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The Glasgow Anarchists and the Russian Revolution: A Tentative Interpretation

Tuesday 6 March 2018, by ps

The Soviet Revolution of 1917 raised a wave of enthusiasm among workers all over the world. More and more radicals had felt estranged since the turn of the century by the various labor and socialist parties which had progressively turned their backs to internationalism and were growing impatient to gain electoral seats in their respective countries. The new-born Communist Parties rallied many anarchists, thus creating a split with the old-timers who soon became isolated both from the working class and the broader social movement except in Spain and Italy.

The era of revolutions gave the illusion that the tide was turning. Yet, the repressions that followed the series of insurrections that occurred in central Europe in the aftermath deprived the movement of some of its best leaders and speakers. The United States condemned to exile people like Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman, and many organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose ideas had enriched many discussions in English speaking countries abroad.

An examination of the Scottish landscape offers an outlook that may convey some insight on the issues which confronted the movement as a whole. This study is in progress and I hope that suggestions and research will progressively confirm or dismiss some of these educated guesses.

From what one can infer from the various individual recollections of the past, the Glasgow anarchist movement was a heritage of the Socialist League of which William Morris had been the great inspiration, though there is always some danger in drawing ideas from the past rather than from the social background in which the people live, even if both explanations are not incompatible.

It seems that a refugee from the Paris Commune, who settled in Glasgow with a woman named Macdonald, initiated the first anarchist group [1]. But the Glasgow people preferred to call themselves anti-parliamentarians, perhaps because like William Morris, they condemned the anarchist attentats. Such an epithet did give a poor reputation to the groups that adopted the name.

In certain respects, and in spite of persecution, militant activity offered many rewards. These were times when public medias hardly reached the masses, entertainments were mostly self-organized by the respective communities, "socialist" minded educators promoted youth activities and good public speakers attracted audiences.

Anarchistic minded people formed a rather important audience, and at the turn of the century, it had been possible to invite for a talk such well-known people as the American Voltairine de Cleyre or Peter Kropotkin, the "anarchist prince". Organizations relied on a number of active people, such as William C. McDougal (1891-1981) who joined the circle in 1910, acted as secretary and organized the Sunday meetings. There were in Glasgow some good street speakers, who could even address hostile groups, but the leading figure would soon be the young freethinker Guy Aldred who, though born in London, met the group in 1912 and from then on remained very active in Glasgow. Some women also played an important role, particularly Rose Witcop, birth control pioneer for working women centered in Hammersmith, with whom he had lived in London. She was Rudolf Rocker’s sister-in-law and went to Russia to negociate with the Soviets when Aldred was in prison. There was also Ethel MacDonald who, in the 1930s, was a witness the Spanish revolution and reached through her radio broadcasts a world wide audience.

There were clearly two important currents: individuals who were influenced by Stirner’s ideas, a philosopher of "egoism", a current still active in Glasgow to the present day, and anarchists who believed in class war. Also, emore intellectual people, interested in theory, contrasted with industrial workers who felt that the London Freedom Press was too absent from their struggles. The latter published a succession of papers, such as the Voice of Labour which only had a single issue; Glasgow readers read Tom Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist, which appeared in 1910-11. Then came Guy Aldred, who had worked with Tom Mann; he would be quite a prolific author and editor.

Periodicals published by Guy Aldred:

The Herald of Revolt (1910-1914)

This first paper was published in London but had a double column of "Scottish Notes".

The Spru (1914-1930)

The Commune (1923-1929)

The Council (1931-1933)

The Word (1938-1968)

The Glasgow Anarchist Group, formed by George Barrett and John Paton, had fifty members in 1911, including Willie Gallacher, who was later elected M.P. for Fife as a Communist.

The police, whic had not harrassed the group previously, changed its attitude when a number of activists, and particularly some of the more visible personalities, refused to join the army during World War I. They were court-marshalled, imprisoned, beaten; many of the conscientious objectors endured mental illness or even committed suicide on account of the hard conditions in prison. These persecutions caused a disruption of group activities even though stalwart supporters campaigned in the defense of war objectors.

The Russian Revolution changed the situation, generating great expectancies and even collective ecstasies; then the Soviet government seized power on most national communist parties abroad, financing them but also constraining them to follow its directives.

The Glasgow anarchists may have had strong convictions that helped them maintain their own private judgments and avoid collective gullibility, but they were poorly armed for political concepts. Stirnerites explained the world with individualistic images, militant workers often submerged their politics in workshop struggles and limited their views to an industrial universe with class conflict. Apart from their distrust of parliamentary politics, they hadly had any conceptual framework to apprehend strategies or tactics of social change. Grand narratives on human progress or return to nature nurtured the vision of a world that would be an alternative to oppression and a generous but naive rejection of any concept that would bear the slightest connotation of human manipulation. A belief, or even a faith which considered that means did not justify the ends induced them to pay great attention to everyday life but they were not well armed to analyze complex collective movements. Assuredly, most sociologists in their time were not more apt judges and even today we still have rather crude concepts.

Not surprisingly, anti-parliamentarian minded people wandered through a succession of theories before setting up their minds on "standard" anarchistic interpretations of the world. The evolution of Guy Aldred’s paradigms - which reached a high degree of contradictions - was not necessarily followed by other people; yet it reveals both the openmindedness to change of a pioneer on community work and the fragility of an attachment to principles regardless of their changing significance in different contexts.

In Britain, our parliament has been a sham. Everywhere parliamentary oratory is bogus passion, universal suffrage an ineffective toy gun of the democracy at play in the field of politics. [2]

These lines from Aldred expressed a more general feeling among the left wing of the social democratic parties of the Second International. While women in the suffragist movement turned to political action, workingmen considered parliamentarism - and even trade unions - as outmoded forms of struggle. The socialists of the Second International had everywhere betrayed their pacifist proclamations and passionately joined their voices to support the First World War in 1914. Those who disagreed with what they considered a treason dreamt of turning the ruling class wars into a class war, but they more effectively started a strong critique of social democratic ideas.

Anti-parliamentary communist ideas were common to many groups and various publications, such as the Workers’ Dreadnought and Aldred’s Spur propagated these opinions. When on January 11, 1918, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly in Petrograd, Sylvia Pankhurst, the very founder of the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, turned to anti-parliamentarism. Soviets had organized the Revolution, and this progressively unfolded a new ideal, - Workers’ Councils.

The evolution of the Russian Revolution introduced new insights. Aldred, who had concluded from his readings of Marx’ Civil War that the state was and would remain a capitalist tool, now hoped to divert the electoral process. What if parliamentarism became revolutionary? The Irish Sinn Fein candidates who declared that they would not go to Westminster but to Dublin suggested the possibility of a dual power, namely a local decision making center that would independently answer the needs expressed in its territory. Furthermore, electoral campaigns could be used for propaganda purposes and to assess the impact of certain ideas on public opinion.

Now that he believed himself to be a Revolutionary Marxian Anarchist, he considered the English publication in 1919 of Lenin’s State and Revolution as another example of the "immense services rendered to the cause of the workers’ world revolution by Lenin" [3]. Willie McDougall of the Glasgow Anarchist Group toured Scotlan and spoke about "Lenin’s Anarchy" [4].

The Second Congress of the Third International, held in Moscow, brought together a sizeable presence of anti-parliamentary delegates from various groups throughout Europe and America. Though the Congress voted various resolutions advocating Revolutionary Parliamentarism, Sylvia Pankhurst, who participated in the meeting, thought that the trend could be changed and a majority would favour antiparliamentary politics. Besides, in a private talk Lenin assured her that parliamentary action was not a question of principle but a simple matter of tactic.

The Revolution had also demonstrated that to counter the reactionary powers, it was necessary to disarm those who wanted to maintain economic exploitation. One had to establish a transitional working-class dictatorship. Aldred subscribed to such an idea in 1920 [5] Aldred approved what was happening in the Soviet Union, he did not want to join the capitalist outcry and expressed solidarity with the Soviet Revolutionaries, yet he disagreed with Russia’s international policy. In August 1920, he expressed his disagreement:

Lenin’s task compels him to compromise with all the elect of bourgeois society whereas ours demands no compromise. And so we take different paths and are only on the most distant speaking terms [6].

In 1925, he was still disbelieving accounts of Russian persecution of revolutionaries and he quarreled with Emma Goldman and Freedom Press who were criticizing the Bolsheviks [7]. When he later realized that the Russian population was oppressed, he did not change his views but concluded that Soviet dictatorship had been replaced by state dictatorship. [8]

As early as 1919, British anti-parliamentarians could read Lenin’s attack in Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, which would soon be ratified by the Third International. It was now clear that the Soviet Union compelled all communist parties abroad to participate in parliament and that unity in Britain would have to be based on terms dictated by the Bolsheviks. The choice was between isolation and compromise. To avoid such a dilemma, Aldred and the Glasgow anarchists joined an anti-parliamentarian front which, while dissociating from the Communist Party, would still attempt to question its action.

In 1920, left wing communists refused right wing domination and constituted in May a Labour abstentionist party. Though Aldred criticised the new Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) which rejected parliamentary action [9] because he thought it was a contradiction in terms, the Glasgow Anarchist Group, strong of 50 to 60 members, joined with the national Communist League, formed on the initiative of the Socialist Labour Party’s London District Council in March 1919.

When the Communist Party (BSTI) finally united with the pro-Soviet Communist Party on January 1921, the Glasgow Communist Group started a new publication, The Red Commune, which continued to advocate anti-parliamentary action. In Easter was formed the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF).

Labor must Destroy that Labor may Rebuild
The Commune. Anarchist - An Organ of His Majesty’s Communist Opposition
This anarchist-communist magazine was edited by Guy Aldred and published in May 1924.
In various times, Aldred published five Glasgow based anarchist periodicals.

While Aldred was in prison for his publication of the Red Commune, his companion and member of his group, Rose Witcop, went to the Soviet Union to ask for associate membership of the Third International for the APCF. She returned with the promise of solid financial backing, but on the condition that Aldred and the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation would now accept the Moscow line. This of course was rejected.

Guy Aldred now considered that the Soviet Union had opted for state capitalism. Like his fellow anti-parliament comrades, he watched other trends in Europe, and decided that there was more promise in industrial councils. He wrote that:

the working class can possess no positive or real power politically until the workers come together on the industrial field for the definite purpose of themselves taking over directly the administration of wealth production and distribution on behalf of the Workers’ Republic. [10]

This meant that all power was to be given to the workers, not to their trade-unions, which were also considered as another form of bureaucratic-parliamentary corruption.

The anti-parliamentary communist tradition was maintained in Britain until the end of the Second World War. To their credit, in spite of the numerous workers defeats, the decline in numbers and the immense disillusions, the core anarchists maintained the struggle. While some of their pessimistic views on political and working-class institutions had proven to be more perceptive than in other groups, their propaganda had failed in the long run. In trying to keep their ideas alive, they now turned more to history to understand the causes of so many defeats.

But new events had meanwhile changed the social and political landscapes: the 1929 great depression was accompanied by the decline of traditional British working-class occupations and a rise of white collar jobs. Anarchists were offering more and more information on the persecuted comrades in the Soviet Union, which it was impossible to ignore. The rise of fascism in Italy, a dictatorship with no respect for parliaments, weakened the position of the anti-parliamentaries in Great Britain. The Spanish Civil War offered new hopes, new possibilities of action and new despairs. While the first alliances between Spanish anarchists and communists seemed to show the force of a united front, the tragic dramas of May 1937, when anarchists were chased and killed by the Stalinists, destroyed for ever any lasting illusion about the Soviet Revolution among the Glasgow anarchists. Unfortunately, once more, such conclusions were despised by many of their comrades.

[1See John Taylor Caldwell. This Macdonald must not to be confused with Ethel Macdonald

[2Spur, May 1917

[3Commune, June 1924

[4Spur, January-February 1920.

[5G. Aldred, Michael Bakunin Communist (Glasgow/London: Bakunin Press, 1920), p. 18.

[6Spur, August 1920.

[7Commune, May 1925.

[8Aldred 1934a

[9Minutes of WSF Executive Committee meeting 10 June 1920, Pankhurst Papers; Workers’ Dreadnought, 12 June 1920.

[10Worker, 22 July 1922.