Alcoholics Anonymous and the Oxford Group at Oxford in the 1930s
by Paul Diener, Ph.D.

      The vast majority of those involved in 'addiction' treatment in the U.S. today promote Alcoholics Anonymous. For some, AA is at the core of their method. For others, it is an admired adjunct.

      Unfortunately, the embrace of AA by 'addiction' professionals is accompanied by a willed ignorance about the organization's history.

      The result has been a dearth of research on AA history and origins, or, worse, propaganda and dissimulation masquerading as history (eg, the fraudulent and dishonest work of Kurtz).

      Let us consider some basic facts, and then take a look at the history of Oxford in the 1930s.

      In 1933, a proctologist, Robert Smith, joined the Oxford Group in Akron, Ohio. He affiliated after the Rev. Frank Buchman led a 'spiritual crusade' in that town. Buchman's effort was financed by rubber baron, Harvey Firestone, and was aimed at combatting the troublesome rubber- industry workers's union in Akron, which was promoting a 'materialistic' worldview (ie, bread and butter issues).

      Smith remained an OG member until late 1939.

      Bill Wilson was a Wall Street speculator who joined the Oxford Group in early 1935. He was a member only until mid-1937, though he continued to cooperate with Smith and the Akron crew of Groupers after he himself left the OG. Wilson's interests were always more commercial. He envisioned a chain of for-profit hospitals, offering treatment to 'alcoholics'. These, he thought, could use the 'Oxford Group method' as a treatment methodology. This for-profit treatment enterprise, Wilson assumed, would make him very rich.

      That today's AA began as a medico-spiritual sect, which split off from the Oxford Groups in 1939, is now pretty well accepted. This is the interpretation even put forward by Kurtz, a Hazelden propagandist. Dick B., too, accepts this view (1997, Design for Living: The Oxford Group's Contribution to Early AA).

      Now, the Oxford Group took its name from work done by the movement's founder, Frank Buchman, in Oxford, England, and especially at Oxford University, during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

      Buchman was an American Lutheran minister, whose ideas veered in an occult direction after World War I. He experienced early success at Pennsylvania State University, working with young men, especially fighting against 'demon rum'. Later, he moved his effort to the elite universities of the American Ivy League, where he again demonstrated his charismatic appeal. By the late 1920s, Buchmanism had become international, and efforts were focused especially upon British upper-class university students.

      Oddly, not even those interested in AA history, and its links to the Oxford Group, have looked at Buchmanism in the context of Oxford in the 1920s and 1930s.

      Garth Lean, Buchman's biographer and himself a member of the Buchmanite movement, remarks that Oxford University in the 1930s was divided into two opposed blocks. On the one side were the socialist and communists, including a minority of students; such persons embraced 'materialism'. On the other side, says Lean, were those students who embraced 'spirituality'; this was the worldview of most Oxford students, and especially of Oxford Group members. Antipathy between these two groups, with their opposing worldviews, was very strong, says Lean (1988, On the Tail of a Comet: The Life of Frank Buchman, p. 144).

      But Lean's description of 'spirituality' at Oxford during the Great Depression is misleading. For Oxford did not have just one organization promoting spiritality, Buchmanism. The Buchmanites had allies. And many Buchmanites were co-members of these OTHER spiritual organizations.

      Oxford, it is important to note, is not just Oxford University. Industrial Oxford, mostly to the east of the university, has long housed a substantial working-class population (eg, the estates of Barton, Littlemore, Rose Hill, Florence Park, and Blackbird Leys.) In the 1920s and 1930s, these industrial venues produced a powerful labor, socialist, and communist movement. A minority of university students came to the support of working-class Oxford residents.

      Most in the university community, though, embraced fascistic 'spirituality' during the 1930s. The first fascist organization in Oxford appeared in 1926, organized to oppose the General Strike. It was the "Oxford and University District of British Fascists." About this time, Buchman began to frequent the area, and appeal to this same clientele.

      In 1931, the leading British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley, was organizing what he at first called the 'New Party'. This would later evolve into the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Mosley himself remarked: ". . . the young men who are gathering around us are Oxford students and graduates."

      Strong support, for both Mosley and Buchman, came from William Morris, Chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association, and founder of Oxford's largest employer, the Morris Motors auto factory. As in Akron, 'spirituality' was seen as an antidote to the union movement's 'materialism', its emphasis on bread-and-butter issues.

      By the 1930s, the BUF was recruiting heavily at Oxford, and had formed the University Fascist Association. An opposed group, supportive of a 'materialistic' approach to social problems, arose in the town of Oxford, at the independent, trade-union sponsored college, Ruskin. These 'materialists' called themselves the 'Red Shirts', as opposed to Mosley and his 'spiritual' Black Shirts at elitist Oxford University.

      By 1933, a unified Oxford Council of Action Against War and Fascism had been set up. When Mosley made propaganda visits to address his followers at Oxford University, the town's workers also turned out in force. During Mosley's 1936 appearance, for example, his Oxford student followers decked the assembly rooms with Union Jacks, and they blared out the Horst Wessel Song as Mosley strode to the stage, flanked by black-shirted body guards. The first five rows of the audience were filled with town gentry, factory owners, Tory conservatives, and local magistrates.

      But large numbers of workers were also in the audience, along with a smaller number of sympathetic leftist students. A terrible brawl soon erupted. The newspapers report that the workers got the best of it.

      Oxford, then - both the university and the town - was definitely a place where 'spirituality' and 'materialism' fought pitched battles during the economic crisis of the early 1930s. As Oswald Mosley himself put it, "it is spirit in the end which counts." (1968, My Life, p. 208). The challenge to 'communist materialism', said Mosley, can only come from 'the power of spiritual purpose' (Ibid., p. 501, 503).

      Lean is right to describe Oxford in the early 1930s as divided between 'spiritual' and 'materialistic' movements. But he fails to mention that BOTH Mosley AND Buchman were selling spirituality to the elite during the 1930s in Britain, and that they BOTH were fighting against the political left.

      This subject has never been researched. We do know that some influential persons, such as Peter Howard, took leadership roles in both the Mosley and the Buchmanite cults. But the larger overlap of membership between the BUF and the OG at Oxford in the 1930s has never been explored. The data lie easy at hand to scholars in the British Isles, and they should be looked at. The origins of AA lie in the Oxford Group. And, at Oxford in the 1930s, the Oxford Groupers were all mixed up in the fascist movement.

      Those who do not know history are likely to repeat history. AA today in the U.S. - and the larger 'spiritual' movement of 'addiction' professionals, which has borrowed so much from AA ideology - is a protofascist movement, too. The U.S. today is moving very rapidly towards a new, and global, form of fascistic imperialism.

      Paul Diener, Ph.D.

Search the Orange Papers

Click Fruit for Menu

Last updated 29 September 2003.
The most recent version of this file can be found at