We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Clarke, William (1852–1901), journalist and socialist, was born on 22 November 1852 in Norwich, the son of John Scott Clarke, a small businessman of Scottish background, and his wife, Mary Ann Pigg. He attended King Edward VI Commercial School in Norwich and then a private school in Cambridge, where his family moved in 1866. In 1872, after working for several years as a clerk, he entered Cambridge University as a non-collegiate student. He remained in Cambridge after he graduated in 1876, supporting himself as a lecturer and writer. After travelling widely in the United States in 1881–2, he settled in London as a freelance journalist.

As a young man, Clarke supported political radicalism, particularly universal manhood suffrage—women, he believed, lacked men's ‘intellectual power’ and were destined by ‘Nature’ to care for family and household—and free trade: he saw England's ‘feudal and monarchical remains’ as the main obstacles to the ‘free growth of the New Commonwealth’ (W. Clarke, ‘The future of the Canadian dominion’, Contemporary Review, 38, November 1880, 819). In the democratic United States he saw proof that such a commonwealth could be created.

In the early 1880s Clarke gradually moved from radicalism to socialism. He became more concerned with poverty, less with issues such as religious equality or temperance. Carlyle, Ruskin, and other Victorian social critics, as well as Mazzini, helped him to reject bourgeois individualism as ‘the evil of the nineteenth century’ (W. Clarke, Walt Whitman, 1892, 34). Events in Ireland showed him how existing economic arrangements could be altered beneficially, while Henry George influenced him to support land nationalization. Above all, the growth of political corruption and monopoly capitalism in the United States led him, as he wrote in 1884, to ‘take stock of [his] whole category of political beliefs and to revise [his] judgments’ (W. Clarke to H. D. Lloyd, 22 Oct 1884, Henry Demarest Lloyd MSS).

While undergoing this political metamorphosis, Clarke had a spiritual crisis. He had steadily moved away from his youthful evangelicalism, as an undergraduate to Unitarianism and in the late 1870s to Emersonian transcendentalism. Between 1882 and 1884, however, he temporarily lost all faith, much to his dismay. He overcame this crisis through membership of the Progressive Association, a utopian ethical society that sought to stimulate a ‘moral awakening’ as the basis of ‘political and social improvement’ (Mackenzie and Mackenzie, 21), and through the influence of the philosopher Thomas Davidson, who helped him to find in social reform and progress a secular substitute for his lost faith.

In late 1883 Clarke and some members of the association founded the Fellowship of the New Life to cultivate ‘a perfect character in each and all’ by subordinating ‘material things to Spiritual’ (W. Knight, ed., Memorials of Thomas Davidson, 1907, 19). Other members, however, wanted to engage social issues more directly and in January 1884 branched off to found the Fabian Society. Although Clarke participated in the Fabian-dominated Hampstead Historic Club, which undertook a systematic study of Marx's Capital, he only joined the Fabian Society in 1886, after he had become convinced that socialism was a ‘truly spiritual question’ and that only a radical reorganization of society would free men to develop their ‘moral natures’ (W. Clarke, ‘Ethical societies and the labour question’, Ethical Record, 3, July 1890, 92, 103).

Clarke's most important contribution to early Fabian socialism was an analysis of the evolution of monopoly capitalism that he derived from Marx and his own observations of the United States. He presented this analysis in ‘The industrial basis of socialism’, his contribution to the famous 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism, where he argued that the economic process itself had made possible the future ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ because corporations were now run by professional managers and could therefore be taken over by the state without any loss of efficiency.

Like most Fabians, Clarke had looked to the Liberal Party, rather than an independent socialist organization, to bring about reform. But after the Liberal defeat of 1895 he and like-minded reformers founded the Progressive Review, with Clarke as editor, to facilitate the creation of a new ‘progressive’ party. When the Review failed after little more than a year, Clarke became increasingly bitter and disillusioned. He had already drifted away from the Fabian Society because it failed to fulfil his fundamental spiritual and ethical goals. Now the collapse of his own political project and the growth of imperialist sentiment, which he abhorred, filled him with such despair that he withdrew from active involvement in political causes to concern himself with philosophy and art. Politics and economics he now saw as ‘barren questions’ (W. Clarke to S. Webb, 21 Nov 1899, Passfield MSS). He resigned from the Fabians in June 1897. For Clarke, both democratic radicalism and socialism had been a kind of religious faith. When the grounds of that faith, visible progress toward a spiritual ideal, failed, so did Clarke's belief in it. ‘The masses are such fools’ (W. Clarke to H. D. Lloyd, Henry Demarest Lloyd MSS), he wrote in 1897.

The bitterness of Clarke's last years was made worse by serious physical and emotional illness. A diabetic, he was subject to bouts of influenza and insomnia. Prone to self-pity, he complained frequently about his own lack of success and need to work so hard. In his last years, he suffered as well from serious depression, made worse by loneliness, the death of his mother, and financial setbacks. His life at times, he wrote, was ‘well nigh insupportable’ (W. Clarke to H. D. Lloyd, 25 Jan 1894, Henry Demarest Lloyd MSS). Clarke died, unmarried, on 8 May 1901 in Mostar, Herzegovina, while on holiday in south-east Europe.

Clarke's importance lies in his contribution to Fabian socialism and to the ‘new Liberalism’ that emerged after 1906; his life also exemplifies the vicissitudes of late Victorian radicalism and loss of faith.

Peter Weiler

Sources  

H. Burrows and J. Hobson, eds., William Clarke: a collection of his writings (1908) · P. Weiler, ‘William Clarke: the making and unmaking of a Fabian socialist’, Journal of British Studies, 14/1 (1974–5), 77–108 · DLB [2.94–8] · S. Pierson, Marxism and the origins of British socialism (1973) · W. Wolfe, From radicalism to socialism: men and ideas in the formation of Fabian socialist doctrines, 1881–9 (1975) · A. M. McBriar, Fabian socialism and English politics, 1884–1918 (1962) · N. Mackenzie and J. Mackenzie, The Fabians (1977) · W. H. G. Armytage, Heavens below: utopian experiments in England, 1560–1960 (1961) · E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Fabians reconsidered’, Labouring men: studies in the history of labour (1964) · P. Pugh, Educate, agitate, organize: 100 years of Fabian socialism (1984) · Venn, Alum. Cant. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1901)

Archives  

BLPES, Passfield MSS · Historical Society of Wisconsin, Henry Demarest Lloyd MSS · Yale U., Thomas Davidson MSS


Likenesses  

F. Mosceles, oils, National Liberal Club, London · photograph, repro. in Burrows and Hobson, eds., William Clarke, frontispiece

Wealth at death  

£3272 5s. 7d.: administration, 28 Aug 1901, CGPLA Eng. & Wales