Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Frank Maitland (1909–2001)

ANOTHER proud link with the past has been broken with the death of Frank Maitland, one of the bravest propagandists for Socialism in this country over half a century, in a nursing home near Hastings after an unequal struggle with Alzheimers on 15 January.

Frank entered the labour movement by joining the Communist Party in 1930, starting off with organising a two-day bazaar and rally attended by 500 people addressed by Prince D.S. Mirsky, serving on the Committee of the Friends of the Soviet Union, and acting as press agent for the party’s candidate for Edinburgh Central in the 1931 general election. Contact with the Trotskyist group around Hugh Essen and running the Socialist Bookshop in Edinburgh in 1933–34 convinced him of the falsity of Stalinism, and after a few months in the Independent Labour Party Guild of Youth he joined the Revolutionary Socialist Party in 1936.

This was an old Socialist organisation going all the way back to the pre-war Socialist Labour Party, led by a courageous army veteran, Tommy Tait, which was then moving towards Trotskyism as a result of the policy of the Comintern during the Spanish Civil War. For a while they took a halfway position, and Frank was sent to represent the group at the Conference of the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity held in Paris on 19–25 February 1938, along with delegates from the POUM, the Italian Maximalists, the Archeiomarxists, the German SAP, the Dutch RSAP and the ILP. He edited the RSP’s monthly paper, The Socialist, and was their foremost speaker, putting a straight Socialist case to crowds of several hundreds on Sundays at ‘The Mound’ in Edinburgh in the years before the war. They made contact with Trotsky in Mexico (cf. Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1937–38, New York 1976, p. 316: Trotsky’s letter to Maitland has not survived), who sent James P. Cannon over to persuade them to join the Revolutionary Socialist League, the organisation set up to unite the British Trotskyists in 1938.

Cannon came up to see them in Edinburgh, or rather, they were summoned to see him. As Maitland later recalled:

Visualise the scene in that hotel bedroom: Cannon was sitting up in a large double bed, spread with an eiderdown and with his back supported by several fat pillows. We fellow Trotskyists in a half-circle round the end of the bed stood listening to the decisions arrived at. He told us that we should work together for six months, then hold another conference to assess the results, and go on from there to form a united organisation. What could we do, but agree?

I felt like retiring backwards. As my old mother would have said: ‘He didn’t even offer us a cup of tea.’

When we returned to London to the conference six months or so later, we found that the British Section of the Fourth International were all for working inside the Labour Party and giving their support to ‘Left’ candidates for parliament. Our criticism was not well received.

But this group had been so active, had produced a good paper and gained new members, and had so improved their central organisation, that it was plain that it would receive the support of the Fourth International.

Although they sent along a delegate to the founding conference of the Fourth International, Frank and his RSP comrades were rapidly disillusioned with the new organisation they had joined, for when 540 workers attended their meetings at The Mound at the height of the Munich crisis in the autumn of 1938, the RSL failed even to get out a copy of the paper for them to sell. Complaints to London were met by the leaders of the RSL in the usual way, and within six months they were out of it again. The RSP continued its separate organisation up in Scotland, with Frank editing its paper, the Weekly Worker, until it split in 1941, when Frank and the older leadership joined the St Andrews branch of the ILP, and some of the younger comrades joined the Workers International League.

The day The Scotsman announced the news of Trotsky’s assassination (22 August 1940) Frank was due to come up for the second time before the tribunal examining conscientious objectors. He refused to join the army on the grounds that the capitalist class had no right to call on the workers to die for a country they did not own. When asked to which party he belonged, he replied ‘the Fourth International of Leon Trotsky’. ‘But isn’t Trotsky dead?’, asked a member of the tribunal. ‘Yes’, Frank shot back, ‘but he is still the leader of our party.’

Undaunted, Frank continued his Socialist propaganda in the army – putting out a series of pamphlets under the auspices of the A.T. Tait Memorial Committee (Socialism Through Victory – Victory for Whom?, The Revolution in India, Secrets of the Second Front, and North Africa Tangle), wearing his corporal’s uniform while on the Committee of the No-Conscription League, and working openly for the anti-war candidate in the Clackmannan by-election. But when he published The Red Army at the height of the patriotic and pro-Russian fervour on 6 February 1943, which reminded everyone of who had founded this army and first led it to victory, he was hauled before his commanding officer at the Newbury camp and ordered off the premises without even being allowed to collect his belongings. Within a month or two he was back in Edinburgh, organising a meeting of 500 to listen to Jimmie Maxton.

Frank continued to be a member of the ILP after the war, wrote a regular column under the pseudonym of ‘Siffler’ for the Socialist Leader, and enlivened many a dull conference with his ready wit. But the postwar boom made it plain that the revolution would have to be postponed for a while. Beginning with the People’s Journal in Aberdeen, he had worked on newspapers since the age of 16, and by this time he already published issues of the Edinburgh Free Press and Border News, a Labour election paper, as well as contributing to Russia Today, Adelphi, Left, the New Leader and Plebs. So he resumed his journalistic career, becoming a shorthand reporter in the House of Commons and taking the Hansard for the House of Lords for 26 years. The police on duty while he was speaking at Hyde Park Corner also took turns outside the Houses of Parliament, and pretended not to recognise him. Upon retirement he moved to the south coast, but May Days and national workers’ demonstrations always brought him back to London.

Frank always regarded himself as a propagandist for wider Socialist ideas, and never fitted easily into small group politics. He was a frequent lecturer for the NCLC, and ensured the publication of some of the last of F.A. Ridley’s books, such as Pope John and the Cold War and Spartacus. He was an enthusiastic Esperantist, and Honorary Life President of the South-Eastern Federation, within which his main interest was with the worker Esperantists (SATEB), for whom he ran an international book service, and helped to found the Trade Union and Cooperative Esperanto group. He also left behind a number of poems.

Frank needs no other monument than his life – one of honour, courage, dedication through good times and bad, straight talking, and deep humanity. His message for us is surely that the task of Socialists is not to talk to each other, but to go out and persuade everybody else. We extend our warmest condolences to his wife and children, whose loss we share.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011