The Secret of the League (a precursor to *Atlas Shrugged*)

Posted by  $  MikeMarotta 1 year, 4 months ago to Books
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The Secret of the League by Ernest Bramah
A Precursor of Atlas Shrugged reviewed by Michael E. Marotta
(Originally appeared in the Google Group humanities.philosophy.objectivism February 10, 2010)

Ernest Bramah Smith wrote adventure and detective stories. The Secret of the League: The Story of a Social War (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1907; published anonymously then 1909, 1920, under the name "Ernest Bramah") tells of a strike by upper and middle classes against the encroachments by a Socialist government. Action takes place in the near future, about 1918.

"The book was written in the aftermath of the 1906 elections in which the Labour Party, formed just seven years before, gained 29 seats - a meteoric rise from the bare two seats it held before - and for the first time emerged as a serious force in British politics. The prospect of Labour gaining a majority, though still far-off, was no longer impossible - a prospect which some Britons, evidently including Bramah, found highly disagreeable. All the more so as the period following the elections was full of intensive labour disputes and militant strikes."

In this story, the Socialists have gained complete control of the government. One man, Gatacre Strobalt, a naval hero, rises to resist. Gatacre Stobalt takes the name "George Salt."

Bramah assumed that personal flying on bird-like wings has become a sport. He also offered telefax ("telescribe"), electric automobiles and a cryptographic typewriter, all of them not far removed from the actual technology of 1906. In this story, telephones still work on the exchange system and telegraphs are more common.

The action begins when Strobalt -- an expert and daring flying -- rescues the daughter of Sir John Hampden, the last politician of any standing with both the Liberals and the Conservatives. Having the introduction from Sir John's daughter, Strobalt/Salt delivers to him a secret plan. Despite his initial misgivings, when Hampden see the first pages of the plan, he sweeps the books and papers off his desk to take the rest, one of many gestures that fans of Atlas Shrugged will recognize. How much of this dime novel Ayn Rand actually cribbed, what she only unconsciously echoed and what she merely shared with another writer of her own period is arguable.

With George Salt as his secretary, Sir John forms The Unity League, a political party with no action plan, except to overthrow the Labour government. They offer no agenda, no programme. They ask only that their members be prepared to sacrifice and, further, volunteer their labor to the cause. Membership is �5. Think of that today as $1500 in gold to perhaps $3,000 in purchasing power. It was about one month's wages for an unskilled worker of the time. Clearly, these are the upper classes.

The Socialists are unconcerned at this point because their overwhelming majority has given them a blank check.

The Unity League invests two years in planning and preparing. When they strike, members of the League refuse to buy coal. League members have switched to oil from the fields of the Anglo-Pennsylvanian and Anglo-Baku companies, which the League owns. The secondary effects cascade. Consequences pile up. Calamity follows. Salt or other League representatives have pulled strings in France and Germany (surely) and Russia (perhaps) to tax imports of UK coal. There is no market for the product. When racked by the hardest winter in memory, the UK is gripped by starvation and rioting. Through the months of the strike, the League's membership swells to 5 million. (In 1900, the population of the UK stood at about 38 million.) In about six months, the government falls. The new constitution replaces "one man one vote" with "voting shares" at �10 each, and multiple shares allowed.

The story opens and closes with Irene Lisle, a middle class girl of clear opinion and clever insight. Miss Lisle, in fact, discerns that the Unity League is more than a mere political party of no special purpose. She comes to work for it. The action closes with George Salt flying to rescue her from a mob at the abandoned League headquarters.

Ernest Bramah Smith wrote adventure and detective books, dime novels. This work shows many of those features. The workmanship is uneven. Elements that a more systematic writer would have expanded are glossed over. Chief among them are the rabble of "Father Ambrose." Calling for a New Jerusalem and threatening to turn out the Labour party looters Father Ambrose and his ragged mob of leftier-than-thou malcontents push at the stodgy Labourites. However, Father Ambrose never comes back. It is hard to see how the Labour clique could have held on for two years against that, but Tubes, Stummery and the boys do maintain their privilege. So, the two years of increased taxation and regulation pass quickly and quietly. While clearly identifying the upper classes as the creators of wealth, there is no distinction between landed aristocrats and manufacturers. The League has stockpiled oil for its own members to see them through the hardest winter in memory. The government never seeks to seize it, but only demurs from protecting it from a mob. As the Exchequer is drained, the government never hits on the expedient of paper money. They just cut welfare benefits. Conveniently enough, though England was recently engaged in a furious naval war, the other great powers are magnanimous -- yet also mindful of the USA, which, in support of the UK, extended the Monroe Doctrine to the Suez. After winning their battle, the League keeps "the good and the practical" of Socialist legislation. Overall, The Secret of the League offered a single compelling idea, wrapped in thin science fiction.

The Socialist junta is very much like the Washington gang of Atlas Shrugged, from clever thieves not willing to kill the rich goose laying their eggs, to those leering at the opportunity to loot their own party members when the time comes. The Home Secretary lives on a mere 50 quid, while investing the other 450 offshore.

A resistant mine owner could easily have come from Atlas. "Only once did failure threaten to mar [George Salt's] record. A Lancashire colliery proprietor, a man who had risen from the lowest grade of labour, as men more often did in the hard, healthy days of emulous rivalry than in the later piping times of union-imposed collective indolence did not wish to listen. Positive, narrow, over-bearing, he was permeated with the dogmatic egotism of his successful life. He had never asked another man's advice; he had never made a mistake. ... His own brother worked as a miner in his 1500 deep and received a miner's wage."

Although he initially refuses George Salt, he, too, signs on. Would that there had been more like him to meet. For all their good graces, the ruling class is rather thin of character and thinner of actual presence. Only George Salt, Sir John Hampden and a few others are drawn well. Next to George Salt, Irene Lisle is the most animated.

(continues ...)

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  • Posted by  $  CBJ 1 year, 4 months ago
    Is there any evidence that Ayn Rand was or was not aware of this book before she wrote Atlas Shrugged?
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    • Posted by  $  1 year, 4 months ago
      None, as far as I know. I do not have her published journals and of course have not gone to read the actual journals themselves. But as this work as been discussed before (2010), no one added anything along those lines.
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  • Posted by  $  1 year, 4 months ago
    (Original post continued and concluded)

    QUOTE: According to William White, "a rather weak forecast of England
    under a Socialist government." Men with mechanical wings are featured,
    which has led to its inclusion in several science fiction
    bibliographies. As a Socialist dystopia, it is apparently highly
    regarded by Ayn Rand enthusiasts. Originally printed anonymously.

    It is a "weak forecast" only because the better classes did not revolt
    when Labour first came to its fullest power. We are still having tea
    parties though not at 4 o'clock with crumpets.

    This little book runs about 280 pages of nice typography. It was never
    more than entertainment.  It took about five hours to read. If you
    know Atlas Shrugged quite well, you will find many similarities in the
    plot element. That Ayn Rand's work is more deft and adept will be
    obvious. That this came 50 years earlier is also true.

    Similar reviews have been posted to
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