Paul Foot

Harry McShane

(April 1988)

From Socialist Worker, April 1988.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980–1990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 162–165.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The commonest jibe of reactionaries against revolution is that it is an infatuation of youth. When people get old, we are constantly told, they drop the silly idealisms of their youth. They become ‘old realists’.

I contemplated this jibe last Saturday as I stood (it was standing room only) in Craigton Crematorium with some 300 other people, many of them elderly Glasgow workers. We were paying our last respects to Harry McShane.

Harry died last week. He was ninety-six. He became a revolutionary Marxist in 1908, and he died a revolutionary Marxist in 1988. Can anyone show me one other person in the whole history of the world who was a revolutionary Marxist for eighty years?

It would be wonderful enough if it were just that Harry managed to sustain these ideas all that time. But ideas like his are not ‘just’ sustained. They can only be sustained in the heat of the struggle between the classes.

All his life Harry was an agitator in that struggle, a fighter. He made up his mind very early on (somewhere round 1910) that the socialist society he wanted was not going to be made by anyone for the workers; it was going to be made by the workers or not at all – and therefore their battles against employers and government were central to the whole process of political change.

The workers needed to use their muscle (‘We never realize how strong we are,’ he used to say again and again) but their muscle alone was not enough without politics.

Ever since he broke with the church at the age of sixteen and became a lifelong incurable atheist, Harry read books – books about British imperialism in Ireland and in Africa; about women’s liberation; about the Russian Revolution; about religion. He read these books, and encouraged others to read them, not in the interests of some arid scholarship but in order to improve his understanding of the world so that it could more speedily be changed.

Harry was an engineering worker. He was a close ally of the Scottish Marxist John Maclean, and campaigned with him on Clydeside against the imperialist war of 1914–18. He joined the Communist Party almost as soon as it was founded and was a member for thirty years.

He was the Scottish correspondent of the Daily Worker and Scottish organizer of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Like pretty well all other Communists of the time, he was unwilling to accept the collapse of the workers’ state in Russia. He once told me of his excitement when he visited Russia in 1931. ‘It was so easy to believe the workers were in charge,’ he said.

After the war though, his doubts grew. They sprang from his faith in the rank and file of the working class. What was happening to that rank and file in Czechoslovakia in 1948, or East Berlin in 1953?

In Britain the rank and file of the Communist Party were treated increasingly as a stage army, always expected to agree with the leadership. When he was disciplined for not taking part in a standing ovation for a party official, Harry had had enough – if he’d been disciplined because he had given a standing ovation, perhaps he would have understood.

There is a picture in the Glasgow Daily Record sometime in 1953 of Harry walking across Queens Park with his hat in his hand. It was the day he left the Communist Party. ‘I couldn’t stop them taking the picture,’ he explained.

But when the same paper (and the Daily Express) offered him £500 – more than a year’s salary – to ‘tell all’ about the Communist Party, he swore at both of them (he seldom swore, but he did on that occasion). Instead, he went back (at the age of sixty-two) to the yards as a labourer, and worked until he was sixty-nine to pay the stamps to qualify for a pension.

When I met him first in 1961, he was supported politically only by two outstanding socialist workers, Hugh Savage and Les Foster, who had broken from the Communist Party with him. He was seventy – but full of the joys of life, and of the hopes of a better world. He was still a revolutionary socialist through and through. He was quite determined that a socialist world could and should be won.

He was scarred from his bitter experience with the Communist Party, and wary of joining another political organization. But when, in 1963, we set up the first fledgling organization of the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party) in the Horseshoe Bar near Glasgow’s Central Station, Harry never missed a meeting. When in the same year the TUC called for a demonstration against unemployment, Harry helped to organize the buses.

In the great debates which took place in the Glasgow trades council at that time (and they were great debates; greater by far than anything you hear in parliament) Harry relentlessly attacked his former Communist Party colleagues for selling out simple class solidarity in exchange for a ship order from Russia, or to send another cosy delegation to Warsaw or Budapest.

He identified Russia as state-capitalist, and the Communists as unwitting stooges of another imperial power. Yet when he was approached by the organizer for Catholic Action in the trades council, and asked to form a loose anti-Communist alliance, he swore again.

‘At least these people believe they are socialists – you don’t believe in anything except your god,’ he spat at the frightened delegate, who (literally) ran away.

The Right to Work marches of the late 1970s were meat and drink to Harry. He sent off the first march from Manchester with a truly magnificent speech, bettered only when he spoke to 6,000 people at the final rally in the Albert Hall.

His theme in these speeches was a simple one. With his sly humour he would outline the government’s ‘plans for unemployment’. ‘Plans for this, plans for that, they’ve always got plans,’ he would say. Then he would show how no government ever had the slightest effect on unemployment. The ebb and flow of the capitalist tide swept over all governments and all plans. Only the workers in action could do anything to roll it back.

We all know that great men and women don’t make history, but we also know that working-class history would be a mean thing if it were not enriched by great men and women.

Great revolutionaries cast aside the temptations and pressures of the capitalist world in a single-minded commitment to change it. Harry McShane did all that with a cheerfulness and comradeship which charmed and enthused any socialist (or any potential socialist) who ever met him.

He died in an old people’s home. He left a few books to his friends. He had survived on his pension, almost without supplement, for the last twenty-eight years of his life. He never had any property, yet he was perhaps the most contented man I have ever met; utterly happy as long as he was fighting for his class.

He kept up that fight with undiminished enthusiasm through good times and through bad. Because his politics were based on the working class, he had a sharp instinct for the shifts in the class mood.

One afternoon as he sat in the back of an old van which was carrying a party of us to speak on disarmament at the Mound in Edinburgh he remarked, just as a matter of interest: ‘Last time I was here there were 20,000 people at the meeting.’ That day he spoke to twenty.

These desperate turns in the mood of his class never deflected him from his purpose, or even from his speaking skills. On the days when he spoke to very few people (I once held the platform when he spoke outside John Browns shipyard in Clydebank to no one at all!) he was as persuasive and passionate as ever I heard.

‘Things will come up again, Paul,’ he reassured me as we trooped home that day. ‘When they are not listening, then it’s even more important that we keep the ideas alive.’

Anyone who knew Harry knows their good fortune. Anyone who didn’t know him can reflect on his extraordinary life whenever they feel worn down by the old realism or the new. He was, is and will be an inspiration and example to us all.

Last updated on 2 September 2014