The history of the Socialist Party is of the men and women who have made it. Remarkable as many of them have been, there are no high places or orders of merit. All Socialists are equal, and none is more equal than others. The jokey justification for obituaries in the SOCIALST STANDARD is that this is all anyone gets from the Party. Not true, of course: we get marvellous camaraderie, and loyalty and the job well done are appreciated. Nevertheless, the point is made.
Several thousand people have played their parts over seventy years, and we still have members—several—who joined before the first world war. Inevitably the speakers come to mind first. Anderson and Fitzgerald of the Impossibilist generation, who set their different stamps on the Party, are mentioned elsewhere. There was Neumann, who wore a frock-coat to Paris Commune meetings, translated Kautsky, and composed an awful Party song—in Germany when the 1914 war began, he was killed in the Spartacus Rising. Freddie Watts, wood-carver and designer. And a little later Kohn, full of knowledge and wit, and Moses Baritz, whose terrifying rumbustiousness made incongruous the fact that he was a scholar and broadcaster on music.
They were all rumbustious in argument. Ted Lake recalled in 1954 his first sight of Fitzgerald, pushing through the crowd at a meeting and roaring: “I demand to take the platform and speak in opposition!” R. M. Fox in his autobiography Smokey Crusade described EC meetings about 1910 in the room above the shop in Sandland Street, with late-night passers-by “looking up at the windows and wondering when the disputants in the brawl would come to blows”. A few fell out with the Party. One, sadly after thirty-five years, was sincere and kindly Jacomb; and with him Reynolds, who spoke and wrote with abrasive erudition.
But none of them was thought, or claimed to be, a speciality. The best speakers took their turn on the rota like the beginners, doing the bad spots equally with the good ones; the platform has always been the Party’s, not individuals’. And members who did unspectacular work in Branches and on dull committees were and are valued as highly as anyone. Percy Hallard, who was a Branch secretary for thirty-eight years; Jack Butler, who was the Party treasurer and had an account-book in his lap and a pencil behind his ear when he was killed in an air-raid shelter; the general secretaries—Freddie Adams, Merrison, Hilda Kohn.
There have been others who toiled away for years in unlikely places and circumstances. Dick Jacobs in Swansea until a Branch was formed there; Jonathan Roe in High Wycombe; Lamond and the amazing Agnes Hollingshead in Edinburgh; Eric Boden in Sheffield; and a good many more. Or the members like old Beck who have spent years going round with Socialist literature and selling it at street-corners in all weathers, and those who were always there to carry the platform.
We have never lacked such members. Ever since Great Dover Street there has always been tea and something to eat at the Party office (Conferences as well) because we have had bricks of people who would forgo the excitement to make that their job: Nellie Butler, Mark Miller, Helen Rose, Joe Bell. In that connection, the Socialist Party has never been a “man’s world”. Women have been EC members, speakers and delegates, without any of us finding implications in it. (Others do, of course. A local paper once wrote up one of our platform people as a “raven-haired, barb-tongued beauty”; we thought she was simply an able speaker.) One of our saddest losses was Lisa Bryan’s early death in 1960.
There have been members whom no-one who knew them could ever forget. Charles Lestor—he looked like the redskin chief of a schoolboy’s dream, and breathed adventure in tales of Jack London and the Yukon. Clifford Groves of the autocratic manner, flaying opponents in debate. Alf Jacobs, who spoke Sunday in Victoria Park for almost a lifetime. McLaughlin, full of enthusiasm when he was blind and deaf.
Writers are relatively obscure though their work is the most lasting, their initials and pen-names often a mystery. “F.F.” stood for years of lucid, well-informed articles in the STANDARD; not so many know today that it stood also for Fred Foan. Some of the most delightful writing which ever appeared was the penetrative, gently witty pieces by “W.T.H.”, the initials of Hopley. We have with us today two whose work spans longer than most of us have lived. Comrades McClatchie (“Gilmac”) and Hardy (“H”) have written for the SOCIALIST STANDARD since, respectively, just before and just after the 1914-18 war and edited it for forty and thirty-plus years.
Last year a still-active member was eighty, and a bunch of comrades went round to her with a birthday cake and a lot of good wishes. She said that though she hadn’t seen the establishment of Socialism, working for it had given her a lifetime among the best people imaginable. Even when we are disagreeing with one another, that is what we all think.