Free Commune and Billy MacQueen

We are beginning to think about scanning some of the material we hold in the KSL archives. What we want to do though is put what we scan into some kind of context and not just leave it floating around aimlessly on the “world wide web”. Anyhow – here’s a paper that interests us, The Free Commune from Leeds. It appears to have been published during 1898 and it re-invented itself as The Free Commune: A Quarterly Magazine in January 1899. KSL holds No. 3 of The Free Commune and No. 1 of the The Free Commune Magazine. (If you can send us other copies that would be a treat!!!)

Both of these titles were put together by William “Billy” MacQueen (1875-1908) and Alf Barton (1868-1933). MacQueen was based in Leeds, Barton in Manchester. You can read more about MacQueen here and more about Barton here.

Of the two it’s MacQueen we want to talk about a little more. He had interesting links between the UK and the USA anarchist movements and paid a grim price for his beliefs and actions and his life, I think, like so many others, presents us with some interesting reflections on ideas and action. Although both he and Barton were class struggle anarchist communists The Free Commune suggests that they both saw anarchism as a rich tapestry and were able to easily reconcile what some of us may now see as contradictions or antagonisms. We can see this in the last two paragraphs of Barton’s piece on Nietzsche, for example, where he and Nietzsche differ on the attractiveness of “socialism,” yet Barton is still able to appreciate the immense importance Nietzsche had in freeing the human mind and encouraging individual revolt. The donations column is also interesting in this respect. The two donors “Eagle” and “Serpent” are a misprint, being in reality the individualist paper The Eagle and Serpent: A Journal of Egoistic Philosophy and Sociology published in London between 1898-1900 – a paper that The Free Commune regularly sent exchange copies to.

On page four there is an advertisement for the paper New Order edited by John Colman Kenworthy. MacQueen had met Kenworthy in 1897 when he came to speak in Leeds. Partly as a result of this visit a bicycle and light mechanical co-operative was created “conducted upon Anarchist-Communist lines” and called “The Brotherhood Workshop” (6 Victoria Road, Holbeck, Leeds). Kenworthy was, in fact, a prominent Tolstoyan Christian anarchist (he visited Tolstoy in Russia in 1895) and helped found the Croydon Brotherhood Church and, in 1896, the Purleigh Brotherhood Church. Both were based on the principles of voluntary co-operation and non-violence.

We can see, then, that there is a lot going on in this little four-page newspaper and a wide range of ideas and anarchist practice are represented, including a scornful comment on the horrified reaction of “reformers” to the assassination of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria by the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni. The editors would like to see a similar reaction whenever a working woman is killed by “the profit-mongering system.” The attitude of the editors to the killing of the Empress presages that of Emma Goldman in “The Psychology of Political Violence” (1910) seeing assassinations as the natural outcome of a society “based upon robbery and murder”.

MacQueen eventually left Leeds for Hull from where he emigrated to the US in 1902. Before then he had helped edit, in 1900, the Anarchist Newsletter and had begun in Leeds, and later in Hull, to produce pamphlets (and numerous leaflets) under the imprint of The Free Commune Press. We’ve managed to identify some of them:
Charlotte Wilson, Anarchism, Leeds, 1900
Peter Kropotkin, The Development of Trade Unionism, Leeds, 1900
Johann Most, The Deistic Pestilence, Hull, 1902 (KSL has this one)
Sebastian Faure, Die Verbrechen Gottes, Hull, 1904
The last pamphlet reminds us that MacQueen was a fluent German speaker and it was this talent, which would lead to his untimely death.

When he arrived in New York he spent time with Johann Most (they had corresponded before) managing to get himself arrested on May 4th 1902 under the terms of the recently legislated Criminal Anarchy Act, put into place after the assassination of President McKinley by Leon Czolgosz. MacQueen is alleged to have shouted “To hell with the laws of America; to hell with the government” at a farewell reception for Johann Most, who was about to serve a prison sentence for printing an article called “Murder against Murder” in his paper “Freheit” just before McKinley’s assassination. MacQueen had also begun to produce a newspaper “Liberty” which he edited from April-December 1902.

Meanwhile in Paterson, New Jersey silk dyers went out on strike on 23 April 1902. Sometime in May MacQueen and Rudolph Grossman (Pierre Ramus) went to Paterson to work with and support the German-speaking strikers. Both spoke with Luigi Galleani at the 18 June strike support meeting in Belmont Park. MacQueen had already written an article in La Question Sociale calling for a general strike and repeated the demand at the rally. Following the rally rioting broke out in Paterson’s textile district and the police responded by opening fire. Galleani (after being shot in the face) fled to Canada, returning to Barre Vermont under an assumed name in 1903. Grossman and MacQueen were arrested and charged with incitement to riot. Interestingly MacQueen’s wife, Nellie, spoke at a meeting with Emma Goldman on “The Situation in Paterson, NJ” in New York City on 18 November 1902.

Both MacQueen and Grossman jumped bail after being sentenced to five years, with MacQueen returning to England. For whatever reason he returned to stand serve his sentence on April 10 1904. (He appeared to be concerned for the person who had lost his bail money when the two fled.) Grossman never did. Sent to prison MacQueen was released in 1907 but had contracted tuberculosis while locked up. He died in England in 1908. In prison MacQueen had become somewhat of a cause celebre. H.G. Wells visited him and a very sympathetic portrait of MacQueen appeared in Wells’ The Future in America (London: Chapman and Hall, 1906). A pamphlet (?) The Case of William MacQueen: Reasons Why He Should Be Liberated written by Alfred Wesley Wilshire appeared in Trenton in 1905.

MacQueen is one of many anarchists who died young and never saw his full potential realized. If nothing else writing a little about him reflects a determination that at the very least he will not be forgotten. There’s something else, though. Often we raid the anarchist past to justify the anarchist present. We can create a historical precedent or discover lost traces and tendencies that were prescient and illuminating for our present practice – or whatever bee we have in our bonnet. We can’t easily do that with MacQueen. He could stand with the most militant of anarchists and urge a General Strike in a tense and confrontational atmosphere, be supportive of non-coercive, Christian Anarchism and see hope in small co-operative factories. Some of us may see him as a walking contradiction as we look for purity of theory and practice. The truth is, I sense, that for MacQueen the pursuit of anarchy was urgent and necessary. That pursuit, in his case, took the form of passionate and fiery speeches (in the most oppressive situations he chose attack, rather than defense), impulsive, sustained actions and thoughtful and inclusive writing. Action wasn’t careful and rational. It was messy, sometimes self-defeating and sometimes wonderfully exciting. All he had to guide him at each step was a steadfastness of morality and purpose. Any road that might take him towards anarchy was worth walking on and he appears to have had little of the rigidity and theoretical certainty that was a feature of the writings and practice of other comrades of this period. His life (no marginal one in the pursuit of the ideal), does suggest that the term “class struggle” was a little more complex and complicated than it’s present day adversaries and adherents have defined it.

(Later postscript)

****** Since writing this I have been reading some of Alf Barton’s correspondence with Max Nettlau in 1898. The paper “Eagle and Serpent” was actually sent to Barton by Nettlau. Barton’s response, before he had seen it was “If consideration of others of a sympathetic character is weakness individualism is a gospel of brutality”. The first two issues of “Free Commune” were published in Manchester and the edition we have shown (No 3) had a print run of 2,000. A couple of more snippets. In Manchester three comrades put the paper together – Alf Barton, Billy MacQueen and Tom Jones, and MacQueen was married to Barton’s sister. So much to find out…. BP