Reminiscences of an Old Member pt.1
To escape from the narrow and limited conditions of existence in my home town in northern Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), where I was apprenticed for three years in a textile factory’s office and received private English lessons, I left home in 1902 for a bigger industrial centre in Germany. I worked in Plauen (Saxony) famous for its lace industry, and found excellent contacts there with English, French and American students working and learning in the factories.
As one could in those days travel right across the whole European Continent without let or hindrance, without passports or labour permits, I went a year later to Switzerland, to Lyon in France and eventually to Paris, where I worked during 1904 and 1905. One of the great advantages of my stay in Paris was that I was able to get certified at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy as exempt from military service.
Returning to Austria in 1905, I worked in Vienna for four years as foreign correspondent with a large export firm, and in 1909 went to try my luck in England. After a three week search, I found a job in an important commercial concern in London, where I soon felt securely enough established to get married. Before I made that plunge I made another, to join the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1910. I was a member till 1919 and have kept in happy and close contact to the present day, with the exception of the second world war years. It has been my great ambition from the very day I set foot on the Continent again to found here a companion Socialist organisation. If greater success has so far been denied us, the stalwarts of the SPGB will, in view of their sixty years’ experience, readily understand our difficulties.
My contact with Socialism really dates back to the turn of the Century when, in 1898, my father had already taken me to a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Social Democratic Party, going in our home town under the name of Lichstrahl (Sunbeam). Teenager as I still was, I hardly knew what they were talking about. I remember that evening lectures on Darwin and Marx were often advertised in the local party press, but my mind at that time was bent on my job, on learning English, going dancing, enjoying cycling and skating, etc. No political contact worth mentioning was made afterwards in Germany or in France. In Vienna from 1905 to 1909 contact with people interested in Socialism had been quite by accident, not by design. Occasional talks with party members there were not stimulating. I went to “Socialist” meetings but their propaganda also was far from arousing sufficient interest even to envisage joining the movement. It is then remarkable that within a few months of my arrival in London, my views and interest in social affairs should have undergone so swift and radical a change that by 1910 I felt impelled to join the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Living near Finsbury Park, I strolled on one of the first Sunday mornings over to where public meetings were in progress. My particular attention fell on the political platforms—the Labour Party, Social Democratic Federation, Christian Commonwealth, etc. I found the speakers lustily criticising and attacking each others’ policies for which I had at first little understanding. My interest had, however, been so deeply aroused that I went again in the afternoon, when I discovered an additional platform with the name SPGB. No sooner had a speaker mounted the platform than the bulk of the audience of most of the other speakers rushed over. Listening attentively, I was surprised to hear the speaker showing up not just one or the other opponent, but the lot of them for misleading and confusing the people on vital issues concerning their lives. In my bewilderment, and anxious to better understand, I bought all the papers I could get hold of—Labour Leader, Justice, Christian Commonwealth, and the Socialist Standard. At home I began studying them all, and on the following Sunday I was early around the platform of the SPGB again. Much wiser, I now enjoyed even more what the speaker out for. I also go to know his name—it was Anderson—and it was evident that the impact of what this speaker had to say, in his rare and convincing way, was as decisive on many listeners as it was on me. I heard other speakers from that platform on many following Sundays, with the result, as I have already mentioned, that I applied for membership of the party they represented, and was enrolled in the Islington branch.
At Head Office I joined a class on economics with Comrade F. C. Watts as teacher. I met there young comrade Gilmac, who remains my life-long friend to this day. Soon I knew a great number of equally inestimable and unforgettable comrades, among them Fitzgerald, Adolf Kohn, Jacobs, Jacomb. Gostick and wife, Sandy Pearson.
Anderson sometimes came to my home. I remember a Christmas party my wife gave to some children, including Anderson’s. At the end of the party Anderson (an inveterate teetotaller) thanked us very much, especially for the “wonderful lemonade”—the “best he had ever drunk in his life.” My wife afterwards smilingly confessed to me that, of course, she had mixed some spirit with it, as she invariably did.
Anderson was a born speaker and an eminently able man, invaluable for the only cause that is worthy of the fervour and devotion of such a rare and unforgettable character. He was evidently happy on the platform and excelled in ready and witty answers to questioners. “What about the missing link?” somebody once shouted from the audience. “The missing link,” promptly retorted Anderson, “is not far away.”
Becoming a Socialist meant that I rapidly changed my whole outlook and attitude on such questions as “earning your living” by a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage,” on “social justice,” ethical and moral codes, religion, etc. What I had been taught about history had to go by the board, to be irremediably replaced by the Materialist Conception—the scientific theory of the evolution of society. Words like value, price, the source of interest and profit, and the true role of money and capital; why wealth was produced for sale at a profit instead for the sole purpose of satisfying human wants and desires, etc.—things I had never explained at school—all received thorough attention. The knock-out blow was delivered to falsehoods and fallacies. And all this, be it noted, before the two world wars, during which churchmen were doing overtime blessing the guns and the fratricide.
(To be concluded)