Alfred Russel Wallace, socialist and land grabber

Alfred Russel Wallace is being celebrated as Britain’s forgotten evolutionary scientist, the man who co-discovered the process of evolution through natural selection. The Natural History Museum is currently marking the centenary of his death with a series of events, exhibitions and conferences, while a project supported by David Attenborough has digitised much of his voluminous archive.

Historians of science admire Wallace as a naturalist, anthropologist, geographer and explorer. They have rather less to say about his political ideas. Wallace described himself as a socialist, and was a high profile campaigner for public ownership of the land. He was also, for at least two decades, a vocal supporter of the land colony as a solution to unemployment.

Wallace had a long standing interest in Robert Owen, the leading co-operative thinker and founder of the pioneering industrial settlement at New Lanark. By 1889, he was enthusing over the writings of Herbert Vincent Mills, Unitarian Minister and social reformer, who had written Poverty and the State, which Wallace praised as ‘one of the most remarkable and valuable little books of the day’.

In his presidential address for 1889, Wallace told the Land National Society that Mills’ proposals for settling industrial workers on communal village colonies would ‘prove that poverty and want of work are wholly landlord-created, and that, whether as individual independent workers or in co-operative association, our labouring classes, if permitted, can support themselves upon the land’.

In 1892, Mills led a small group of like minded friends onto a farm at Starnthwaite, near Kendal.  Here they settled down to a life of farming, weaving, tailoring, shoe-making, fruit-bottling, jam-making, and smithing. By autumn 1893, eleven men, five women and six children were living in the colony. Perhaps inevitably, Mills had clashed with secular socialists (or, as he saw it, the more idle settlers). The colony survived until 1900, when Mills handed it over to the English Land Colonisation Society.

Wallace continued to champion Mills’ ideas throughout and beyond the Starnthwaite experience. In 1893, he outlined detailed plans for a series of co-operative land colonies across Britain, each with a population of around 800 families, so that ‘there would thus gradually be trained up a body of men and women fit to carry out successfully a truly co-operative life’.  In 1897 he restated his proposals in a contribution to a collection edited by Edward Carpenter, republishing the chapter as part of Studies, Social and Scientific in 1900.

In 1908, by which time there were several Tolstoyan land colonies, Wallace wrote two articles for Socialist Review, which he later republished as a Clarion pamphlet, praising Mills’ idea of the land colony as a solution to unemployment. So neither Wallace’s political beliefs, nor his interest in labour colonies, were a passing whim. This can be rather embarrassing for historians of science, who prefer to focus on his contribution to natural science.

Wallace’s ideas, though, can be equally distasteful for some labour and socialist historians, who have scant sympathy for talk of industrial workers settling land, and recoil from Wallace’s interest in spiritualism, as well as his ideas on the workshy (he and Mills thought tramps and loafers should be required to attend a labour colony until they acquired the taste for work that was needed for life in a communal colony).

As we mark Wallace100 then, we can reflect that resistance to modern capitalism has taken many forms. Social democracy and state welfare are one of these, though some might argue that they have also developed their own inefficiencies and injustices. The more communitarian tradition of critique and action has often been marginalised, but it produced some fascinating experiments in communal ways of living, and has influenced modern environmental thinking. We should not dismiss it lightly.

For further information on Wallace100, see: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/wallace/

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5 thoughts on “Alfred Russel Wallace, socialist and land grabber

  1. Excellent thanks John, this is very timely and there is some evidence that even the mainstream political parties are beginning to think about engaging with communities in ways that value alternative kinds of actions, and campaigns which could come under the umbrella of communitarianism. It very much reflects the kinds of things I am doing at the moment and I’m very enthusiatic about the possibilities for change at the interface between this kind of activity and traditional politics.

  2. Thank you for this John; I certainly wasn’t aware of Wallace hitherto. As ever, opportunities for societal advance lost, but I also yearn for positive change, which a more detailed knowledge of history can facilitate.

  3. Pingback: We should celebrate Enid Stacy – socialist, suffrage campaigner, and land settler | thelearningprofessor

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