From the mid 1860s until the early 1880s, the “Atheist, Republican and Malthusian” Charles Bradlaugh was the leader of the biggest radical organisation in the country. He not only had a weekly journal The National Reformer, but as president of the National Secular Society (NSS), Bradlaugh had a provincial lecture circuit and the massive 1400 seat Hall of Science in Old Street, London, all under his control.
Historically radical is a fluid term, Bradlaugh’s particular brand of radicalism demanded manhood suffrage, and women’s rights (including the right not to have their working hours reduced by statute). Bradlaugh’s radicalism also attacked the monarchy and the aristocratic landed interest, but it had no problem with capitalism and Bradlaugh only supported trades unions as friendly societies , seeing all militant trades unionism as a vain and foolish attempt to “buck the market”. Above all, Bradlaugh argued that the problem of poverty under capitalism could be solved by birth control and thrift! Yet while Bradlaugh’s political and economic arguments might sound weak, his presentation was tremendous and he had no problem filling his massive London Hall of Science or pulling huge crowds in the provinces.
Bradlaugh loathed Marx for his socialist influence in the International Workingmen’s association (IWMA) while Karl Marx detested Bradlaugh as a”false prophet ” of the working class, but it was not until The Commune of Paris and Marx’s The Civil War in France was published by the IWMA that their mutual hostility came out in the open, with Bradlaugh publicly proclaiming that his support of the Commune was proof positive that Dr Karl Marx was an agent of Napoleon III, or Bismarck, or both. These accusations may now seem farcical, as does Marx’s challenge to Bradlaugh of a duel, and Bradlaugh’s challenge to Marx to go before a “Court of Honour” but the confusing ruckus the row made was a very real and it was serious contributing factor in the demise of the First International just a year later.
Bradlaugh contra Marx, radicalism vs socialism in the First International is no 28 in the Socialist History’s series of Occasional Papers and is available from the Socialist History Society, as well as the usual bookshops and Amazon. http://www.socialisthistorysociety.co.uk/