Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4
William Campbell Tait (1910/11–1994)
WILLIE TAIT, who died at the end of August 1994, was born around 1910 or 1911. While still in his teens he began to play an active part in the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party. This group had been formed in 1912 following various disputes within the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain. Like the SLPGB, the BSISLP was inspired by the ideas of the American Socialist Daniel De Leon (1852–1914). Although at one time or another, the BSISLP had branches in Glasgow, Kirkintilloch, Bristol and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the branch in Edinburgh, where Willie lived, was always the largest and most active.
In the 1930s, when open air oratory was still a very important means of propaganda, the BSISLP’s most prominent member was Willie’s father, Tommy Tait, who was reputedly without equal as a platform speaker. Although he would frequently take his turn as a speaker, Willie’s talents lay more with the written word, and he contributed many articles to the BSISLP’s journal, the British Revolutionary Socialist.
There were other family connections for Willie in the BSISLP. His brothers Henry, Robert and Thomas junior were all active. Another member was Mary Foulis (1900–1991), whom Willie married in 1932. Mary was the daughter of Bob Foulis, who had been Walton Newbold’s election agent when he gained a parliamentary seat for the Communist Party in Motherwell in 1922; it was Foulis who sent the telegram to Moscow which announced ‘Motherwell won for Communism’.
In 1936 the BSISLP changed its name to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). This was a period of wide-ranging debate within the group. Some members – though not all – began to question whether orthodox De Leonism could still provide answers to all the problems which confronted the working class at this time.
At the same time, the RSP came into contact with the nascent Trotskyist groups in Britain. When James P. Cannon came over from America to try to unite the various factions, a visit to the RSP in Edinburgh figured in his itinerary (he stayed with Willie’s brother Robert). The outcome of Cannon’s visit was a provisional agreement by three of the four groups, including the RSP, to work together as the Revolutionary Socialist League. In September 1938 Willie travelled to Paris to participate in the conference at which the Fourth International was founded (over 50 years later, he could still show the receipt he had been given for his expenses, which amounted to £5).
Despite what this might suggest, Willie was later adamant that neither he nor the RSP had ever abandoned ‘Industrial Unionism’ (De Leonism) in favour of Trotskyism. His argument, as I understand it, was that while the Trotskyists regarded themselves as the true heirs of Lenin, as opposed to the usurper Stalin, in the RSP’s view Leninism itself was responsible for the defeat of the Russian Revolution, long before Stalin’s succession.
As it happened, the RSP’s involvement in the British Section of the Fourth International was short-lived, and the group soon emerged under its own banner again. In March 1939 it began to publish a paper called the Workers Weekly. The idea was to collect enough subscriptions to fund a regular printed edition, but this ambition was not realised, and instead it was left to Willie to keep production going on an old Gestetner housed in his basement.
When the Second World War broke out, many of the RSP’s younger activists were conscripted. Willie himself was called up and entered the army, but was soon discharged because of ill health. In the face of the general difficulties imposed by wartime conditions, the few remaining members of the RSP found refuge within the Independent Labour Party. They sold large numbers of the New Leader, and continued to organise public meetings indoors and out.
Willie attended the ILP’s annual conference at Easter 1942 as a delegate from the Edinburgh St Andrews branch. Some of his contributions, as reported in the New Leader, were quoted in the Communist Party’s pamphlet Socialism Through Victory: A Reply to the Policy of the ILP, by J.R. Campbell. Along with Frank Maitland, Willie penned a rejoinder entitled ‘Socialism Through Victory’ — Victory for Whom?. This was one of several pamphlets, most of them written by Maitland, which were published under the auspices of the A.T. Tait Memorial Committee, in memory of Willie’s father Tommy, who had died in May 1941.
I gather that immediately after the war Willie was for a while at least involved with the Revolutionary Communist Party, although when I asked him about his postwar activities, the impression he gave was of a tough and lonely struggle to get any hearing for his revolutionary Socialist beliefs.
In the changed political, social and physical environment of the postwar years, the open air meetings which had been such a central feature of prewar propaganda gradually turned into a quaint relic of a bygone age. Willie’s last appearance on the platform was on Sunday, 23 April 1967 at the now disappeared speakers’ corner at the foot of the Mound in Edinburgh, when he held a meeting to protest against the seizure of power by the army in Greece two days earlier. Despite speaking for two hours and 35 minutes, he could not gather a crowd. Willie kept the speaker’s stool (actually, it was built ‘like a castle’ and weighed over 90 pounds) ‘in the vain hope’, he wrote, ‘that it might participate in the revival of Socialist propaganda to win the masses ... It was finally laid to rest in the People’s Museum [in the Canongate] in Edinburgh.’
In 1978 the accumulated minute books, correspondence, pamphlets and periodicals which had been passed on over the years from one official to the next until they eventually came into Willie’s possession, were given for safekeeping to the University of Stirling. There they took their place alongside the collection deposited by Willie’s fellow De Leonist and near-contemporary, William Watson of Kirkintilloch. The minute books in the Tait collection span the years 1883 to 1939. The organisations whose activities are recorded include the Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, the Scottish Land and Labour League, the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Labour Party, the British Advocates of Industrial Unionism, the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Details of the many hundreds of pamphlets and periodicals can be found in the Stirling University publications The Tait Pamphlet Collection in Stirling University Library (1983) and Checklist of Newspapers and Periodicals in the Tait and Watson Collections (1990).
Without doubt, the Tait Collection is (to use one of Willie’s expressions) ‘quite unique’. But Willie had no intention of turning these documents into a monument. In order to publicise the collection and to distil what he saw as its political essence, he compiled and distributed to other libraries eight ringbound volumes of photocopied material from the collection. Willie chose documents which were landmarks in the histories of the organisations represented in the collection, supplemented by other material illustrating the development of Socialist thought in relation to the significant events of the twentieth century.
I met Willie for the first time in February 1991, although I had been writing to him since 1987 about the history of the De Leonist groups in Britain. On two occasions I tape recorded his reminiscences in the company of another old member of the RSP, Hugh Hutcheson. Willie could talk endlessly, one anecdote flowing seamlessly into another, a real stream of class consciousness.
Willie remained certain that the social change he had worked for all his life would one day be brought about. The almost overnight collapse of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe had reinforced his view that change often comes when it is least expected, and takes everyone by surprise with its rapidity. Willie Tait’s conviction that the social revolution will happen in the same way is one of my abiding memories of the man.
Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011