From the July-August 1953 issue of The Western Socialist
The political scene in Britain (particularly Scotland) to-day, provides, in some important respects, a striking contrast to that of 30 years ago. To describe and analyse the intervening years would be an inquiry into decay and decline; a study in bilge and bombast; a picture, sad in itself, of promise without performance.
It would indeed be a journey through a period littered dismally with the bones and residue of movements which got their sustenance from the energies and hopes of many thousands of working people.
To-day, in Glasgow, and the industrial belt of which it is the centre, one meets many men and women, now despairing cynics, who were, thirty years ago, enthusiastic, selfless workers in the various movements.
Then, thirty odd years ago, as now, war-time conditions were slowly changing into normal capitalist conditions of “peace”: rationing was giving place to the accustomed sway of the purse, and a greater variety of goods were appearing in shop windows to tease and tantalize working-class housewives. Another obvious feature in common, a natural aftermath of the long war years of unbridled violence and deceit, is an increase in crimes of violence, rape and fraud. And, of course, what is delightfully described as “delinquent youth.” In other words, the behaviour of young men and women, growing up in their most malleable years in a world of organized, colossal murder; whose playgrounds were air-raid shelters and bombed buildings; who accepted as natural the “blackout” with all its inevitable framework.
The drift away from organized religion is ever more marked today and it could perhaps be said that highly organized gambling — particularly the “football pools” — with their billion-to-one chance of winning £75,000, have ousted religion from its former supremacy as a social dope and bulwark of capitalism.
“Tomorrow? Why, tomorrow I may be myself with £75,000” is a faith more potent, and supplanting than of the Sacred Articles and Beatitudes.
A striking commentary on Capitalism is the fact that the gambling industry fast rivals others in order of importance. And that in this retreat of theology, its hired and paid (evidently underpaid) laborers are quisling to the football pools, as scrutiny of the prize winners lists sometimes reveals.
Here in Glasgow, 30 years ago, events had earned the area the totally unjustified title of the “Red Clyde.” The Communist Party had recently been formed out of a host of individuals and movements conspicuous by their sound and fury, and by their lack of Socialist understanding — “Armed insurrection,” “Direct Action,” “Minority movements,” “Collapse of Capitalism,” “Anti-Parliamentarianism,” were some of the slogans shouted by many a man now seated comfortably in Parliament. Some indeed now Peers of the Realm.
The Labor and Independent Parties — then part of the same organization had their stronghold here on Clydeside and in the landslide of 1924 when a record number of I.L.P. and Labor Members of Parliament were elected, scores of thousands of elated workers assembled in the centre of the city to see the conquerors off to London to capture the bastions of Imperial Britain. It seemed to many excited workers that the world was theirs and the late James Maxton M.P., confirmed this impression by declaring “The working class is now the ruling class, so why should they go in rags?” Everywhere in the area. Labor and I.L.P. orators were pushing their themes of Nationalization. Everywhere, there were meetings, demonstrations, United Movements, “New Worlds,” “New Perspectives.” “Revolutionary situations” were perpetually conjured into verbal being.
Joining in the unholy chorus, the Communist Party added its own nostrums of “Direct Action” and “Soviet Power.”
Elements of DeLeonism contributed their proportionate share with their Industrial Unionism and wild talk of “taking and holding the means of Life.”
The Glasgow Branch of the SPGB had just been formed by a literal handful of men. Amidst trouble, difficulties, most of them unemployed, meeting in hovels in which they lived, in the jungle of wind and bombast surrounding them, they presented the case for Socialism. A case which at first, largely met with sneers and ridicule. and on many an occasion, with violent measures being taken against the couple of speakers. Today, what is the general political and industrial position in contrast to that of then?
In the industrial field, the open allegiance of the prominent Trade Union officials to not only Labor Government but the present Tory one exceeds anything of 30 years ago. Indeed, Trade Unions threats to become mere adjuncts of Governments and the employing class instead of what their pioneers intended them to be—organs of working class struggle. Insolent admonitions to work harder and forego wage-claims abound from every quarter of the Trade Union movement. “More production for the export markets” is now an official Trade Union slogan. Here and there, of course, the pinch of the cost of living and the increased tempo of production force workers to take action but, in the main, such episodes meet with, not only the disapproval of the Government, but with the opposition of the official Trade Union movement.
At Conference after Conference, spokesmen ruminate on problems of national self-sufficiency, of capital investment, of the problems of British Capitalism in the markets of the world; on anything and everything except working-class interests.
At the Scottish Trade Union Congress held in Rothesay in April of this year, a Mr. T. O’Brien, M.P. who is chairman of the British T.U.C. delivered himself of the following piece of unvarnished nonsense:
"There were workers who thought of efficiency as something to do with the boss, but nothing to do with themselves. I say this to all of them — if they persist in such attitudes for long, then all they will have to live on will be their illusions. And illusions are a poor currency in World Markets. We are right in a period when we can’t afford inefficiency in management or low productivity in the workshops. Whether industry is privately or publicly controlled or owned it is everybody's job to help the nation to earn its living. These are not class issues. They are the plain unvarnished economic facts." Daily Express, April 13, 1953.An even more penetrating and squalid insight into the functions of the Labor Party and its allies — the official Trade Union Movement — during the so-called boom years, was given by the last Labor Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget speech reported by the National Press on April 10, 1951:
"During the past few years of labor scarcity and sellers’ market, workers had been in a position of unexampled strength of bargaining power. Had they considered only their own immediate interests they could have pressed their advantage home."Little wonder the more sober-minded Capitalist press greeted somewhat ruefully the narrow victory of Churchill and his Tories in Oct., 1951. Apprehensive forecasts of subsequent widespread industrial disorder were speedily proven wrong. Trade Union leaders like O’Brien, Deakin, Lowther and others were not slow in assuring the new Government of their support. So that, shortly after, Mr. Churchill could gurgle happily the famous understatement, “four-fifths of both parties were agreed on four-fifths of their programs. ”
In Scottish Labor Party circles this process goes on apace, so that a Mr. G. McAllister writing in a Labor Party paper the Glasgow “Forward” could opine that while Churchill stood for 10 per cent Socialism in the national economy, Mr. Morrison, the second in command of the Labor Party, stood for 15 per cent and that the new bogey man of Wall Street — Mr. Aneurin Bevan — stood for somewhat more!
The same “Forward” had an article recently by a prominent Labor M.P., Mr. Arthur Woodburn on “What do we mean by Socialism” wherein with a nonchalance worthy of the Stalinists, he threw overboard the theories of half-a-century .— “Planning and not Nationalization is the cornerstone of Socialism.” In the usual run of reformist politicians, not a word of apology does he express for a lifetime of sedulously identifying Socialism with Nationalization, the aspirations and energies of humble workers, lending their support to the Labor Party, do not appear in his balance sheet.
The formerly mighty I.L.P. now shrunk almost to nothingness, still maintains a precarious existence. Boasting sometimes of how it differs from the stinking organization which preyed, vulture-like, upon the workers for so many years, it reveals the same old lousy story of reform. With its divisions of Pacifism, Quakerism, Catholicism, Secularism, jostling side by side with a counterfeit Marxism, it presents the same old mixture of confusion and futility. And even more productive of sardonic comment is the ease and facility with which prominent members of the I.L.P. can leave the I.L.P. for the more comfortable and secure Labor Party.
It would, perhaps, be illuminating to digress temporarily in order to examine briefly a prime and significant example of this phenomenon.
In the noisy days of 1923-24 onwards, Gorbals, a constituency in Glasgow of world renown (or notoriety) was represented, on behalf of the I.L.P., by a Mr. G. Buchanan. His seat embraced the most squalid slums in Europe, possibly the world. Rows and rows of the most terrifying, rat-infested slums. Lice-ridden, the habitat of millions of bugs, with a population of the most diverse in Scotland, where Scottish, Irish, Jewish (from all parts of Europe) and Indian workers lived literally on top of one another, it had, and sadly still has, the greatest infantile mortality in Europe. An area where criminals were bred, where gangsters and bullies were ten-a-penny and yet withal thousands of men and women retain their dignity and integrity.
In short, a working-class constituency, par excellence.
Mr. Buchanan, who held the seat for twenty years with one of the biggest majorities in Britain, and on the basis of “decent homes,” “high wages” and all the other vote catching nostrums, decided blandly around 1945 to leave, in between elections, naturally, the I.L.P. for the Labor Party.
Regardless of the blazing fact that his constituents were still in in the company of lice and vermin, still in the same old filthy slums, with their infants still dying in greater numbers than anywhere else, he transferred his allegiance. Although the men and women who had supported him all through the years were still exploited, oppressed and insulted, exacerbated by years of bereavement, sacrifice and hardship in the years of war, and although he had won the seat in 1935 in the teeth of Labor Party opposition which seemed to indicate their preference for the I.L.P. Without even going through the motions of consulting his electors, he joined the Labor Party. Since then he has fared much better than the workers of Gorbals. He is now Chairman of the National Assistance Board, which, after a Means Test, relieves the poor and needy (over 2 million cases in 1952). The remuneration of the Chairman of the Board is £5,000 per year. He, McGovern, Carmichael, F. Brockway and many others left the I.L.P. and joined the Labor Party when the writing appeared on the wall for the I.LP.
For the first 30 months of the Labor Government elected in July 1945, the Communist Party supported the Government. This support, of course, was directly in line with Soviet foreign policy, best seen in all its naked callousness by the statement of the late demi-god Stalin in Crimea 1945: “The alliance between the Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain, is based not on casual and transient motives, but on vitally important and long-standing interests.” This also led the Communist Party to oppose every strike during this period. For example, the strike of the Grimethorpe miners in Sept., 1947, was denounced by the Party as a “stab in the back of the working class.” Their General Secretary, Mr. Pollitt, who had in his pamphlet “Questions and Answers,” 1946, so obsequiously re-echoed Mr. Stalin’s Crimean declaration, however, in December 1947, in his report to his members was compelled to abandon as unreal, his own and his semi-divine leaders prognostication by stating:
“Because of the United States and British policy of refusing to co-operate with the Soviet Union, the differences have deepened to the point where today there are two world camps. It is necessary that important changes be made in C.P. policy.”Thereupon, the C.P. attacked the Labor Government until its defeat in 1951, The attack, naturally, was mainly in the area of foreign affairs. In recent months the C.P. has reached the depths of nationalistic slime in its anti-American policy. Defenders of native culture against Wall Street; on guard against Yankee music, literature and films; assailants even of the “crew” hair-cut and the “drape” suit; disdainful of the crepe soled shoes, coat shirts and ties of America, they present a sordid spectacle.
Starting from the stellar heights of “Go home Yank” in which they suggested in a front page article of the “Daily Worker” that an inebriated G. I. who had allegedly misappropriated a crucifix from “an old Saxon Church,” should get life imprisonment; rising to dizzy cosmic heights of a knight-like solicitude and concern for the sexual virtue of the innocent, unspoilt British womanhood beset by threats and wiles, by the dollars, nylons and other merchandise of the PX of the licentious American soldiery, they have descended to the noisome depths of “Let Britain Arise" 1952, in which Mr. H. Pollitt proposes as a serious measure: “That no foreign worker shall be employed while a British worker is unemployed or on short-time." In other words: “Workers of the world — divide — you have nothing to gain but your jobs.’’ Or: “Did your mother come from Ireland? or Italy? or Spain? or America?"
Arguing “that if we have to have a Coronation, let’s make it a British one — untainted by the products of Broadway or Hollywood," agitating for a lowering of the cost of production of labor-power, squealing about the need for “East-West Trades,’’ defending every tortuous twist of Kremlin policy from Vishinsky’s “No” to Molotov’s “Yes,’’ bleating about Scottish, Irish and Welsh Home Rule; moaning about the “sell out of Britain to Wall Street,’’ the C.P. of Great Britain is in truth, indeed, an object of contempt in the eyes of workers with even a spark of working-class principles.
The small Trotskyist party, the R.C.P. were compelled to “liquidate” when their counterparts, the C.P. became slightly critical of the Labor Government. Its self-appointed leadership is now in the comfortable bosom of the Labor Party. All its noise and its innumerable and uncomprehensible theses, its fury and bombast, now muted to a safer and more respectable key.
The Scottish Nationalists, with no real roots in the working class, still shout the funny slogan of “Scotland for the Scots.” Some of their misguided followers, infuriated by the choice of the title of Queen Elizabeth II, and quite obviously motivated by an over literal interpretation of Thurber’s “Secret of Walter Mitty,” and encouraged by the indignation of the regal title expressed by Scots, Tory and Labor M.P.s are engaging in the pleasant pastime of sticking home-made bombs in mail-boxes bearing the obnoxious slogan “ER II.” In the West of Scotland there is a very small but vociferous crew of Anarchists. People who take the discordant views of Jesus Christ, Proudhon, Stirner, Bakunine, Tolstoy, Kropotkin and the Syndicalists, yes and even the I. W. W., in one indigestible swallow and confront the workers with the confusing result.
That is the dark side of the picture.
On the other side, we have, first of all, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, plugging away at the serious, un-melodramatic job of spreading the Socialist idea. The two branches in Glasgow, although faced yet with great difficulties, meet with nothing like the hostility encountered by the pioneers of 30 odd years ago. The myth of Socialist Russia is not nearly as widespread. Nationalization as a panacea has lost its vogue. The stupid theories of armed insurrection and the like, are virtually extinct. Perhaps the most hopeful sign of the times is that the younger workers, in discussion, seem to value more serious argument than the shouting of windy slogans. It rather seems, too, that the day of the reformist party is past. And as more and more of the working class recognize the already open identity between Sir Winston Churchill and Major Attlee, they must turn their attention to the Socialists.
Therefore, the Socialists in Scotland, like Socialists the world over, are confident of the working class ultimately accepting the view that the world and all that is in or on it, should belong to all.
It is a hard task, but one well worth the doing.
Tony Mulheron was a Glasgow dock worker, who was a member of the SPGB from Feb 1935 to May 1938 - briefly resigning his membership - before rejoining the SPGB in Dec 1938, and remained a member of the Party until his death in 1982.