Scotland and the Russian Revolution

SLHS Annual Conference 2017

Opening text

The 2017 conference, held in the “penthouse” conference suite at the Glasgow offices of Unite, formed the Scottish Labour History Society’s contribution to the centenary commemorations of the Russian Revolution. Despite an unfortunate series of late cancellations by booked speakers, attendees nevertheless enjoyed a varied programme of contributions exploring aspects of the influence of the Russian revolution on Scottish politics and society and the contributions of Scots to international and UK political developments on the Left in the revolution’s wake.

The event opened with a pre-recorded video presentation on The Russian Revolution and the Emergence of the Communist Party in Scotland from John Foster, emeritus professor of social sciences at the University of the West of Scotland and International Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain. He was sadly unable to be with us in person due to a prior commitment to speak at the official Centenary Celebration Conference at the TUC in London. John placed the Russian Revolutions of 1917 in the context of attitudes to the First World War in both Scotland and Russia. The events of February, replacing Tsarism with a pro-war Provisional Government, strengthened the position in Scotland of the pro-war, right-wing leadership against anti-war socialists including the Clydeside anti-war shop stewards; those of October, in ending Russian participation in the war, provided impetus to the wave of industrial militancy sweeping Scotland’s war industries in the winter of 1917-18. The relative youth of the key activists in this wave of unrest was stressed; by the time of the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) they were nevertheless politically experienced beyond their years as a result of the struggles on Clydeside between 1917 and 1920. The experience of the 1919 Clydeside general strike and the wartime Workers’ Committees was theorised by William Gallacher in his pamphlet Direct Action and influenced the debates around the formation of the party, in which a preponderance of the key leadership figures were Scots.

Dr Jane McDermid, emeritus fellow at the University of Southampton, presented her work on Scottish women and the Russian revolution, combining her long-term interests in the history of twentieth-century Russia and Britain and gender history. She drew principally on the diaries of volunteers with Elsie Inglis’s Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) who travelled through Russia to provide medical services to Serb forces on the eastern front. As with John Foster’s contribution, Jane’s let us see the revolution in an international context dominated by the war; the SWH was pro-war, hoping for improved Russian military performance as a result of the events of February, and left Russia after the October revolution and the Bolshevik withdrawal from the war. As outside observers the Scottish women both bore witness to the popular nature of the February revolution and reflected the concerns and alarms of a privileged minority at this outbreak of democracy. Despite the SWH’s explicit feminism volunteers’ accounts paid little attention to the condition of women in Russia, in contrast to Women’s Peace Crusade founder and Communist Helen Crawfurd who strongly supported the feminist aspects of the Bolshevik constitution.

Ruth McKenna, PhD student at the University of Glasgow, next presented her research on the representation of Russia and Russians in British culture and politics and its effect on popular perceptions of Russia, and on the experiences of Russian migrants in the UK. Using analysis of newspaper and political outputs as well as interviews with both Russians living in Scotland and the Scots amongst whom they have settled, Ruth’s research, while focusing on the present day, demonstrated the influence of the idea of a revolutionary past in defining “Russianness” for the Scottish public. It was also interesting to note the persistent association of Russia with the high culture of ballet, classical music and literature to which Soviet cultural policy provided access for the workers. The contemporary slant of Ruth’s contribution had the refreshing character of novelty in a day otherwise devoted to events of one hundred years ago, and served to emphasise the longstanding, ongoing links between the Scottish and Russian peoples.

Following lunch and the Society’s AGM, Terry Brotherstone, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, gave his paper Beyond John Maclean: Working Class Internationalism in Scotland. He opened by addressing the right-wing revisionist narrative of the 1970s and 80s, according to which Red Clydeside is merely a myth, before moving on to examine the role of figures such as William Gallacher. Although Maclean was the only Scot named in the call to the inaugural meeting of the Third International in 1919, he was unable to attend; Gallacher and other younger activists taught by Maclean in night classes did. They went on to found the CPGB in 1920, while Maclean remained outside the new party (although he also remained in post as the - unrecognised - Soviet Consul in Scotland), favouring a separate Scottish Communist Party.

The day’s final contribution was from Calum Martin, National Co-Chair of the Scottish Socialist Party, and explored competition and co-operation between the various parties and groupings of the British and Scottish Left in the thirty-year period prior to the revolution. He addressed the question of whether the Left is inherently fractious and suggested that this is a view distorted by the prism of hindsight, exaggerating relatively superficial divisions because attempts to build a unified movement were ultimately unsuccessful. The divisions can thus perhaps be better understood as different routes to a shared destination. He pointed to the tendency for prominent activists to hold multiple party memberships in a British socialist movement that, unlike that in the rest of the West, had not coalesced into a single mass party. Members of the Independent Labour Party (and its Scottish predecessors) and the Social Democratic Federation worked together at municipal level through electoral agreements and joint campaigns, especially before the turn of the twentieth century. While the October Revolution stimulated radical ambitions in the British Left and inspired new approaches to social transformation, it also intensified divisions between competing socialist visions and forms of mass organisation.

Carolyn McAllister (SLHS vice-chair)