Sixty years of defiant struggle

Submitted by Anon on 3 May, 2007 - 9:12

Below Dale Street tells the story of Guy Aldred. A forgotten figure now, he was, for many years, an important socialist “personality”. Aldred was a socialist with strong anarcho-syndicalist sympathies. But he was a “anarcho-syndicalist” at a time when that political label meant more than vague anti-capitalism, as it does today. His views were shaped by mass working-class struggle, at a time when socialist debates and theory were central to working-class political life. In many ways his story reflects the changing political culture of the early twentieth century.

Guy Aldred was born in London in 1886 and moved to Glasgow after the First World War. Like many of his contemporaries Aldred graduated from radical liberalism and religious dissent into socialism. As a youth he was active in the Anti-Nicotine League and temperance organisations. His religious ideas evolved from Church of England orthodoxy through evangelising as a boy preacher to theism, agnosticism and ultimately atheism.

The decisive influence which led Aldred to embrace socialism was apparently Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics.

“He made me a complete socialist. Capitalism and the struggle for existence were not the last words on social evolution…”

In Marcy 1905 Aldred joined the Social Democratic Federation. By October 1906 he had resigned: “It took me a year to sense that Social Democracy was capitalism and careerism, a complete negation of the Paris Commune.” (Throughout his life Aldred used “Commune” and “Paris Commune” as metaphors for the socialist-revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.)

Why did he split? For Aldred socialism and atheism went hand-in-hand. Socialism meant waging war against every myth “from God to captains of industry”. But, with the exception of Belfort Bax, the leaders of the SDF were appalled at the idea of atheism being propagated from the platforms of their organisation.

Aldred was also rightly critical of the less than revolutionary ideas held by leaders of the SDF such as Hyndman, especially on the question of militarism.

Most of important of Aldred’s differences with the SDF was over the tactic of socialists seeking to win seats in Parliament:

“By the very act of taking his seat in the capitalist assembly the erstwhile socialist betrays the workers’ cause. Parliamentary socialism is always careerist trickery, corruption and log-rolling. Parliamentarianism is careerism and the betrayal of socialism.”

Aldred was equally critical of trade unionism. He adhered to Lassalle’s “Iron Law of Wages”, which said that workers could never raise their living standards, as higher wages would be cancelled out by higher prices:

“Trade unionism is ineffective and tends to create an aristocracy of labour, since the unskilled do not and cannot benefit by its workings so long as capitalism endures.”

Rejecting the emerging Labour Party and the reformist trade unions as “organised Judas Iscariotism”, Aldred later wrote: “I ceased to believe in palliatives and clung firmly to social revolution. I began to see that workers have to build their own social organisation and evolve their political expression of organisation within the womb of the old society.”

Aldred essentially drew one-sided conclusions from his arguments within the SDF. He now counterposed passive socialist propaganda to active intervention in the class struggle.

However, although Aldred was mistaken in his anti-parliamentarianism-on-principle and his anti-trade-unionism-in-principle, the behaviour of many “socialists” who entered Parliament or obtained high office seemed to confirm the validity of Aldred’s purist position.

Aldred became, and remained for the rest of his life (he died in 1963), a full-time political activist. He sought to build Communist propaganda groups and the Industrial Union of Direct Action, modelled on the US “one big union” the Industrial Workers of the World.

The platform of the IUDA spells out the strategy for socialism: “Recognising in Direct Action and the Social General Strike the only weapons of emancipation, the IUDA declares itself opposed to all political parties, and to all trade unions which do not found their organisation upon the fighting basis of Direct Action.”

Until the early 1920s at least there was a strong overlap between the kind of anti-parliamentarianism advocated by people like Aldred and revolutionary socialism. It is this stream of socialism that Lenin polemicised against in Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder.

Throughout the First World War Aldred conducted anti-war campaigning. For refusing to serve in the armed forces Aldred was court martialled and jailed, his prison services totalling over three years. He was repeatedly punished with spells of hard labour for breaches of prison discipline.

Aldred welcomed the October revolution of 1917 with unrestrained enthusiasm. It was the Paris Commune on an infinitely grander scale. In characteristic fashion Aldred likened Marx to John the Baptist and Lenin to Jesus Christ — the former was a prophet, while the latter was a man of action.

One his release from prison Aldred toured Scotland, England and Wales, speaking at meetings variously organised by anarchist groups, the Independent Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party. He advocated the creation of a single communist organisation, which would be the British affiliate of the Third International.

Although he described himself as a Bolshevik, Aldred was at odds with Lenin and the Third International on a number of basic issues.

While supporting the creation of a united revolutionary organisation, Aldred insisted it should have a loose federal structure. He maintained his hostile attitude towards trade unionism and participation in bourgeois parliaments. The Bolsheviks’ tactics on these questions were far more concrete and sophisticated.

Aldred soon despaired of the Third International: “We accuse them of turning into parliamentary trimmers. We charge them with social democratic parliamentarianism…”

In February 1921 Aldred and other anti-parliamentarian supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution launched the Red Commune as their monthly paper. The police quickly confiscated the bulk of the print run. Found guilty of “exciting popular disaffection, commotion and violence to popular authority,” Aldred returned to prison for another sixteen months.

On his release, Aldred, while hanging on to the same set of political ideas, began to drift into political isolation. His opposition to “palliatives” isolated him from the trade unions. He even went so far as to oppose the slogan of the “right to work” on the grounds that this was a demand to be exploited! For Aldred, the TUC’s very real betrayal of the General Strike of 1926 was not an incentive to fight for a more democratic and militant labour movement but the final vindication of his of rejection of trade unionist reformism.

His friendly relationship with the Communist Party — which had campaigned for his release at the time of the Red Commune trial — was replaced by one of outright hostility as the Party descended into the mire of Stalinism. Aldred recalled in his memoirs:

“[William] Gallacher (the one time revolutionary turned Stalinist) quoted Lenin and Trotsky as the masterminds of socialist and communist strategy and working class struggle. Later he fell back on Stalin, Beaverbrook and Churchill.” Aldred also found himself isolated from his fellow anarchists. “In Britain the anarchist movement has degenerated into industrial reformism and trade unionism,” he wrote, “Communist Anarchists spend more time hating Marx and admiring Bakunin than they do in preaching actual socialism or trying to organise the working class.”

In turn, many anarchists were critical of Aldred’s concept of anti-parliamentarianism. Aldred was certainly against socialists entering Parliament but argued that socialists should stand in elections to make revolutionary propaganda.

Aldred put his ideas into practise repeatedly contesting elections on the basis of: a refusal to take the oath and sit in Parliament; MPs to receive only the average industrial wage; and the right of immediate recall by his voters. By the end of his political “career” Aldred held the record for lost election deposits in Scotland.

In early 1933 Aldred resigned from the Anti-Parliamentarian Communist Federation (APCF) and launched the United Socialist Movement (USM) with a new appeal for revolutionary unity:

“I appeal to my comrades of the APCF, to the Communist League of Opposition, and to the Independent Labour Party to rally together to form a Fourth International. Trotsky is right: we must have a united proletariat.”

Although Aldred never forgave Trotsky for his role in suppressing the Kronstadt March 1921 uprising against the Bolshevik government, he drew heavily on Trotsky’s writings and his “clarity of understanding” in his criticisms of Stalinism.

Aldred was no more successful in his appeals for unity in 1933 than he had been in the early 1920s. Only the Townherd branch of the ILP in Glasgow joined the USM. But it was under the banner of the USM that Aldred continued his propaganda for socialism for the next three decades.

Unfortunately, his political activity during those thirty years rarely went beyond just propaganda. Although he never abandoned his commitment to human liberation and a classless society, Aldred began to mellow as the years advanced.

He began to advocate a “World Government” which would overcome national divisions and hostilities. The columns of the USM’s publication, The Word, were opened up to the foes of yesteryear. A small band of Labour MPs and not even the most left wing ones at that, were among its regular contributors, as was the Duke of Bedford, whose blue blood was outweighed in Aldred’s eyes by his commitment to pacificism.

In the early 1960s The Word also became the vehicle for Aldred’s opposition to British membership of the Common Market, denounced as an invention of international finance to save capitalism. Aldred also began to spin illusions in Stalinism after Khruschev backed down in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

In his 60 years of political activity Aldred had witnessed one betrayal after another: the Second International’s support for the First World War, Stalinism’s betrayal of the October Revolution, and the daily betrayal of the working class by the “fakirs” in the leadership of the labour movement.

Like many of his contemporaries in the opening decades of the century, Aldred responded to such betrayals by shifting in the direction of a sectarian anarcho-syndicalism. This was grated onto his own brand of socialism, a strange but far from unique mixture of Marx, Huxley, Proudhon, Jesus, Bakunin and Lenin.

Aldred’s political record was not one of great achievements, nor one of theoretical clarity. But it was one which bore the imprints of the arguments and conflicts which shaped and mis-shaped the labour and socialist movements in the first half of the twentieth century.

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