Shortly after Harry McShane’s death in 1988 the Marxist historian Ray Challinor wrote:
““Your readers will remember the famous picture of Lenin addressing an open-air meeting in Moscow. On the steps of the rostrum stood Trotsky. But subsequently, when the picture was republished, Trotsky’s figure had been removed.”
“In my opinion, a similar re-writing of history has occurred to Harry McShane. In almost all the obituaries of him, no mention whatsoever was made of the person who, for a quarter of a century, dominated his political life. Joseph Stalin has been completely blotted out.” (1)
Challinor emphasised that “Harry’s portrait needs painting, Stalinist warts and all.” But leaving the “Stalinist warts” out of McShane’s portrait has also meant leaving the “Stalinists warts” (and rather more than mere warts) out of the history of Glasgow trade unionism.
Born in Glasgow in 1891, McShane was a socialist all his adult life.
A close collaborator with John Maclean during the First World War, he joined the British Communist Party (CP) in 1922. McShane played a leading role in the CP’s National Unemployed Workers Movement until the end of the 1930s, when he was appointed Scottish Organiser for the party’s “Daily Worker” newspaper.
From 1930 onwards McShane was a member of the CP’s Scottish Committee. After resigning from the party in 1953 he helped launch the Federation of Marxist Groups and aligned himself with Raya Dunayevskaya’s anti-Stalinist ‘Humanist Marxism’.
In the early 1960s McShane was briefly a member of the editorial board of “Labour Worker” (forerunner of “Socialist Worker”). He was a frequent speaker at SWP meetings in Glasgow until shortly before his death in 1988.
Although the ‘air-brushing’ of Stalinism out of McShane’s political life was at its most visible in his obituaries, the process had begun a decade earlier with the publication of “No Mean Fighter”, usually but erroneously described as McShane’s ‘autobiography’.
(In fact, it was written by a member of the SWP without McShane’s knowledge and published by the SWP’s Pluto Press without his agreement. (2))
In the pages of “No Mean Fighter”, looking back in time from the 1970s, McShane condemned the Stalinist policies of the CP. But the book was silent on McShane’s own role in promoting those politics.
In doing so, it did a disservice to McShane. As Challinor – who had long been a close friend of McShane – put it:
“(To write of McShane’s Stalinism) is not to denounce the man. Indeed, it is to do the precise opposite. Those who give his life a spurious consistency are ironically his detractors. They fail to recognize his gargantuan achievement in 1953, the herculean effort he made, helped by Raya Dunayeskaya.” (3)
The canonization of McShane as “a rank-and-file leader who never left the rank-and-file” (4) is not just a misrepresentation of McShane’s personal political history. It is also emblematic of a misrepresentation of the history of the trade union movement in the West of Scotland.
Like the CP of which he was a member, McShane commanded some degree of authority and influence in that movement. His Stalinism was not a private matter. It helped shape the policies of the trade union movement in which he was active.
To begin to fill in the missing chapters in McShane’s political biography is therefore not just to do justice to McShane himself. It is also to begin to correct that sanitized version of the ‘history’ of the Glasgow trade union movement in which History stops with ‘Red Clydeside’.
McShane was not the most hard-line Stalinist in the ranks of the CP in Glasgow. He was repelled by the Lenin and Stalin cults propagated by the CP from the late 1920s onwards. He dismissed the dogmatism of party cadres who had attended the Lenin School in Moscow. On occasion, he even questioned the official party line. (5)
But none of this alters the fact that throughout the 1930s, and beyond, McShane faithfully defended the party line in public. He was an uncritical admirer and supporter of Stalinist Russia, the source of all his politics:
“Socialism is being built up in Soviet Russia. Capitalism has been abolished and the means of production are in the hands of the Soviet State, which is controlled by the toiling people under Socialist leadership.” (6)
“All power is in the hands of the toilers and the means of production are public property. … Capitalism is gone forever. Despite the abuse to which they have been subjected, the Socialist leaders of Russia, with the support of the toilers of Russia, have set an example to the world.” (7)
Given that political parties were only the expressions of economic interests and the workers of Russia had rallied to the cause of socialism, McShane defended the absence of political pluralism in Stalinist Russia:
“Russia is the most democratic country in the world. The workers of Russia have a common interest in the building of Socialism. The history of Russia since 1917 is a record of evidence showing that the Communist Party has never lost sight of its Socialist objective. There is no purpose in having another party unless there is the desire to abolish Socialism.” (8)
McShane was particularly enthusiastic about the Soviet Constitution adopted in 1936, faithfully parroting the Stalinist line that “the new Soviet Constitution makes Russia the most democratic country in the world”. (9)
Some socialists had “for years been finding fault with the Soviet Union”, but if they read the new constitution they could only be “thrilled at the thought that at least in one country their hopes are being realized” (10):
“There has never in the history of the world been a Constitution equal to what is now brought forward in the Soviet Union. Russia has adopted a Socialist Constitution. Stalin has often been called a dictator but he was chairman of the Commission that drafted the Constitution. That is worth pondering over.” (11)
It was, McShane admitted, “difficult to establish this (socialist) system in one country when the rest of the world is antagonistic.” But Russia was “showing that it can be done,” even if many ardent socialists had “lost faith as the struggle developed and had to be removed.” (12)
Of course, some socialist critics of the Stalinist regime were not merely “removed” but executed – with McShane’s full support:
“Some of them lined up with the enemies of Russia and got the fate they deserved. In the eyes of some people the punishment of traitors is something to be deplored. When we consider that the fate of 170,000,000 human beings is at stake we have less reason to deplore the fate of Russia’s enemies.” (13)
It was “nonsense” to claim that prisoners tried in the Moscow show trials had been “drugged or tortured in order that they would admit the most heinous of crimes.” (14) They had got their just deserts, and anyone otherwise minded was a fool:
“Persons who confess to assisting Fascist Powers cannot be considered fellow Socialists. These people were enemies posing as friends.”
“Those socialists who claim to be shocked at the trial ought to say what they would do in a similar situation. Unless they believe the trial is a fake, they must agree that the Soviet Government did the right thing. Those who believe the trial a fake must be simpletons.” (15)
According to McShane, the show trials had also thoroughly exposed the counter-revolutionary role of Trotskyism:
“Trotskyists cannot sieze power anywhere. The most they can do is help Fascism into power. Their contention that Socialism cannot be built in a single country leads them into the hands of the Fascists. Radek himself made this clear at the trial.” (16)
“The true role of Trotskyism was thoroughly exposed (in the Moscow trials). The Soviet Union, by its achievement, stands out as a beacon light to the workers everywhere. I cannot think of anything more calculated to confuse and disorganize than the propaganda of the Trotskyists. Happily, they are now on the run.” (17)
During the Spanish civil war, McShane denounced anarchists, the POUM (Spanish equivalent of the British Independent Labour Party (ILP)) and Glasgow MP John McGovern (who campaigned in defence of the POUM after having led an ILP commission of enquiry in Spain) as conscious or unconscious agents of Franco:
“Mr. McGovern has damaged the cause of Spain. The fact that the pro-Franco ‘Catholic Times’ uses McGovern against Major Attlee (the British Batallion in the International Brigade) in Spain is itself sufficient to prove my point. … Mr. McGovern is saying the same as Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.” (18)
“The Spanish Communists opposed purposeless strikes organized by the anarchists, which were assisting the Fascists, who desired that the People’s Front be split.” (19)
“The POUM opposed every measure designed to strengthen the anti-Fascist forces. They tried to prevent a regular army being built. They opposed the nationalization of the big industries. The armed rising in Barcelona on 3rd May was the last straw. The Communist Party rightly demanded the consolidation of the front and the cleaning-up of the rear.” (20)
Turning reality on its head, McShane portrayed the ‘May Days’ in Barcelona (when the Spanish CP joined forces with pro-government Assault Guards to sieze industries under workers control) as a Franco-inspired mutiny by anarchists and the POUM:
“Miss McDonald (a Glasgow anarchist who had been in Barcelona during the ‘May Days’) says that the Government caused the rising by taking over the telephone exchange. Why should the Government not control such an important service?” (21)
“She knows full well that a rising was being prepared for months. Arms must have been hidden in preparation for such an event. Miss McDonald is in favour of such a policy even now. In my opinion, the rising was a crime designed to assist Franco and his Fascist supporters. To defend these criminals is to help Franco.” (22)
Quite correctly, argued McShane, the Spanish CP’s line was to “carry to its conclusion the people’s democratic revolution” (i.e. no socialist revolution). It therefore fully supported “more stern measures to prevent treachery and betrayal behind the scenes.” (23)
In the early 1930s McShane had implemented the Stalinist ‘Third Period’ policy, under which the Labour Party (and the ILP) had been denounced as ‘social-fascist’ and the CP had attempted to set up breakaway ‘red’ trade unions:
“In their leadership of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) McShane and Hannington became well-known – one might say notorious – for the aggressive manner in which they enforced the Stalinist line.”
“During the Third Period they made it painfully clear that, within the NUWM’s ranks, Trotskyists, ILPers and other independently-minded socialist were unwelcome intruders.” (24)
But at the seventh congress of the Comintern in 1935, following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, Stalin ordered an abrupt about-turn. CPs were instructed to form ‘Popular Fronts’, not just with the previously despised ‘social fascists’ but with any party opposed to fascism and committed to peace.
Writing in 1941, ex-CP-member J.T. Murphy summed up the significance of the 1935 about-turn for Russian foreign policy:
“(They) initiated a world-wide campaign for a ‘People’s Front against Fascism and for the preservation of Peace’. … They no longer called on the workers to oppose armament programmes in ‘Democratic countries’. They worked on the principle of mobilizing the sum total of the social forces opposed to the aggressor Powers, against these Powers.” (25)
In practice, this meant subordinating independent working-class politics to ‘unity’ with bourgeois political parties – if necessary, as was the case in Spain, through the murder of socialists who remained committed to fighting for the overthrow of capitalism.
Throughout the latter half of the 1930s McShane embraced the Stalinist about-turn with enthusiasm. ‘Unity’ and ‘peace’ became his new watchwords. Once the scourge of ‘social fascism’, McShane was now the great conciliator and the arch-enemy of ‘sectarianism’ in the labour movement:
“The various sections of the working class should be searching for points of agreement instead of points of disagreement. Those who invent or search for differences may be serving their narrow party interests but they are not serving the interests of the working class.” (26)
“The National Unemployed Workers Movement, of which I am an official, has no desire to make things difficult for the Labour Party but something more must be done for the unemployed.” (27)
“The people of this country must give a lead by taking steps to eject the present government at the earliest possible opportunity. And this can be realized by the organization of a powerful United Front which, in the interests of peace and socialism as against Fascism, will demand the resignation of the Government and a fresh election.” (28)
A ‘Popular Front’ was needed because the Labour Party by itself could not defeat the Chamberlain-led National Government:
“The little swipe at the Popular Front calls for just a little attention. Unless there is some sort of lining up of the progressive forces, Chamberlain and his colleagues will hold power for years to come.”
“”Those who argue that the Labour Party alone can overthrow the National Government by itself are talking the sheerest nonsense. Even if there was just the chance that they might fail, surely in the interests of the people of this country the risk should be avoided.” (29)
Shortly after its establishment, McShane cited the Spanish Popular Front government as a vindication of popular-frontist politics:
“The Communist Party of Spain did propose the formation of a People’s Front in order to defeat the serious Fascist menace. Since the People’s Front Government was elected in February the Communists have tried to strengthen it, while the Monarchists and Fascists by murders, conspiracies and provocations of all kinds have tried to destroy it.”
“Many Socialists who were doubtful about the tactics of the Communists now find themselves lining up in defence not of a Socialist Government but a Government of the People’s Front. They see now that the Communists were right.” (30)
In Germany in the early 1930s Stalinism had helped pave the way for Hitler by rejecting the formation of a united front with the SPD, the German equivalent of the Labour Party. But now McShane took others to task for supposedly underestimating the danger of fascism:
“Like most of the ‘die-hard’ Tories, the ILP leaders think nothing has changed since 1914. They under-estimate the Fascist danger and fail to appreciate the importance of the Soviet Union in the fight for peace. (The CP) wants peace and is prepared to unite with all other progressive parties in the fight for peace.” (31)
The CP’s search for allies in the cause of anti-fascism and peace went well beyond ‘progressive parties’. What was needed, McShane argued in line with the Moscow-dictated policy, was an alliance between the Soviet Union and Western bourgeois democracies.
“Her (the Soviet Union’s) support for peace has won support amongst peace-loving people,” he wrote (32). Consequently, “our only hope now lies with Russia, France and Spain along with those other countries willing to join up in the cause of peace.” (33)
According to McShane: “It is as clear as daylight that Hitler and Mussolini represent the greatest danger to peace, and that every concession to them makes them a greater danger. That danger must be faced up to. The democratic nations must come together in order to prevent Fascism from making threats to one nation.” (34)
After the Munich Agreement, McShane continued to call for “the democratic nations” to ally with Russia, recalling the stance supposedly taken by many Labour MPs against the First World War (something which had clearly escaped Lenin’s attention at the time):
“It is wrong to suggest that the opponents of Mr. Chamberlain want war. The National Council of Labour, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Communist Party wanted to unite Britain, France and Russia against aggression.”
“Those who say the Labour Party wanted war seem to forget the fact that a large number of Labour MPs were against the last war. In anti-war activity Mr. Gallacher, the Communist MP, has also played an outstanding role. Why should these men want war now?” (35)
McShane acknowledged that calling for co-operation with Russia to preserve peace exposed him to “the risk of being criticized by certain so-called revolutionaries.” But “those who are content to indulge in either pacifist or revolutionary phrase-mongering do little to maintain peace.” (36)
In contrast to the phrase-mongerers, McShane pointed out, he had only recently attended a Congress of Peace and Friendship addressed by no less a grandee than the Duchess of Atholl (whose maintenance of semi-feudal conditions on her Highlands estates clearly counted for nothing compared with her support for ‘peace’). (37)
Foreshadowing the CP’s support for the British war effort after the German invasion of Russia in 1941, McShane effectively pledged support for re-armament if the government were to change its policy towards the fascist states:
““The Communist attitude to arms is determined by the fact that British power is being used to assist Fascism and destroy democracy. If Government Policy was different, our attitude would be different.” (38)
When the British government introduced conscription in May of 1939 McShane went even further and polemicised against anti-conscription campaigning:
“The continued opposition to conscription is a waste of time and energy when a much more important task is waiting to be done. Instead of resisting conscription, we reduce the danger of war by insisting on the peace bloc.”
“Now that conscription is here, it should be our job to make sure that the new Army becomes a force for peace and a check to the Fascist danger.”
“I know that this will be looked upon as treason by some socialists. Their attitude can only be explained by an underestimation of the Fascist danger or a refusal to break with tradition. They cannot see that the future of Socialism is bound up with the struggle against Fascism. Some of them will never see it until they land in a concentration camp.” (39)
Three months later Russia signed a ‘non-aggression pact’ with Nazi Germany. McShane defended the pact as further evidence of Russia’s commitment to peace and democracy. He did so despite the fact that just three months previously he had argued that any such pact was an a priori impossibility:
“Every pact Soviet Russia makes is in the interest of peace. She has no colonies and has condemned the whole idea of colonies. This makes the very idea of a Stalin-Hitler-Mussolini alliance nonsensical.” (40)
Professing himself to be “a little surprised at the reception given by some sections of the press to the pact of non-aggression between Germany and Russia”, McShane felt obliged to put the record straight:
“There is nothing in it (the pact) that indicates a change in the attitude of Soviet Russia to a pact with France and Britain against aggression. The signing of this pact is in harmony with the policy pursued by Russia for a number of years. The pact explodes the theory that Russia was desirous of a war with Germany.”
“It has placed Russia in the position of being an even bigger factor for peace in the future. … Russia will never assist Germany in a war against democracy. She will take her stand with other countries to save democracy. So far as that is concerned, the position is not changed.” (41)
Five days later McShane presented the pact as a defeat for the fascist powers, given the wedge it had supposedly driven between Germany and Japan:
“The smashing of the Anti-Comintern Pact has weakened Italy and Japan and, to that extent, has cleared the air. Article 4 of the Non-Aggression pact (which barred Germany from supporting Japan in its conflict with Russia on the Manchurian-Mongolian border) will force the Powers to find some other solution than a grouping of Powers against Russia.” (42)
Russia could not “be expected, irrespective of what has happened, to be at the service of those who have flouted her.” It was therefore wrong to blame Russia for signing the pact: “Russia, in her desire for peace, was always ready to deal with Germany. The Peace Front would have made war impossible. The blame for this situation does not rest with Russia.” (43)
Only three days later – the same day as Germany’s invasion of Poland, which triggered the Second World War – McShane was again seeking to explain the ‘real’ meaning of the Hitler-Stalin pact against those who preferred to misrepresent it:
“Judging by some of the letters from correspondents I am forced to the conclusion that because of prejudice against Russia there is a desire not to understand the purport of the non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany.” (44)
Unaware of the secret clauses in the pact which divided Poland between Germany and Russia, and equally unaware of the agreements under which Russia would provide Germany with material and military assistance after the outbreak of war, McShane stressed Russia’s peaceful intentions:
“I wrote in support of Russia because I know something of her long unswerving struggle for peace and was convinced that she would never desert that struggle. I am sure that if Germany embarks on a war of aggression she will get no help of any kind from Russia. If Russia is not in on the side of Poland, it will not be her fault.” (45)
Just as in May McShane had written that ““we should be prepared to make every sacrifice to prevent war and to make sure of the defeat of Fascism if war should be forced upon us” (46), so too he now wrote:
“If war should come, it is the duty of all of us to stop Fascist aggression. The Communists in all countries will unite against Hitler. We will have no confidence in Mr. Chamberlain and will press for his removal but we will spare no effort in the fight against aggression.” (47)
But McShane did recognize that some criticism might be leveled at the Soviet Union for having signed a pact with Nazi Germany, even if its decision would eventually be proven correct:
“When it is suggested that Stalin has arranged another Munich, it was surely forgotten that the agreement of last September handed territory to Hitler and that the essence of the policy then pursued was to make the way clear for Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. Stalin has done nothing like that.”
“Russia certainly wanted a peace front, believing that if all the peacefully inclined countries came together, aggression would be very difficult. Soviet Russia is in for a lot of abuse but in the long term it will be seen that she has been consistent in her struggle for peace.” (48)
On 17th September Russia invaded Poland, seizing the eastern part of it as provided for by the secret clauses in the Stalin-Hitler pact. McShane hailed the Russian aggression as a fatal blow to fascism:
“Now that we have some clarity in regard to the moves of Soviet Russia, it must be obvious to most people that Hitler has suffered a setback from which he can never recover. His programme of conquest has been destroyed.”
“Instead of destroying Bolshevism, he has brought Bolshevism nearer to his borders. He has increased the influence of Russia in Eastern Europe, and improved her strategical position. This is contrary to his desires, but he was helpless against the most powerful nation in the world.” (49)
Faithfully adhering to the Stalinist line that Poland was a fiction rather than a real country, McShane presented the Russian invasion as a matter of necessity:
“It would be wrong to connect the Soviet-German Pact with the march of the Russians into territory formerly under the control of the Polish Government. Russia would have been duty-bound to save that territory from the domination of Nazi Germany once it became clear that the Polish Government was not in the position to do so.” (50)
In fact, McShane continued, the Russian occupation of Eastern Poland was a cause for rejoicing in that it would hasten the demise of Hitler:
“Since we in this country are desirous of destroying Hitlerism, we should rejoice at Hitler’s loss of prestige in this business and not be over-anxious to attack the Russians.”
“It seems to me that the influence of Russia at this stage will encourage those small States who have come under German domination to revolt against that domination and will so assist us in the struggle to defeat Hitler.” (51)
After Hitler’s invasion of Poland the CP assumed that the ‘correct position’ was to call on ‘their’ ruling classes to declare war on Germany: “Willie Gallacher, our only MP, had called for war to be declared. Harry Pollitt proposed that the Communist Party should fight for a declaration of war against Germany.” (52)
In fact, the ‘correct position’, as dictated by Moscow, was virtually the opposite. The war was not one of democracy against fascism but one between competing imperialisms, in which Moscow’s sympathies clearly lay on the side of Nazi Germany.
Fortunately for McShane – given his earlier statement that Communists everywhere would “make every sacrifice to make sure of the defeat of Fascism” if war broke out – he was serving a six-week prison sentence for opposing evictions when news of the change-in-line came through:
“The warder brought it (the ‘Daily Worker’) and made me read it while he stood there. … The paper was now arguing that this was an imperialist war between capitalist powers: Britain and France were the ‘aggressors’ who had rejected peace moves.” (53)
McShane must have found this very confusing. Only five weeks earlier he had written: “I still regard Germany as the chief aggressor in Europe and I regret that a pact against aggression has not been signed by the democratic states.” (54)
But this was not the last about-turn which McShane and the CP were required to carry out in relation to the war.
After the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, the CP changed line again. Speaking at a meeting in Glasgow’s St. Andrew’s Hall in early July (1941), CP leader J.R. Campbell explained the new line to the party’s West of Scotland membership:
“This is no ordinary war, in the sense that it is not a war fought on both sides by rival imperialist groups. It is a conflict between two great principles … the ideal of Socialism on one side … and the Capitalist system in its most loathsome and degenerate form on the other side.” (55)
“The bosses must stop fighting the shop stewards and start fighting Hitler,” continued Campbell (although, in practice, it was the shop stewards who were told by the CP to stop fighting the bosses). (56)
And Campbell’s message for Soviet workers was a clarion-call to arms: “Comrades, hold the Stalin line! Dare all and endure all! For we are coming swift to the battle, swift to our joint victory over Fascism!” (57)
The CP quickly adapted to the new line. In a by-election in Edinburgh Central a few months later the CP distributed 20,000 leaflets attacking the ILP candidate as a “notorious Trotskyist and enemy of the Soviet Union”:
“The ILP openly associates with the Trotskyites, who were publicly convicted of acting as Hitler’s Fifth Colum in Russia and have acted as Hitler’s agents in very country in the world. Its policy in this by-election helps Hitler.”
“A Tory or Liberal who stands for the most complete effort against Nazi Germany is a thousand times preferable to an enemy of the Soviet Union, to an upholder of conscientious objectors.” (58)
McShane himself effortlessly switched over to the CP’s new pro-war line. In fact his experience of Stalinist Third Period politics eminently suited him to the new line. According to Challinor:
“Harry McShane was involved in a ludicrous demonstration in Glasgow. News of a change of Communist Party line came through from King Street while the march was taking place. What had started out as an anti-war demonstration ended up by being pro-war!”
“McShane’s duty now was to write articles supporting the Churchill government, calling upon workers to make increased sacrifices and demanding that the authorities break strikes. He thought stern action should be taken against those who opposed the war.”
“When workers at Cardowan colliery downed tools (in 1944) McShane explained in the ‘Daily Worker’ that the stoppage had been instigated by anarchists, Trotskyists and – wait for it – the Duke of Bedford!” (59)
The political somersaults performed by McShane, and by the CP as a whole, out of loyalty to Russian Stalinism were not an exercise in empty scholasticism.
The CP exerted an influence in the trade unions out of all proportion to its size. This was especially so in and around McShane’s home-base of Glasgow, where, at the height of the CP’s membership, one in four of the party’s entire membership lived.
The Stalinist policies espoused by McShane and the CP therefore frequently became the ‘property’ of sections of the local trade union movement, including Glasgow Trades Council and its affiliates.
(The heavy-handed ‘policing’ of Trades Councils by the STUC in the 1930s and 1940s placed limits on how far Glasgow Trades Council could ‘deviate’ from official STUC policies. In 1951 the STUC even disbanded the Trades Council for having acted ‘unconstitutionally’.)
Local union branches and Glasgow Trades Council itself expressed the same uncritical admiration for Stalinist Russia as that espoused by McShane.
When the “Daily Herald”, at that time the official press organ of the TUC, ran a series of articles critical of Russia’s Stalinist regime, Glasgow Trades Council agreed “by a large majority” to adopt a motion drawn up by its Executive Committee:
“To send a letter of protest to the TUC General Council against the anti-Russian policy of the ‘Daily Herald’.”
“The Trades Council is of the opinion that the official Newspaper of the Working Class Movement does not express the sentiments of the working class in its anti-Russian propaganda. It therefore requests the General Council to take steps to stop this trend towards Fascism.” (60)
Not content with writing to the TUC General Council, the Trades Council set up a sub-committee to compile a report on the “anti-Russian propaganda” of the “Daily Herald”. The five-and-a-half page report was duly presented to Trades Council delegates:
“It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the ‘Daily Herald’ does not wish its readers to know the truth about the Soviet Union. We have reached a pretty pass when the ‘Times’ is fair towards the Soviet Union but the ‘Daily Herald’ cannot mention that country without sneering.” (61)
Echoing the views expressed by McShane, the report was particularly indignant at the newspaper’s coverage of the Moscow show-trials: “The ‘Daily Herald’ in all its recent references to trials in Russia by implication characterizes them as frame-ups.” (62)
Just as McShane had defended the Russian invasion of Poland, so too a special “War Conference” staged by the Trades Council in December 1939 and open to delegates from all union branches in Glasgow adopted “almost unanimously” a motion which not only idolized Russia but also justified its invasion of Finland:
“This conference of Trade Union delegates, recognizing and understanding the significance of the Soviet Union for the future struggles of the International Working Class records its wholesale faith in the solid socialist achievements of that country.”
“The happenings (sic) in Finland provide the pretext used by the press and statesmen of the Capitalist World to let loose a campaign of hate against the Soviet Union because that country represents a New Order of Society where exploitation has been abolished and a mighty blow has been struck at the heart of the capitalist order.”
“Finland, a puppet of the large imperialist powers, controlled bases essential for the security of the Soviet Union, and, refusing compensation for them, held open a gateway for imperialist invasion. The Socialist State must have territorial securities even if it is necessary to fight for them.” (63)
The motion was moved by CP member George Middleton. Just over two years later he was elected Trades Council secretary.
The full text of the adopted resolution was sent by the then Trades Council secretary, Arthur Brady, for publication in the “Forward” newspaper (formerly the ILP paper in Glasgow, but by this time a left-Labour publication). (64)
In his weekly column in “Forward”, P.J. Dollan – a former ILP activist but by now a local labour movement dignitary – was scathing: “It is the most shameful declaration to have been passed by any meeting of so-called Socialists and seems to have been dictated by Stalin and sub-edited by Hitler and Molotov.” (65)
A letter from “TRADE UNIONIST” suggesting that the motion might perhaps be not entirely representative of the views of Glasgow’s working class (66) evoked a sharp response from the Trades Council secretary.
The “resolution against Finland lending itself to British imperialism”, he explained, had been adopted by “an informal meeting to obtain the views of organized workers in Glasgow”, albeit one to which “every trade union branch in Glasgow was invited to send delegates.” (67)
It was therefore a gross misrepresentation for “TRADE UNIONIST” to “make it appear as if a Communist-ridden Trades Council had passed resolutions which came straight from Moscow.” The complaint from “TRADE UNIONIST” was “anti-communist” and “anti-trade union and anti-democratic”. (68)
In February of 1940 the Trades Council voted by 88 to 48 to have as its “principal speaker” at that year’s May Day rally D.N. Pritt (a notorious Stalinist who had defended the Moscow show trials and was expelled from the Labour Party for defending the Russian invasion of Finland) in preference to the veteran Labour left-winger George Lansbury. (69)
(The May Day rally of 1940 must have been particularly exciting. Not only was Pritt the principal speaker but he was also followed by a screening of the Moscow May Day film “Youth”, approved for viewing “after a good deal of discussion” at a meeting of the Trades Council Executive Committee. (70))
Glasgow Trades Council and a number of its affiliates also followed the anti-war and pro-war zig-zags traced by McShane and the CP in the 1930s and the opening years of the 1940s.
Throughout the 1930s the Trades Council looked to the League of Nations, collective security and a ‘peace bloc’ of Britain, France and the Soviet Union to prevent war.
In late 1936 it launched a Glasgow Peace Council, on the basis of the four points adopted by the CP-initiated popular-frontist International Peace Congress held in Brussels in September of that year. These included:
“Restoration of the sanctity of treaty obligations and strengthening the League of Nations for the prevention and stopping of war by the more effective organization of Collective Security and Mutual Assistance.” (71)
A motion put forward by the Trades Council for the 1937 STUC congress declared: “Congress recognizes that only a strengthened League of Nations based upon the closest co-operation between Britain, France and the Soviet Union can check the Fascist warmakers.” (72)
In response to the Munich Agreement the Trades Council Executive Committee adopted a motion declaring: “The democratic powers of Britain and France in alliance with the Soviet Union and other Democratic Countries could check Hitler’s advances and put an end to his threats of war and guarantee the peace of Europe.” (73)
In May of 1939 another motion adopted by the Executive Committee declared: “Our only hope for peace lies in a peace bloc of Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union.” (74) Later the same month the Trades Council carried “by a large majority” a motion submitted by the NUR Scotland District Council:
“We firmly believe that the best method of maintaining peace in Europe and preventing further aggression is the establishment of a Bloc of Peace Powers in the form of an alliance between Great Britain, France and Russia, which could also include the smaller powers in Europe.” (75)
But after the CP changed its line following the outbreak of war, so too did Glasgow Trades Council. A motion passed at the Trades-Council-convened “War Conference” in December of 1939 declared:
“This conference of representative Glasgow Trade Unionists, having carefully considered the development of the war, declares that instead of being a War for Freedom and Democracy, it is a War of Imperialist antagonisms in which the workers should have no part. … The conference therefore calls for the immediate cessation of Hostilities.” (76)
By “a large majority” the conference voted down an amendment to the main motion which sought to replace the concluding demand for “the establishment of an immediate peace between the nations, free from Imperialism and exploitation” with the words:
“A complete re-orientation towards the defence of Working Class interests, and calls for Unity with the German and French workers against the common foe – capitalism.” (77)
In February of 1940 the Trades Council considered a motion submitted by the Polmadie ASLEF branch which likewise reflected the sudden change in line by the CP at the outbreak of war:
“That the members of this branch, realizing that the war which appeared to start as a War against Nazism, has resolved itself into a war having its origins in the economic rivalries of the Imperialist powers, decide that the best interests of the workers will be served by the war being brought to a speedy end.” (78)
The Trades Council decided not to adopt the motion on the basis that “a resolution in somewhat similar terms” had already been adopted by the Trades Council for submission to that year’s STUC congress. (79)
The motion in question had been presented by the Executive Committee to a Trades Council meeting held earlier the same month and adopted by 85 votes to 27. It made no mention of Hitler nor of Germany’s occupation of a succession of countries. Instead, its sole focus was on:
“The National Government (which), by their record in destroying collective security, the disarmanent conference, and agreeing to the re-arming of Germany, are directly responsible for the catastrophe in Europe today.” (80)
After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 Glasgow Trades Council quickly fell in behind the new CP line. A conference held in August, jointly organized by the Trades Council and the Labour Party in Glasgow, passed the following motion, with only three of the 193 delegates voting against:
“This conference views with approval the declaration made by the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, that the British Commonwealth of nations will render every possible assistance to the USSR, and therefore calls on the British Government for greater efforts in the prosecution of the War.”
“Conference appreciates the magnificent fight waged against the Axis Forces by the Soviet Union (and) congratulates the Labour Party on the long struggle made against Nazism and Fascism and for World Peace.” (81)
Only six weeks later, and less than four months after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Glasgow Trades Council was already calling for the opening of a ‘Second Front’. By 63 votes to 20 a meeting of the Trades Council agreed to a proposal from the Executive Committee that the following telegram be sent to Winston Churchill:
“Glasgow Trades Council representative Trade Union Movement of City believes vitally necessary Military land action by Britain to ease pressure of Nazi attack on our Russian Ally. Clamour for Second Front is earnest of peoples’ desire to avoid calamity of Russian defeat. Government hesitancy to strike blow in West causing extreme disquiet.” (82)
It is doubtful whether any delegate had the temerity to ask why Russia was at risk of a calamitous defeat when only two years earlier the likes of Harry McShane had declared Hitler to be “helpless against the most powerful nation in the world.”
Eventually, in 1953, McShane split from the CP. But even as his resignation approached, McShane remained loyal to the CP’s politics. He argued the CP line on the Korean War (83). He defended the Russian seizure of the island of Sakhalin (84). And, shamefully, he defended the Stalinist anti-semitic show trials of the early 1950s:
“The same (anti-Communist) hysteria permits its victims to accuse Russia and other European countries of anti-Semitism because of action taken against those who assist the American drive towards war.” (85)
McShane’s resignation from the CP was triggered by bureaucratic machinations within its Glasgow Committee and by attempts to remove him from the leadership of his local branch. (86) His public statements explaining his resignation read like a forerunner of a template resignation-letter from the SWP:
“In all cases the critics are wrong and in all cases the officials are right. … Always the membership is going up. The Communist Party is moulding the minds of the British people. Every Congress is the best ever. …”
“The structure of the Communist Party is of such a character that once the unscrupulous elements get control, they remain in control. The officials are lined up in defence of their interests. They have no intention of making the party more democratic.” (87)
But McShane’s resignation was not the result of a break with Stalinism. In fact, in explaining his resignation, McShane held up the post-war expansion of Stalinism as evidence of the coming end of capitalism:
“It is my opinion that the world is rapidly becoming Socialist and that the trail was blazed by the workers of Russia. The change which has taken place in China and in Eastern Europe indicates that the days of Capitalism and Feudalism are numbered. The Marxist approach is justified by these great events.” (88)
McShane still stood by Russia and the recently deceased Stalin:
“I would remind readers of “Forward” that Stalin some months before he died acknowledged his indebtedness to the British Labour movement. If we in the Labour movement would acknowledge our indebtedness to Russia, we would strike a blow for peace. Britain and Russia can prevent war.” (89)
McShane’s break with Stalinism came later, after his resignation from the CP. But as Challinor pointed out, the depth of McShane’s immersion in Stalinist politics made his break all the more laudable, especially as it inaugurated another 35 years of political activity untainted by Stalinism.
While McShane left behind him the CP and its Stalinism, Glasgow Trades Council moved in the opposite direction:
“It was taken over by the Communist Party. None of the chairmen was a CPer, but the party took and kept control through the secretary’s full-time post. With Hugh Wyper as secretary, the CP began to dominate the Trades Council and the form that its discussion could take.”
“This is their attitude to international solidarity and ‘peace’ conferences: The international delegations sent abroad by the Trades Council are usually to Leningrad and back! … Apart from supporting one or two demonstrations, they (CPers) haven’t led any struggles.” (90)
After three decades of intensely active CP membership, McShane turned his back on Stalinism.
(But not in the direction of Trotskyism: “The Trotskyists are endeavouring to impose a tailor-made party on British workers. It is to resemble the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when Trotsky was a leading member. It would be more narrow and doctrinaire than the CP in its early days. (91))
If McShane was able to make that leap to freedom, there is no reason why the broader trade union movement in the West of Scotland should not be able to do so the same.
In doing so it would not just liberate itself from the legacy of the Stalinist politics which have featured so prominently in its history. It would also put an end to that self-serving ‘history’ in which five years, at most, of ‘Red Clydeside’ are allowed to overshadow over five decades of Stalinism.
1) “Revolutionary History”, volume 1/3, Ray Challinor.
2) See: “The Past We Inherit, The Future We Build”, AWL, 2007, p.29.
3) Challinor, op. cit.
4) “No Mean Fighter”, Joan Smith, p. 2.
5) See: “Militant Workers – Essays in Honour of Harry McShane”, 1992, p.7.
6) (Glasgow) “Evening Times”, 26/06/39
7) “Evening Times”, 30/06/36
8) “Evening Times”, 01/10/37
9) “Evening Times”, 23/09/37
10) “Evening Times”, 30/06/36
12) “Evening Times”, 23/09/37
14) “Evening Times”, 09/02/37
17) “Evening Times”, 17/02/37
18) “Forward”, 01/01/38
19) “Evening Times”, 10/08/36
20) “Forward”, 01/01/38
21) “Forward”, 15/01/38
24) Ray Challinor, op. cit.
25) JT Murphy, “Russia on the March – A Study of Soviet Foreign Policy”, 1941
26) “Evening Times”, 18/06/36
27) “Evening Times”, 28/05/36
28) “Evening Times”, 08/07/36
29) “Forward”, 13/05/39
30) “Evening Times”, 10/08/36.
31) “Evening Times”, 08/02/39
32) “Evening Times”, 17/02/37
33) “Evening Times”, 08/07/36
34) “Evening Times”, 08/02/39
35) “Evening Times”, 10/10/38
36) “Evening Times”, 10/11/37
38) “Evening Times”, 14/02/39
39) “Evening Times”, 24/05/39
40) “Forward”, 13/05/39
41) “Evening Times”, 23/08/39
42) “Evening Times”, 28/08/39
44) “Evening Times”, 01/09/39
46) “Evening Times”, 24/05/39
47) “Evening Times”, 01/09/39
48) “Forward”, 02/09/29
49) “Evening Times”, 27/09/39
52) “No Mean Fighter”, p. 231
53) ibid. p. 232
54) “Evening Times”, 28/08/39
55) “Forward”, 12/07/41
58) quoted in “Forward”, 20/12/41
59) Challinor, op. cit.
60) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 29/06/37
61) Glasgow Trades Council Minutes, 03/11/37
63) Glasgow Trades Council “War Conference” Minutes, 17/12/39
64) Published in “Forward”, 23/12/39
65) “Forward” 30/12/39
67) “Forward” 06/01/40
69) Glasgow Trades Council Minutes, 21/02/40
70) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 28/04/40
71) Glasgow Trades Council Minutes, 17/11/36
72) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 07/02/37
73) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 20/09/38
74) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 02/05/39
75) Glasgow Trades Council Minutes, 17/05/39
76) Glasgow Trades Council “War Conference” Minutes, 17/12/39
78) Glasgow Trades Council Minutes, 21/02/40
80) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 04/02/40
81) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 02/09/41
82) Glasgow Trades Council EC Minutes, 14/10/41
83) “Forward”, 26/07/52, 02/08/52, 09/08/52 and 06/09/52
84) “Forward”, 28/02/53
85) “Forward”, 31/01/53
86) See “No Mean Fighter”, pp. 247-251
87) “Forward”, 08/08/52 and 22/08/52
88) “Forward”, 08/08/52
90) “No Mean Fighter”, p. 259
91) “Revolt” (paper of the Federation of Marxist Groups), 01/05/54