Monday, December 10, 2012

Without the Rose-tinted Glasses

This rather unsympathetic article by Gary Girod about Red Clydeside is of interest and a rich source of facts and details.

The Background

For many years, the Left have painted a picture of Glasgow and Red Clydeside as a revolution that almost was. Some have argued that the unrest in Glasgow during WWI and the immediate post-war period was a prelude to the establishment of a workers' republic in Scotland. Willie Gallacher's said of the 40 Hours' Movement that "we were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution." Memoirs written decades after the 1914-1919 period and the government's hysteria paint a picture of Clydeside which was far more revolutionary in hindsight than it ever was in reality. In 1983 Iain McLean's "The Legend of the Red Clydeside" asserted that Red Clydeside was neither a revolution nor "a class movement; it was an interest-group movement." Glasgow was not Petrograd and it never could have been. Its goal to maintain the standard of living in Glasgow as the war strained the economy. According to the 1916 STUC report, the cost of living between July 1914 to July 1915 increased by 35% while food prices increased by 17% in small towns and 19% in cities.This would prove to be but a mere taste of the war's costs for the lower class. By December 1917, food prices had increased 106% while the cost of living increased by 85% to 90% as compared with pre-war levels. Workers' wages did not even come close to keeping up with this inflation. By April 1917, skilled laborers' wage increased by only 50%.

In 1913, for the first time in the history of Great Britain, a census of production catalogued the wealth of Great Britain. According to the report the £712,000,000 that formed the net output of Great Britain was divided between 6,984,976 workers, which would mean that if this wealth was divided evenly, each person would make  £102 per year. However, the average wage of workers in Great Britain was "officially stated to be not more than 24 shillings per week, or  £62 4/- per annum. Thus in 1907, the British worker was generous enough to pay the manufacturer  £40 per annum for the privilege of working to produce wealth. The Scottish Trades Union Congress uses the findings of the report to calculate the inequality amongst engineers and determined that the "net output per person employed [was]  £108." Meanwhile, the average annual wage of engineers was £67. "There is the simple answer, £41 per employed person to the capitalist." The 1920 Manifesto of the Socialist Labour Party notes that "of the wealth produced in this country, roughly £1,700,000,000 per annum, the workers' share is, according to capitalist authorities, less than £665,000,000 so that the working class gets little more than a third of the wealth produced." The manifesto would conclude that "this is wage-slavery."

In the years 1910 to 1914 Scotland experienced 412 strikes. The year 1913, in particular, broke the record for strike activity in that country. All of this activity occurred while Leftist activists were widely ignored and still produced less unrest than non-revolutionary trade unions before the war. The reason why the Red Clydesiders have become so famous is not because they led huge movements or posed an actual threat to the government, but because they, under the leadership of the Clyde Workers' Committee, broke the dam of patriotism. The most contentious bill was not the 1914 Defense of the Realm Act  which forbade any activity that hampered the war effort but the Munitions of War Act of 1915. This act made strikes illegal. The government could seize any munitions factory and make it a "controlled establishment," which made it illegal for a munitions worker to leave his place of employment without government permission while forbidding employers from knowingly hiring shirkers, employees who were known to strike. The act limited the amount of profit that any company could make. However, this "levy was easily evaded by claims for capital expenditure and depreciation allowances." Despite amendments to the act, the government did not prevent "the munitions firms from making huge profits out of dilution." The Ministry of Munitions quickly became the friend of the capitalists and the enemy of labour after the appointment of prominent industrialist William Weir to the position of Scottish Director of Munitions. Weir saw the trade unions as the primary enemy in his attempt to produce munitions.


In February of 1915 the first major strike since the beginning of the war occurred, as engineers in Glasgow demanded a tuppenny raise an hour from their employers, which had been promised to them before the war began.  Despite this promise, the employers refused to capitulate. Employers no doubt believed that they could meet any challenge from labor as the government, and probably the Scottish people in general, were still on their side. They were thus unprepared for what then occurred, the emergence of a new, and much more radical organization, the Clyde Workers' Committee.  The C.W.C. created a  Labour-Witholding Committee,' choosing to avoid the word  strike' as it could serve as grounds for prosecution under D.O.R.A., and called for a strike. Inspired by the C.W.C.'s actions at Weir's factory, shop stewards from numerous other major munitions factories decided to strike as well. Eventually, 10,000 engineers downed their tools, "about two-thirds of the total number of skilled engineers in Glasgow." The workers not only faced the wrath of their bosses and an active Ministry of Munitions led by the anti-unionist Weir, they faced opposition from the largest engineering trade union in Great Britain. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers attacked the strikers and called for them to return to work. When the local branch of the A.S.E. came out in favor of the strikers, the national A.S.E. severed its ties with the Glasgow District Committee. Eventually, the employers decided to bargain with the workers. Once the employers were forced to the bargaining table, the more conservative A.S.E. leadership took over negotiations and forced the employers to give the engineers a raise of 1 penny a hour and a 10% bonus on piece-work. Workers chose to follow the executive decision of the A.S.E. despite the fact that it had condemned the strike and ordered the workers to return to their jobs.

The Rent Strike

Glasgow's housing situation was already abysmal before the war; the rise of rent costs throughout the city would serve to make an already tense situation unbearable for tens of thousands of Glaswegians.  Scots generally built tenements four to five stories high. Additionally, by 1891, more than two-thirds of Glasgow's population lived in overcrowded conditions of two or more persons per room. By 1914 no fewer than 700,000 people resided within three square miles of Glasgow Cross and created the most densely populated, central-urban area in Europe. In some cases there were 1,000 persons per acre. In 1915 rents began to rise,  resulting in Glasgow surpassing London in evictions. In Govan and Fairfield, "all the houses...suffered rent increases ranging from 11.67% to 23.08%."
The rent strikes started with a Mrs. Barbour from Govan who became the leader of a movement such as had never been seen before. In the ensuing weeks a mass women's movement began with no direct support from any major political party or sponsor, save for the Women's Housing Association. Notices were printed by the thousands and put up in the windows with almost none bereft of the slogan, "WE ARE NOT PAYING INCREASED RENT". This strike was not brought about by the Clyde Workers' Committee but instead, was a popular protest led mostly by women. The fact that the most important strike in the Red Clydeside period was not led by Red Clydesiders obviously created problems for those who claim Scotland was ripe for revolution. The C.W.C. did, however, set up a shadow organization called the  Vigilance Committees,' which monitored rent levels and evictions but was not directly involved. The Labour Leader reported, "Glasgow, without exaggeration, is seething with rebellion on the rent question, and the Government will be well-advised to deal drastically with the housing owners, and at once." These fears of a growing class movement became more concrete as the workers of Parkhead factory declared that attempts to evict tenants would be considered a direct attack upon the working class.

By October, 15,000 Glaswegians were withholding surplus rent, paying only rents agreed before the rises. By mid-November, the number had risen to 20,000. Glaswegians became enraged as landlords began to evict soldiers' wives. The rent strikes  had a greater impact on British, not just Scottish, politics than any other event, including the 40 Hours' Strike.' This conflict brought about the Rent Restriction Act of 1915 which was a nationwide act that had a pronounced impact on the whole country. The most immediate effect this strike had on Glaswegians, though,  was that many now came to see the rich as their enemies or at least developed some anti-establishment views. Some individuals had prospered because of the war, and the employers and landlords were accused of  profiteering' at the workers' expense. Stories of landlords evicting  "war-wives", women whose husbands were either serving in the military or had been injured or killed on the front, cemented the view of many working class Glaswegians that the rich cared only for money and not at all for their suffering.

This willingness to evict poor Glaswegians was especially poignant when combined with the recent passage of the Ministry of Munitions, which forbade workers from leaving their jobs unless given official government permission. This put a worker in the odd position of being forced to continue working while at the same time remaining homeless!

The Dilution Struggle

On January 21st 1916, Prime Minister Asquith announced that dilution, the process by which factories would employ poorer Lowland Scots, Irish and women in mass numbers, would be enforced. Within three days "three Dilution Commissioners arrived on the Clyde." While the government worried about the ability of government to force through dilution, Weir provided a brilliant and ruthless scheme to gradually break the power of organized labor. Appointed officials would be sent to certain factories where they would present the government's agenda for dilution in that factory.The workers would be given two days to meet with management and try to change the scheme, although invariably their demands would be ignored. On the third day dilution would begin. Weir's memorandum dictated that if a strike were to occur they would be met by the entire force of the government. The police or even the military would be called in to defend the new employees brought in under the scheme; trade unions would be prohibited from using money to defend any anti-government action, and any trade union leaders who incited workers to strike would be tried under D.O.R.A. It was Weir's aim that dilution be introduced subtly and in a way that would not incite the trade unions to oppose it until after they lost their power to do so. To accomplish this, it was decided that dilution would be put into place in "half-a-dozen" strongholds of labor. After developing a foothold in these important shops, the government could then implement dilution as a whole along the Clyde. Kirkwood was willing to work with the government  and even broke ranks with the C.W.C. over dilution as his primary concern was the well-being of the workers he represented rather than the working class as a whole.


In order to bring the CWC  to heel on January 1st  the government suppressed both the I.L.P.'s Forward and John Maclean's paper, Vanguard. On February 2nd, "police raided the Socialist Labour Press, broke up the machinery, and suppressed the forthcoming issue of The Worker [The C.W.C.'s official newspaper]." On February 7th, Gallacher, Johnny Muir, and Bell, the printer, were arrested and charged with sedition for writing an article entitled  "Should the Workers Arm?" even though they concluded that they should not. John Maclean was arrested the next day and charged with making a long list of speeches in favor of strikes and against enlistment. 10,000 workers showed up in support of the imprisoned leaders, which forced the authorities to release them on bail, except for Maclean. However, as early as the 9th, a day after Maclean was arrested, strikers began to go back to work. By the 10th, knowing they had no hope of winning the release of the most revolutionary figure in Scotland, the C.W.C. called the workers back. It was then a few days later Kirkwood broke ranks with the C.W.C. and negotiated with the government to allow women to work at certain factories, albeit at a reduced pay rate. The introduction of female workers, more than anything else, would prove how weak the C.W.C. was, as it failed to enlist their support. This was due to the fact that the leaders of the C.W.C. and their base were highly skilled munitions workers, and as such, they were fighting for conservative craft interests at the expense of the semi-skilled female laborers. However, Kirkwood underestimated the vindictiveness of a government and would not spare him despite his willingness to cooperate. Any attempt to unionize women could not be tolerated. On March 25th, Kirkwood's home was raided and he was deported without trial to Edinburgh by a government which accused him of purposefully hindering the war effort.

 The Anti-War Movement

After the Labour Party abandoned the anti-war movement, the only parties left to oppose the war on the Clyde were three small independent ones: the British Socialist Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist Labour Party and they were internally divided on the issue as exemplified by the episode between S.L.P. members Muir and Kirkwood: Johnny Muir, who was the editor of the Socialist, the S.L.P. organ, was trying to argue a case for a Socialist defending "his own" country, at a special meeting in their hall in Renfrew Street. In the midst of the discussion, and while Johnny was arguing a certain point, Davy jumped up and shouted, "Naw, naw, Johnnie, that'll no dae, the workers have nae country. Ah'm feenished wi' ye."
The B.S.P. was torn between factions led by John Maclean, who headed the B.S.P.'s Scottish Branch, and Henry Hyndman, who headed the party as a whole. Hyndman supported the British government throughout the war, despite the fact that the majority of the party opposed it. In 1915 the B.S.P.'s pro-war wing would leave to form the new National Socialist Party.

Although the majority of Scots were firmly patriotic and supported the war as it neared its end, many Scots increasingly turned toward the anti-war Left. The I.L.P saw the number of their party's branches double, and its membership triple as compared with its pre-war levels.

The 40 Hour Struggle

As the C.W.C. had done with its first strike at Parkhead in 1915, it would again take control of a labour struggle that was already in progress. The C.W.C. demanded that the government lower the working week to 40 hours immediately, or they would lead a massive strike by January 27. On January 30th, as the Strike Bulletin reported, 100,000 workers turned out in what was hailed as "the greatest effort ever made by the rank and file" in Scottish history. On January 31st "Bloody Friday," took place though it would be more famously known later as "The Battle of George Square." Armed soldiers were sent into Glasgow to suppress any revolutionary uprising that might occur. On February 3rd, government paranoia led to the placing of machine guns on the Clyde.

At the trial of the strike leaders, the Lord Advocate concluded that in the strike "every act of revolution was in progress." The Secretary of State for Scotland concluded similarly that "It is a misnomer to call this situation in Glasgow a Strike - This is a Bolshevist uprising." The following year Scotland Yard issued a report that claimed that 10% of workers wanted a violent revolution, while the majority wanted a social revolution. The 40 Hours' Movement actually proved how non-revolutionary the Clydesiders actually were.  Emmanuel Shinwell, described it as "not revolutionary in character...It was attributable solely to the fear of unemployment in the near future and the desire to make room for the men from the Army and the Navy." Furthermore, the Strike Bulletin never called for any revolutionary action.

The Left parties began to decline from 1920. The I.L.P. were divided between those who wanted to link the Third International  and the moderates. This led to a significant drop in party membership, which resulted in the I.L.P. being a weakened party. By early 1922, the S.L.P. was a near-dead party. By 1924 it had 100 members or less, and its journal, The Socialist, ceased to be printed due to a lack of subscribers.

 Girod argues that the Red Clydesiders only gained prominence when they were addressing popular concerns, many of which were began independently of the Left's political parties. Their opposition to the war was effectively silenced by the government and even within their own parties their was dissension over an anti-war position. Nor did the militants commanded support outside of the skilled engineers of the munitions works, and often stood in opposition to unskilled and women.

The main flaw of Girod's article is his constant use of "Marxist" to describe many of those involved, ignoring the fact that such organisations as the ILP  never identified itself as Marxist. He himself explains that many of the Red Clydesiders drew their inspiration from their presbyterian religious beliefs and in 1906 John Wheatley formed the Catholic Socialist Society with purpose of spreading socialism to other Catholics. During the 1922 elections, the I.L.P. would declare in Forward that, "atheism, avowed or otherwise has no place in the ILP policy or programme." The Scottish branch of the I.L.P. was for prohibition and noted Clydesider Harry McShane described it "as much a temperance body as a socialist one; only one man in it drank." When describing the Glasgow socialists who ran for public office in 1922, Kirkwood wrote that "we were all Puritans. We were all abstainers. Most of us did not smoke. We were the stuff of which reform is made." It should not come as too much of a shock then, that during the 1922 General Election, in which several Clydesiders won seats in Parliament, they sang the Covenanters Psalm 123.

Girod's agenda is clearly to discredit Marxism and diminish their influence in the Scottish working class. But in his endeavours he reveals that the Left did not have majority support of the population. In the 1919 Glasgow Trades Council annual report, of the 74,951 members of the Glasgow Trades Union Congress, 71,860 were in non-socialist unions. Of the remaining 3,091 members, 2,568 were affiliated with the I.L.P., while 523 were affiliated with the B.S.P. The explicitly socialist unions or branches of such unions numbered a mere 31 out of 255 in the Trades Council. The following year  would see a relative decline in socialists as the membership of unions in general increased to 84,465 while those in openly socialist unions increased only to 3,134. In 1917 it was estimated that there were a mere 50,000 organized socialists in the whole of Great Britain. However, this figure includes not just far-left socialists; of the 50,000 socialists, 33,000 were affiliated with the pro-war Labour Party.

You can't have a socialist revolution without socialists and regardless of the myth and legend, workers on the Clyde could not be described as socialists.

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