Who were the Kibbo Kift?
Were they the pacifist and feminist version of the Boy Scouts? Were they banker-bashing radicals or performance artists? Were they, as some accused, secretly fascists, communists, or connected to the Ku Klux Klan? Now, for the first time in decades, this extraordinary and visionary social movement of the 1920s and 30s is back in the London spotlight.
It’s been quite a few weeks for those of us who are fervent fans of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. The Museum of London has stored an amazing collection of Kift material for many years, but suddenly the artefacts are out and about in public. Both the Museum of London and the Whitechapel Gallery are staging special Kift exhibitions, and two new books have been published exploring their fascinating history and legacy. All this, plus 350 items online and a growing social media buzz are bringing the Kindred out from the shadows. In the rousing words of the movement’s leader, John Hargrave, ‘Ho! Kinsfolk!’
The Kindred were the Utopian and idealistic young of their day – the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, they’ve been called the only genuine English youth movement of the 20th century. The group was the creation of John Hargrave, an artist and writer. In an England shaken by the trauma of the First World War, Hargrave genuinely thought that he could change the world by creating better human beings. He claimed that “Kibbo Kift” was ancient Kentish dialect meaning “the strong”, and his strangely-named group aimed to teach young people to be wiser and healthier.
The Kift were something of an art school, social network, philosophy discussion group, hiking fraternity and political activist movement all rolled into one: this was in a pre-internet age when opportunities for sharing views and linking up with like-minded people were pretty limited. To Hargrave and his followers, creative individuals – as opposed to ideologies based on class, race or nationhood – were the key to a better future: ‘resolute imagination’, he liked to say, ‘can accomplish all things’.
Why do the Kindred suddenly seem so relevant today? At the Whitechapel opening last night a lot of points of view were aired, but clearly two things are at work. One is today’s politics: many of the Kindred’s concerns – the environment, health, poverty, the failings of the parliamentary system, anti-capitalist economics – once again loom large. The economic system that the Kindred espoused was ‘Social Credit’ – believing that the State should set prices, ‘the just price’, and provide all citizens with a living wage, a ‘national dividend’.
The second factor is today’s art-practice. Hargrave was an artist and designer, with the result that ‘making things’ was encouraged among Kinsfolk and some visually stunning artefacts were produced. However, he also held that the highest form of art was ritual and performance, making him something of a performance artist before the term was invented.
In the 1930s this fondness for rituals and ceremonies morphed into more conventional forms of political protest, such as marches and demonstrations. But Hargrave and his Kindred, by this time calling themselves the Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit, kept their quasi-mystical edge. In 1934 a Kinsman threw a green painted brick through the window of no 11, Downing Street: in 1935, by which time, bankers and banking were the focus of protest, a group of silent kinsmen marched ritualistically three times around the Bank of England.
You can learn more about the Kibbo Kift in the Museum of London’s Show Space display which launched the Museum’s new book ‘Designing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift‘ by Cathy Ross and Oliver Bennett (Philip Wilson Publishers) – available now in the Museum shop. The Show Space display closes on 22 October 2015, so hurry to see it! You can also learn more by looking at our curator’s selection of Kibbo Kift objects in the Museum’s collection.
The Whitechapel exhibition ‘Intellectual Barbarians: the Kibbo Kift Kindred’, featuring items from the Museum of London collection, opened this week (14 October) and is on until next April 2016. That too has a book, by Annebella Pollen, with the same title as the Whitechapel exhibition and is published next Thursday 22 October (by Donlon Books).
But why did the Kibbo Kift fade away? Partly it was Hargrave’s eccentric politics, which came to overshadow the artistic and outdoorsy side of the movement. For the Museum’s Show Space display, we’ve recorded one of the songs from The Green Shirt Song Book of 1936. It’s a rousing anti-banker marching song and it goes like this:
THE PEOPLE’S ARMY
Are we to starve with Plenty all around us?
Are we to die, because of Money Law?
In Battle cry the Money Power has ground us
Into the Dust and Death of Bankers War
The drum throb coming nearer
The Green-clad masses’ might
The Life-flag showing clearer
The People’s only Fight!
Now hear the roar that drums and feet are beating!
A thousand footsteps ringing out this song,
The People’s Army, Poverty defeating
For Social Credit ends the Bankers’ Wrong!
Well do we know whose life Finance is stealing
The People robbing of their hard-earned Right
Whilst lying Press and Wireless are concealing
That Bankers are the enemy to fight!
In the end, of course Social Credit faded away as a credible economic theory. So too did the Kindred. Hargrave wound up what was by then called ‘the Social Credit Party’ in 1951. He then went on to do some other distinctive things, including suing the British Government, but that’s another story.
- Cathy Ross, curator, Kibbo Kift Showspace display