A short biography of Jacob Caplan, stirring anarchist orator, active in Leeds and London.
“But the best speaker among the Jewish anarchists at that time was Kaplan. After Yanovsky went back to America Kaplan was the finest speaker the Jewish movement had in England”.
Iacov Kaplan was born in Sager in Lithuania. For a time he was a magidd (preacher) there in the synagogue, where he must have honed his oratorical skills. He began reading free-thinking books in Sager, and he began having doubts about his religion. He moved to England in the 1880s, where he worked for a time as a preacher for the Jewish community in Leeds. He made contact with the small group of socialists and anarchists in that city, and began reading the Yiddish language anarchist papers the Arbeter Fraint and the Freie Arbeter Shtimme as well as English and American pamphlets. He learnt English and started reading English secularist literature- Spencer, Bradlaugh, Ingersoll and Foote. He decided to throw up the job of preacher and started working as a machinist in the tailoring industry. He started becoming active in the Jewish workers movement. He had an important role in the Jewish anarchist club at 23 New York Street in Kirkgate.
He encouraged the Jewish workers in Leeds to join the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union which was organised in Leeds by the Socialist League around Tom Maguire and which heralded an extremely militant period in the working class history of Leeds. The Jewish tailors and slipper makers joined the GGLU in February 1890.
Following the violent confrontations after the gasworkers strike- the Leeds Gas Riots- of 1890, the anarchist controlled Jewish tailors’ branch of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union had gone on strike in August. On the initiative of Kaplan, a letter was sent to the masters on 15th August and two days later forty shops were out on strike. It was supported by the gas stokers who turned up on pickets at the Leylands sweatshops, with long stoking poles, which they had previously used in the gas strike battles. Caplan described how sixty stokers armed with the fearsome poles turned up on the picket lines outside the sweatshops: “The police, who still remembered the flavour of the blows they had received in the last strike of the gasworkers, suddenly lost their desire to get beaten up in the protection of the capitalist beast, and they remained standing near the shops no longer than a flash…Long live the poles- in the hands of the workers!”. This resulted in a quick victory.
The Socialist League was active in eight hour day agitation after this strike and Caplan addressed a meeting in October 1890 giving anarchist support saying that: “it was better to be a poor man and work eight hours a day than to be the same poor man and work twelve to fifteen hours”.
Writing to Arbeter Fraint in early May 1891 about the Leeds May Day, Jacob spoke about his disillusionment with the union, and the lack of revolutionary zeal, “not because the workers are more gentle, but because the leaders, the agitators, have become peaceful parliamentarians. It makes one sick hearing them speak”.
By the end of 1891 most of the Jewish tailors and slipper makers had left the GGLU, saying they they were disgusted with the bureaucracy and the drunkenness of the officials. Kaplan departed with all but forty members saying that workers should be able to breathe freely in their own unions. He consistently argued the line that Jewish workers should stand alongside British workers or they would be considered the enemy. In spite of opposition from Orthodox Jewish tailors a Leeds Independent Jewish Tailors’, Machiners’ and Pressers’ Union was set up by Kaplan and his group with Morris Goldstein as chair and Kaplan as secretary in January 1892. It is not known how long it survived but reports in the Arbeter Fraint indicated that it existed throughout 1892 but was gone by 1893. These years were bad for employment in Britain, with a total of 8,000 unemployed in Leeds. Kaplan was forced to move to London.
After the editor of the Arbeter Fraint, Saul Yanovsky returned to New York in 1895 Kaplan took over the editorship, but his literary abilities were not up to the task and he was replaced by William Wess in October 1895. He often spoke at the weekly meetings of the Jewish anarchist movement at the Sugar Loaf pub in the East End of London and later in the 1900s at meetings of the Vekruf (Awake) West End anarchist circle in 1910 at 96 Dean Street in Soho. According to Rocker he was immensely likeable and children loved him. Rocker regarded him as the best speaker among the Jewish anarchists in pre WW1 England. “He loved speaking in public. He was a good speaker. He knew how to hold his audience. …he was a redoubtable debater. He was practically the only speaker in the Jewish movement of that time who could work out his speeches logically, point by point”. Rocker points out that his great talents as a speaker were not matched in the field of writing where he failed badly.
He took a leading role in the tailors’ strike of June 1906, along with other Arbeter Frainters. He was one of the speakers at the many open air meetings held in Stepney in support of the strike. Unfortunately the strike was a failure. He was active in the great tailors’ strike that started in April 1912 in the West End of London and then was spread by the group around Arbeter Fraint throughout the London sweatshops. Kaplan was one of the main speakers, along with Rocker, that addressed eight thousand workers at the Assembly Hall in Mile End on 10th May 1912 and he served on the strike committee as its chair. The strike ended with the masters agreeing to all the demands of the strikers.
Kaplan had one son from his marriage as well as being stepfather to two boys from his wife’s first marriage. His own son Fred volunteered for the Army at the age of 18 during the First World War and was killed in action. This caused the complete mental breakdown of his mother, who died in a lunatic asylum two years later.
The collapse of the Jewish anarchist movement in Britain after the World War and the Russian Revolution meant Kaplan became increasingly isolated. His last years were spent in poverty and illness. As Rocker says:” He was a desperately lonely man. When Milly and I came to London in 1933 he was in hospital. He had just had his leg amputated. We were to visit him on Thursday. He died the night before. It fell to me to speak at his cremation in Golders Green”.
Rocker, Rudolf. The London Years
Bradley, Quintin. Tom Maguire and the Leeds Anarchists: the Socialist League and the Yorkshire Labour Council 1885-1892 History Workshop 1993
Kershen, Anne J. Uniting the Tailors: trade unionism among the tailors of London and Leeds 1870-1939
Buckman, Joseph . Immigrants and the class struggle: the Jewish immigrant in Leeds 1880-1914