Spirits and Socialists

Logie Barrow. Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850-1910, History Workshop / Routledge Kegan Paul. 1987.
In spite of its at times dense academic style this book illuminates a forgotten chapter in the history of ideas: the overlap of spiritualism with popular socialism and radicalism That this history has been forgotten is not surprising. Writers such as Brian Inglis have long been concerned to present us with a picture of Victorian spiritualism depicting eminent scientists gathered to witness inexplicable phenomena in the drawing room of a sympathetic member of the aristocracy.

Their critics such as Trevor Hall and Ruth Brandon have been more concerned to detract from the reality of the phenomena witnessed in such settings than to question this view of spiritualism. On the other side many depictions of the origins of socialism have been concerned to depict studious working-men either demonstrating by their sobriety and respectability their right to a place in the social order, or learning the rational and scientific doctrine of Marxism, according to the predilections of the writer.

In fact early spiritualism and radicalism shared several concerns, claims that ordinary working-class people might commune with the dead undercut the claims of the churches to be the custodians of a once and for all divine revelation and as a result some secularists and free thinkers looked favourably on these claims, while some spiritualist papers carried ringing denunciations of 'priestcraft’. By contrast with modern parapsychologists doggedly searching for a repeatable experiment to impress the scientific community, many Victorian spiritualists confidently felt themselves to be on the threshold of a new era of revelation in which general acceptance of spiritualism would unite humanity; a belief that paralleled socialist ideas of an immanent new dawn.

It was in this climate George Holyoake, the freethinker whose 1840 trial for blasphemy became a cause celebre published radical, atheist and spiritualist works on his press; the Journal of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation reported on spiritualist activities; Karl Marx’s associates included the spiritualist George Saxton, and W. T. Stead the famous Victorian journalist combined social exposés with spritualist propagandising. The connection between populist journalism and spiritualism has since been maintained by figures such as Hannen Swaffer, and today Derek Jameson who has recently championed the mediumship of Doris Stokes.

As with nineteenth century astrology these activities indicate a climate in Britain in which occultism overlapped with popular publishing and seif education rather than, as on the Continent being the concern of wealthy members of Theosophist and quasi -Masonic groups, Barrow suggests that a simil ar culture seems to have existed in the USA at the time, there it may even have drawn part of its inspiration directly from the shamanist traditions of the Native Americans and imported African slaves.
  • Roger Sandell, from Magonia 27, September 1987

No comments: