Source: Socialist Standard, May 1929.
Transcription: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
We regret to announce the sad news that Comrade J. Fitzgerald passed away, following a serious operation, in St. Peter's Hospital, Covent Garden, on Tuesday, April 16th, at seven o’clock in the morning.
Comrade Fitzgerald was a part of the Socialist movement, and his death is like the tearing away of a limb. He died at the comparatively early age of 57, and from his youth to his dying day he took his place in the front rank of the fighters for Socialism.
To those who have only known him in his later years a little of his early history may be interesting.
A bricklayer by trade, he took an active part in the Operative Bricklayers’ Union, was at one time on their Executive Committee, and on at least two occasions acted as one of their delegates to the Trades Union Congress.
He joined the Social Democratic Federation (afterwards the Social Democratic Party) in the ’nineties, and attended some of the classes run by Edward Aveling, the son-in-law of Karl Marx. Along with a few others he fought against the Reformist tendencies inside the S.D.F., and sought to convert that body into a fitting instrument for the inauguration of Socialism. He urged the formation of economics and other classes to further the education of the workers, but was jeered at by the official group, who tried to silence him by the charge of “impossibilism.” He, and the group that was with him, were confronted by a solid wall of opposition, which was the more difficult to get over because the officials held the strings, and meetings were closed to the unauthorised. The S.D.F. was committed to a policy of compromise and also to reformist activity through the association of its prominent members with reactionary trades unionism and with the Twentieth Century Press, many of whose shareholders were outside the ranks of the working and out of sympathy with the Socialist movement.
Matters came to a head at the Burnley Conference of the S.D.F. in 1904, when Fitzgerald and another member were expelled, by means of a trick, on general charges that were shown to exist only in the imagination of prominent members of the S.D.F. of the time.
The general dissatisfaction with the reactionary policy of the Social Democratic Federation led to the secession of a number of its members, who, together with some others, formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the 12th June, 1904. Fitzgerald took a leading part with these in hammering out the policy of the Party, a policy that has withstood the fierce assaults of all opposition for twenty-five years.
He was a member of the first Executive Committee of the Party, and since that day, with short lapses, of late on account of illness, he has always figured on that body. He was a first-class speaker, writer and debater, as the columns of the “Standard” through the years bear eloquent testimony. Two of his debates with Liberal and Tory have appeared in pamphlet form, and are as fresh to-day in principle and policy as if they had only occurred yesterday. In the view of those who were present the finest debate was many years ago with Lawler Wilson, the best debater the anti-Socialist Union ever had. The calibre of his opponent made such an impression on Lawler Wilson that, subsequently, in a book entitled “The Menace of Socialism,” and published in 1909, he wrote of the Party:—
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain, a young organisation and an offshoot from the Social Democratic Party, is spreading about London and challenging the older organisations in such districts as Battersea and Tottenham. The members are Marxians and Revolutionaries, preaching the Class War. The catechumens of the party are put through a rigid course of training in the principles of their creed, which they must be prepared to defend at the risk of their liberty. What is most remarkable and disquieting about this dangerous organisation is the fact that the members are unquestionably higher-grade working-men of great intelligence, respectability and energy. They are, as a whole, the best-informed Socialists in the country, and would make incomparable soldiers, or desperate barricadists. As revolutionaries, they deserve no mercy: as men they command respect.”
It is difficult for those who have not come into close touch with all phases of the internal work of the Party to realise the tremendous industry of Fitzgerald, his accuracy and comprehensiveness, and the energy and thoroughness with which he tackled every job that came his way, and no “donkey work” was shirked by him. Whether it was folding “Standards” in days gone by, selling them, preparing for street corner meetings, or helping a fellow worker to unravel the intricacies of some form of knowledge, it was always the same; he was ready, willing and anxious to give a hand.
On the Editorial Committee he toiled for years, giving the best that was in him, and often only finishing preparing matter for the printer long after the midnight hour had struck.
All his life he has worked hard to spread among his fellow workers a knowledge of the principles formulated by Karl Marx, and which are the foundations of the scientific Socialist Movement. It is, therefore, fitting that his last published writing was a Review in the March “S.S.” of a new translation of Marx’s great work, “Capital.” To do this review Fitzgerald read through again, and compared carefully the older and the new translations, and he did this while sinking under the effects of his illness. He received the book about the end of November, and was operated on twice before he finished the review.
If anyone desires to gauge Fitzgerald’s consistency let them glance at the first page of the first number of the “Socialist Standard” for September, 1904, and the advertisement of the Economics Class, and then, in the next number the article on taxation. Then let them turn to his last few articles and the Review in the March number. There is a quarter of a century of ceaseless activity between the two periods, but the position outlined is the same. That was Fitzgerald: fearless, sturdy, consistent and solid as a rock, a fitting instrument to be used by the workers in the struggle for emancipation.
We are not hero-worshippers, and we are keenly conscious of human frailty. Fulsome flattery and empty phrases are not our way, but we know how to estimate the worth of a man. No man worked harder than Fitzgerald to dispel the illusions of the “Great Man” theory and to impress upon his fellows that they must depend on themselves and acquire the necessary knowledge if they would free themselves from bondage; that, in the words of Marx, “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.”
Fitzgerald was by nature a teacher in the best sense of the word, an imparter of knowledge. In an educational direction, quite outside the Party, he inspired respect for his work. For the past sixteen years he was on the teaching staff of the London County Council School of Building in Brixton. When they heard of his death they sent the following resolution to one of his friends:—
“We, the members of the full-time staff of the School of Building, learn with deep regret of the death of our colleague and friend, Mr. J. Fitzgerald.
“We desire to place on record our appreciation of his able, conscientious and untiring services to this school during a period of over 16 years. We feel that his loss to the school is a heavy one, but we are glad to record that his work has resulted in substantial progress and paved the way for further developments in Building Education.
“We further desire to convey our sincere sympathy to his relatives and close friends.”
The future will show the fruit of the work of Fitzgerald and others like him, and when posterity comes to reckon its debt to the forerunners who worked so hard for Socialism we can rest assured that Fitzgerald will not be forgotten. His comrades, who have fought beside him, and drawn wisdom and aid from him, will carry his memory with them always.
The best tribute we can pay to him is to emulate his unfailing energy, industry and enthusiasm, and profit by the spade work of him and his fellows to give greater impetus to the movement towards the final extinction of wage slavery.
Those who have worked with him for years know his value, and the keenness, penetration, and power of the brain that is gone.
The working class movement is poorer today by the loss of one of its worthiest champions.