Having titled his memoir The Socialist, it is unsurprising to find that Joe regularly makes reference to socialism and its ideas. When one takes into account the troubling circumstances of Joe’s life, it is not difficult to see why such an ideology appeals to him. In a recent article for The Guardian, Nesrine Malik states that socialism ‘is at its core, about making life fairer and accounting for structural scaffolding that rigs the system in favour of the few’ (2018). As previously touched upon in my Purpose and Audience blog post, one of the most refreshing aspects of The Socialist is the fact it encourages the reader to make their own conclusions. Joe does not overwhelm his reader with the specifics of socialism. Rather he tells the story of his life that would likely have been more pleasant reading had a socialist system been in place.
Joe very rarely explicitly talks about socialism but instead alludes to its benefits and the flaws in the current system. He does recall however, when he first became educated in the matter. Whilst homeless and walking the roads of Canada Joe stopped in a library. As he recalls ‘I read some socialist literature there and this was the beginning of my political thinking. I started looking for the alternative to Capitalism, and want, and misery’ (82). Joe’s admission that his life was ‘misery’ (82) is surprising, not because it wasn’t, but because throughout his memoir he so often withholds his emotions. This slip in Joe’s guard highlights his passion for socialist practice, and how these readings perhaps gave him hope.
Joe remembers this incident in the library as ‘the beginning’ (82) of his socialist thinking. In reality, Joe had the characteristics of a socialist long before his adult years. Whilst at Miss Birt’s Joe received a job at a local office working as a doorman. The role was very rewarding and he recalls how ‘there were times when visitors would give me money’ (26). These gifts were as a result of Joe’s hard work, and were well earned. Despite living so much of his life devoid of money however, Joe chose not to keep the money to himself and ‘would buy candies and share them with other kids’ (26). There was no requirement for Joe to do this, but he sought to share benefits rather than isolate them to himself. These actions speak volumes about Joe’s character, and whilst you and I may commend Joe for this, not all did. Upon discovering Joe’s charitable nature, the workers at Miss Birt’s berated him, and he was ‘required to hand in any gifts I received’ (26).
Joe’s generous nature likely derives from his own experience. Growing up his ‘father was often unemployed or on strike’ (3), and his family had very little. In these difficult times the family desperately needed support but sadly none was forthcoming. Instead Joe’s father, and many other working class men in Britain, would attempt to force aid from their employers and the government by going on strike. The authorities that failed to act when their workers requested help, were quick to quash the strikes. Joe bitterly remembers the ‘capitalists were determined to smash the movement’ (12). The historian Kenneth O.Morgan notes that the early twentieth century governments had a growing commitment to ‘larger sections of the population left relatively unscathed by the bleak years’ (2000, 37). The working class failed to get this support, despite being the sector of society that needed it the most.
Time and travel had little effect on Joe’s situation. As he journeyed across England, Canada, and America, Joe encountered ‘mass unemployment everywhere, the single men standing in the breadlines, but the rich still lived in comfort’ (75). What was perhaps most difficult for Joe to accept, is that when afforded the opportunity he had a tremendous work ethic. Regardless of where he was working Joe was fully committed, and helped those above him make a lot of money. This money was not equally distributed however, revealing the problems which ‘The Socialist’ looks to highlight.
As Joe’s story tells us, the struggle for the working class is not that they are unable to afford luxuries, rather it is how they struggle to obtain necessities. Returning to the views of Malik, for the working class there was no ‘safety net that guarantees them basic healthcare, shelter and nutrition’ (2018). As a result, things naturally ‘start to breakdown’ (2018). Joe was no stranger to these difficulties. One of the most distressing passages of ‘The Socialist’ involves Joe having to pay for his brother’s life-saving medical care in Canada. Health care came at a cost and Joe had very little money currently being unemployed, yet a life without his Brother Bill would be unimaginable. Bill would make a full recovery. The same could not be said for Joe who plunged himself further into poverty, admitting that he ‘was badly in debt and no work, I owed the doctor and the hospital a lot of money with no hope of ever paying it’ (106). The life of a loved one had come at a price. Under situations like these Joe questions why ‘there was no revolution’ (75).
As proven by Joe’s childhood distribution of sweets, he was not one to simply sit back and accept life’s flaws. He looked to put in place the socialist values he held so dear. He proudly recalls his ‘work in the National Unemployed Workers Movement’ (120). In his protests Joe would ‘demand that something should be done to help the unemployed’ (120), so he and the rest of the working class could prosper. The best way to truly promote what Joe was fighting for is to use his own words. I feel Joe’s confrontation with an employer during his years as a welder effectively summarises his political ideology. As his employer demanded Joe work longer and gruelling hours away from his family, Joe recalls ‘I told him I worked to live and that I didn’t live just to work’ (124).
It is inspiring that Joe worked so hard to make a change though he admits these efforts were in vain. Reluctantly, Joe accepts he spent his life looking for a solution, and in his old age ‘I am still looking for it, and someday it will come’ (82). With an insightful piece of work like The Socialist, maybe he’s still contributing to the search.
Ayre, Joe. ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, no. 29, Brunel University Library.
Malik, Nesrine. ‘Can You Be Socialist and Rich?’ 2018. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/25/can-you-be-socialist-and-rich-google
O. Morgan, Kenneth. Twentieth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
National Unemployed Workers Movement – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/203013895675901787/
Socialist Party Meeting – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Party_of_Great_Britain