Motler, Leonard Augustine, 1888-1967
By Nick Heath, 2011, from Libcom, here. A short text by Motler, produced before he came to South Africa, can be found here.
A short biography of Leonard Motler, English anarchist, deaf-mute and activist against the First World War.
“I went round to help Freedom at its Ossulston Street offices… Working there were two deaf-mutes, L.A.Motler and G. Scates, who were respectively editor and manager of Satire: a paper of social criticism, the only illustrated anarchist periodical in English to have appeared. Motler, an Esperantist with a little green star in his lapel, was the artist (and a good one) and his portrayal of the House of Commons as a row of gasworks always amused me very much. Satire was published monthly from December 1916 until it was closed down by the police in April 1918”.
– From A Revolutionary Youth; the unpublished memoirs of Harold Edwards.
“Motler, a writer of real talent. He had edited, during its brief existence, a clever little periodical, many of them excellent, notably those by ‘Rodo’, A Frenchman, and the son of the great Camille Pissarro, (1) whose numerous clever offspring all elected to work under other pseudonyms lest their father’s works of genius should be overcast by his good work under the same name. Motler who was employed printing tram tickets, wrote with a caustic and racy humour which made me laugh over his proofs in spite of myself”.- Sylvia Pankhurst, “In the Red Twilight,” in A Sylvia Pankurst Reader.
“All honour to Leonard Motler”. – Nicolas Walter, The Anarchist Past, p.205
Leonard Augustine Motler was born in Eccles, Lancashire in 1888, the son of Joseph & Bertha Motler, a pattern card maker and a tobacconist. At the age of five he lost his hearing, probably because of something like scarlet fever or measles. He was sent to the Roman Catholic St. John’s Institution for Deaf and Dumb at Boston Spa in Lincolnshire and learnt the trade of printer and typographer. In 1911 he was still in Lancashire working as a printer, but he must moved to London shortly after. He became attracted to the socialist movement, contributing to Clarion, the socialist paper edited by Robert Blatchford.
Disgusted by the stance of most socialists towards the First World War, he gravitated towards the anarchist movement in London. He had already been contributing articles to the anarchist paper Freedom for several years before the War. He became one of the printers of Freedom. He also established contact with the movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst in East London, which stabilised its name as the Workers Socialist Federation in July 1918, having gone through several name changes. Sylvia was introduced to Motler by Theodore Rothstein ( A Lithuanian German Jew, Rothstein was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and its successor the British Socialist Party as well as being a supporter of the Bolshevik faction within the Russian Social Democratic Party. He lived in Clapton Square in Hackney).
It was probably through Motler that Sylvia met her life-long companion Silvio Corio, an Italian anarchist who was also a trained printer and typographer had adopted pro-war positions at the start of the War but by 1916 was giving anti-war speeches and started working alongside Motler at Freedom. Motler later contributed articles and poems to The Workers Dreadnought, the WSF paper. Motler also contributed to The Voice of Labour which had been set up by Fred Dunn and Mabel Hope. When it was shut down by the authorities for its anti-war stance in August 1916 Motler and George Scates carried on with Satire, a monthly, which had first appeared in December 1916. It contained many cartoons executed by Motler. It invited “all comrades in the rebel (later changed to Labour) Movement …to send contributions to the Editor” and described itself as ” a workers paper, run by workers for workers”. It had the same address as Freedom.
Nicolas Walter notes that Motler “seems to have been responsible for the first anarchist condemnation of the Bolshevik regime in Russia almost as soon as it was established: “The Russian Revolution is running agley. These little things happen when the people permit new rulers to pose as their saviours, instead of saving themselves by running the country on their own [December 1917]”. This is in contrast to British anarchists like Fred Charles and Guy Aldred who initially supported the Bolsheviks seemingly uncritically (Aldred was to say: “Those anarchists who oppose the dictatorship as a transitional measure are getting dangerously close to supporting the cause of the reactionaries…”)
The authorities then used the same tactics they had used to close down The Voice of Labour and Freedom. Motler’s place at 47 Crowndale Road in Camden was raided. All his manuscripts, cartoons, personal correspondence , typewriter, literature, paper stocks and complete set of back issues of Satire as well as funds to the value of £4.10 shillings were seized by the police. Later on the Liberal MP Hastings Lees-Smith asked a question in the House of Commons as to why this property had not been returned to Motler. After Satire was forced to close because of police repression Motler wrote a weekly column for The Workers’ Dreadnought and brought out a book of poems.
He also produced a 4 page pamphlet Anarchist Communism [mirror on this site here], which Plebs, the paper of the Plebs League ,described as a “short but lively statement of the case for Communism” in 1919, from his address in Crowndale Road under the imprint of “The Propaganda Group” (It was translated into Chinese, and one surmises that Motler may have used his Esperanto skills to facilitate this as Chinese anarchists usually used that medium to translate foreign revolutionary texts). Other pamphlets that he wrote and published in the same year were the 8 page The Revolution To-morrow under the imprint of The Workers’ Dreadnought and the 3 page The New Anarchism under the imprint of “The Propaganda Group” (2).
Motler and Scates brought out a new anarchist paper Labour’s Voice in May 1920, carrying on the work of the paper run by Fred Dunn and Mabel Hope. It was published from their own printshop at Crowndale Road under the imprint of the Liberty Group. Motler also produced an 11 page pamphlet for the WSF in 1920 entitled Soviets for the British: A Plain Talk For Plain People which was described in Plebs as “excellently simple propaganda”. This indicates that he may have become a member of the WSF. He continued contributing to it after the WSF transformed into the Communist Party of Great Britain (British Section of the Third International).
Motler emigrated to South Africa in 1921. His sister Bertha had emigrated there in 1913. He arrived there on May 5th. According to letters to Tom Keell , the editor of Freedom, he sought out local anarchists like the Italian Bosazza, who lived in Vrededorp west of Johannesburg and was a building materials merchant and Hahne who ran the Ascot Bar pub. He had also come into contact with W. H. (Bill) Andrews , the editor of the International , paper of the International Socialist Labour Party ( prototype of the South African Communist Party), but confessed to knowing nothing of the movement, not having been in the country very long ( letter to Keell, dated June 8th 1921). He made some acute comments on the racial oppression in the country, also remarking on oppression towards people with disabilities: “As you may know the Union of S. Africa count deaf mutes as prohibited immigrants like the mentally deficient, unless they are accompanied by a person responsible or have their residence in the Union guaranteed”. He also noted that Freedom and Workers’ Dreadnought were obtainable in South Africa.
We know that he joined the South African Typographical Union (he wrote an introduction to a history of the union published in 1952), that he contributed to the Style Manual for Printers and to The Printers’ Handbook, and that he lived in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. We know that he contributed articles (like From Kraal to Goldmine) and poetry to the Communist Review, the British Communist Party publication, in 1923 and 1926 and to The African Communist, magazine of the South African Communist Party [SACP]. His 1923 article argues in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which seems like a reversal of his previous positions.
However another letter to Keell (22nd April 1925) seems to indicate that he returned to England for a while. He wrote: “I do not doubt you will be somewhat astonished to hear from me again after a long lapse. However I have been thinking there are the possibilities of a revival among comrades outside the CPGB which would rally a Federation to counteract the too political tendencies ( by this he means parliamentarian N. H.) of the Communists. Now that the C.P. has been forced to re-organise itself on a ‘shop nucleus’ basis, this seems an opportunity to find how we could take advantage of this to keep the anarchist view to the forefront. At any rate some sort of Conference would enable us to see our position. I shall be glad of the views of the Freedom Group on the matter”. He enclosed a document from the Federal Group ( “all communications to L. A. Motler, 26 Doddington Grove, London SE17”) . Addressed to “comrades and fellow workers” this notes that there are an “agglomeration of small groups and individual comrades who are outside the Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Minority Movement who seem only to lack an agreement on essentials to bring them together as a fighting unit. Most of them do not perhaps agree with the tactics of the Communists, more especially with regard to parliamentarianism and affiliation to the Labour Party”. The document argues for common ground between these groups, and says that the Federal Group is a temporary organisation to facilitate the federation of “left-wing Communists, anarchist-communists, syndicalists, anti-parliamentarians, etc so that they made be federated in a fighting body with a basic programme which shall have for its main-spring the formulation of a revolutionary federation of the workers”. It proposes the formation of Workshop Groups, Factory Groups etc” in the workplaces, the creation of Industrial federals consisting of spokesmen from these groups which would federate according to industries and allied trades, and the setting up of Conventions to discuss programmes of action and lines of revolutionary activity. This venture appears to have been still-born and Motler returned to South Africa at some point.
There are indications that he may have joined the SACP as one of his poems in the African Communist is in praise of one of the founders of the Party, David Ivon Jones, but this is not certain. Some of his poems were collected in an anthology of South African Poetry published in 1948. He won 1st and 2nd prizes in the South African National Eistedfodd. He died in Johannesburg in 1967.
(1) Rodo is Ludovic Rodo Pissarro, an anarchist communist like his father and his brother Lucien. He came to London with the outbreak of the War, and worked with his brother. He is today better known for his writing on art than for his painting. Rodo and Motler both later contributed to Sylvia Pankhurst’s short-lived cultural-artistic and political magazine Germinal, Motler providing a short story on the friendship between a white boy and a black boy in South Africa.
(2) This will be the Anarchist Propaganda Group “formed at the London Anarchist Conference, Easter, 1919” as we learn from the letterhead of a departing note sent to Keell on April 6th, 1921. Motler was its secretary and its address was 47 Crowndale Road. The letterhead also notes that the Group published “literature on Anarchist-Communism. Books not in stock can be obtained to Order.”
Edwards, Harold. A Revolutionary Youth (unpublished)
Pankhurst, S. Dodd.K (1993) A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader.
Walter, N. (2007) The Anarchist Past and other essays.
Weller, K. (1985) Don’t be a soldier!The radical anti-war movement in North London 1914-1918
Macnab, R.M., Gulston, C. (1948) South African poetry: a new anthology (contains biographical information on Motler)
Letters from Motler to Tom Keell including Statement of the Federal Group (unpublished) Many thanks to Ken Weller for these).
Information on parents, early life etc of Motler from H Dominic W Stiles at: