowship to become Political?' He began by declaring that the issue should be left to to younger people. But he made his own view very clear. A Clarion Fellowship organised for political action would ' no longer be the Fellowhip as we have known and valued it. The soul of the Fellowship has been its broad individual liberty and tolerance.' It had ' never been tangled in party politics....' It had been ' a non-political refuge where Socialists could meet for rest and recreation.' The dangers of changing this approach were fundamental, 'Directly you go in for active politics you must sacrifice the sponteneity of the Fellowship' It would result in 'Political Socialists, quite out of sympathy with the old easy-going, humane Fellowship' joining '...the new party. Carpet-baggers would work their way in.' For Blatchford 'The Fellowship has been a great club, a great temple, a great warm hearth in a kind of democratic inn'


That's probably enough to demonstrate the 'social and cultural' nature of the Clarion socialism but I can't resist quoting from a letter in the 'Clarion Cockpit' from Sapper H. Rogers with its very specific details (14 July 1916). He agreed with 'Dangle' that 'the only Party for Clarionettes is the Clarion Fellowship.' He then went on: 'We will revive the spirit that founded the cycling clubs and the vocal unions, put the Vans on the road and establish club-houses, We will let other parties struggle for the limelight and wrangle in grubby rooms situated over stables, about what Karl Marx said in 1874 and what he meant when he said it.' So I think I can rest my case that Clarion's version of socialism.nature was ' more social and cultural than political.'.




Ian Bullock, Brighton and Hove Clarion. Chair of NCCC 2019-2021.  I've been researching and writing about the pre 1939 Left in Britain since the 1970s.