'Do the spirits teach Socialism?' asked a working-class spiritualist magazine in 1897. The answer, of course, was yes. In a year which sees the centenary of the establishing of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, it is worth recalling why the Society was founded and who its real enemies were. The last two decades of the 19th century saw a remarkable growth in the general interest in socialism and spiritualism. Keir Hardie's speeches to the Independent Labour Party were creatively reinterpreted as announcements of 'unseen forces of the angel world' working for 'moral Socialism' here on Earth. The 'New Jerusalem' of the socialist prophets had a spiritual as well as a revolutionary aspect. And into this maelstrom of radical parapsychology stepped the traditional arm of the British intellectual police - the fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Respectable members of that august institution, including Henry Sidgwick (philosophy lecturer), William Barrett (physicist) and Frederic Myers (poet and classicist), founded the Society for Psychical Research as a means of controlling the investigation of phenomena which looked as though they might fall into dangerously subversive hands. The Trinity men soon attracted influential support: from the future Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour, from J.J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron) and from the distinguished physicists Oliver Lodge and Balfour Stewart. Since then the links between scientific heroes and psychical research have always been close. In his foreword to the two books, by Mackenzie and Blackmore, published to celebrate the Society's centenary, Brian Inglis recalls the roll of honour among scientific converts: it includes Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud. But of course what these two books also recall, and what is made even clearer in Dr Finucane's masterly history of ghostly appearances, is the aura of fraud rather than luminous ectoplasm which surrounds this whole project. And into this world of spirit and subterfuge, we are astonished to discover, Professor Hans Eysenck of the Institute of Psychiatry is bold enough to enter.
LRB 1 July 1982 | PDF Download