“Have You Got Any Stocks Pa?” Some thoughts on “Jones’s Boy” by Spokeshave

August 12, 2014

Around September 1909 the socialist newspaper The Commonweal, based in Wellington, and newspaper of the New Zealand Socialist party published a fifth addition to it’s series of propaganda pamphlets. Jones’s Boy by Spokeshave had been a staple of British radicalism over the last ten years or so and is one of those important pieces of propaganda that, for whatever reason, appears to have slipped from our view. We can sense it’s importance for those socialists around The Commonweal as they had already printed an extract in April 1904 and again in July 1909.Their advertisement for the pamphlet described it as “ a whimsical, witty weapon to wallop opponents with. Makes them laugh in spite of themselves” Small pamphlets like this often had a far greater impact on thought and action than they have been given credit for and it’s exciting to be able to rescue them from the political amnesia they have fallen into and, hopefully, gain some understanding of the development of ideas and sensibilities within radical and labour circles.

Socialist and anarchist writers often drew on their reading of classical philosophy when searching for a form and style that could make their message clear and understandable to their readers, and a favourite method of exposition was the use of a dialogue: a conversation where ideas could be offered up to the reader through discussion and questioning. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and it’s extended conversations between Dr Leete and Julian West is an early example of this form as is Errico Malatesta’s A Talk Between Two Workers published in August 1891 by the anarchist Freedom Press group in London with it’s use of straightforward language to explain the contours of anarchist communism.

Jones’s Boy is also written as a dialogue, and made its first appearance in the Toronto based Labour Reformer. The first UK publication I can trace is in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1890 and was published by James Leathem, a member of the Social Democratic Federation and a friend and devotee of William Morris. He would go on to print another edition in 1891 and a third in 1916, this time at his Deveron Press in Turriff, Aberdeenshire. James Tochatti, editor of the London anarchist paper Liberty published an edition of the pamphlet in 1896 with the sub title “Dialogue on Social Questions Between An Enfant Terrible and His Father” (his addition also included the words of Edward Carpenter’s song England Arise). The London publisher of radical and free thought material William Reeves published an edition in 1906 and Twentieth Century Press (the publishing house of the Social Democratic Federation) printed one in 1908.Such a publishing history suggests a pamphlet that was regularly in demand.

Using the trope of the apparently naive youngster questioning his apparently wise elder (in this case his father) and, of course exposing the latter’s fallacies , Jones’s Boy is roughly divided into three sections. The first deals with questions of morality and ethics where the fixing of the price of coal is compared to a man stealing from a store to support his family because they are starving. The latter is imprisoned while the fixers of the coal ring, who prevent people, who are freezing to death, from buying coal at anything but the maximum price, reap monetary rewards and are praised. They steal life and health but go unpunished. The father’s blustering defense of such actions clearly illuminates how his position of support for the coal ring is untenable. The second section of the pamphlet considers the immorality of surplus value and how workers are cheated out of their just reward for their labour in order that others can make money from it. The final section examines the idea of ownership of land (a prominent issue in late nineteenth century British radicalism) as the son asks if the man who sold the dirt that makes his father’s bricks bought the dirt from God! All of this is presented in a humorous and rather gentle way, while suggesting that capitalism is illogical as well as ethically indefensible. Like so many other pamphlets of this time that are aimed at working people it has the ability to present complex ideas in a clear, straightforward way and is an accessible read.

It’s easy to see how it was able to have a shared popularity with groups that in many other ways would be deeply antagonistic to each other.( it was basic reading in Socialist Party of Great Britain circles as well anarchist ones, for example ) The pamphlet is a moral critique of capitalism that illustrates Marx’s idea of surplus value but avoids any discussion of how to achieve a more egalitarian and moral society, thus providing a basic platform of criticism that many anti- capitalists could agree on. Interestingly the pamphlet also implies that the movement to get rid of capitalism is a movement based on plain common sense. That stress on anti capitalism being a movement of simple common sense is one we can certainly identify as a major theme in British left wing political writing of this period. We can see in the works of Robert Blatchford, William Morris and a host of socialist writers as well as anarchist ones, including the underrated anarchist writer Louise Bevington’s Common Sense Country (1896), also published by James Tochatti. Like Peter Kropotkin’s Appeal To The Young which also crossed political boundaries and was enormously popular, Spokeshave’s pamphlet combines a faith in youth, morality and common sense in it’s critique of capitalism and consequently became part of the radical education of many men and women.

 

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Ready for Revolution

August 9, 2014

 

The photographic images of the Spanish Revolution are implanted in our memories and too often taken for granted. Iconic figures like Durruti blinking at a notebook or standing smiling in a circle of comrades, Ascaso, rifle on his shoulder enjoying a chat and a smoke in the bright Barcelona sun shortly before he is killed. Most of all, though, there are the crowds. Men and women with black and red caps, in buses, on lorries, in hastily put together armored cars with CNT-FAI scrawled on the sides. Everyone generating a sense of excitement and, yes, cockiness that is still palpable nearly eighty years later. We have had films, radio shows, interviews, so many anniversaries and so many books. Now, surely, the anarchist historical narrative of Spain is as familiar and understood as the photographs: initial revolutionary exhilaration and autonomy, then gradual repression by forces on the Left and, worst of all, a perceived betrayal of what the Revolution had achieved by some anarchists who should have known better, because they believed that the priority of struggle was against fascism and not for the Social Revolution. What else do we need to know?

 

 

The smoke from Spain still hangs over all aspects of today’s anarchism whether we like it or not – even for those who want to deny that what happened there has any relevance to the world today. For some it has proved to be the end of something; the moving out of anarchism’s home on the Left. For them class struggle is moribund and bankrupt, something that should be subsumed by the struggle of the individual. They haven’t yet announced, as George Woodcock maintained for many years, that anarchism died in 1939, but for those comrades at least a type of anarchism did. Less dramatically others attempted to explain the circumstances that the CNT-FAI found itself in, suggesting that calls for anarchist revolution took no cognizance of what was happening both in Spain and in the world beyond it. They want us to examine carefully the hard decisions the organization had to take. Still others pore obsessively over the events. When did it go wrong? What could we have done differently in that place and on that date? Some comrades have spent time in all these areas. And still it goes on. This agonizing over, or even the outright dismissal of   Spain as being of any importance at all, is not hard to understand. Rightly or wrongly Spain has been seen by many of us as the only sustained period of time that anarchism actually helped bring about revolutionary change in the everyday lives of many, many people and, just as importantly, sustained that change. In parts of Spain anarchists took on the army and won and for many that victory led to the creation of what we may call libertarian communism; a change in economic and personal relations that people could only have dreamed about a few years earlier. Capitalism had apparently been destroyed. Dreams had come true. All those discussions, all those articles, all those plenums, all those years of exile or imprisonment were not worthless. Yet we are left asking what went wrong? Was there some awful flaw in anarchism that has made it, like Bolshevism, a revolutionary dead end, or was it a combination of circumstances and poor decision making by individuals that brought about the nightmare of 1939, the loss of everything and the years of exile, repression and resistance?

 

 

 

The CNT-FAI in 1934 was not a naïve and unsophisticated grouping filled with saintly militants driven by the purity, righteousness and moral correctness of their mission. It was a hard headed organization that had been shaped by its member’s experience of strikes, insurrections, imprisonment, exile, cultural activities and lives led in the working class barrios and villages of Spain and other places. It had a coherent sense of what was happening to capitalism in Spain and worldwide, did not exist in a purely intellectual and moral vacuum and was well aware of the nature of the forces ranged against it. The CNT-FAI had its own legends and stories that carried tremendous weight in its decision making and was a remarkably complex group that we might be better off seeing less as one homogenous grouping but several, whose membership changed according to the situations the organization found itself in and the strategies it was using at the time. Many of the CNT-FAI members of whatever tendency were ferociously loyal to the organization and the comrades they had lost (Garcia Oliver, for instance, spoke about the CNT as being “an enormous tomb which contains all the largely anonymous dreamers who believed they were struggling for social revolution”)[1] while their debates suggested the organization’s continually evolving nature and refusal to become complacent or hidebound.

 

It is clear to see that by 1934 the policy of “revolutionary gymnastics” that had been followed between 1932 and 1934 was a failure. The idea that repeated calls for insurrection would lead to an awareness of the repressive nature of the state, a growing confidence amongst the working class and a series of rolling insurrection leading to revolution had left the CNT-FAI exhausted, some of its bravest militants in prison and the organization basically weaponless. In itself the tactic was not new to anarchism; Carlo Cafiero had written as early as 1880, “Not only, then, are ideas born from deeds, they also need deeds in order to develop, to the point that they can inspire other deeds”[2] but, here, at this time and in these economic and social circumstances, such a strategy simply had not worked. We should be, perhaps, a little wary of being too dismissive of it, however. One has to think that experience of, and belief in, insurrection did provide some with the confidence and tactical skill to take on the army and win in Barcelona. Yet the CNT-FAI’s move away from its insurrectionary policies was a practical rather than a moral decision and the move to the Defense Committees helped both initiate and sustain the Spanish Revolution in a profound and astonishingly extensive manner. Here was an organization whose competing tendencies, however they defined themselves, all understood that their reason for existence was to configure the best way to defeat capitalism and bring about libertarian communism, acting as conscious agents of their own change rather than waiting passively for it to happen, or events to occur and reacting to them.

 

The CNT-FAI was always more than a trade union. It could be found in every aspect of working class life; in its social activities, in its literature and culture, in its education and relationships. So when we talk about the Defense Committees being the “armed organizations of the CNT” (15) we are talking about these groups being the Defense Committees of the working class districts they were part of. Being an organic part of the community was a critical factor in all of this. Many Defense Committee members had grown up in the areas they represented. They knew the friends and enemies of the revolutionary movement and they knew the mood and tenor of their neighborhoods. They helped in rent strikes, they helped resist evictions, they financially helped families in times of illness, and prevented price gouging by greedy shopkeepers together with a host of other activities. They understood the losses and small victories that made up working class life and, when July 19th happened, they could move quickly into action against the army with the help of the working class people they knew and whose community they were part of. Above all this was a planned and prepared response even if, at times, the situation appeared chaotic. Within a handful of days the Defense Committees had the streets. Thanks to them, the bravery of the FAI action groups, and the courage of the working class communities, events in the city of Barcelona became something thrilling- a marvelous victory over the armed forces that prepared the way for libertarian communism. The Defense Committees had the skills, the support, and yes, the power, to make that happen.

 

Guillamon documents the rest of the story from here and all we would like to do is to make one or two observations that we hope compliment the narrative. Chapter 11 – “The Barcelona FAI Radicalized by the Defense Committees”- is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to see the various groups discussing the situation they are finding themselves in. It’s rare to find this type of material in English that is not written from memory and in reflection long after the events described. The discussion leaps off the page and is full of contradiction, confusion, affirmation, and certainty, all served with a high level of sophisticated perception. There is an immediacy about it, not least because these are not the voices of the more sophisticated speakers and writers who we are used to reading but those of the ordinary militant. Nearly a year had gone by since the possibilities of July 1936 and the experience of those months permeate the discussions. There can be no further assessment whether this is going to be a long or short war. It’s the long haul and the atmosphere of the plenum is charged; something is going to happen, perhaps something already is, and we are privileged to be able to be there to sense it. This is radical history at its finest as the anarchists attempt to deal with the actions of the Stalinists, their other supposed allies, and the behavior of the CNT’s “higher committees.”

 

By 1937 it is clear that, as Guillamon’s narrative recognizes, the tensions in the CNT had resolved into two clear positions that cut right through any other previous overlapping tendencies that might have existed. Now more than ever the distinction between CNT and FAI was irrelevant. The ideological conflict within the organization was now between revolutionaries and those who wished to collaborate with other parties and groups. It was a tension between those who felt that the primary struggle was to maintain and extend libertarian communism and those who felt the primary struggle was against Fascism and revolutionary change should be postponed until that overarching struggle was won. Many of the latter soon were on what Guillamon calls the “higher committees” of the CNT. When De Santillan talks about being in a collaborative mode we can, perhaps, understand the position of people like himself, Montseny, and others who see the struggle against fascism as central to all actions and strategies. There is a logic there. What is harder to understand is their inability to see the enormous potential of the Defense Committees and to observe their apparent complicity when the Stalinists and their friends refer to the Defense Committees as bandits and gangsters or dismiss those who refused to surrender to the primacy of the war against Fascism, as “uncontrolables.” We should not, though, forget the loyalty of the Defense Committees to the CNT-FAI. The higher committees existed because the Defense Committees let them. Defense Committee members were usually too busy to take part in strategic debate on the war and, as a consequence, gave the higher committees free rein. The members of these higher committees were not lacking in self importance and saw a vacuum only they could fill. And fill it they did.

 

This book is not an easy read for those of us looking for a comforting re-enforcement of the purity of our anarchist ideal. Reality has an awkward habit of getting in the way and at times it can be an unsettling read. Guillamon makes no attempt to hide the brutality that took place in those first few July days in Barcelona and the part the Defense Committees played in the settling of scores. The notion of anarchist controlled prisons and the behavior of the CNT-FAI Investigation and Intelligence Services do not sit easily even as there is a distinct pragmatism about them. The real worry of the Liaison Committee of the Anarchist Groups in Catalonia that members of the Durruti Column might well turn their guns on each other over the question of militarization may well make us understand the passions that filled up those days in late 1936 but still leaves us unsettled. All this though is what very good history does. It makes us think, makes us interrogate our ideas and leaves us richer for it. It makes us want to find out more when we thought we knew enough.

 

In telling the story of the Defense Committees Guillamon has made it incontrovertibly clear that the July days in Barcelona did not just happen. They had been planned for and after the success of the working class communities against the armed forces and others, the Defense Committees were there to help administer food and welfare support as well as create libertarian forms of administration and support in a multitude of areas. Theirs is a remarkable story. If we want to find faults in their inability to co-ordinate or in their inability to sense, sometimes, what was happening on a national scale we can. Sitting at our table, flicking through the internet, we can find faults with nearly everything and even if the faults are telling we should be careful not to take away the reality of the magnificence of their particular achievements. For as Guillamon writes “The fighting, the killing, the suffering and the dying was not done for the sake of a Republic- but for the emancipation of labor and a better, freer society that actually seemed within reach.”

 

Agustin Guillamon has been editor of the magazine Balance since 1993. An ongoing investigation of events and personalities in the Spanish Revolution it has become a gradual recuperation of what we might call the “awkward squad” – those comrades from the revolutionary organizations who have been slandered by the neo Stalinists and, more worryingly, sometimes, by members of their own organization looking to re-shape history and place themselves in the most flattering light. His book The Friends of Durruti Group, 1937-39 was published by AK Press in 1996 and Ready for Revolution is part of a trilogy that examines Spanish working class anarchism up to and after the May Days of 1937. He describes his work as a historian as part of the “unveiling of the real history of the class struggle”. A battle, if you like, against the amnesia that can easily envelop us.

 

This is a book that develops the work done in equally seminal texts such as Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (Freedom Press, 1972, enlarged edition), Stuart Christie’s We the Anarchists (AK Press, 2008) and Chris Ealham’s Anarchy and the City (AK Press, 2010) Like them Ready For Revolution stops us in our tracks and makes us re-assess and debate what we thought we knew. It is a beautifully researched book that is forcefully presented and is , without doubt ,a major work of radical scholarship.

 

Kate Sharpley Library

Originally published as the introduction to Ready For Revolution (AK Press, 2014)

 

[1] Juan Garcia Oliver   Wrong Steps: Errors in the Spanish Revolution. Kate Sharpley Library, 2000 P. 13

[2] Carlo Cafiero             Revolution. Black Cat Press, Edmonton, Alberta, 2012,   P. 64


In Memoriam, November 11, 1887

November 11, 2010

“Now these are my ideas. They constitute a part of myself. I cannot divest myself them, nor would I, if I could.”

August Spies

In Memoriam

George Engle, 1836-1877

Adolf Fischer, 1858-1877

Louis Lingg, 1864-1887

Albert Parsons, 1848-1887

August Spies, 1855-1887


Who was Peter the Painter

September 16, 2010

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