Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


John Taylor Caldwell, Come Dungeons Dark: The Life and Times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow Anarchist, Luath Press, Barr, 1988, pp290, £6.95

Guy Aldred was born in 1886 and, having been brought up by a radical liberal grandfather, his heroes were, and remained, the libertarians of the early nineteenth century who had struggled for free speech and organisation. In fact, Aldred emulated those, such as Carlisle and Paine, by suffering imprisonment for the principle of free speech and free publication. In 1909 he was sentenced to one year’s hard labour for publishing a banned Indian nationalist paper, The Indian Sociologist, and in 1922 he was given a sentence of one year for referring in a pamphlet to his support for the “Sinn Fein tactic”. By this Aldred, an anti-parliamentarian, meant making use of elections as a Socialist platform, but refusing to take a seat if elected (a tactic still operated by Sinn Fein insofar as the British parliament is concerned). Later, in 1931, Aldred was prosecuted for speaking to a meeting on Glasgow Green, a campaign for free speech in which John McGovern, then of the Independent Labour Party, and Harry McShane, at that time a Stalinist, were involved. This prosecution resulted in a fine.

From the first Aldred had seen his task as a proselytiser and pamphleteer, at 17 as a boy preacher with his own brand of Christianity, then at 19 years as an atheist conducting a Freethought ‘Mission’ – all his life Aldred was to adapt the terminology of Christianity to his own uses – and it was as an atheist that he was to break with Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. This was because the elders of the SDF were opposed to Aldred preaching atheism from their platform, seeing it as confusing the argument for Socialism. Aldred, on the other hand, at that time a materialist, considered atheism to be an integral part of revolutionary Socialism.

The differences between Socialists during this period related largely to syndicalism as against parliamentarianism. As readers will be aware, the ILP had been formed in 1893 and the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 (to become the Labour Party in 1906, and to admit individual members in 1918) for the express purpose of sending working class representatives into parliament. The syndicalists, on the other hand (not all of whom were Anarchists), regarded parliament as incapable of representing working class interests, and advocated the formation of communes, or soviets. Of course, it must be remembered that the Paris Commune was within living memory and the Labour Party had little representation in parliament. However, this argument must have become increasingly academic, for the extension of the franchise during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the struggle for female suffrage, obviously resulted in working class support for ‘parliamentary socialism’.

As it happened, Aldred from the first saw the Labour Party as an organisation for careerists and opportunists intent upon joining the establishment, and by the end of the First World War he was confirmed in this view for he, together with a great many young Socialists, had suffered as Conscientious Objectors, a number dying or becoming permanent invalids due to ill-treatment at the hands of the authorities. The Labour Party and trade unions, on the other hand, had supported the war and had been rewarded in 1915 by three ministries in the Coalition Government.

At the time of the Russian Revolution Aldred was confined to prison as a CO, but on his release in 1919 he welcomed the Revolution with enthusiasm, becoming an organiser of the newly formed Communist League, and editor of its paper, The Communist. This League gained 17 federated groups, including the Glasgow Anarchist Group, and had intentions of becoming the British Section of the Third International. However, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation declared itself as the British Section, and the matter was eventually settled by Lenin, who, at the Second Congress, appealed to William Gallacher and Ramsay to found a British Communist Party, and the CPGB came into being in January 1921 with the resultant withering of these groups remaining outside. Apart from disagreeing with the Communist Party’s pro-parliamentary policy, Aldred regarded it from the outset as over-centralised and over-disciplined. Stalinism, of course, confirmed his worst fears. Henry Sara, a former colleague of Aldred’s, had found his way from Stalinism to Trotskyism, but Aldred remained outside these struggles and became increasingly isolated.

Therefore, for the rest of his life until he died in 1963, Aldred remained on the periphery of working class politics, bringing out his various broadsheets, taking up various causes, and at times having strange ‘bedfellows’, such as the non-Socialist pacifist Duke of Bedford, who was to write a column in Aldred’s last paper, The Word, for several years.

In his later years Aldred, who had been born in Islington, London, won a kind of fame as a well-known Glasgow eccentric, but his ideas became increasingly inconsistent, swinging from left to right and back again, often at the same time. Caldwell has obviously such a regard and affection for Aldred that the book, including that part which deals with Aldred’s personal life, presents itself through Aldred’s eyes only. The two women, Jenny Patrick and Ethel Macdonald, who served him politically for so many years, sharing his poverty, and Rose Witcop, an interesting person in her own right, with whom for some years Aldred had a ‘free union’, never came alive for me, and appeared to be regarded as no more than Aldred’s appendages.

However, this book is an easy read, and I would recommend it to young comrades looking for a not-too-difficult introduction to the period, and to old comrades whose Socialism has become a reading and quoting of the ‘Holy Writ’, for at least it does place the struggle for Socialism within a human context.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003