Kapital ideas meet fire and brimstone

What Price the Poor?
June 2, 2006

Ann Woodall's study of William Booth and Karl Marx is prompted by a striking coincidence: the founder of the Salvation Army and the father of Marxism both moved to London in 1849. Furthermore, she argues, what goaded each of them into action was horror at the intractable poverty of the London residuum - what Booth called the "submerged tenth" of the population and Marx dubbed the lumpen-proletariat.

Both men were domineering, impatient characters with a taste for fire-and-brimstone sermons. "Nothing moves people like the terrific," Booth wrote. "They must have hell-fire flashed before their eyes, or they will not move." Marx thought so too, portraying capital as "dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour".

As a pawnbroker's assistant, Booth confronted chronic poverty daily. Marx's experience was even more direct: he often had to pawn his few possessions - even his children's clothes - to buy bread or potatoes for his family. For Marx the resolution of society's contradictions "came internally and not from a transcendent other. Nevertheless, because of his wider ethical view, the resolution he foresaw can be seen as a redemption, despite his rejection of religion". It had to be a collective redemption, however, as against the individual and immediate salvation offered by Booth. Both messages had a powerful resonance. By the end of their lives Booth and Marx "could see their ideas and work developing beyond themselves and probably their own wishes".

There, alas, the comparisons end. Woodall treats the two men discretely, and since she is a lieutenant colonel in the Salvation Army it is no surprise that she devotes five long chapters to Booth but only two brief ones to Marx. To justify including Marx at all she has to emphasise - and perhaps exaggerate - the role of the London residuum in his work. It is scarcely mentioned in Das Kapital , which focuses on the exploitation of the working class and the "reserve army" of labour rather than the ragged and destitute class beneath. Yet in her conclusion Woodall continues to insist on the impact of the underclass on his "core beliefs". Although the assessment of Marx may be unsatisfactory, her account of Booth deserves the attention of anyone interested in classical sociology, or in the religious and secular motivations of social reformers in late Victorian England.

As a connoisseur of contradictions, Marx himself might have enjoyed her deft analysis of the "creative tensions" in the early Salvation Army between social involvement and the theology of atonement.

Booth's theories, in so far as he had any, were largely conservative: he wanted to ameliorate the system, not overthrow it. Yet his practice was often more radical. There were many links between early Salvationists and socialists, who joined forces during the London dock strike of 1889 when the Salvation Army provided cheap food for the striking workers and their families. E. P. Thompson characterised the 1880s and 1890s as "a profoundly ambiguous moment when Salvationism ran in double harness with London radicalism".

Both men sought to reach the same people through similar methods - street meetings, processions, popular journalism and simple rallying cries. Unlike those Victorian charities and philanthropists bent on imposing middle-class values on the uncultured poor, the Salvation Army was rooted in the working class and had an "intimate relationship" with the submerged tenth.

Shortly before his death, Booth claimed to be a "Salvation Socialist" who was "working at the tunnel on one side of the mountain" while political reformers and agitators worked at the other. His most recent biographer, Roy Hattersley, rightly dismisses this as vacuous gibberish, arguing that he was not a socialist or anything else with a philosophical base, "for his mind did not run to philosophy". Like Tony Blair, he believed that what matters is what works - beginning, as he said, "with a sheet of clean paper, wedded to no plan, and willing to take a leaf out of anybody's book that seemed to be worth adopting".

There was nevertheless an almost Marxist dialectic between saving bodies and saving souls. In Booth's case, the tension between material welfare and spiritual mission produced a synthesis that enabled his organisation to adapt and endure. "Its commitment to social reclamation prevented it from becoming marginalised as a corybantic sect," Woodall observes astutely, "while its evangelical theology prevented it being lost in a diffusive, social Christianity that was ripe to be taken over by the welfare state".

Visitors to London today can judge for themselves the legacies of her two subjects. The Communist Party of Britain operates from a small office in suburban Croydon; the Salvation Army recently moved into a huge glass-fronted block, indistinguishable from the HQ of a merchant bank, in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral. To quote the architect of St Paul's: si monumentum requiris, circumspice .

Francis Wheen is the author of Karl Marx's "Das Kapital": A Biographyto be published in July.

What Price the Poor?: William Booth, Karl Marx and the London Residuum

Author - Ann M. Woodall
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 233
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 7546 4203 8

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