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.