Green Party conference sessions often begin with a few minutes of silent ‘attunement’, but how many socialist political meetings these days start with a rousing bout of singing? Not many, I would think; but Socialist League branch meetings in the late 1880s sometimes did. For socialism in those heady early days aimed to be fun – not just heavyduty industrial organising or intensive study of the works of Marx and Engels (though there was plenty of that too).
Hence it was that, in addition to those socialist choirs that opened some branch meetings, the wider movement also organised literary readings, excursions to Epping Forest, a Socialist Supper Club in Soho, the embroidering of banners, Clarion cycling or camping or rambling trips, the playing of a harmonium on the official Socialist cart, private theatre productions (whether one-act revolutionary dramas or an Ibsen play or a three-act social comedy), the study of natural history, occasional dancing, and so on. It was as if they had invented avant la lettre May 1968’s great utopian slogan of ‘sous les pavés, la plage’; beneath the standardised and oppressive world of capitalism, this whole extraordinary, vibrant subculture.
Clearly we will need to reinvent some of this shared sense of fun, adventure and Morrisian fellowship – in new forms, naturally – for any emergent postmodern socialism of the early twenty-first century; and we will need to learn both from the socialist pioneers of the 1880s and from the Green movement of our own day as we do so.