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06Jul2016

ON SOCIALIST FELLOWSHIP

The two men in the photograph above are William Morris (on the right) and George Bernard Shaw (on the left).  They are two of the main figures in a recently completed paper for my research project Other People’s Struggles. The paper concerns the problem of building socialist fellowship among recruits from different social classes. What sort of changes do middle class people need to make to the ways they live when they become socialists? In the 1880s, this was the subject of a vigorous but – so far as I know – almost entirely forgotten debate among British socialists, including Morris and Shaw, but also Edward Carpenter, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, E.Belfort Bax and others.  Some (Carpenter) thought that everything ought to change, while others (Shaw and Bax) thought that nothing could change.

I take the date 1883, the year that the socialist revival began in Britain, and examine the perceptions in that year of four British socialists on this question.   I use the articles, correspondence and other writings of Carpenter, Morris, Shaw and others to set out the disagreements, and to try to explain why people who agreed on so much else differed so widely on this question of social fellowship.

To a significant degree, the views they took on this question followed from their differences on other questions concerning socialism, above all whether the working class consciousness was the inspiration for socialist advance or an impediment to it.  But I think it is also worth considering a dangerous speculation about the direction of cause: that it might be that ‘way of life’ and associative preferences – the way someone likes to live or finds they can live, the people with whom she or he prefers to live – also influence his or her socialism.   Or, at any rate, the assumption that the causation only works the other way is worth exposing.