Contradictions of an aristocratic socialist

July 11, 2009

Socialist Champion: Portrait of the Gentleman as CrusaderBy John BarnesAustralian Scholarly Publishing, 2006, 362 pp, $39.95 (pb)

Socialism found one of its more unusual recruits in Henry Hyde Champion, hero of the great London dock strike in 1889 and anti-hero of the Australian maritime strike one year later. John Barnes' biography of Champion aims to unravel the political contradictions of this aristocratic former British army officer who proclaimed his socialist commitment until his death in 1928 in Melbourne.

Born in 1859, Champion was troubled by his military role in India and Afghanistan and by the desperate lives of the poor in London's East End. He left the army to become a socialist and secretary of the Social Democratic Federation. Champion's energy and desire for action saw him at the forefront of massive public demonstrations, arrested for sedition and a leader of the famous London dock strike.

His skills as a journalist were pivotal to the unprecedented financial solidarity from Australia that saved the epic five-week strike. It was an experience that hid Champion's political idiosyncrasies in a truly great working class movement. Alas, says Barnes, "it was an experience that was never to be repeated".

Champion was dogged by suspicion that he was in receipt of "Tory gold" fed by his secretive financial support from a progressive soap manufacturer, and his friendship with Maltman Barry, self-proclaimed "Tory socialist", a former member of Marx's First International.

The upper-class Champion was also "conscious of social hierarchy and comfortable with his place in it", says Barnes, and he was quick to take to the parliamentary road to socialism. The next in his long line of self-published periodicals was appropriately named Labour Elector.

Finance, health and political woes drove Champion to Australia in 1890. The enthusiastic reception for the dock strike hero lasted but a few months, however, and Champion departed tarred as an enemy of labour because of his role in undermining the unsuccessful 1890 maritime strike.

The union leaders' mismanagement of the strike earned Champion's most remembered description of Australian unions as an "army of lions lead by asses". But many workers were more alienated by Champion's own behaviour: advising British unionists not to give financial support and even enrolling as a "special constable" to police the streets.

Disappointment back in Britain prompted another tilt at a career as a colonial politician in Australia in 1894 where he was again shunned by working-class organisations. He only found favour as a speaker for middle-class clubs and societies, including the left-wing but far from anti-capitalist Fabians, the Women's Franchise League (Champion was a fervent campaigner for women's suffrage) and the Anti-Sweating League, which investigated working conditions in the clothing, boot-making and other sweatshop industries.

Champion briefly rediscovered his socialist flame in the Victorian Socialist Party, before its two thousand members dispersed over disputes around whether the party was a left ginger group of the Australian Labor Party or an independent and revolutionary socialist organisation. Sentimentally still thinking of himself as a socialist, Champion retired to the middle-class world of the educated book lover.

Champion's commitment to the ideal of socialism was constant, says Barnes, trying to rescue Champion from the disdain he was held in by most of the Australian left. It is, however, an attempt that can only be pulled off by soft-pedalling Champion's undermining of the 1890 maritime strike and by underplaying the perpetual political crisis posed by Champion's elitist condescension towards working people.

Class origins need not be a barrier to socialist politics. Marx was an intellectual, Engels a cotton manufacturer. What matters are political values. Champion's dislike for autonomous working-class democracy and collectivism, and his permanent truce with capitalism, were the real problem, not his frock coat, monocle and posh manners.

Barnes' conclusion that "the most memorable thing about [Champion's] life was that, with all his contradictions and confusions, he bore witness to the power of an ideal" is the best light that can be thrown on Champion. Equally illuminating is the sad and sorry history of the political reformism of Champion compared to the genuine revolutionary champions of the working class.

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