Meltzer: Anarchism in the West of Scotland

A Glimpse of Working Class History
By Albert Meltzer
Black Flag: Organ of the Anarchist Black Cross VOL III, No 19, April 1975

many older anarchists used to speak affectionately of Fred and Amy Macdonald who were active in anarchist propaganda in the West of Scotland as far back as a hundred years ago. Fred was a german baker who had been intimately connected with the International and with the Anarchist workers’ faction in Germany that sided with Bakunin. (Fred, who died about 1912 always used Amy’s name; his own is not known to me). They formed a circle which met in their tiny flat somewhere in Bridgeton. Whether it was the first Anarchist group in the West of Scotland I have ni idea; but its existence shows that anarchist propaganda there well exceeds a century.

As it was a working class movement we have no historical record of it, since records as a rule exist of succesful working class organisations or of bourgeois intellectuals who make sure they leave records behind (iy is true that today this ‘rule’ is being altered). For many years Amy (who lived until 1935) used to tell of the old days when the solitary bands of Anarchists used to speak at the Green and elsewhere and sometimes be pulled from their platforms or chased by angry crowds of excited Christians disturbed at hearing their superstitions mocked. Their attacks on the Liberal M.P.s (the dominant in the West of Scotland) were the first to crack the gigantic edifice parliamentary radicalism had built up among the workers. Among well known propagandists of the libertarian idea was James Dick, who was in the old Socialist League.

There were other socialist groups apart from the Anarchists of course; and Glasgow led the way in socialist education and understanding. The Independent Labour Party was strong was strong there from its foundation – with its dour emphasis on socialism – in contrast to the Social Democratic Federation which tried at least to introduce a bit of gaiety (with the Clarion Club movement and so on). It is said that once Keir Hardie turned up at a S.D.F. meeting where he was invited to give a fraternal address from the I.L.P. – he was perturbed to find it upstairs in a pub but horrified when he got up their to find the debauched scene – not merely socialists drinking but ladies smoking! He turned and fled, thinking he was in a brothel. Asked on one occasion what he thought of Anarchism, he said he was only once in an anarchist meeting ”and the language was terrible … I didna stop to listen”. Yet he was several times on the platform with Peter Kropotkin, whose language may be assumed to have been proper.

Between the pioneer days of Fred and Amy and the exciting period before the first world war, when revolutionary syndicalism made so great an impact on the West of Scotland, (with the Syndicalist movement proper, the IWWs, the dissident Wobs who formed a second organisation here, and the anarcho-syndicalist grouping) there must have been an upsurge of the anarchist idea in the West of Scotland. Perhaps somebody will research it one day: a huge number of working class militants must have been anarchists, as one can judge by these activists who later switched into other parties and thus by their defection provide a yardstick as to how wide the movement must have been. (e.g. John Maclean always denounced William Gallacher – later Communist MP – for having been a ”recent recruit” to Marxism from anarcho-syndicalism and having only gone over when there was a Bolshevik bandwagon to jump on, always implying he had clung to the movement he left merely for popularity).

Guy Aldred, a Londoner, saw very clearly in the pre-war period that Glasgow was to be the libertarian hotbed and at first tried to divide his activity between Shepherd’s Bush (always his stomping ground in London) and Glasgow, later devoting his whole time to Glasgow. He was an anarchist but had differencies with some in the anarchist movement of his day (especially with the Rudolf Rocker circle – a personal and family difference, as Rocker was in fact his brother-in-law). He tended therefore to call himself a revolutionary socialist, or sometimes a ”Bakuninist” (”Marx expressed the social revolution but Bakunin lived it”) combining both Marxism and Anarchism. He pioneered Council-Communism in this country and his long propagandism for the form of council-communism in which virtually there is not much difference between those from a Marxist and those from an Anarchist tradition was long and tireless, despite his constant battle against poverty (he relied entirely on his lectures and sales of literature for a living). That at the end of his life Aldred tended to capitulate in some of the ideas he had expressed all his life was due entirely to the fact that he was totally worn out by the struggle and poverty.

The anarchist movement which had been noticeably strong in the pre-world war period did not fold up, though most of its members did in Glasgow accept the Bolshevik myth for a time. This was probably due to the expressive propagandism of John Maclean – one of the few honest socialist leaders – who combined standard-bearing of the Russian Revolution (which he thought had triumphed) with criticism of Lenin and his authoritarian centralism. It was thought by many that it was possible to defend the gains of the Russsian revolution while not accepting Lenin’s triumph – something which with only small hindsight seems a tall proposition – but Glasgow was of course during the whole of the war and its aftermath in a bubbling state of revolution of its own – tanks being brought down the streets to curb the workers even after the war – and its factory form of organisation was at times almost able to surpass the achievements of the Russian workers in bringing down tsarism – and it would have been difficult to have imposed a party dictatorship on the Lenin model there, in the circumstances prevailing.

Several Englishmen went north, attracted by the numbers of Anarchists with their roots in working class organisation – one being George Ballard, of Bristol – who (as ”George Barrett”) became a fluent speaker for the Anarchist cause in Glasgow, and also edited ”The Voice of Labour”, a syndicalist weekly. Among the Scots who came to London were James Dick, james Murray, Florence Stephen and several others who helped to build up the anarchist influence in the syndicalist movement of pre-world war I. Florence Stephen (author of ”Suffrage or Syndicalism”) later moved into trade union activity among women shop assistants helping John Turner (secretary and pioneer of the Shop Assistants Union and one time editor of Freedom).

The Miners

As in South Wales, the miners were particularly receptive to Anarchist ideas. It is interesting to note that on one occasion Peter Kropotkin went to Blantyre and Burnbank to speak to the miners there.

The memory of Kropotkin’s visit stayed with the miners of Lanarkshire. Anarchism did not die there until two or three whole generations had passed away. Even during the second world war it was possible for anarchists to go and speak to the Burnbank miners – I did myself – and received a warm welcome. They were old veterans. Like the South Wales libertarian miners, they warmly supported the anarchist movement even though in practice they had to accept the existence of socialist and communist leaderships. The belonged to the miners’ lodge and allowed the Labour and Communist nominees to struggle for the jobs of parliamentary representaation. They did not have a distinctive culture from the working class culture of the time and merged into their background; they would have been the irreducible backbone of the movement had it obtained strength in the rest of the country. As it was they had little contact except by ”literature” – and that contact was broken when (as in the case of the South Wales miners – see Black Flag No. 17) bourgeois pacifist and liberal ideas began to infiltrate in the more formally constituted anarchist movement in complete alienation to anything in which they were interested.

However it was not the same situation as in South Wales where the anarchist movement became so informally constituted and so identified with its background that it lost its identity among the advancing state socialist organisations. On the contrary, it was sharply sectarian. The ”Solidarity” group (no connection between any of the Glasgow ”Solidarity” groups – there were three succeeding each other – or the present group using the name) went to the extreme of rejecting not only parliamentary but trade union activity: they refused to join unions, and this in highly organised industries like shipbuilding and car making. Some of them maintained this attitude as late as the thirties – I remember some of the Scots comrades even at Ford’s of Dagenham maintaining their ”conscientious objection” to trade unionism like Jehovah’s Wotnesses. It is interesting to note (for those that think trade unionists are necesssarily bigoted in these matters) that their fellow workers always perfectly understood their position, not only accepting them as militants but even in some cases (quite agaainst the rule book) as shop stewards.

The association of anarchists and council-communists, in the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, in particular (founded by Aldred, but he later left it to form his own organisation the United Socialist Movement) went on until the late thirties (publishing Solidarity and the Fighting Call). Then it became specifically anarchist again, chiefly influenced by Frank Leech, one of the most tireless propagandists the British anarchist movement has known. He was a burly ex-Navy boxer, whose work couldn’t be measured. He spoke week after week to audiences of never less than a thousand – for a long time he spoke in the open air every Sunday afternoon and again in a hall – with several hundreds attending – in the evening. He organised a press, he helped in factory gate meetings and factory organisation, started an anarchist bookshop and a meeting hall, and gave untold help to the German anarchist movement in the late thirties as well as to the Spanish movement.

During the war the movement seemed to grow rapidly, but it was disorganised despite its growth. There were two very brilliant speakers Jimmy Raeside and Eddie Shaw. Their views on anarcchism were original: they described themselves as Conscious Egoists and Stirnerites but rejected the bourgeois individualism often asssociated with those ideas (e.g. shop factory committees were ”unions of egoists”; anarcho-syndicalism was ”applied eoism” and so on), which at any rate made old ideas sound new and which influenced many people at the time. The generation of Glasgow activists which followed on called themselves (some still do) Stirnerites, and it was this generation which gave the drive and continuity of revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist ideas to the influx of younger militants following the Scottish apprentices strike; the disillusionment with the Labour Party (Y.S.), and the political short-sightedness of the Committee of 100 in the early sixties.

Albert Meltzer

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