HERITAGE LOTTERY FUND
MML has been supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund that, thanks to National Lottery players, has enabled us to mount our unique project on the Socialist Opposition to the First World War. This included an exhibition and a special extension to our main site containing much detailed resources material in PDF format, along with digitised and searchable copies from 1916-18 of the Call, the British Socialist Party's newspaper. Our thanks also to Professor Mary Davis for leading the bid and co-ordinating the project and to Luke Evans for spending time with us in developing this work.
The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour movement. The militancy of labour's rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour's leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself. The gulf between the two widened to such an extent that it was difficult for both to co-exist within the same organisations. The 'unofficial' opposition, reflecting the chasm between leaders and led, generated its own structures in the form of the Shop Stewards Movement and Workers' Committees. The shop stewards of today can trace their origins to this wartime period, during which rank and file workers kept effective trade unionism alive in the face of their leaders' preoccupation with the war effort.
Helen Crawfurd had been an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), but had broken with that organisation in 1914 when its leadership abandoned the fight for the vote and enthusiastically supported the war effort – Helen was shocked at this volte face and hence together with her friend Agnes Dollen formed the Women’s Peace Crusade. This body campaigned throughout Scotland to end war and to oppose conscription when it was introduced in 1916. Crawfurd was also active in opposing the rent increases introduced early in the war especially for munitions workers. Together with Mary Barbour and others, they, supported by the Clyde Workers’ Committee, organised rent strikes. These strikes were so successful that the government was forced to intervene and, in 1915, passed the Rent Restriction Act. Mary Barbour was an active member of the ILP and was later adopted by that organisation as a candidate and duly elected for the Fairfield ward. She was later elected onto Glasgow City Council and became a Baillie and a Magistrate.(One of the very few women of her era to achieve such positions. She never forgot working class women and continued to campaign on their behalf.
By this time it was clear that Helen Crawfurd was moving to the left politically. She joined the Independent Labour Party in 1920, but after attending the Congress of the 3rd International she decided that the ILP was reformist and she left it to join the Communist Party.
Under Mary Macarthur's leadership, the NFWW supported World War 1 and the industrial truce called by the TUC. Sylvia Pankhurst labelled Mary Macarthur’s work in the Central Committee for the Employment of Women (CCEW) as a ‘gross betrayal’ given that the rates paid fell below those set by the first Trade Boards.
However Mary Macarthur was a strong supporter of equal pay for women and her work during the war is testimony to this. She discovered that although the TUC had supported equal pay in policy terms since 1888, very little was done to fight for the policy in any meaningful way. Job titles were changed and adjustments made, usually of a simple type, so that the women’s work could never be declared to be the same as that of men and thus not eligible for equal pay. Hence the demand was changed by Mary and the women themselves from ‘equal pay for equal work’ to ‘equal wages to workers of equal value’. This clearly presaged the 20th century equal value demand given the disappointment of the Equal Pay legislation.
In 1920 the NFWW voted to merge with the National Union of General Workers. Mary strongly supported this, but had no inkling that her union would, eventually be totally submerged within the men’s organisation. She did not live to see this unfortunate outcome. She died five months after the merger.
Despite the fact that Mary Macarthur’s father was a conservative, an anti-socialist and an opponent of trade unions, Mary, nonetheless, joined and became active in the Shop Assistants’ Union. In 1905 she, along with others, helped to launch the sweated trades’ exhibition and in 1906 formed the Anti-Sweating League. In the same year she formed, together with Margaret Bondfield (Shop Assistants’ Union) the organisation for which she is most renowned: the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). Without the support of the NFWW, the strike among women employed at Millwall Food Preserving Factory, and those of the Cradley Heath Chainmakers and the Kilburnie netmakers would have been doomed to failure. Relief from their starvation wages and intolerable conditions was largely due to Macarthur's able championship of their claims.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a peace treaty signed on March 3, 1918, between the new Bolshevik government of Russia (the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey). It ended Russia's participation in World War I. The chief negotiator was Trotsky. Although Lenin had promised ‘Peace, Bread and Land’, this treaty was unpopular because it gave away too much Russian land especially in the Ukraine. In fact this was one of the chief reasons for the later Civil War between Red & White Russians.
Opposition to WW1 centred in Clydeside.Maclean immediately set about educating the workers about the real nature of war by taking the message directly to the shipyard gates In February 1915 there was a strike at the munitions factory Weirs of Cathcart. The odds were stacked against them. The Defence of the Realm Act had made strikes illegal and the TUC had made a pledge of industrial peace for the duration of the War and so the Strike was an unofficial, shop steward led strike, (most of whom were pupils of Maclean), in defiance of the Union. The workers formed a rank and file Labour Withholding Committee to conduct the strike but were forced back to work with no strike pay. However this was to prove the start of real militancy on the Clyde.
Since the start of the War the landowners had taken the opportunity to push up rents. Mrs Barbour in Govan and the women there refused to pay increased rents. Maclean supported the women. The agitation soon spread to other areas of the city as working class women organised against the rent rises. Maclean took the fight to the shipyards and factories until the men declared that they were ready to strike to prevent the rises.
Passed July 1915 this prevented right to organise, to strike or to move from workshop to workshop. The Rank & File soon learnt that the union leaderships were preparing to betray them and so took steps to reform Labour Withholding Committee. Delegates were sought from every shop across the Clydeside and a Manifesto was drawn up, “ To organise the workers upon a class basis and to maintain the class struggle until the overthrow of the wages system, the freedom of the workers and industrial democracy have been attained ". The new body became known as the Clyde Workers Committee and it was to play a central role in Clydeside’s opposition to War. Many of the delegates were pupils of one of Maclean’s classes.
As part of the employers offensive Maclean was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) 18th November. Bailiffs had decided to sue householders to collect the increased rents. 18 men were summonsed to the Sheriff Court. Mrs Barbour organised women to march to the Sheriff Court to protest. Govan Shipyards and factories went on strike and deputations marched to the town, one of which marched via Lorn Street School and carried MacLean (who was working under notice of dismissal) shoulder high to the Sheriff Court, this was to be his last day as a teacher. In the town they met deputations from all over the city & Maclean addressed a crowd of 10,000 and demanded that if rent rises were implemented a General Strike should be called. The Sheriff realised the desperate situation & phoned Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, who told him to stop the case and announce that a RENT RESTRICTION ACT would be passed. MacLean hardly had time to celebrate though because next day he was jailed for refusing to pay his fine.
Maclean believed that a successful Revolution could only be achieved if workers were grounded in Marxist principles. His Sunday afternoon class alone, now had 481 students. From his classes he formed the Labour College Committee which planned an Inaugural Conference in February 1916. The plan was to run a full time course of 3 terms a year, funded by Unions covering all aspects of Industry, Economy, Labour Laws and History.
Inevitably Maclean became the first victim of government repression.He was arrested in February. Gallacher, Muir and Bell were arrested shortly afterwards. Then on March 9th leaders of CWC were seized and deported to Edinburgh, where it was reckoned they would cause fewer problems. The next day Maxton and McDougall urged a general strike at meeting on Glasgow Green, but a mood of fear was creeping over the workers, and this was compounded when Maxton and McDougall were later arrested for sedition.
At Maclean’s trial he was charged with 6 counts against him connected with statements made that were ‘all likely to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection amongst the civil population, and to impede the production, repair and transport of war material.’ All prosecution evidence came from the police. Maclean gave a valiant defence and the Judge admitted definite conflict of evidence but decided in favour of the police, as to do otherwise would mean that the police were guilty of conspiracy. The jury found MacLean guilty on 4 of the charges and he was sentenced to 3 years penal servitude (hard labour) at which point Maclean turned and waved to his wife & the crowd sang the Red Flag.
Although the British Government may have temporarily abated the Strike movement on the Clyde the effects were to reverberate internationally.
Demonstrations were held throughout the country to protest at against the treatment of political prisoners as Scottish prison conditions were worst in Europe- McDougall suffered a nervous breakdown. The February Russian Revolution had helped galvanise the position of the revolutionaries. Maclean was elected to Executive of BSP when Hyndman clique were forced out.
The Mayday March 1917 saw 80,000 marchers & 250,000 lining streets to support the Soviets and demand Maclean's release . At the end of May 100,000 people demonstrated on Glasgow Green at Lloyd George being given the Freedom of the City and to demand the release of Maclean . When Lloyd George came to Glasgow. Thousands took to the streets to protest and the Government was forced, under intense pressure from the working class to release Maclean to pacify the crowds. As soon as Mclean was released he set about denouncing the War, Capitalism and gathering support for the Soviets. This work was to see him appointed an Honorary President of the First All- Russian Congress of Soviets and appointed Bolshevik Consul for Scotland . The authorities refused to recognise the Soviet Government. and Maclean’s consulate. They refused to deliver mail addressed to him and he had trouble getting funds to run the newly opened office. His Assistant was arrested and deported to Russia. MacLean saw that the best way to help the Soviet Government was agitation at home and later said that the Sinn Feiners ‘though non-Socialists at best’ had done more to help the Soviets than British labour by keeping Capitalism busy at home. Willie Gallacher testified to this when he wrote "The work done by MacLean during this winter of 1917-18 has never been equalled by anyone. His educational work would have been sufficient for half a dozen ordinary men, but on top of this, he was carrying a truly terrific propaganda and agitational campaign. Every minute of his time was devoted to the revolutionary struggle, every ounce of his extraordinary energy was thrown into the fight." and the Scottish Labour College now had 17 classes with over 1,500 pupils.
Meanwhile the Americans had joined the war & the British Government feeling assured of victory decided to crush the anti-war movement. In April 1918 MacLean was arrested for sedition on his return from a tour of Durham. The workers took the 1st of May for May Day celebrations at MacLean’s insistence for the first time and after listening to the speeches from 22 platforms on Glasgow Green a huge crowd marched to Barlinnie Prison where MacLean was being held.
At his trial on 9 th May the Indictment took 10 minutes to read & consisted of 11 charges the main one of which that he said the Workers should follow Russia and strike a blow for Revolution. He conducted his own defence and cross examined 28 witnesses 25 of whom were employed by the police. He called no witnesses of his own but instead gave an impassioned speech lasting for 75 minutes giving a full & unashamed account of his own activities & beliefs with his famous quote:
“No human being on the face of the earth, no government, is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I AM NOT HERE, THEN, AS THE ACCUSED: I AM HERE AS THE ACCUSER OF CAPITALISM DRIPPING WITH BLOOD FROM HEAD TO FOOT.”
He was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude in Peterhead
The Clyde District Defence Committee was formed to protect activists and provide for Maclean’s family. Monthly demonstrations on Glasgow Green to demand his release and the July demonstration was attacked by police. When his wife Agnes got to visit him in October she found out that he had been on hunger strike since July as he claimed he was being fed drugged food . Since July he had being force-fed by Warders. Such was the fury of the Labour Movement the Government, was forced to pay attention. More than anything they feared Social Revolution at home similar to that which had happened in Russia and was happening in Germany and elsewhere. 10,000 marched to demand his release in Finsbury Park, London. He was released on December 3 less than 7 months into a 5 year sentence. He launched straight into an election campaign, standing for the Labour Party but on a revolutionary platform, denouncing parliamentary methods. His return to Glasgow is best given in this contemporary account “ I do not believe the extraordinary and deeply moving spectacle of that evening will be easily effaced from the memory of those who witnessed it. The slowly moving carriage being dragged through the thronged streets by a score of muscular workers who had taken the place of the horses, the surging, exultant mass of people, the incessant cheering and singing and standing upright in the carriage, supported by friends, was the challenging figure of John MacLean waving a large red banner with an air of triumph and defiance"