Freedom News

Radical Reprint: The Voice of Labour

With militarism and the expectation of a war in Europe on the rise, Freedom‘s approach wasn’t getting as much of a bump in readership as hoped, according to reports from the anarchists’ annual gathering in Newcastle in May 1914.

Anarchism’s reach in Britain at the time was, as ever, limited compared to the greater movements of the continent, but a general idea of where its strength lay comes from a writeup by an attendee signed simply as ‘D’, who went to the trouble of listing where the delegates came from. Thirteen cities, towns and regions were represented alongside an intriguing mention of the “Chopwell Boys,” hailing from a village in Gateshead.

Despite an effort towards optimism, D showcases a sense of despondency in an atmosphere that seemed inopportune for radicals, noting that other than in Wales, where some vitality was present: “Nothing beyond the usual plodding of a handful of comrades, beset by persecution and difficulties, could be reported.”

Views from the delegates however were more constructive, focused particularly on anti-militarist and labour ideas which were thought to have legs in a way that outright revolutionary anarchism didn’t seem to. Discussion thus turned to producing a new publication better suited to the needs of the moment. Syndicalism and trade unionism particularly were still, despite a relative lull after the high point of the Great Unrest, considered to be fertile ground.

Fred Dunn, then 30 years old and from a family of radicals, was the one who moved for the creation (or possibly revival) of Voice of Labour – a paper that had been briefly produced in the late 1900s by the Freedom Group – as a weekly newspaper, in order to fully commit to informing and radicalising workers. Dunn’s suggestion built on the work of the Torch, a paper he and his comrades at the Anarchist Education League had been producing as a four-page news-sheet, and it found broad support with the inclusion of George Barrett as nominal editor (though due to the latter’s illness Dunn would in practice fill that role). Freedom itself was also supportive, lending premises, advertising it for sale in the same issue, and announcing a fundraising social at vegetarian restaurant Shearn’s, on Tottenham Court Road, London.

The Voice would go on to be a success, particularly in the First World War where its pro-working class, anti-war message got to the heart of a conflict which, as time went on, became increasingly clear in the uselessness of its butchery. Its ultimate endorsement would eventually come from the State, which raided both Freedom and the Voice in January 1916, arresting or interning dozens of anarchists as a threat to the war effort.


The Newcastle Conference

It is not often that anarchists foregather with such a blare of trumpets, or, more precisely, a Press booming. Everyone in Newcastle knew that we were coming, knew not exactly what to expect, and awaited with pent-up curiosity to see what manner of men we really were. Disappointment was theirs, for we were respectable-looking, mild-mannered, and did not assume a fearsome aspect.

We started well, for did we not argue with our serving maid over the tea cups ere we had scarce settled ourselves in the town, and very soon afterwards continued the argument with pressmen and local socialists, whose premises we had taken as our temporary abode? One felt certain misgivings as to the value of long and protracted discussions as a means to an end, but felt, nevertheless, that good work is done by an interchange of opinion upon the many subjects which trouble us; by taking stock of our past year’s work, and meeting comrades from all parts, many of whom had been hitherto names only. It was refreshing after many very usual conferences to know that here if one had aught to say, objections to raise, or criticism to make, no mighty chairman threatened if the rules of procedure were transgressed. We knew what we wanted, and discussed it fully, freely, and frankly. A word as to the personnel. They came from all parts, we forget exactly where, but chiefly Glasgow, Edinburgh, Coatbridge, Huddersfield, York, Sheffield, London, Bristol, Gateshead, Liverpool, Stockport, Wales, North and South, and the Chopwell Boys came in dozens, each an embryo fighter, from whom more will be heard anon, we hope.

The conference proper was announced for Sunday and Monday and, after running the gauntlet of press men and photographers, we settled to business, and as a preliminary successfully disposed of the youthful but enterprising journalist whose adventures, real and imaginary, made delightful fiction in the London and local press. The agenda gave promise of stirring times, but our anticipations were not realised by subsequent developments. The following is a brief summary of the business report of the movement in various districts, organisations, linking-up of groups, the relation of anarchism to trade unions, syndicalism etc, the Modern School, anti-militarism, report on literature sales, the weekly paper, new pamphlets, and the International Congress. With such a list of subjects to discuss, one knew we could but touch upon each one. Greensmith, of Huddersfield, undertook the secretarial work.

The reports from various groups were good, particularly the inspiring accounts of activities in Coatbridge and Ammonford. Nothing beyond the usual plodding of a handful of comrades, beset by persecution and difficulties, could be reported; but one felt that the Welsh spirit, which can run enthusiastically in so many causes, will find, and in fact is finding, a splendid field in anarchist propaganda. The comrades working in mining districts had certainly the most inspiring reports. Newcastle Comrades decided to form a group for more active work. Before leaving we heard that they tad met and definitely started the group. We wish them luck. The linking up of groups made interesting matter for discussion, but all were agreed that a very close union was not possible. The move set on foot at Liverpoo for a medium of communication between groups, of which Plattin, of Bristol, has charge, was considered as good a means as any if taken advantage of; and further, the weekly paper would undoubtedly, act as a bond between the groups, and keep all more fully in touch with local activities.

The best and most useful discussion of all was the one upon the relation of anarchism to syndicalism, trade unionism, etc. Whilst there was a diversity of opinion as to the value of anarchists joining and working through trade unions, it was fairly well agreed that some form of industrial action was necessary, and this action and our thoughts could best be expressed by adopting the syndicalist method of warfare in trade unions, thus helping the workmen to put aside their faith in leaders and each become a fighting unit for the emancipation of his class. The debate, however, lacked definiteness, and was not a satisfactory expression of anarchist thought upon these matters.

The Modern School was discussed as a means to get the children interested and to counteract the influence of the mis-training given in the day schools. Comrades Dick and Ploschansky spoke of their efforts in East London; their children’s magazine, which was well in evidence, gave ample proof of their untiring efforts. The result will be, we hope, many such efforts in various districts. Anti-militarism could hardly be discussed. That it should form part of our propaganda all were agreed, leaving methods to circumstances and opportunity. The sales of literature were reported to have doubled during the last two years, but Freedom has not shown a corresponding increase. Many new pamphlets are awaiting publication when funds will allow.

The discussion upon the weekly paper was opened by F. W. Dunn, of London, who stated what had been attempted by the Anarchist Education League with the Torch, and their desire to convert that venture into a weekly paper under the title of the Voice of Labour. The paper, he stated, would be a four-page one from May 1 at a charge of a halfpenny; and by September they hoped to bring out a full eight-page paper at a penny. A general discussion followed, all expressing the desirability and necessity for a weekly paper, and offering all assistance to the London group in their effort. By the time this report appears the Voice will be launched and the hopes expressed by one and all will now be given an opportunity for realisation.

The coming International Congress raised many points, and most groups intimated their intention of being represented. The Conference decided to meet next year in Manchester.

A word as to the evening meetings. A splendid meeting was held in. the Co-operative Hall on Sunday night, when Comrades Lowther, McAra, Ponder, Doris Wess, and George Barrett spoke to an audience of well over 400. Without any attempt at oratorical flourish, the speakers gave in a clear and interesting manner the why and wherefore of anarchism, a message with which most of those present were as yet unacquainted. The sale of literature was good, and what was lacking in oratory was supplemented by the written word, a sounder and more impressive method of propaganda. The open-air meeting in Bigg Market was the more inspiring, and was throughout a battle between a critical audience and the speakers. Comrades Dunn, McAra, and Ponder were the speakers, and the latter’s answers to a would-be annihilator in the shape of a Socialist Labour Party critic were keenly taken up and appreciated by the audience. Thus ended a conference which has helped us to understand each other’s work and methods, prepared the ground for a weekly paper, and sent us back to work feeling that somewhere, at least, good work is being enthusiastically carried on.

The thanks of all are due to the comrades who made the arrangements, excellent in every way, and. to the women folk of the B.S.P., who catered so well for our more material needs.

– D.

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