We should celebrate Enid Stacy – socialist, suffrage campaigner, and land settler

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Stacy (after her marriage) on a postcard

Enid Stacy was a leading late nineteenth century socialist. She came from Bristol, attended university in Cardiff, became a teacher, was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, and made a living as an itinerant public speaker. Margaret Cole remembered her as ‘one of the most effective women speakers and lecturers in the nineties’. Stacy took a firm view on equality between the genders, and supported universal adult suffrage, embracing all adults – women and men – on an equal basis. The last months of her life were spent campaigning against the Boer Wars.

Stacy is hardly unknown – she has her own blue plaque, and a London council named a housing scheme after her – but she is not a familiar figure, even among historians of the labour and women’s movements. I have vague memories of Ruth Frow telling me of an unpublished biography by her niece.

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From: openplaques.org

Ruth, who with her husband Eddie founded and curated the marvellous Manchester Working Class Movement Library, was a generous host, and I was an enthusiastic doctoral student, so I must have taken in what she’d said, but this wasn’t my field. I didn’t pay much as much attention to the Stacy story as I did to the tea and sandwiches that she offered me.

Much later on, I encountered Stacy as a member of the Starnthwaite Colony, one of several late nineteenth century utopian settlements that crop up in my study of British work camps. Stacy was as prickly and challenging as a land settler as she was in every other area of her life, but it was hard to find out much about her. So I was delighted to learn from the Lipstick Socialist blog that Stacy’s biography is finally to see the light of day.

For me, Stacy entered the work camps story in 1893. Aged 25, she had been dismissed from her teaching post for her role in supporting local strikers. Together with Katherine St John Conway (later Glasier Conway) she made her way to Starnthwaite, near Kendal, where a Unitarian minister and socialist called Herbert V. Mills had founded a utopian socialist colony, attracting a small number of local unemployed men and committed socialists, among them Dan Irving, the one-legged trade unionist, acquaintance of James Connolly, and subsequently Labour MP.

Like several similar utopian colonies, the Starnthwaite settlers found life hard. The practical challenges of self-sufficiency were hard enough, but there were also ideological and personality differences, with Stacy and Irving among a group of socialists who accused Mills of authoritarianism. Mills, for his part, accused the socialists of being keener on preaching than working, and had the police charge six of them for breaking down a door.

Stacy was expelled within months of joining the colony, along with thirteen others, and proceeded to make her criticisms of Starnthwaite a theme for her public lectures in Lancashire. Starnthwaite struggled on for a time before Mills handed it over to the Christian Union for Social Service, and then withdrew from an active role in the land settlement movement. His reputation was briefly revived by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1908 justified Mills’ stern government of the colony as unavoidable if it were to survive its early challenges in a disciplined way.

Stacy moved on, speaking at dozens of open-air meetings, often from the back of a Clarion van. She married, writing a short play exploring her socialist approach to marriage, and she continued to advocate the ‘co-operative home’ or settlement as a way of tackling the unequal distribution of domestic labour. And if you want to find out more, then like me you will have to buy the biography.

Stacy’s biography is available, for a mere fiver – yes, less than two pints – here.

 

Utopia – Whither the Future?

I’ve been very taken with the idea behind this conference, which examines the past, present and future of utopias. It’s being held in New York in September, and the call for papers is open (details here) until 30 June. I can’t attend myself, but what a great topic!

The organisers pose some attractive questions about the past and present of utopia. The future, reasonably enough, is summarised by a question mark.New Picture (2)

I certainly have an interest in the history of utopian thinking and practice. I encountered numerous cases in researching the British work camp tradition, ranging from the Christian Socialist settlement at Starnthwaite and the Tolstoyan anarchists of Whiteway to the Zionist David Eder training farm, the Aryan work camps of Rolf Gardiner’s group, and the peace-builders of Gryth Fyrd. All of these sought to prefigure a different world; and although none managed to persist with its original intentions, some lasted much longer than others.

Given that work camps are seriously hard work, literally as well as figuratively, there may well be some lessons to be learned from these stories. The tension between academic rigour and utopian activism is one of life’s great pleasures.  And I very much hope that utopian thinking and practices are far from dead: if we cannot imagine a different way of living from the world around us at present, we may as well turn to the bottle.

Modernity and socialist land colonies

Why did socialists create so many new utopian communities in the late nineteenth century? In his engaging short book on Modernism and British Socialism, Thomas Linehan revises the neo-Marxist notion of a ‘conjuncture’ (it sounds better in French) where a number of factors came together that encouraged a positive view of the world as it might be, a negative view of the world as it was, and an optimistic sense that an alternative was realistically achievable.

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For Linehan, the socialist revival itself in the 1880s and 1890s reflected a belief that capitalism stood stood on ‘the cusp of profound and radical change’ (132). While urbanisation, mechanisation, scientific advance and economic growth had brought about an end to old ways of living, they had palpably failed to produce spiritual renewal and material prosperity for all, while also throwing old certainties into the dustbin of radical doubt. The result was what Linehan calls ‘an acute liminoid moment’ (28), when radicals were able to put into practice their values of fellowship, harmony and equality.

Linehan devotes a chapter to the socialist colonies, paying particular attention to the Tolstoyan settlements at Purleigh and Whiteway, the Christian socialist colony at Starnthwaite in Cumberland, and the Kropotkinite Clousden Hill Communist and Co-operative Colony near Newcastle, as well as the arts and crafts colony at Chipping Campden. He also mentions the one-man settlement of the Scot Douglas Semple, who went to live in a bell tent on Linwood Moss, near Paisley.

These ‘experiments in social modernism’ represented an attempted reconstruction of communal life in communion with nature, as well as a refusal of the spatial and temporal arrangements of modernity. Linehan contrasts these utopian impulses with ‘Fabian modernism’, which he presents as underpinned by a belief in the power of rationalism and science, as well as a strong sense that ‘progress’ was inexorably moving towards the collectivisation of social governance. Fabian efficiency, writes Linehan, was incompatible with and intolerant of the utopian colonies, which Sidney Webb deplored as sentimental expressions of pre-modern nostalgia.

This is a compelling account, and I wish I’d managed to read it before finishing my own study of British work camp systems. My fourth chapter is given over to a discussion of the utopian colonies, and on the whole I think my analysis and Linehan’s complement each other. His work is much stronger on the intellectual history of the period, though, and it forces us to rethink much of the socialist project of the late nineteenth century (and more recently, of course).

Where we part company is, I think, in his use of the term modernism. I’m generally sceptical over such portmanteau concepts as modernism and neo-liberalism, both because they jumble together much that is contradictory and because they tend to be deployed as non-personified actors rather than as general intellectual currents. And I think this has influenced Linehan’s account of the socialist colonies as well.

For one thing, any account of socialist utopian colonies has to acknowledge not only the various autonomous community building endeavours of small groups. It must also consider the ways in which socialists sought to use local government – particularly the poor law institutions – to develop labour colonies that were similarly inspired by the idea of building new, post-industrial and egalitarian communities. The work of George Lansbury and his allies in Poplar and elsewhere in London is the prime example, but there are others.

Science alone was not enough to render utopian colonies unrealistic. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the great supporters of the labour colony movement, was himself a rationalist and a biologist, who is best known for independently developing the theory of evolution; he was also a spiritualist, and saw nothing contradictory in holding these views.

And this brings us back to the Fabians, who may have understood themselves as dispassionate and scientific, but were perfectly happy to develop plans for labour colonies as part of their wider vision of socialised efficiency. Equally, the Kropotkinites at Clousden Hill thought of themselves as promoters of the latest scientific techniques in agriculture. Science and community building were by no means mutually exclusive.

Finally, the utopian moment passed fairly quickly. Few of the socialist colonies survived more than a couple of years, and those that did survive – like Starnthwaite and Whiteway – had to change their goals and nature pretty drastically. It is then hardly surprising if Fabians thought them of little value in the years before the Great War, as by that time no socialist colonies existed. Interestingly, although the local government colonies also lost their utopian character, Lansbury supported them loyally to the last.

Modernism and British Socialism is a lively, well-written and intellectually fluent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and while I don’t agree with part of Linehan’s central argument, nor with his account of the socialist colonies, it helps us rethink the intellectual climate in late nineteenth century Britain and offers a stimulating account of early British socialism.