Radical Friendship

Radical Friendship

This is the first in a series of pieces on Radical Friendship. The feature is intended as an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. Over the next several weeks HWO will be publishing work on friendship and care, friendship and work, friendship as solidarity, political friendships, friendship as community, and friendship as a means to undermine some of the alienating structures that separate and distance us.

The series is about friendship both in terms of how we might study friendship – how finding friendships can help us to access the emotional worlds of the past, to understand political motivations and intellectual preoccupations, and to trace connections across factions, borders, and crowded pubs. But the feature is also about the experience of friendship for those finding these pasts. The hand of solidarity often reaches back in time, and our subjectivities as historians are informed by often powerful feelings of solidarity and affinity. And for historians, academics and writers, as with others, friendships affect how we work and what we work on, and can provide invaluable sustenance for this work.

Friendship is a protean concept. This series explores friendship under many guises – fellowship, fraternity, camaraderie, intimacy, kinship, allyship, solidarity – in different eras and in different places. It is less concerned with the genealogy of theoretical concepts of friendship (many accounts of which begin with classical Greek philosophers, through Kant, and on to Derrida), but instead focuses on friendship as a radical practice, and one that might be capable of upending hierarchies, building community, and producing social change. Some of the contributions, though, raise questions about the limits of friendship. Is friendship truly possible across glaring disparities of power and privilege? How can friendships acknowledge and allay these disparities? In recent months there has been widespread discussion about mutual aid, community activism, and authentic allyship. The COVID-19 pandemic, global Black Lives Matter protests, and increased economic precarity have highlighted both the urgent need and real desire for radical friendship, but also the limits of many of our existing models. How can we be better allies, better comrades, better friends?

In my own work on histories of progressive political communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries I have studied friendships as a means through which to recover some of the more diffuse ways in which political ideas are exchanged, appropriated and propagated. Finding friendships of the past can help to challenge big narratives that don’t always make space for the nuances of intimate human connection, or for the affective nature of political engagement. The privileging of certain source material – political pamphlets, organisation and union records and minutes, and political speeches – within political histories of the labour movement often skews analysis away from themes and characters that are less well endowed with easily-reached archival material. But political sentiments are very often expressed and developed through friendships, fleeting discussions, and intimate and informal communications. The search for these friendships and expressions of intimacy, therefore, is an attempt to reconstruct the more elusive emotional worlds of political idea-swappers of the past.

Looking to friendships also helps us to understand how progressive communities constructed shared campaigns and common identities, and where and how bonds of solidarity were formed within, across and beyond borders. For example, highlighting the emotional connections (both personal and political) made between refugees of the Paris Commune of 1871 and British activists in the late Victorian period undermines the assumption that the Paris Commune had little tangible influence on the British Labour movement, and helps to dispel some of the myths of British socialist exceptionalism.

Around 1,500 Communard, plus their families, came to Britain as political refugees in the 1870s. For activists and socialists encountering these exiles the personal and the political overlapped: casual meetings, love affairs, and friendships provided the context for discussions of the politics of the Commune. French exiles, British radicals, and other international refugees created spaces, often intimate spaces, in which to talk politics, swap ideas, and explore the intersections of the distinct political cultures of France, Britain, and beyond. This was often via informal meeting, eating, and drinking. Several key figures in the socialist movements of pre-1914 Britain had a connection with the Commune that was much more personal than the institutional record might suggest, and helped to shape the intellectual outlook of these socialists.

‘Communist refugees in London’, Fun, 17 June 1871

The playwright George Bernard Shaw engaged in weekly singing sessions with an Alsatian exile of the Commune, Richard Deck – Shaw would sing to Deck in French while Deck, a basso profundo, provided the bass backing vocal. These sessions led to discussions of the Paris Commune and of how the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had influenced the events of 1871. John Burns (trade-unionist, socialist and Battersea MP) was introduced to continental socialism as a young apprentice engineer through his friendship with an exiled Communard colleague, Victor Delahaye. Eleanor Marx met the Communard Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray at a Commune anniversary celebration in 1872. Their subsequent friendship, sexual relationship, and (failed) engagement oversaw much intellectual collaboration. Eleanor translated Lissagaray’s authoritative The History of the Paris Commune of 1871, one of the earliest book-length histories of the Commune, and one of the few still in print today. The Communard Jules Magny (London correspondent for la revue socialiste), ‘achieved distinction in England by making wine from grapes grown in his backyard in the Old Kent Road’ and would invite his British activist friends round to sample it and invariably, to talk politics. And there were many other known and lesser-known activists who were involved in informal reading groups, sexual relationships, translation projects, and supper clubs with refugees of the Commune. These friendly and informal interactions helped to shape the intellectual outlook of many fledgling British socialists. Their understandings of revolutionary socialism were conditioned by the informality with which they could enter into political conversations with individuals who had taken part in the events of 1871.

These individual friendships were also buoyed by collective expressions of solidarity articulated at Commune anniversary celebrations, refugee fundraisers, and radical funerals. In other words, activists of late-Victorian London and Britain sought community, both personal and symbolic. Clubs, pubs, reading rooms, and meeting halls took in multifarious plans and propagators who, despite their different backgrounds and approaches, agreed on the need for community, friendship, and the creation of spaces of intellectual exchange as being integral to their socialist visions. Moreover, the intellectual kinship enjoyed by friends, neighbours, colleagues, and acquaintances – Communard and non-Communard – helped to establish the Commune as a symbol of international socialism, and was important in the development of new socialist configurations in Britain.

Importantly, the desire to form connections through ideas, and to create cultures of intellectual and political fraternity tells us something very important about how and why people engage in political projects. Socialists, radicals, and activists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (as today) show us that political parties and political ideas alone are not what mobilises people – people live their politics, they make connections based on feelings of allegiance and solidarity, and therefore the emotional context and cultures around any kind of political programme is central to understanding the ideological commitments of its adherents.

Political commitments are also instilled and buoyed by the articulation of powerful lineages of comrades long gone and powerful examples of symbolic communities. In William Morris’ novel A Dream Of John Ball (1888), John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, reaches out from the fourteenth century to extend the hand of friendship to the revolutionary socialists of the nineteenth century, proclaiming:

Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them

To Morris and his friends, Ball was as much a comrade as their real-life contemporaries. They understood the Peasants’ Revolt as the precursor to their own struggle, and Ball as one of many guiding hands. The novel describes a dream in which a time-traveller tells Ball about the decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial capitalism. In reply Ball demands to know why his dreams of an egalitarian society have not yet come to pass. For Morris and his contemporaries, then, Ball was urging them forward, to continue his unfinished work.

William Morris’ A dream of John Ball (1888)

Of course, these friendships were very much imagined and mythologised, but they were powerful none the less. Political struggles are very often articulated via references to historic struggle, to lost comrades and lost friends, to the forebears of the movement. Finding friends in the past provides emotional sustenance and historic legitimacy for political movements of the present. And finding past people with whom we feel kinship is a way of disrupting histories and narratives that insist on the marginalisation of certain stories: finding a friend in the past is all the more powerful when you have been told that you have no precedent, that your existence is unnatural or unwelcome.

This is true of activist communities today. The historian Alan Bray explored the long history of male friendship and its relationship to the traditional family in The Friend (published posthumously in 2003). The Friend was prompted by Bray’s discovery, in the chapel of Christ’s College Cambridge in the 1980s, of a tomb shared by two men, John Finch (1626–1682) and Thomas Baines (c.1624–c.1681). The tomb features stirring imagery dedicated to their friendship, with portraits of the two friends linked by a knotted cloth. These seventeenth-century friends reached out to Bray, and researching their lives revealed a long lineage of friendships, intimacies and desires that offered powerful examples for those involved in the gay liberation movements of the late twentieth century. And for Bray, piecing together the lives of friends long gone became a personal act of remembrance and mourning for his real-life friends who were dying of AIDS:

I think I was seeking among the tombs of the dead those lost friends; I would not let them go: and with the guiding hand of scholarship and the eye of a historian, against all expectations I found such friendship there in those monuments.

I have experienced something of Bray’s sentiment in my work on friendship, solidarity and community. There is courage to be gleaned from the study of past lives lived with tenderness and honesty. And there is comfort in knowing that those we study have experienced loss and despair but have continued to forge connections through friendship and feeling.

Queer kinship, and the importance of friendship to the transnational activist networks of the late nineteenth century are just two examples of how friendship can facilitate radical action. In the coming weeks HWO will publish contributions concerned with other radical relationships, and other constructions of friendship and solidarity. ‘Radical Friendship’ will include work on the solidarity campaigns during the 1984 miners strike; on Black women writers and radical friendship; on queer intimacy in early modern Britain; on friendship in imperial contexts; on friendship and poetry in 1950s New York; on Black culture and collaboration in Britain; and on Mary Wollstonecraft and her radical conception of friendship.

In centring friendship, I hope that the series will bring new stories to the fore, and perhaps uncover new connections. Some of the authors featured in this series are my friends. Our work is of different disciplines and subjects but discussions of the friendships we were documenting felt like a rare point of intellectual convergence, and one that we discovered, as friends often do, in the course of a rambling conversation, over a pint.

*The cover image for this piece is the ‘Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom’ mural, by Mexican artist Daniel Manrique, painted on the side of the United Electrical Workers trade union building in Chicago, USA.


  1. Super article and pertinent at time of lockdown. Well done Laura

  2. What a great post!! You made me rethink about friendship, I ve never heard of friendship like this before. Your blog is full of useful information. I am passing now this blog to all (and I can say now my friends :)) who are trying to see the change coming for equality. Love it (black lives matter)

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