2nd February 2019: a crisp clear winters day in Glasgow. A crowd of around sixty gathers in George Square and a man with a loud voice shouts ‘Comrades! Comrades!’, as small children wave red flags. Local organiser David Lees explains to onlookers that 100 years ago the square gained a global reputation as an epicentre of great unrest. Just months after the guns on the Western Front had fallen quiet tens of thousands of striking Glaswegian workers and their supporters clashed with police in the so-called Battle of George Square. Their demand was a forty-hour working week, but collective memory of the events of 1919 has centred on the disorder, the rioting, and the deployment of British troops and tanks to parts of the city in the days and weeks that followed.
The tour, which we joined David in organising, was only one of a plethora of events marking the centenary of ‘Red Clydeside’. In December 2018, the Scottish Labour History Society held a fundraising gig for the Living Rent campaign to commemorate the socialist revolutionary John Maclean’s return to the Clyde after his release from wartime imprisonment. During the previous month, the Scottish Jewish Archives centre held an event at the Mitchell Library to commemorate Glasgow’s ‘Jewish Rebels’, and in the following January Dr Valerie Wright addressed a meeting on the city’s labour history, emphasising women’s contributions to class struggle. All three of these events attracted crowds in excess of one hundred. On Sunday 5th May 2019, Glasgow’s annual May Day demonstration marked the final and largest centenary event commemorating the events of 1919. Commemoration has interested diverse groups of researchers, activists and institutions. Its politics are negotiated between conflicting claims grounded in assertions of authenticity, familial connection and intellectual authority. Respect for tradition meets the desire to create a ‘usable past’ fit for the second decade of the 21st century. So how do these conflicting ideologies wrestle to find meaning and relevance in the city’s radical past?
Before last autumn, Red Clydeside centenaries were largely concerned with Mary Barbour and the 1915 Rent Strike. This is in part because much work has been done to reclaim the role of women in Glasgow’s radical history. The legacy of battles between tenement residents and sheriff officers, and the celebrated victory of the rent strikers led by Barbour and other women who forced the government to impose rent restrictions have been the focus of commemorations. The contemporary parallels with the housing crisis and Living Rent Campaign are clear, and the huge crowds that gathered to mark the unveiling of Mary Barbour’s statue in Govan in March 2018 were a testament both to the memory of the Rent Strike, and to the precarious housing situation of many in the city today. But over the same period, events to mark the key anti-war strikes, anti-imperialist campaigns and trials of Red Clydeside activists have been largely absent from the commemorative programme. Perhaps it is simply temporal logic that led to memories of industrial action largely taking a back seat until 2019. After all, 1919 is the dominant year in memories of workers’ militancy in the city. However, the deepening sense of political crisis in the present day has renewed focus on Red Clydeside as a challenge to constitutional order and a limited form of representative democracy, whilst internationalism perhaps remains somewhat distant. Unlike the previous decade, the 2010s have seen standards of living, rather than imperialism, define left-wing politics across the UK. At the same time, in 2019, increased militancy among teachers, council workers, and those on zero-hour contracts has brought trade unionism and strike action back to the fore in Glasgow in time for the anniversary of the Battle of George Square.
The early commemorations of Red Clydeside marked it as the closest modern Scotland has come to a revolution. Between the publication of Glasgow shop steward leader, and later Communist MP, Willie Gallacher’s autobiography, Revolt on the Clyde in 1936, and the first performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘John Maclean’ march in 1948, a folk memory of Red Clydeside emerged that privileged John Maclean. Maclean’s role as an anti-war revolutionary gave succour to the picture of Glasgow as the Petrograd of the west with its very own Lenin. Maclean’s later support for Scottish independence granted writers such as Hugh MacDiarmaid and Alasdair Gray a basis on which to project Red Clydeside as the foundation for a distinctive Scottish radicalism and placed the Red Clyde within the collective memory of Scottish Nationalists too. Maclean was himself involved in organising commemorations for Marx’s centenary and the fortieth anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871. His politics also increasingly drew on the memory of the Highland Clearances and a kind of Gaelic proto-communism. Maclean’s Scottish Labour College taught industrial history to worker activists, many of whom later became leaders of Scottish Communism, and in this way Red Clydeside laid the groundwork for its own commemoration. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), exemplified by Gallacher, was also keen to present itself as grounded in national traditions, especially after the turn towards ‘popular front’ politics during the 1930s when it aligned with the Independent Labour Party and nascent SNP.
More consistent commemorative traditions evolved during the second half of the twentieth century. The formation of a John Maclean Society in 1968 led to the development of an annual graveside commemoration which endures to this day, albeit in low and aging numbers. Nevertheless, Maclean remains a dominant figure in the popular account of Red Clydeside and a key source of inspiration to labour movement socialists and left-wing nationalists, even if neither the SNP or Labour Party officially seek to claim him. Unlike John Wheatley (Labour), Jimmy Maxton (ILP) and Willie Gallacher (CPGB) Maclean died young in 1923 and was not entangled in the compromises that segments of the left made in the years which followed. As Maclean’s legend and those of Red Clydeside grew to epic proportions, and were played out in theatre and song, another aspect of commemoration has been to confront these myths – and to puncture some of their grander claims. Gordon Barclay, a retired archaeologist and military historian has been prominent in these efforts. A quick glance at his Twitter profile reveals ongoing spats with opponents insisting against all evidence that tanks were in fact deployed in George Square following the ‘battle’ in January 1919. The ways in which those tanks are redeployed in the popular imagination by some nationalists and socialists is a key battleground in the ongoing commemorations and in Glasgow’s conception of itself.
That conception of Glasgow’s radical history has attracted scholars who have subsequently developed accounts of its history. Professors John Foster and Arthur McIvor are both English intellectuals who arrived in Glasgow as relatively young men and have contributed to a more sophisticated academic account of Red Clydeside. The writers of this post were also both partly attracted to study our undergraduate degrees in Glasgow (from Edinburgh and Bristol respectively) in search of a ‘radical city’. Such an image of Glasgow, aided by the commemorations discussed here, continues to draw socialists to the city, though many may be disappointed by what they find at first. Responding to this probably not unusual journey of disillusionment with relatively vapid student politics requires grounding radical histories in a complex and contradictory reality of material pressures. It has meant coming to terms with the fluid nature of traditions that are always re-shaped by interpreting the past in evolving contemporary contexts. Whatever their limitations, the commemoration of working-class struggles for better homes, democracy in the workplace, and peace, challenges the dominant idea that Britain has an exceptional history marked by a popular commitment to moderate constitutional politics. Instead it emphasises episodes where communities, workers and the state resorted to militant confrontations that should not be overlooked.
During the strike for a forty-hour working week, miners in the Lanarkshire coalfield, which included some of eastern Glasgow, stormed their union’s office in the town of Hamilton. The crowd was disappointed by their own official’s moderation. It included revolver-wielding war veterans and also carried a red flag. It’s unlikely that the present-day union officials who themed Glasgow May Day around Red Clydeside had this particular episode in mind. They are not alone. The usable pasts offered by the radicalism of a century or so ago are fuel for Scottish nationalists, social democrats, socialists, syndicalists and housing and workplace campaigners. 1919 provides fuel for a self-professedly radical city preserved in folk songs and well kent stories. It is however, a living and continually renegotiated tradition lent on and redeployed in particular junctures of political struggles and ideological climates.
Ewan Gibbs lectures at the University of the West of Scotland and serves on the committee of the Scottish Labour History Society. He has published on housing and trade union activists’ mobilisation of usable pasts on Clydeside during the twentieth century.
Henry Bell is the editor of Gutter magazine and the author of John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside (Pluto, 2018).