ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, January 1978


Peter Bain

A Socialist Lion-Tamer


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, p. 29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John S. Clarke
by Raymond Challinor
Pluto Press £1.50

John S. who? This no doubt will be the response of many socialists when they come across Ray Challinor’s little book.

Yet John S. Clarke was a prominent figure during what was probably the most important formative period in the development of the British (and especially the Clydeside) working-class movement – the first world war and its immediate aftermath.

Leading member of the most significant revolutionary organisation, delegate to the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, and editor of the Clyde Workers’ Committee paper, The Worker, Clarke was deeply involved in momentous events.

For good measure he was also a lion-tamer, (yes – a liontamer!) an archaeologist, involved in gun-running to pre-revolutionary Russia, later on an MP and councillor and a poet. He cured Lenin’s dog of a complaint – now, hands up anyone who can match that list of accomplishments!

He was also a tremendously funny man with a talent for vitriolic epitaphs. His memorial to Lord Strathclyde (who gaoled John McLean for five years) began: ‘Beneath this sod, there lies another’. The last verse of his epitaph to a government agent provocateur ran:

‘And maggot worms in swarms blow.
Compete with one another
In shedding tears of bitter woe.
To mourn – not eat – a brother.’

Clarke was deeply committed to the struggle for a new society. Very early he saw the necessity of a revolutionary party rooted in the workplace.

Born in Jarrow in 1885 his childhood and youth saw him alternating between touring with circuses (he came from a gypsy family) and sailing the world as a merchant seaman. On his return to Tyneside he became involved, through his membership of the Socialist Labour Party, in a five-month unofficial shipbuilding strike. The SLP laid great stress on industrial unionism and Marxist education, and for the following 15 years Clarke’s activity was centred on these fields.

From the start of the first world war, The Socialist, the SLP newspaper, took an anti-war line. By this time Clarke was an editor, and the paper gained considerable influence among workers, despite harsh repression by the government.

In the wake of the Clydeside engineering strike and the anti-rent-racketeering campaign, socialist ideas were gaining ground rapidly. Leading militants were arrested, papers confiscated, and meetings banned.

Clarke was forced onto the run to avoid arrest, but still managed to ensure production of The Socialist. By the end of the war, the SLP’s influence and membership had grown to the extent that its activities were under careful government surveillance.

There was massive working-class discontent. Revolutions had taken place in Russia, Germany and Hungary. In 1919 Clarke was asked by the Clyde Workers’ Committee to restart The Worker, but their isolation led to the defeat of the ‘forty-hour strike’. Nevertheless, revolutionaries remained optimistic, and in 1920 Clarke accompanied Willie Gallagher as a delegate to the Second Congress of the Comintern in Petrograd.

At the Congress they strongly disagreed with Lenin’s call for revolutionaries to affiliate to the Labour Party. Gallagher was, of course, a prime target in Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism – An Infantile Order. The disagreement continued after the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Clarke believed that the CP was too strongly tied to the Russians from the start, although he defended the Revolution and remained an admirer of Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin.

In 1921 Clarke wrote a pamphlet which, from Challinor’s description, could be usefully be re-published today. It was called Bombs or Brains, Dynamite or Organisation? In it Clarke argued against individual terrorism, while ruling out the possibility of a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism.

As the struggle subsided. Clarke drifted into the Independent Labour Party, although he still wrote on Marxist theory. He became a Glasgow MP for a couple of years, and later a city councillor.

One of his last battles was over the National Council of Labour Colleges’ request to republish his Marxism and History. Leading CP members objected to the inclusion of works by Trotsky and Bukharin in the reading list. Clarke held firm and as late as 1947 refused to give in. As a result the book was never re-published, even after his death in 1959.

In this book, Ray Challinor has helped re-establish the idea that, while the struggle to change society is a serious business and demands great commitment, it doesn’t follow that our propaganda and agitation has to be dull, boring, and or lifeless. At the peak of his activity. Clark’s wit and originality captured and influenced many thousands of working people. Yet his commitment was never in doubt.

As Challinor perceptively points out, Clarke’s circus and sea-faring background, his wide and varied interests, shaped his ideas of what socialism could offer in terms of freedom and the development of human potential.

While some of his assessment of Clarke’s position on the formation and tactics of the CP should be challenged, Challinor has done us a service by producing this book on a remarkable and fascinating revolutionary socialist.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 24 March 2015