A History of Freedom Press

The first Freedom emerged from the British socialist movement in the early 1880s. At that time there were several overlapping organisations with associated periodicals – the Social Democratic Federation with Justice and Today, the Fabian Society with the Practical Socialist and Our Corner, the Socialist League with the Commonweal, and so on. Anarchists were active in all these, but there were no separate anarchist initiatives in the country until the formation of a “circle of English anarchists” in May 1885. This group included both Continental émigrés (Such a Nikola Chaikovski and Severio Merlino) and native British anarchists; among the latter the leading member was Charlotte Wilson, who was both well educated and well off, and who was an active writer and speaker advocating anarchism in socialist organisations and publications from 1884.

When Peter Kropotkin, the best-known figure in the international anarchist movement, was released from prison in France in January 1886, Charlotte Wilson was responsible for the group inviting him to come to Britain to join them. He settled in England in March 1886, and the group decided to produce a new anarchist paper after their separation from the English Anarchist Circle and The Anarchist edited by Henry Seymour. In addition to Freedom, the group eventually set up Freedom Press, the main publisher of anarchist literature in England. This was the origin of Freedom and the Freedom Press. Meanwhile Charlotte Wilson wrote an account of anarchism in the fourth Fabian tract, What Socialism Is, which was published in June 1886, and led the anarchists at a joint socialist meeting which supported parliamentary socialism by a two-to-one vote, at Anderton’s Hotel in London in September 1886.

original Freedom Press office

The time had clearly come for a new anarchist initiative. Freedom began publication as a monthly in October 1886. From the start it was intended not as the organ of a particular group but rather as an independent voice in the wider movement. At first it was described as a journal of Anarchist Socialism, but in June 1889 it became a “Journal of Anarchist Communism”; it has always represented the mainstream tradition of anarchism, through giving a voice to differing views. Although Freedom Press concentrated on the periodical from 1889, it also produced other publications – first pamphlets and then booklets and books, mostly works by foreign writers (Kropotkin above all, but also Errico Malatesta, Jean Grave, Gustav Landauer, Max Nettlau, Domela Nieuwenhuis, Emile Pouget, Varlaam Cherkezov, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and, of course, Proudhon and Bakunin) and also works by British writers (including Herbert Spencer and William Morris). And From the start there were regular discussions and occasional public meetings.

For most of the first decade, Freedom was edited, published and largely financed by Charlotte Wilson, although its most important contributor was Kropotkin. Freedom became the main English language anarchist paper in the country, a position it has held for most of the time ever since. After the First World War anarchism seemed eclipsed by the rise of Communism and Fascism abroad and parliamentary socialism at home and the original Freedom ceased publication in December 1927.

When the Spanish Civil War and Revolution began in 1936, Freedom Press helped to revive the anarchist movement in Britain, Spain and the World appeared fortnightly from December 1936 to December 1938. When the Second World War began yet another Freedom Press paper was started. War Commentary began publication in November 1939, the production of other publications was resumed, a printing press was acquired in Whitechapel and a bookshop was opened. War Commentary co-operated with radical pacifists and the few socialists who escaped the line of the labour and Communist parties, and the Freedom Press was involved in subversive activity and the circulation of anti-militarist material.

As a result Freedom Press was raided, and three of the editors imprisoned at the beginning of 1945 for attempting “to undermine the affections of members of His Majesty’s Forces”. Benjamin Britten, E. M. Forster, Augustus John, George Orwell, Herbert Read (chairman), Osbert Sitwell and George Woodcock set up the Freedom Defence Committee to “uphold the essential liberty of individuals and organizations, and to defend those who are persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, writing and action”. When the war also ended in Asia, in August 1945, the title was changed back to Freedom.

Today Freedom Press remains as a functioning publishing house whilst the printing itself is done by Aldgate Press (a printing co-op set up in 1981 with money raised by Vernon Richards). The Freedom Press collective also runs the Autonomy Club meeting room, holds art shows, runs a bookshop and publishes a monthly newspaper Freedom, while sharing the premises with The London Coalition Against Poverty, the Advisory Service for Squatters and Corporate Watch.

The Freedom Press archive is held at the Bishopsgate Institute Library.

Anarchist portraits along Angel Alley


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