Revolutionary Firebrand

 

John Curtin's first contact with the newspaper world (at age 14) was as a printer's devil, office cleaner and messenger boy (getting beer and cigarettes for the writers) at Norman Lindsay's Rambler. Later, he was a copy boy at the Age.

Young John Curtin practised his newspaper craft and had his attitudes sharpened as a member of the Victorian Socialist Party which began operating from a cellar deep beneath Collins Street in central Melbourne. From there the Party promoted fellowship among its 2000 members, and planned regular activities for them.

Sunday Socialist Party lecture, Melbourne 1906

Sunday Socialist Party lecture, Melbourne 1906. The Socialist, 2 June 1906 page 1.

 

The aim was to raise the consciousness of workers: socialism was the only way.

There were crowded meetings, and a team of 50 speakers was trained and rostered to propagandise along the Yarra Bank - and anywhere else there might be an audience.

There were socialist drama classes so these speakers would not become anxious and 'dry up' when performing before an audience, socialist baptisms, socialist funerals, and a Sunday school where children saluted the red flag and learned the Ten Commandments of Socialism.

Advertisement for Co-operative shop in the Socialist

Advertisement for Co-operative
shop in the Socialist. The Socialist 1906.

 

Victorian Socialist Party members ran cooperative grocery shops, a socialist bank, and a socialist book shop. They devoured the writings of Marx and Engels.

It was some party, and John Curtin, at 21, was one of its most eager participants. Clearly his job as costing-clerk at the Titan Manufacturing Company, a producer of nails and other hardware, allowed his mind to work on other matters.

A works photograph of the Titan Manufacturing Company staff

A works photograph of the Titan Manufacturing Company staff. Records of Lloyd Ross. John Curtin at Titan Manufacturing Co, 1903. JCPML00617/66/9.

 

On April 2 1906, the first Socialist, the self-dubbed Organ of International Socialism, hit the scene in an eight-page quarto format. It was edited and inspired by Tom Mann the British trade union leader who was later described by Curtin as his 'inspirer, instructor, friend, warrior, in my opinion easily the best socialist I have known'.

The edition of May 5 carried Curtin's first journalistic effort, on the prospects for revolutionary socialism. He had worked up this topic while tutoring with the Socialist Party speakers' class.

The article was important in local politics because it raised the possibility - even likelihood - of violent revolution. That was something with which conservative politicians wanted to brand Curtin's associates.



Curtin promoted socialism in a manner characteristic of a largely self-educated youth early in the twentieth century. The writing is convoluted and the meaning often unclear: words tumble over each other, as do the frequent literary references. There are occasional misspellings and misquotes.

Speakers' Class
-----o-----

The change may be accompanied with strife and violence as the manifestation of its arrival, and it may be, as was said of the French revolt, not as gentle in its course as it might have been. But, as Ganvain is made to say by Hugo, "how could it be gentle, there was so much to sweep away!" So, likewise, the nature of the next revolution will largely depend on how much has to be removed. Whatever comes it will be but the evolution of the world reaching such a stage as to necessitate complete revolution in the methods by which it shall advance, and Socialism, founded as it has been, in the growth of capitalism, and having as its policy the abolition of the existing system, must be revolutionary, as well as international, to accomplish its purpose.

Socialist 5 May 1906

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Many readers must have admired these difficult articles as the circulation increased, likewise the frequency of publication.

The editor felt it worth noting that the Socialist of 2 July 1909 was 'full of good things. Jack Curtin begins a series of articles bound to be regarded as a contribution to fundamental thought'.

Curtin's article was on the continuing theme of Why We Are Revolutionists!

Why We Are Revolutionists!
-----o-----

Revolutionists we are, "not because we are in love with revolution, but because revolution is forced upon us by the economic and social conditions of our day."

Socialist 2 July 1909

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Curtin's journalistic prose generally became clearer in the three years after 1906. It remained wordy however - the Socialist had become a broadsheet by 1909 and the change provided him with more space!

One of the young socialist's most-quoted contributions to the party paper was an assault on those Labor politicians attacking Tom Mann who was by now agitating in the stormy mining centre of Broken Hill.

Curtin typically kept a foot in the camps of both socialism and political Labor. (The Labor Call had commented on him with approval but called him Jack Kirton.)

In this celebrated Socialist article, John Curtin's allegiance to the socialists was unequivocal as he berated the politicians opposing Mann.

Lloyd Ross, one of Curtin's biographers, quotes this as an example of Curtin's 'fanaticism' although this might not be the right word. Ross also asks 'how could a man so emotionally quickened survive in the turmoil of politics?'.

That remains a good question.

The Calumniators
----o----
Apostate's Hatred and Envy's Spleen.
----o----

To be insulted is at times a compliment. Envy and malice wish to pay their tribute to greatness; therefore they hurl innuendoes and foul aspersions at the characters transcending their own. To stand up straight antagonises deformity. Ugliness can only curse the beautiful, and thereby accentuate it. So it is that now and again mental rottenness pays homage to the Socialist Party by vainly trying to blacken it.....

No vilification exceeds that of the Apostate. It is he who is most persistent in the campaign of slander...

Socialist 4 June 1909

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  Around Curtin's 'contributions to fundamental thought', the Socialist would also feature dramatic news stories of socialist trade union leaders being charged with sedition and incitement to riot, members gaoled on free speech issues, and disputes involving lockouts by employers.

Socialist Party postcard featuring Tom Mann, 1906

Socialist Party postcard
featuring Tom Mann, 1906. Records of Robin Glenie. “The Melbourne Gaol Series” postcard – Tom Mann Picking Oakum, 1906. JCPML00510/8.

 

The paper also featured a regular 'Party Chronicles' column which provided brief paragraphs on propaganda meetings, social gatherings, and health reports on stricken Comrades.

Curtin wrote many of these. He liked this form of journalism.

The popularity of the Socialist Party in Victoria fell away after the departure of Tom Mann, despite a spell with Jack Curtin as its secretary.

In 1911 Curtin was elected secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers' Union and, still buoyed by the Socialist experience, he started planning his union's own paper.

Party Chronicles
----o----

Next Sunday night at the Bijou Theatre, Comrade Frank Hyett will deliver the annual oration on "Garibaldi, the Italian Liberator." The evening should be a splendid celebration, and will be strengthened by an appropriate programme of vocal and instrumental numbers.

----o----

We were glad to note Comrade Miss Hayes in her superintendent's place at the Sunday school on Sunday. The programme was highly interesting. The school is to give us another children's night at the Bijou at an early date.

----o----

Socialist 4 June 1909

 

 

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