The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter XII: The Revolutionaries’ Last Stand

The end came unexpectedly: in 1921 the Socialist Labour Party did not realise that its demise was near. Its Easter conference, held at Dewsbury, was reported to be ‘the most enthusiastic and successful ever held’. [1] The annual report said that the SLP press was working overtime, producing books, pamphlets and leaflets. The party still had a large number of people on the periphery, ready to read and sell its literature. Admittedly, there were some setbacks, reversals that seemed of a minor nature. In 1920-21, the SLP had lost 12 branches, mainly to the Communist Party of Great Britain. On the other hand, it had created six new ones, so the party had a total of 42 branches. Similarly in membership, the figures had taken a slight downward turn: 796 had been lost while 434 members had been gained. Looking at these statistics, it is perhaps surprising that so few had succumbed to the lure of the CPGB, and that Arthur MacManus, William Paul and Tom Bell had so few followers when they left the SLP. Their loss, it could be argued, was more than compensated for by the recruitment of John Maclean, who undoubtedly had great popularity among the masses. When he did a speaking tour of Lancashire, Maclean secured audiences that were ‘twice the size of other speakers’, according to Home Office spies. [2] In Scotland, his power to draw crowds was sure to be much bigger.

The formation of the CPGB left most SLPers undismayed. It seemed to them that it was not based on firm theoretical and organisational principles, and so would not survive the test of events. This was the opinion expressed by Maclean in a letter to his friend James Clunie: ‘The CP is going “rocky,” and as it fades the ground will be cleared for a real fighting party, independent of outside dictation of finance.’ He went on to describe two packed meetings he had addressed in St Mungo Hall the previous Sunday and concluded with the opinion that ‘a real mass movement is simmering in Glasgow, despite every mode of repression or treachery’. [3]

The SLP seemed to have definite advantages in comparison to the CPGB. True, the CPGB had more money to splash about, but money was not everything. As Solidarity, the London journal, pointed out: ‘It is possible to buy an organisation, but not a social revolution.’ [4] When it came to industrial work, the SLP was at a definite advantage. Its members had traditionally devoted themselves to this sphere of activity, whereas many CPers, coming from the British Socialist Party, had been oriented to the electoral scene. Of course, this is a generalisation. There were many exceptions: often it was merely a question of chance, depending upon which party had a branch in your particular locality, that determined the organisation to which you belonged. But there appears little doubt that the SLP, with more experience and attaching more importance to it, worked in industry in a more systematic way.

The haphazard approach of the CPGB was criticised by Karl Radek, one of the leaders of the Comintern. In particular, he attacked the CPGB’s failure to give a coherent lead during the miners’ strike of 1921:

We discovered that meetings took place in the mining districts, but they were in no way arranged or coordinated by the party.

One of the comrades said: ‘When I get on the platform at the meeting, I know as much as the Man in the Moon what I'm going to say on these points, but I give them Communism.

What slogans do you go to the meeting with? What do you say to the masses is your attitude to nationalisation? What does this mean?

The party is in the midst of a terrific struggle of the workers, and has no plan for directing its own forces. This is the first point: the less the strength, the more it must be directed to its aim, and, in addition, to what forces it set in motion it gave no slogan. Nor does it tell the comrades what they should say to the miners on the problems of today and tomorrow. And still further: the party appeared in many places under the guise of ‘workers’ committees’ and as far as this agitation has effect it does not bind the masses to the CPGB. Comrades, it is our duty to tell even the smallest Communist Party that you will never become a mass party if you busy yourselves only with the propaganda of the theory of Communism. [5]

In contrast, the SLP’s position was clear. It anticipated the betrayal of the Triple Alliance, and argued that no faith should be placed in the union leaders, including those who mouthed leftish phrases. It was up to the workers to spread the strike to other industries. The miners could sharpen the conflict by seizing the mines and working them for themselves. It was necessary to call upon the soldiers for support. Victory in such a significant struggle could be of inestimable value to either the capitalist state or to the creation of socialism, so it was important to raise the slogan: ‘All power to the workers.’ [6]

The CPGB adopted a less hostile line towards union leaders. In part, this arose because many of its members were less clear about the role of the union bureaucracy and did not see the need to build rank-and-file organisation. But it was also due to pressures arising from the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign. While Harry Pollitt, who directed the campaign, did not like SLPers appearing on its platforms, he went out of his way to encourage respectable and influential members of the labour movement. These included AA Purcell, of the TUC, CT Cramp (NUR), W Straker (MFGB), Ben Turner (Textile Workers), Ernest Bevin and Robert Williams (Transport Workers). Looking at the list of speakers, one sees many leaders who later betrayed the General Strike of 1926. In fact, a foretaste of this came in 1921, when the Triple Alliance failed to come to the assistance of the hard-pressed miners. In view of his conduct on ‘Black Friday’, the CPGB could not permit one of the main culprits — Robert Williams, General Secretary of the Transport Workers — to remain a member of the party. Yet they still remained on friendly terms with him. Palme Dutt permitted Williams to explain and try to justify his apostasy in the Labour Monthly, a journal which the CPGB controlled, and he also remained active in Communist-front organisations. [7] Given this kind of close association, it becomes impossible to make a thorough-going criticism of the man or a serious attempt to unseat him from his union position.

Dissatisfaction with trade-union leaders provided an impetus to the development of rank-and-file movements. This had already been recognised to happen: Cabinet papers reveal that inefficiency of ASLEF and NUR officials was the reason for grassroots organisation emerging on the railways. And similar moves occurred in other parts of industry. In the Northumberland and Durham coalfields, the Northern Miners Unofficial Reform Committee was formed on 19 February 1921, with George Harvey as Secretary. Likewise in Lancashire, an unofficial organisation, closely assisted by Maclean and MacDougall, was very active. In April 1921, the Stirlingshire Miners Reform Committee was created, with Patrick Lafferty as Secretary. [8]

While the coal industry was to the fore when it came to the development of the unofficial movement, even there it was patchy. Many coalfields remained with little or no rank-and-file organisation. Nor should the strength of those that did exist be exaggerated. It may appear impressive at first to hear that 24 lodges, with 30,000 members, were represented at the Northern Miners Unofficial Reform Committee conference, but when it is remembered that there were 400 miners’ lodges in Northumberland and Durham, these numbers can be seen in true perspective.

This is not to deny that there was very considerable discontent, at times even hatred, of union officials and union policy. The problem was that the passionate outbursts were prone to be transitory. Disgruntled workers, after making a protest, would sink back into apathy. It became exceedingly difficult to sustain a rank-and-file organisation, particularly with a shortage of finance and facilities. Whenever a serious threat emerged, the united efforts of employers and trade-union leaders, aided if necessary by state repression, were usually sufficient to smash it. As a consequence, most rank-and-file organisations, whatever their grandiose plans, operated on a modest scale. Generally, they would devote themselves to propaganda activities rather than to attempts to supplant, or by-pass, the official negotiating channels. They might also, like the AEU group, attempt to coordinate activity within the union, sending information from one part of the country to another, hoping to overthrow the official bureaucracy.

Recognising its own weaknesses, the SLP sought to garner its industrial forces, helping to give them direction and purpose. In February 1921, a conference was held in Glasgow on socialist industrial unionism. This stated its broad agreement with the method of working proposed by the Comintern. The conference report started with a quotation from Zinoviev, Chairman of the Third International, which stressed the need to belong to organisations that had the allegiance of the workers and to win them over to a revolutionary standpoint:

Everywhere where there are workmen, there must be communists. We cannot abandon several millions of workmen to the influence of social traitors and stand aside ourselves. The social traitors, who have been thrown out of the political parties, have now surrounded themselves with the thick walls of trade unions.

We must get hold of this fortress; we must conduct a regular, systematic, patient siege; we must expel the traitors of the working class from their refuge; we must exterminate their defences between us and the bourgeoisie; and then we shall stand face to face with the capitalists, who will have a hard time then. [9]

Delegates at the Glasgow conference saw two issues as paramount. First, they wanted to transform the unions, giving them a revolutionary outlook, so they would affiliate to the Red Trade Union International. The situation in the AEU looked promising. Delegates wanted to mobilise AEU members to bring pressure to bear on the reluctant leaders to allow a vote on the affiliation question. The second matter that concerned delegates was that of educational provisions. The Labour College movement was then at its height. It provided a wide variety of classes to trade unions and other working-class organisations. All told, it constituted a formidable means for developing socialist consciousness and militancy.

The authorities appreciated that the Labour Colleges were a threat to capitalist stability. The Home Office papers are strewn with reports from its agents on the damaging effect of tuition from this source. The following illustrative quotations are taken from the Directorate of Intelligence’s reports on revolutionary movements for the years 1919 and 1920:

Class prejudice and ignorance of elementary economics has a firmer grip upon the working class than ever before... Unfortunately, almost the only agency is the Labour Colleges, which are imparting instruction in false economics. (1919, p 18)

Revolutionary classes were increased and well-supported, and lantern lectures became a successful feature of Bolshevik propaganda. The cost of living lent impetus to the propaganda of Marxist economics, which were eagerly absorbed by the younger trade unionists. (1920, p 7)

The College [that is, the Central Labour College — RC] is the fountain-head of Marxian teaching in this country and is responsible for the training of more dangerous revolutionaries than all the communist parties put together. (1920, p 40)

Naturally, the government were concerned about these classes. Equally alarmed were the moderate union officials, whose class-collaborationist policies met abrasive criticism from union members who had attended Labour College courses. So it was resolved, despite the country’s financial difficulties, to fling more money into adult education: the government decided to increase its grant to that rival of the Labour College Movement, the WEA. When the Cabinet considered the matter, it had before it a covering note in the form of a letter sent by a former leader of the engineering union, GN Barnes, to the General Secretary of the WEA:

The only effective method of counteracting the educational side of the movement [that is, the Labour College movement — RC] is to cater for the intellectual hunger which has undoubtedly been stimulated by the war in a broader and better way — in other words, to provide increased facilities for lectures, classes and study groups where subjects of interest can be thrashed out under university guidance. [10]

It is in this context that the decision of the Glasgow conference must be viewed. Trade unionists there were facing an immediate threat: education facilities within the unions were being taken out of their hands, Marxism was to become a forgotten subject, and control was to be vested in university lecturers, including orthodox capitalist principles. For these reasons, the call went out to rally to the defence of IWCE — independent working-class education.

The Labour College Movement possessed a sizeable number of active adherents, its greatest strength probably existing in Scotland. When, in May 1919, the Scottish Labour College held its conference, 571 delegates attended. They represented the impressive total of 222 trade unions and branches, 70 socialist organisations, 40 Cooperative Societies, 15 Cooperative Educational Committees and 11 Trade and Labour Councils. [11] John Maclean and William McLaine, a leading shop steward, became full-time tutors, while there was also a large body of part-time voluntary lecturers. The prospects for the Labour College Movement appeared bright. But by 1921 its position had somewhat darkened. The Scottish Labour College’s income had dropped by half on the previous year. [12] Even so, it maintained its two full-time tutors, now Maclean and AM Robertson, and had 1800 students, mainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, studying Marxism. The Labour Colleges still remained a force of some significance.

The decline of the movement can be attributed little, if at all, to government sponsorship being given to the WEA. Far more important were changes taking place within the working class. A succession of defeats, of which that of the miners in 1921 and of the engineers in 1922 were the most damaging, helped to transform the industrial scene. The AEU paid out £2 million in unemployment benefit in a year while the miners’ union doled out £7 million. All trade unions discovered their outgoings had drastically increased while their incomes had declined. In 1922, the NUR reported it was £250,000 in debt. Quite correctly, the situation was assessed in an article by JT Murphy when he declared: ‘The trade-union movement of Britain has received within the last 12 months the severest hammering of modern history.’ [13] In the wake of the employers’ offensive came demoralisation among workers, as they were forced to endure round after round of wage cuts combined with mounting unemployment. In essence, the difficulties facing the Labour College arose from a waning of class consciousness.

Of course, the SLP suffered also as a consequence of these calamities. Many sympathisers, who sold SLP literature in Labour College classes, discovered their market much reduced. Among workers in general, both the ability to afford socialist pamphlets, as well as the inclination to buy, accentuated the trend to falling sales. Then, again, the SLP found itself hard hit by unemployment: its members, usually the active shop stewards, were the first to go when redundancy came along. Hence factory sales also declined.

Mass unemployment, a feature that characterised almost the entire period between the wars, presented socialists with a profound problem. Many of their former strongholds had become industrial graveyards. Not only were people out of work, there were no prospects of work. Widespread misery and demoralisation inevitably ensued. Ralph Fox cited a typical example of what happened, when he described the fate of many of those who had joined him in resistance to the First World War and now found themselves on the scrap-heap:

Ostracised during the War, they had no jobs to turn to. I saw them then, tramping the streets of London in threadbare clothes and broken boots. I met them then, these courageous comrades I had known who stood steadfast through the prison years, selling boot polish or insurance at the doors. Men will always be found to endure martyrdom confidently, if not with exultation. To live for a purpose — it is a grand thing, the best that life can offer. But the aimless, fruitless, worthless sacrifice of ordinary life, that is the bitterest draught. [14]

What was to be done? It was easy to say that mass unemployment constituted a sign of British capitalism’s decline and to argue that the answer was to introduce socialism, but this did not help people in the here and now. After considerable discussion within the SLP, its policy appeared to be based upon two main principles. The first was the reiteration of the right to work: if a man was unemployed, he should either be provided with work or — as the misfortune was not of his but the system’s making — he should be provided with an amount equivalent to a wage. The slogan ‘Work or Full Maintenance’ was seen as the demand which would unite the unemployed in struggle. At the same time, it was preferable not to become unemployed in the first place. Therefore, the second principle enunciated to fight for a cut in hours without a reduction in pay. Should this not be attainable, then workers should strive for work-sharing, even if it meant smaller pay packets, rather than accept redundancy.

The disintegration of working-class power made it impossible to prevent unemployment growing. With the shop-stewards’ movement seriously weakened, resistance to sackings rarely occurred. Those militants still with jobs were inclined to keep their heads down, avoiding trouble, rather than disputing the boss’s right to hire and fire. In these conditions, it was not possible even to build effective links between the employed and the unemployed. If those who had jobs were unable to prevent wage cuts and deteriorations of conditions being imposed on them, how could they hope to help those out of work? In January 1921, Maclean, backed by the SLP, proposed that a general strike should be held as a protest against mounting unemployment. He failed to secure a response. Similarly, on 23 February 1921, when Maclean held a conference in Glasgow to build an all-Scotland movement of the unemployed, James Clunie in The Socialist described the attendance as ‘a very sad affair’. [15] In most towns, the unemployed remained unorganised. In the few places where organisations existed, funds were virtually non-existent, quite inadequate for sending delegates to conferences and maintaining regular contact with groups elsewhere. But even more important as a cause of fragmentation was that responsibility for poor relief stayed with local authorities. Initially, therefore, the struggle was seen in a parish pump, not a national, context.

It was on this local level that Maclean secured his greatest degree of success. He led countless demonstrations to the Glasgow council. He accused the Labour councillors of playing politics, of ‘sympathising’ with the unemployed while doing little or nothing to ameliorate their conditions. In January 1921, 200 policemen barred entrance to the council chambers to Maclean and other protesters. Inside, a handful of the Labour group contented themselves with trying to suspend standing orders and, when this failed, simply allowing proceedings to continue. ‘Meantime, the unemployed are being insulted by food tickets to the value of £1 a week’, complained Harry McShane. [16] Ultimately, a meeting with the Labour group was arranged. From the chair, Emmanuel Shinwell agreed that more money should be given. But when the motion was brought before the council by John Wheatley, it was defeated. This merely served to reinforce Maclean’s low opinion of Labour representatives. He considered Labour politicians looked upon the unemployed from a vote-catching angle. They were not genuinely concerned about the plight of people out of work. When one delegation met Labour councillors, some of them were absent making a tour of inspection of local public houses, and on another occasion David Kirkwood, instead of being there, was speaking for Ramsay MacDonald in the Woolwich by-election. They greeted the demand from Maclean that the Labour Party should call for a general strike as a protest against the mass unemployment with the reply that it might damage their prospects at the next elections. [17] Underlying this lay a further point — the acceptance by Labour, with a few minor reservations, of orthodox capitalist economics. As a result, the supreme importance of increasing profitability, as a means of restoring the economy to health, was acknowledged. This could not be accomplished if public expenditure, including expenditure on the unemployed, was permitted to rise.

The net result of Maclean’s Glasgow campaign was small. Perhaps the furore of mass demonstrations prodded the city fathers into granting a few more crumbs of relief, it is difficult to say. What is more certain is that Maclean gave to the Glasgow unemployed organisation an ideology: the reserve army of labour in Central Scotland spoke with a Marxist voice. Yet, for all his tireless efforts, Maclean had not achieved much among the unemployed. Preoccupied with their personal problems, with the day-to-day struggle to survive, men who were out of work did not have the money or energy to help build a revolutionary party. This lesson, experienced by Maclean in Glasgow, was learnt by SLPers and others elsewhere. Few, if any, recruits would come from the dole queues.

Almost as barren from a recruitment standpoint was the solidarity campaigns. As already shown, the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign, controlled by the CPGB, sought to entice the respectability of the working-class movement to participate; it did not want the assistance, at least in a leading way, of Marxists who remained outside its ranks and were critical of its policy. So the SLP was virtually excluded. The CPGB, however, was not in the same position to place an embargo on the campaign over Ireland, an issue that had a direct effect on large numbers of people. It must be remembered that, unlike the Irish troubles today (1977), the disturbances spread throughout the whole of Ireland in the 1916-22 period. Large numbers of Irish in Britain were first-generation immigrants, people who still retained their links with relatives and friends at home, and, at the same time, a larger proportion of British people than now had sons or husbands fighting in the army in Ireland. As a consequence, whenever the Irish question was raised, it was sure to kindle the passions of the British public.

At the Third Congress of the Comintern, two Irish delegates pointed to painful inadequacies in the approach of British left-wingers to the problem of Ireland. ‘The attitude of the British workers towards Ireland’, one of them declared, ‘is the barometer of social revolutionary feeling in Britain.’ He called upon his comrades to show solidarity by blacking the transport of arms and by spreading anti-imperialist propaganda among the troops. He continued:

With regard to the statement that the British workers will regard as treason to England the support of the colonial revolutionary struggle against British imperialism, the sooner the British workers get familiar with treason to the bourgeois state the better for the revolutionary movement. [18]

He also referred to Irish railwaymen and engineers, who had disaffiliated from the British-based NUR and engineering union, because they had failed to receive assistance with stopping the manufacture and despatch of weapons to be used against Irishmen.

These strictures from the Irish delegate could be accurately applied to the British Socialist Party and, subsequently, with lesser justice, to the CPGB. Instead of trying to arouse disaffection in the armed forces, they tended to confine themselves to the less dangerous activity of calling attention to the need to stop the war. The BSP, in particular, did not visualise its task along class lines; rather it sought to exert an influence through changing public opinion. But to many revolutionaries, whether they were in the SLP or other left groups, this approach appeared inadequate and wrong. The Socialist was very scathing about this approach:

The old game goes merrily on. On the same boat as the resolutions of sympathy come 10,000 bombs, made by British Labour and fired by British Labour into Irish towns, to kill Irishmen and destroy Irish homes. Resolutions on paper won’t do. [19]

The SLP argued that the treacherous role of the British Labour Party, making a few noises for peace while doing nothing effectively against the British government’s repressive policy, needed to be exposed. The demand needed to be raised for self-determination for the Irish people. The SLP regarded Ireland as the Achilles heel of British capitalism, where defeat for the imperialist forces would so weaken the general position of the ruling class as to open exciting revolutionary possibilities. Hence a high priority was given to the work.

Foremost in the struggle was a remarkable man, rarely mentioned in history books, called Sean McLoughlin. Although still young, he had had an eventful career: he became interested in Larkinism during the Dublin lock-out of 1913; he participated in the 1916 Easter Uprising, taking a leading part and being known as the ‘boy commander’ after Connolly had been seriously wounded; and in 1919 he organised volunteers in the south of Ireland. [20] But McLoughlin gradually became convinced that Sinn Féin would never create a workers’ republic. He therefore left the IRA and joined the Socialist Party of Ireland. He spoke alongside Maclean, who visited Ireland in May 1919. When the issue of affiliation to the Third International arose, the Socialist Party split and McLoughlin became Secretary of the newly-formed Communist Party of Ireland. [21]

Instead of using all his energy in trying to build up the tiny CPI, McLoughlin spent considerable periods on speaking tours of Britain. He did this because he believed the struggles in the two countries were inextricably linked. ‘If once a workers’ republic were established in Ireland’, he declared, ‘the effects in Britain would be tremendous.’ A workers’ state in Ireland, however, would not survive long were Britain to remain capitalist. The question of revolution in Britain, he argued, would then become paramount: ‘There must be unity of action between the conscious Irish and British workers.’ [22]

Wherever McLoughlin went in Britain, he addressed large and enthusiastic meetings. It was frequently reported that these were the biggest ever held in this or that town. In Yorkshire, he addressed nine meetings, attended by 20,000 people. An old ex-SLPer, CH Burden, recalls two of McLoughlin’s meetings in the Dewsbury–Batley area: ‘He was the greatest propaganda speaker I have ever heard. He was able to draw the largest crowds and hold them. I think he outshone AJ Cook, who, too, was a mass orator of the biggest calibre. I heard McLoughlin say he was sentenced to death for his part in the Easter Uprising but was amnestied because he was under 16 years old.’ [23] Usually McLoughlin spoke under the auspices of the SLP, probably because he thought the CPGB line too mild, and the CPGB retaliated by telling its members to boycott McLoughlin’s meetings. [24]

Many other socialists campaigned alongside McLoughlin over Ireland. Perhaps some indication of the strength of feeling that prevailed among sections of the working class can be judged by the fact that Maclean, assisted by his four companions of the Tramp Trust, sold 20,000 copies of a pamphlet on this issue. Ireland’s Tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace is not one of Maclean’s better works, being marred by a nationalistic outlook, yet undoubtedly it evoked a responsive chord among workers, especially those of Irish descent.

But, although welcome, the combining of industrial militancy with involvement over Ireland did create problems. It gave an opportunity for agents provocateurs to try to discredit the workers’ struggle by a few carefully-timed bomb outrages. Also, there was the danger that Sinn Féin and its supporters, who operated in Scotland, would oblige the authorities with a firework display all of their own. In the 1921 miners’ lock-out, Maclean went out of his way to ask pitmen of Irish extraction ‘to stand steady and calm’. He went on: ‘This is no plea for passive starvation, but the refusal to resort to childish displays of petty force when the government is ready to give us a deluge of blood.’ [25]

Notwithstanding the absence of any large-scale disturbances, the authorities still resorted to repressive policies. They arrested key people, thereby hoping to disrupt working-class organisations and intimidate them. Support for the Irish struggle provided a convenient handle with which to beat the left. Likewise involvement in the wave of industrial struggles was another.

The SLP lost a number of important comrades through imprisonment and the functioning of its headquarters was affected. One of the worst examples of persecution occurred to William Hedley, of Sheffield SLP. An ex-soldier himself, he was accused of causing disaffection among the British army in Ireland. He was arrested at Rotherham and taken over to Belfast. When last mentioned in The Socialist, he was on his fourth hunger strike in 12 months. [26] In Glasgow, Thomas McGregory received a three-month sentence with hard labour for speaking outside the Bath Street recruiting centre about ‘the atrocities committed by our own government in India, Egypt and in Ireland’. [27] Then on 6 June 1921, Tom Mitchell, SLP General Secretary, and Sam L Smith, of the SLP Press, were charged with writing and publishing ‘an article likely to cause sedition and disaffection amongst Her Majesty’s Forces and among the civilian population’. After having their appeals rejected, they also served three-month sentences with hard labour. [28] Maclean suggested that another reason for this prosecution, which lessened the efficiency of the SLP, was that presses were used to print the Sinn Féin journal, Dark Rosaleen.

Inevitably Maclean himself, being the foremost revolutionary, was a prime target for the authorities. He appeared to spend his time going in and out of prison, interspersed with fiery defences of his revolutionary politics in court proceedings. Typical of this was his prosecution, along with his comrade Sandy Ross, in May 1921. Arraigned under the Emergency Regulations Acts, some of the charges took on a faintly humorous aspect. The first was ‘that you had told your audience that if they had given their money to revolutionary agitators instead of bookmakers, they would have had a much better return’. While the eleventh charge, one made against Sandy Ross, was that in a speech during the 1921 lock-out he had said:

... if any of the miners expected a decent settlement from David Lloyd George, that they might as well expect the truth from a policeman in the witness box, and they would be lucky if they did not get their heads knocked off by ‘dirty Davie’s’ defence force.

In the course of cross-examination, Maclean was asked what he meant by revolution. Maclean held out both hands, one above the other. He said they represented the two classes in society, the top being the capitalist class. Then he swung his hands round to the reverse position, and said that was revolution. The alarmed Fiscal inquired, ‘You want workers to seize other people’s capital?’ To which Maclean tartly replied: ‘The workers will seize the world.’ [29]

Maclean received a three-month sentence. In prison, in protest at being denied the rights of a political prisoner, he went on hunger strike. Although he must have been weakened by the ordeal, within two hours of leaving jail on 17 August, Maclean was in court again — this time as defence witness for his comrade, Harry McShane, prosecuted for selling socialist literature. [30] Not for a moment did he have a respite: throwing himself back into the struggle, he was rearrested on 31 August, charged with sedition, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Once more he went on hunger strike.

Inevitably, this kind of treatment — the frequent imprisonments, deprivations, hunger — took its toll. Maclean who prided himself on his constitution, was nevertheless gravely weakened. But he disregarded his physical condition; to him, politics were paramount. [31] So he continued until the final collapse came, and died in 1923 at the age of 44.

In a sense, the fate of Maclean exemplified the fate of the entire movement. State repression, a receding tide of militancy, victimisation all hastened the end of the SLP and other revolutionary groups. Even where opportunities at first appeared bright, as in the case of Ireland, demoralisation ensued. The partition of 1922 and the creation of Ulster established the conditions, as Countess Markiewicz foresaw, for the continued economic domination of Ireland by British capital. [32] Despite all the sacrifices, Connolly’s vision of a workers’ republic had become by 1922 remote and unrealisable — at least, for the foreseeable future.

In the aftermath of intense class conflict it is quite customary to experience a period of demoralisation. After 1848, ‘the year of revolutions’, Marx and Engels found themselves isolated, with no influence whatsoever, during the 1850s. Similarly, Lenin’s support virtually vanished, the Bolsheviks being reduced to a very tiny sect, in the reaction that followed the 1905 Revolution. So it is not surprising that, after the quasi-revolutionary situation in Britain of 1919-20, left-wing organisations like the SLP should go through a decline.

What made the 1920s different was the existence of the CPGB. This constituted a serious rival, a competitor for the dwindling pool of potential recruits. Bolstered up from abroad, the CPGB could expect that, regardless of how uncongenial conditions became, the Comintern would do everything within its power to see that the party survived. Moreover, as the prospects for a British revolution grew dimmer, the triumph of the Russian Revolution grew more impressive. The CPGB, basking in the reflected glory, gained thereby. It was the sole publisher of Bolshevik literature. Naturally, this meant that all people on the British left, interested in what Lenin and his comrades had written, needed to contact the party. And then, of course, there was the vital question of financial aid. JT Murphy, who became a leading CPGB functionary in the late 1920s, confessed that ‘had the Communist Party not received big financial shots in the arm, it would have been reduced and probably gone out of existence within a year or so of formation, just as Sylvia Pankhurst’s organisation and its paper died when they got no money from external sources’. [33] Like Pankhurst, the SLP was also without any outside aid.

Financial assistance gave the CPGB many advantages over rival groups. It provided victimised militants who had lost their jobs and had no prospects of gaining others, the possibility of joining the payroll of the CPGB or one of its front organisations. This prospect must have been appealing to people faced with the likelihood of indefinite unemployment. Then, having greater manpower, the CPGB’s apparatus could function with reasonable efficiency, and quickly dominate broad movements of the working class. When the Depression worsened and these lost their substantial support, among the masses, they became easier for the CPGB to secure control over.

The shop stewards’ and workers’ committee movement was a case in point. By the early 1920s the flesh had dropped off, leaving merely a skeleton — and the CPGB to manipulate the bones. In Liverpool, shop stewards, who had years of struggle behind them, complained that none of them had been consulted before Liverpool’s delegates to the shop stewards’ and workers’ committee conference were appointed. One of the complainants, Wilf Braddock, went so far as to say he did not know the gentlemen who had been appointed as ‘their’ representative. [34]

Still more strange was the appointment of JR Campbell to the chairmanship of the shop stewards’ and workers’ committee movement. His sole qualification would appear to have been that, as a close friend and colleague of Gallacher, he would carry out any order given him by the CPGB. In his Last Memoirs, Gallacher mentioned Campbell’s background: he worked in a grocer’s shop, volunteered for the army in the First World War, and ‘had never been in a factory’. [35] Can anyone imagine a thriving rank-and-file organisation being led by somebody with no industrial experience whatsoever? That the shop stewards’ and workers’ committee movement was merely indicates that it had degenerated into a CPGB-dominated rump. Quite logically, in 1922 it dissolved itself in the CPGB. [36]

When not in control of other organisations, the CPGB usually attempted to capture or destroy them. In Chapter XI, an account was given of how Campbell and Gallacher tried to disrupt Maclean’s meetings with the Glasgow unemployed. A much more serious situation arose in the East End of London. In 1921 the Poplar Board of Guardians had been in the vanguard of the struggle for more adequate provisions for the workless. Led by George Lansbury, it defied the courts and the councillors went en bloc to jail rather than apply iniquitous regulations. All this is well known, and has been mentioned by many historians. What is less well known is certain events in 1923, when the ardour of the Poplar Board of Guardians had somewhat cooled.

On 26 September 1923, the unemployed demonstrated at the Board of Guardians. They wanted the coal allowance, which had been taken away, restored for the winter months. They also asked for increased allowances to be given to single persons. In reply, Edgar Lansbury, a member of the CPGB who was Chairman of the Board, rejected both demands and said the board was even considering reducing the existing scale of relief. Whereupon the unemployed, angered by his answer, locked the doors of the building, saying the Guardians could only leave when they reconsidered their decision. After some altercation, a Guardian who belonged to the CPGB, AA Watts, moved (and was seconded by the Mayoress) that the police be called. Then proceedings came to an abrupt and violent end. According to the Workers Dreadnought:

A terrible scene ensued. The police fell upon the unarmed people in the building, beating them cruelly with their truncheons. Not only members of the unemployed organisation were beaten, but also individuals who had come independently on their own special cases. Numbers of men were felled to the ground bleeding. Men rushed to Mr George Lansbury, crying: ‘Can’t you stop it?’ Mr Lansbury spurned them: ‘They have asked for it, and now they will get it. It will give a lesson to them’, he answered. [37]

Almost 40 people were badly hurt and many more were slightly injured.

Nationally, the CPGB justified what had happened at Poplar. The demonstration was called by the Unemployed Workers Organisation, which did not belong to the CPGB-dominated National Unemployed Workers Committee. It would have looked bad if this rival had won concessions. Failing to win higher allowances, the demonstration had developed into a protest against left Labour councillors, again something the CPGB could not tolerate since the pivot of their policies was to achieve an alliance with the Labour left.

Shortly afterwards, when the memory of the police action at Poplar was still fresh in people’s minds, George Lansbury was billed to address a meeting on unemployment in Glasgow. But he failed to turn up and Wal Hannington, the CPGB’s chief spokesman on unemployment, deputised for him. For the meeting, John Maclean and his comrades published a leaflet, deploring the use of police at Poplar and referring to the political inadequacies of the stand being taken by Lansbury and Robert Smillie, who was also speaking at the meeting. Forbidden by the Glasgow police to hold a counter-demonstration, Maclean entered the hall. When Hannington tried to justify the use of police at Poplar, the audience erupted and the meeting ended abruptly. [38]

From the CPGB’s standpoint, such confrontations were to be avoided. It sought, therefore, to restrict the contact of its members with the dissident left. Before the CPGB had been formed, MacManus had argued that this would lead to a strengthening of the Labour College Movement. [39] However, once the CPGB had been created, the its attitude was somewhat different. It did not want its members subjected to alien influences. The Dutt–Pollitt Report on Party Organisation (October 1922) claimed that the NCLC was ‘hostile or indifferent to the Party’. [40] It argued that CPers should concentrate on building the CPGB’s own educational facilities, not those of the Labour College, except for classes where CPGB members were in control and could therefore determine the lecturers. [41]

Despite this attempt at sterile thought-control by the CPGB, the Labour College remained an aggravating sore about which the scions of King Street could do little. When, early in 1925, Plebs commented on the internal situation in Russia, it came down in support of Trotsky and against Stalin. On the other hand, the CPGB apparatchiks could take action against Sylvia Pankhurst. In the Workers Dreadnought, she had sought to stimulate thought by publishing various Russian viewpoints, not simply the official one. This was heresy and had to be stopped. When Pankhurst was in jail, she was instructed to hand over her journal to the CPGB — as a private individual, it was argued, she should not own her own political paper. Because she refused, Pankhurst was expelled from the CPGB. This explanation would be plausible were it not for the fact that, in the same month as she was thrown out of the party for having her own paper, Rajani Palme Dutt started his own paper, Labour Monthly. Clearly, the underlying principle, nothing to do with ownership of papers, was plain: put forward, through thick and thin, the line as dictated from Moscow and get it accepted; but encourage workers to think for themselves, by confronting them with the variety of views expressed on a given topic, and, like Pankhurst, one is asking to be purged. [42]

The CPGB sought to prevent its members, and those in front organisations which it controlled, from reading the publications of the dissident left, such as the SLP. This represented a new departure for British politics: traditionally, while the various left groups disagreed with one another, there was no attempt to stop members from reading rival publications. The new restriction hurt the SLP in particular. Although with a small membership, it had been accustomed to selling its publications through the many channels of the socialist movement. Understandably, The Socialist denounced the prohibition. It said the CPGB Executive was guilty of ‘intellectual dictatorship’, telling the party’s members that they were not to read The Socialist, The Spur or the Workers Dreadnought:

Primitive mythological conceptions of ‘taboo’ are small compared to that superstitious dictatorial expression of the narrow-minded prejudice by a set of persons who have small confidence in the views they profess to hold. [43]

Members of the CPGB, not supposed to read the publications of rival tendencies, therefore were dependent upon the CPGB’s own press for accounts of what these other organisations’ policies happened to be. A distorted or totally false picture could be given to the faithful: the SLP could be described as ‘anti-working-class’, John Maclean’s sanity could be brought into question and Sean McLoughlin could be called a police agent. The techniques of Stalinism, later developed by the CPGB against the Trotskyists, had their first trial run in the early 1920s. Against this onslaught, the left opposition succumbed.

The SLP rapidly disintegrated. The first sign, not important in itself, came at the 1921 conference. Leonard Cotton, Frank Budgen and a handful of others left the SLP to form the Socialist Propaganda League. The schism was largely inspired by the American SLP which, over the years, had become increasingly uneasy about its British counterpart’s departure from De Leonite orthodoxy. [44] While the Americans were unlikely to have much impact so long as the SLP floated on an expansive wave, with the first signs of a setback their criticism had greater force.

A much more serious defection came with the departure of John Maclean, who set up the Scottish Workers Republican Party in October 1922. Distinctly nationalist in orientation, the SWRP’s line could not be reconciled with that of the SLP, still taking an internationalist position. Yet the new body does appear to have attracted some recruits from the SLP, particularly from Clydeside. Probably many other SLPers became demoralised, dropping out of activity, as a result of this split with Maclean. Sales of The Socialist and other publications drastically dropped. A 19-hour meeting of the SLP National Executive, held on 26-27 August 1922, were informed by Tom Mitchell, that, at the present rate of losses, the deficit would be £544 in a year. [45] Cuts were, therefore, made. The Socialist appeared monthly instead of weekly, but this did not halt the decline. Although no longer a member, Maclean saw the importance of keeping the journal going. In a letter to James Clunie, he wrote:

I am writing to The Socialist to prevent it going under altogether. The SLPers, whatever our quarrels and misunderstandings may be, must be saved for Marxism if possible. You know I'm out of the SLP, and yet I see in the press a mighty engine for the development of Scotland. [46]

The efforts of Maclean and others proved to be in vain. By December 1922, The Socialist stopped regular publication. Sporadic attempts to revive it continued for many years. From time to time, it appeared in duplicated form, uttering a few sectarian pronouncements and collapsing after a few issues. The circulation always stayed minuscule; the influence was even less. Effectively, the SLP was dead but would not lie down.

It could be argued that the SLP was tactically wrong, that it should have joined the CPGB and then it would have stood a greater chance of maintaining its influence. Evidence does not bear out this contention. Had the SLP entered the CPGB, determined to be a left faction within it, then it would merely have been doing exactly the same as Sylvia Pankhurst and would have suffered the same fate. The Communist leadership, rapidly developing Stalinist characteristics, would not brook internal opposition. A second possibility would be to have joined the CPGB, hoping gradually to bend its policy leftwards. But the chances of this succeeding were equally remote. Talented ex-SLPers, MacManus, Bell and Paul, started out with this idea. They held influential positions in the CPGB’s formative period. However, they were elbowed out as the party bureaucracy became firmly established. Far from shifting the CPGB to a revolutionary position, in most instances they only succeeded in losing their own.

The fact was that from 1922 onwards was the Ice Age of British socialism. Small groups operated on the fringe of politics without any impact whatsoever upon events. Obviously, their dogmatism and sectarianism further restricted their already very limited influence. But even without such handicaps, it is difficult to believe their success would be significantly greater. For two monsters, social democracy and Stalinism, barred the way forward.

Today the situation is beginning to change. No longer do these two tremendous impediments have the same force as they have possessed for half a century. Revolutionary politics again becomes a possibility in Britain. And, as this occurs, the new generation is likely to look back to the Socialist Labour Party, not slavishly to copy it, but to learn from the experiences of the last truly revolutionary party to fight in the arena of British politics.


1. The Socialist, date?

2. CAB 24/57, GT 6713.

3. John Maclean to James Clunie, 24 November 1922 (Maclean Papers, National Library of Scotland). Also, all Maclean’s letters to Clunie reprinted in James Clunie’s book The Voice of Labour (Dunfermline, 1967), pp 81-101.

4. Solidarity, 21 January 1921.

5. The Socialist, 1 June 1922.

6. The Socialist, 7 and 14 April 1921.

7. Labour Monthly, August 1921.

8. CAB 24/57, GT 6792.

9. The Socialist, 10 March 1921.

10. CAB 24/26, GT 2073.

11. The Worker, 31 May 1919.

12. The Socialist, 16 June 1921.

13. JT Murphy, Stop The Retreat (London, nd), p 1.

14. RM Fox, Smoky Crusade (London, 1938), pp 292-93.

15. The Socialist, 24 February 1921,

16. The Socialist, 13 January 1921.

17. The Socialist, 3 February 1921.

18. Second Congress of the Third International, pp 145-46. [Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress (New York, 1991) p 251 — MIA]

19. The Socialist, 3 January 1921.

20. John M Henston, Headquarters Battalion Easter Week 1916 (Dublin, 1958), pp 35-38; Desmond Ryan, The Rising (London, 1962), p 155; The Socialist, 3 June 1920.

21. The Socialist, 18 September 1920; The Worker, 13 August 1919; also Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 209.

22. Letter from CH Burden, 13 May 1973. In a subsequent letter, dated 29 May 1973, Mr Burden says McLoughlin spoke in Batley market place about the year 1930. He was dirty and unshaven. His speech aroused little or no response. That was the last time Mr Burden saw him.

23. The Socialist, 27 May 1920.

24. The Socialist, 14 April 1921.

25. The Socialist, 12 May 1921.

26. The Socialist, 6 May 1920.

27. The Socialist, 28 July 1921.

28. The Socialist, 9 June 1921 and 17 November 1921.

29. The Socialist, 26 May 1921.

30. The Socialist, 25 August 1921; Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 270.

31. In interviews both Harry McShane and Roy Botchard have made the point to me that John Maclean did not take sufficient care of himself. Roy Botchard said that he came to stay with him near Dundee, immediately after completing a prison sentence, but instead of resting, he addressed a meeting every night.

32. Countess Markiewicz, What Irish Republicans Stand For, a pamphlet published in Glasgow in 1922, forecasts accurately the subsequent development in Ireland.

33. JT Murphy, The New Reasoner, no 7, Winter 1958-59.

34. Workers Dreadnought, 25 February and 11 March 1922.

35. William Gallacher, The Last Memoirs (London, 1966), p 140.

36. George Williams, The First Congress of the Red Trade Union International (Chicago, 1921-22), pp 25-26.

37. Workers Dreadnought, 6 October 1923.

38. Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 200. John Maclean died a month or so later. Not surprisingly, Hannington does not mention his quarrel with Maclean in any of his books.

39. Plebs, October 1920.

40. CPGB Report on Party Organisation (London, 1922), p 52.

41. CPGB Report on Party Organisation (London, 1922), p 54. Box 73 of the NCLC papers (National Library of Scotland) shows that Ilford CP was the only CPGB branch of the 78 affiliations to the London district of the NCLC in 1924. This is indicative of the extent of the CPGB’s withdrawal.

42. Dave Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts: A Study in Tenacity (London, 1967), pp 103-06.

43. The Socialist, 6 October 1921.

44. ‘The Passing of the British SLP’, The Weekly People, 28 March 1925.

45. The Socialist, 10 August 1920.

46. John Maclean’s letter to James Clunie, 24 November 1922 (Maclean Papers, National Library of Scotland).