A short account by a participant of the UK's largest working class anarchist movement (with the possible exception of the better known movement among London's East End Jews); in Glasgow during the first half of the 20th century. The movement contained an unusual combination of Stirnerite egoist and anarcho-syndicalist influences.
Source; Workers City, ed. Farquhar McLay; Clydeside Press, Glasgow 1988.
The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour: we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently... One day it will be realised that Socialism is not the invention of anything new but the discovery of something that was always present, of something that has grown.
WHEN I WAS an apprentice engineer in Yarrow's I was already reading Marx. At the time I started my apprenticeship I was very naive. The Catholic Church and State indoctrination had done their usual mischief. But industry freed me from all that and it didn't take too ~ long. Industry became my university. There was a good class-conscious and political education running alongside my engineering training. Whilst serving my time I had the good fortune to encounter some engineers and other grades of workers who were quite erudite. These people read important books and argued about what they read. There was always some social or political or philosophical controversy going on. Listening to these, and indeed taking part in them as far as I was able at the time, soon annihilated my shallow metaphysical religiosity. I began to question everything and examine things for myself and the scientific analysis of religion led on to the scientific analysis of the economic and political system. It was a logical step. If the first was a fraud, the other might be as well. I was introduced to a lot of literature on economics, mostly short popular works and pamphlets. I soon grew dissatisfied with these because they kept referring back and taking their authority from major works in the past. I decided to go in at the deep end and take on the major works for myself. That's how I started reading Marx. It was a long hard slog but well worth it. I had to acquire a whole new vocabulary. Butif you have to struggle a bit at the outset, things usually take better hold in the understanding. It's better than just making do with other people's commentaries and second-hand interpretations.
I was certainly drawn to Communism but not the Communist Party. There were many ex-Catholics in the CP at that time. I knew plenty of them. It was I suppose a kind of home from home for a lot of them. It had the same kind of rigid hierarchical structure after all, with a few people at the top doing all the thinking, making all the decisions and keeping all the control. I saw through that all right. Perhaps I should say I was drawn to Socialism. But the terms Communism and Socialism are really interchangeable. It was Lenin who falsely differentiated between them.
When Lenin was advocating State Capitalism in Russia he claimed that this was 'Socialism' which would, in time, with the development of production and technology, finally transform into `true red-blooded Communism'. This was just doubletalk. And if you became a member of the CP you went about parroting this doubletalk. This was what they called Party discipline. I suppose it was my resistance to this kind of discipline which kept me out of the CP. Probably at that time it was more a matter of temperament than anything else. But then came the Apprentices' Strike, which the Communist Party opposed, and that was enough for me. This was during the last year of my apprenticeship, round about 1943-44. I was on the strike committee representing Yarrow's apprentices. The strike was against the Bevin Ballot Scheme. Ernest Bevin was the minister of labour and social services. He'd made the blunder of sending too many miners into the armed forces. To remedy this he came up with the idea of suspending some lads' apprenticeships so he could then conscript them into the coal mines. Patriotism fell on stony ground in this instance. The apprentices struck. It was the first major protest I was involved in and it was completely successful. In something like three weeks Bevin caved in. The Communist Party had opposed the strike because Russia was by that time into the war on the side of the allies. Their opposition alienated me and numerous other young people.
It was Eddie Shaw who introduced me to the Egoist philosophy of Max Stirner. The history of human progress seen as the history of rebellion and disobedience, with the individual debased by subservience to authority in its many forms and able to retain his/her dignity only through rebellion and disobedience. Eddie was a brilliant Anarchist orator who drew vast crowds to the meetings, whether indoors or in the open air. Another popular speaker was Jimmy Raeside. In the Central Halls and at various other venues throughout the city the Anarchist meetings were jam-packed. I might add that, during World War II and for several years thereafter, the Glasgow Anarchist Group was easily the most active and vociferous of all the Left groupings in this country. There were of course regional contacts with staunch comrades in other groups. We had platform speakers from Burnbank, Hamilton, Paisley, Edinburgh and Dundee. Over any single weekend there must have been a few thousand people attending Anarchist meetings. I first came across the Anarchists at an outdoor meeting in Brunswick Street, towards the end of my apprenticeship.
The group had about sixty active members at this time. Not everybody had an aptitude for platform speaking. One would feel like doing such and such but not another. One might write but be disinclined to speak in public but perhaps would do so on occasion. Naturally most members had a shot at everything. I remember, for example, old Tommy Layden (he was old relatively speaking within the group). Tommy loved to chalk the streets advertising the meetings; he took great pride in his print and nobody could do it better. He also tirelessly sold the literature. Old Tommy breathed Anarchism. He always remembered the Commie and Trotskyite thugs who had often resorted to violence when they caught him chalking on his own. But he always spoke of them as if they were more to be pitied than despised. He was a refined, pleasant man and deserves to be remembered.
There were several shop stewards in the group. Eddie Fenwick was the convenor in Hillington (you had to be in the union in a closed shop). Eddie, like most in the group, had a Syndicalist orientation. He was somewhat shy of the platform but more than made up for this on a personal man-to-man level in the workshop where he spread the Anarcho-Syndicalist case freely. We also had a lot of stewards in the heavy engineering and shipbuilding industries. There was a small group in the Royal Ordinance Factory in Dalmuir who were most definitely Syndicalist in character. Although Jimmy Raeside and Frank Leech of the central Glasgow Anarchist Group spoke frequently at the Ordinance Factory gate, I'm certain this group had roots in Anarchism independent of this, for a lot of them were a good few years older than Leech and Raeside. I remember them coming to Brunswick Street to arrange for the production of a pamphlet called 'Equity'. It was powerfully and indubitantly Syndicalist.
Charlie Baird was the secretary of the Glasgow Anarchist Group. We held business meetings in the hall in Wilson Street, ironically adjacent to the pub called `The Hangman's Rest'. It was here, each week, the propaganda meetings were arranged, all on a voluntary basis. Some would elect to travel to Edinburgh or Paisley or Hamilton. Edinburgh meetings were held in the Mound. In Paisley the meetings were held in the Square at Gilmour Street railway station. Occasionally meetings were held on weekdays in Paisley, and also in Glasgow in Drury Street and Rose Street. Every week meetings were held outside work gates: outside Yarrow's and Elderslie Dry Dock; outside John Brown's shipyard; Blythswood shipyard; Dalmuir Ordinance Factory; Fairfield's shipyard. Dennis McGlynn, a Clydebank comrade, was well accepted at John Brown's, he being a local lad. Eddie Shaw was always well received at Yarrow's.
Eddie resided in Bridgeton and there were many of Yarrow's workers who came from Bridgeton, Calton, Partick and Govan: they could understand and always delighted in Eddie's brand of humour put over in the real speech of the Glasgow streets. This was Anarchism in the language they were best acquainted with and they loved it.
Eddie was one of the 'old School' who never went to jail for opposing the war. He was apprehended for failing to attend for medical examination (medical assassination, Eddie called it) and when he was out on bail he consulted Aldred who advised him that there was a difference between being ordered to report on a specified day and being ordered to report on a specified day at a specified time. No specified time had been stated. On the day Eddie had been ordered to report, the authorities, knowing their man, had jumped the gun. They had apprehended him whilst in theory he still had time to report. Eddie appealed at the High Court and incredibly his appeal was upheld. He was acquitted and awarded £10 expenses. In a matter of months the upper age-limit for conscription was lowered, so Eddie escaped his 'medical assassination'. Jimmy Raeside, Charlie Baird, Roger Carr, Dennis McGlynn, Jimmy Dick and others had all been forced to accept the hospitality of the Crown in Barlinnie. It was no deterrent to them. And on their release their zeal for the cause was undiminished.
The Anarchist hall in Wilson Street was a refuge for conscientious objectors and soldiers absent without leave who claimed to be Anarchist sympathisers. We didn't care whether they were genuine sympathisers or not. They were working class and trying to escape the war. That was enough. A key hung on a string from inside the letter box and anybody could get access any time by just inserting a hand and raising the key.
Four of us linked ourselves to the Glasgow Anarchist Group after thc Apprentices' Strike. A while later I joined a ship at Rothesay Dock in Yoker as an engineer.
When I got back home after that first voyage two of my old friends had drifted away but one was still with the group. That was Bill Johnson. After a year or so he began to dabble more in trade union activities. He was becoming ambitious for a place in the trade union hierarchy. He is now and has been for some years Lord Provost of Clydebank. This is not any condemnation of Anarchism. It is a condemnation of Bill Johnson. Even people calling themselves Anarchists can be opportunists. You have to look at the man as well as the 'ism'.
In a certain sense the Glasgow Anarchists of that period made a unique contribution to the broad Anarchist movement in Britain. Most of the comrades could accept the philosophy of Egoism and dovetail it into the Syndicalist tendency within the movement. For my part I was quite strong about this fusion. In fact I think I was a firmer adherent of this school than was Eddie Shaw although, as I say, initially Eddie was the teacher and I was the pupil. Many were admirers of Kropotkin as I was. Kropotkin did of course criticise the philosophy of Egoism. In spite of this, I do not think Kropotkin's `Mutual Aid' really contradicts Stirner's argument. It is at least obvious to me that those who practice mutual aid are in fact the best egoists. This view is not a reconciliation; it is a fusion. Kropotkin is not I, and I am not Kropotkin. Stirner is not I nor am I Stirner. Both are dead: I subdue their arguments if they want to argue. I dominate my thought: I am not its slave. I am neither a Kropotkinite nor a Stirnerite nor any other 'ite' or 'ist'. This, in the main, was the healthy attitude of most of the Glasgow Anarchists of the period.
Guy Aldred was not exactly endeared to the Syndicalists, although many of the Wilson Street Anarchists, such as Rab Lyle from Burnbank, were frequent visitors to the Strickland Press and had a lot of time for Guy. Nevertheless the industrial expression of Anarchism was conspicuous by its absence in Guy's paper "The Word'. Most of the content of `The Word' was anti-parliamentarian, antimilitarist and pacifist. Guy was an intellectual. His background was clerical and he had no real contact with, or profound knowledge of, the industrial workplace. He failed to recognise that those Syndicalists who worked during the war in industries producing war potential did not live in a social vacuum. What about farmers and land workers in general? They were also sucked into the war effort. Even Napoleon knew an army only marches on a full belly.
A strong Syndicalist movement could have taken over the fields, factories and workshops and all the means of communication, for the benefit of the mass of the people. That's what we were about. The only place it was ever likely to happen was at the point of production. We were certain of that much. Then the horizontal war and the vertical war could have been ended. What do I mean? The horizontal war is war between different so-called nations. When this war ends, the vertical war continues: the war between the haves and the have-nots. Horizontal wars are only State-promoted diversions from the real war which is always vertical.
Guy had had long-standing problems, probably more to do with clashes of personality than anything clse, with the Freedom Press group in London. During the war the Anarchist paper 'Freedom' changed its name to 'War Commentary'. In 1945 four comrades from the editorial board were charged with sedition: attempting to cause disaffection within the armed services. It stemmed from an article in 'War Commentary' in which it was urged that the armed forces should retain their weapons after the war to assist in the revolutionary struggle - the vertical war. The Glasgow Anarchists organised protest meetings in defence of the four. We rented the Cosmo cinema and another - I think it was called the Grand - which was next door to the Locarno Ballroom. Both cinemas were packed to capacity.
Speakers came along from other organisations to lend their support. Oliver Brown from the Scottish Nationalists was there. Jimmy Raeside, representing the Glasgow Anarchists spoke in the Grand. Eddie Shaw was on the platform, or stage if you like, in the Cosmo. I remember Eddie making a joke about this. "The Commical Party" (the Communist Party), he quipped, "always said I should be a comedian on the stage: now they at least should be happy to see me up here." The CP, needless to say, hated Eddie's guts, he having humiliated them in debate too many times.
Sadly, Guy Aldred gave no support whatsoever. He was still unable to put aside his deep-rooted personal conflict with some members of the Freedom Press group. Well, everybody has shortcomings in the eyes of someone. Guy was no exception, great fighter for social justice though he was.
Three of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. The fourth, Italian-born Marie Louise Berneri, was discharged. She and one of her co-accused, Vernon Richards, had entered into a marriage of convenience to save her being interned as an alien. In the eyes of the law this made Vernon responsible for his wife's conduct, and she was discharged on these grounds.
I would like to apologise to all comrades still living who were involved with the group at that period. I am conscious that I haven't given the group its just reward either individually or collectively. I earnestly hope some truly honest working class historian will one day render to posterity a greater insight into the important contribution made by the Glasgow Anarchists. There is no greater wealth than knowing the story of how some people sincerely endeavoured to demolish the insane asylum the State has penned us in. I leave this as a signpost only, indicating the road we took and some of the thoughts we had on the way.
For further information on the same topic, see also; http://libcom.org/history/anarchism-1940s-glasgow