In India there are parks and roads named after Annie Besant, and she frequently makes an appearance in history textbooks. She is remembered there for her work in the twentieth century: the presidency of the Indian National Congress, her advocacy of independence for Indians and her leadership of the Theosophical Society. But in her native country, she is not so well recognised. This is typical of Besant who was always good at making herself unpopular in Britain. Her ideological Uturns – from Christianity to freethought and from socialism to theosophy – stunned even her admirers, and leave it difficult to associate her with any one movement or cause.
Yet she was on the frontline of British politics for some 25 years before moving to India, and was for George Bernard Shaw ‘the greatest orator in England’ at the time when she joined the Fabian Society in 1885. It was the second year of the Society’s existence; it had fewer than 40 members and the middle-aged and bullish Besant, who always preferred to be the leader of any group, and was more comfortable with direct action than political philosophy, did not find a natural home there. Later she claimed that she only joined the Fabians because it was more palatable to her old radical friends than the other socialist groups. It is testimony to the lack of dogma and orthodoxy in the organisation (characteristic of the Fabian Society as a whole) that Besant started lecturing and publishing under the Fabian banner. But she also had some utility for the Fabians: she was an accomplished publicist and organiser (it was Besant who suggested the idea of local Fabian branches) and did not mind getting her hands dirty. Her energetic publicity work ensured that the 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism sold like hot cakes.
Above all, she excelled at talking to ordinary people. Hubert Bland commented that she probably knew the views of the working classes better than all the other leading socialists of her day put together. It is this freshness and directness of description, rather than her philosophical insight, that speaks most loudly and clearly to us today. She was driven by a fiery humanitarianism, which never became detached in her mind from the effects of poverty. In her tract Is Socialism Sound? she stated baldly: ‘The chief fact it deals with is the fact of poverty.’ She was able to convey the effects of an unbridled capitalist system on the vulnerable – ‘the sobs of women poisoned in lead works, exhausted in nail works, driven to prostitution by starvation, made old and haggard by ceaseless work’ – and her journalism helped to underscore the importance of Fabian political thought.
Perhaps more than any other Fabian at the time, her principles of equality were not reserved for people in Britain. Her vision was international, and as she explained in Why I am a Socialist, it was because socialism was opposed to political, social and religious tyranny in every land, looked sympathetically at all nations struggling for their freedom and did not recognise barriers of nationality, class or creed that she was attracted to it. At a time of high empire, when other Fabians were ambivalent about the imperial project, Besant connected her domestic agenda with an international outlook which valued not only economic justice but also political freedom. In her eyes, the value placed on a life in Kabul or Mombassa ought to be exactly the same as that placed on a life in Bloomsbury. In fact she went beyond this, and her reading of international history was a subtle (if romanticised) critique of the ways in which the industrialised European countries had inhibited the development of the colonised parts of the world and distorted their political trajectories. Then as now, the problem was how to design policies to equalise life chances around the world, not only in Britain. As we grope for a response to the changing nature of the world order, there is a case to be made for bringing this humanitarian angle back into the rhetoric of policy formulation, even if the difficulties seem as insurmountable now as they did in 1885.
As a divorcee and single mother, with no other source of income, Besant supported herself entirely through lecturing and journalism. Her feminism was not spelt out. It was a basic assumption that underpinned everything else that she did. She mocked ‘silly sneers at women’s ability’ and it was no wonder that she sat at Fabian meetings surrounded by young girls who hung on her every word. For her, feminism was not only for her middle class circle; she was just as interested in economic as political liberation for women. Her most famous victory was leading a union of factory girls against the match company Bryant and May and she was also involved in defending birth control. She resolved the apparent tension between the good of the community (including the family) and the good of the individual, which has sometimes undermined the place of feminism in socialism, by pointing to the social benefits of freeing women from economic hardship and rewarding them for their labour. She counted housework and child-care as part and parcel of this labour, anticipating the Women’s Fabian Group by over 20 years. Her emphasis on the necessity of bringing the benefits of education and economic emancipation to all classes and ages of women is as relevant as ever.
Some may question Besant’s suitability for inclusion in a pamphlet of this title, as she is more renowned for what she did than what she thought. She was indeed an activist rather than a thinker. It is not too paradoxical to say, though, that this frenetic and committed activity can speak to us still. She would have given apathetic voters short shrift. For her, politics was always something vital and exciting, and she felt a pressing responsibility to communicate this to the ordinary man and woman.
This article was originally published in Fabian Thinkers: 120 Years of Progressive Thought (2004)