Monday, 14 April 2014

Harry McShane: socialists, mass movements and the working class

I recently finished reading ‘No Mean Fighter’, an extraordinary memoir of an extraordinary socialist activist. Harry McShane was born in 1891 into a working class family in Glasgow of mixed Catholic and Protestant heritage. He became an active socialist in around 1908 as a teenager in Glasgow, and continued to be a committed revolutionary until his death, aged 96, in 1988.
The book, published by Pluto in 1978, was the product of a huge number of taped conversations between a young activist-writer, Joan Smith, and the octogenarian McShane. The project took around five years in total. It is, among other things, a powerful example of how oral testimony can be put to great use. But it helps that Harry McShane was the subject.

Turbulent times
Between McShane becoming a socialist in his teens and the age of 35, the following happened: the Great Unrest; the Irish independence struggle; the collapse of the old Second International; World War One; the Red Clydeside worker militancy; the Russian Revolution and the mutinies, uprisings and revolts it inspired in Europe; women winning the vote; the founding of the Third International and the birth of the British Communist Party; the upsurge of strikes following WW1; tremendous growth in trade unions; and the General Strike. There is no comparable period in British history.

Many of these events were not simply illustrative background for McShane’s life, but were woven into it; he was an activist, a protagonist, and his memoir is the story of someone who attempted to shape history in a time when the direction of history was very much up for grabs. 

I learnt an enormous amount from reading the book. Through the particular – McShane himself, the people he knew, his activities in Glasgow, and so on – there is a great deal to learn about important wider phenomena: the growth of socialist organisations and left-wing debates of the time; trade union struggles like Red Clydeside in World War One; popular social struggles over housing, unemployment and other issues; the nature of work in that period; and all sorts of aspects of society in the first half of the 20th century.

There are some interesting emphases in McShane’s account – partly a reflection of his own experience, but partly a corrective to faulty interpretations of the historical experience. During World War One he regarded the anti-war campaign – however unpopular it was at first – as the most important struggle of the era, not the militancy on the Clyde which has received vastly more attention. He conveys the militancy of Red Clydeside, but also offers a sharp view of its sectional limitations and political weaknesses.
Ireland was evidently a vitally important issue for McShane and for much of the socialist movement, yet this is often neglected in overviews of the period. He recovers the rent strikes and housing campaigns of that time, recalling how John Maclean was excited about the possibility of political mass strikes developing out of them (there were elements of this, but it never quite happened). The General Strike, surprisingly, is over in a couple of paragraphs: it was controlled from above by the TUC and, for a rank and file leader like McShane, there was not much of a role and so little to say about it.

National Unemployed Workers’ Movement 
McShane’s greatest contribution was his role in the unemployed workers’ movements of the 1920s and especially the 1930s. He was an activist through and through; it is, he is unabashed in saying, what gave his life meaning and purpose. He had little interest outside work and political activism; and for much of his adult life politics was his work (though at other times he worked as an engineer or, when necessary, in more menial roles).

He joined the Communist Party in 1922 and left it in the early 1950s; his most effective political work was in the CP’s ‘mass work’ rather than in the Party’s internal life. For McShane, this principally meant being the Glasgow secretary and Scottish organiser, for most of the 1930s, of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM), led by Wal Hannigton and politically dominated by the CP.
The NUWM was one of the great achievements of working class struggle in the 20th century in this country. Its scale of activity was enormously impressive , with the big ‘Hunger Marches’ being only the most visible and best-known expression of a mass grassroots movement.  The Communist Party initiated and drove it, but those active in the movement went way beyond its membership.

McShane comments at one point that there were 8 branches in Glasgow alone and each of them had around 200 members all paying a weekly sub. There were regular local protests at labour exchanges and street meetings, city-wide demonstrations of thousands, and the big national mobilisations. The history of the NUWM contained here is all the more revealing  because it comes from a rank and file leader, immersed in local agitation but with an eye on the bigger picture.
Insights into the Left

One of the book’s strengths is that it provides insight into the complexities of the British Communist Party from the 1920s to the 1950s, and how the changes in its politics and orientation were mediated by CP activists locally. McShane was a loyal activist and indeed he worked full time for the party’s paper the Daily Worker, reporting on Scottish events, during and after the war. He disliked what he saw as a growing cult of Stalin worship in the 1930s, and was often getting into internal arguments with those who uncritically handed down ‘the line from Moscow’, but he didn’t develop any alternative perspective during that period.
One reason was simple ignorance – he and his comrades didn’t know more than a fraction of what we now know about labour camps, forced collectivisation, starvation and show trials, although it is clear there was an element of choosing not to see things too. There was also the lack of any alternative. For McShane, the CP was essential to the mass movement activity that he was engaged in. It also – for a long time after ceasing to be genuinely revolutionary – could still appear to stand in the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Russia was a beacon of hope during this time – McShane was clear that it inspired him and his comrades, and made them feel strong.

The book is also interesting for its insights into the socialist movement before the Communist Party’s formation. Glasgow was the main centre of organisation for the small but significant Socialist Labour Party, which can be regarded as Britain’s earliest revolutionary socialist group. There was also the Social Democratic Federation (and later British Socialist Party), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the syndicalists, and so on. The strengths and weaknesses of the different groups, and the political arguments involved, emerge from McShane’s recollections.
There are many brief portraits of socialist orators and campaigners who McShane encountered – both those based in Glasgow and national figures. Some of them McShane got to know well. The most outstanding figure of all was one of those who McShane worked closely with: John Maclean, the most important British Marxist of the whole period. The insider’s account of Maclean during World War One and up to his death in 1923 provided by the book is one of its most important contributions to our understanding of the socialist movement of that era. McShane’s portrait of his ally is warts and all, but in the course of it the full stature of Maclean and his contribution becomes clear. Maclean was a talented populariser of Marxism and ran Marxist education classes for many years, led the anti-war campaign in Glasgow, and was a tireless agitator in the heat of the struggle.

Socialists and mass movements

Some passages in the book are genuinely thrilling and dramatic, like those depicting militant mass protests (often clashing with the police), but McShane was also keen to explain the dynamics of a struggle and reveal how he and his comrades operated. He was (like Maclean) a natural agitator and flourished in what he termed ‘mass work’, feeling at home in demonstrations and street meetings, finding his purpose in building the NUWM in the 1930s.

He would later feel discontented at the lack of opportunities for mass movement building comparable to the agitations of the 1920s and 1930s, but he was always keen to orient himself on the closest thing available to that experience. For example, he recalls his role in organising a major Scottish demonstration, involving CND, against nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. He had retired, aged 69, in 1960 but continued to be involved in Glasgow Trades Council activity.
Although he was part of a couple of small Marxist groups, holding political discussions, after leaving the CP in 1953, it seems to have been the larger-scale movement activity that mattered most to him. That is not to deny the immense importance of Marxist ideas in sustaining him: he comments, revealingly, that in the years immediately following his departure from the CP he read more Marxist theory than at any time since his teens. He was trying to make sense of what had gone so terribly wrong in the Communist tradition, trying to recover the authentic politics of Marx and Lenin.

Although the book is overwhelmingly a story of action, the account of his intellectual development in a couple of early chapters – the story of how he became a dedicated Marxist – is  fascinating, and it is a development that clearly underpins the rest of McShane’s life story. It is impossible to survive the many twists and turns between 1908 and 1978 – including some major personal setbacks and some potentially very demoralising political defeats – without a deep grounding in the Marxist tradition.
As the book was being written, in 1976, McShane spoke at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time. He was nearly 85. Unemployment was rising again, as capitalist crisis returned. Just as the Crash of 1929 had prompted the mass campaigns of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, the crisis of the 1970s led to the Right to Work Campaign being launched.

The new movement was initiated by the International Socialists, taking the role the CP had in the 1930s, and held a number of unemployed workers’ marches to London. McShane’s speech linked the mass movements of the interwar period with the new wave of mobilisations. His presence was a living link to the struggles of earlier generations. There are great differences between then and now, but in a period of systemic crisis yet again there is a wealth of historical experience from which we can learn.


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