Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
The famous image of Red Clydeside is the raising of the red flag above 35,000 striking engineering workers massed in Glasgow's George Square during the 40 hours strike that has gone down in history as Bloody Friday. Under secret Cabinet orders mounted police launched a savage, unprovoked baton charge on the demonstration. The strikers fought back and routed their attackers, but eventually the Riot Act was read and the strike leaders were arrested.
What happened next is described in this eyewitness account. 'Next morning Glasgow was like an armed camp. Throughout the night trainloads of young soldiers had been brought to the city--young lads of 19 or so who had no idea of where they were or why they were there. The authorities did not dare use the local regiments billeted at Maryhill barracks, in case they supported the strikers. The whole city bristled with tanks and machine guns.' This was a decisive moment for the developing revolutionary movement in Britain.
From 1915 onwards the Clydeside munitions workers had become the vanguard of working class resistance to the war effort. Out of their struggles, a new kind of working class organisation was born--the Clyde Workers' Committee. Based on shop stewards' organisation and under rank and file control, it provided the model which militant workers across Britain would follow during the war.
The changes wrought by the war economy in both the workplace and on the already overcrowded housing estates had made Clydeside fertile ground for militant trade unionism and socialist agitation. In these conditions politics and economics began to fuse together, creating opportunities for anti-war socialists like John Maclean. In May 1917, 90,000 workers marched to Glasgow Green in support of the February Revolution in Russia. On 1 May 1918, 100,000 struck against the war.
In November 1918 the German Revolution ended the war. In Britain there was an explosion of strikes and mutinies in the army, the navy and the police. The ruling class was terrified.
The key battles of 1919 were the 40 hours mass strike in engineering and the threat of an all out strike by 1 million miners for workers' control of the mining industry. Every other key group of workers were disaffected. With the war over and unemployment set to rocket, the mood was bitter and moving left. Both the miners and engineers were voting heavily in favour of all out strike.
John Maclean argued to link the two struggles into an all out political assault on the ruling class. 'Governments never compromise unless they have to--now is the time to break British capitalism for good,' he said. Maclean's instincts were correct but as an individual without an organisation he had no leverage on events.
The 40 hour strike began on Clydeside on 27 January. The strike call came from below and had been opposed by the leaders of the engineering union, the STUC and the TUC. Yet the bureaucracy's attempt to prevent the strike failed, and within a few days mass flying pickets had brought the Clyde Valley to a standstill--with over 100,000 out indefinitely. The strike was run by local committees that met daily. It soon spread to the Lanarkshire and Fife coalfields, to the Forth, to the Vale of Leven, to the north of England and to Belfast. The high point was Bloody Friday. Once the army had occupied Glasgow, attacks on the strike by the press and the union officials mounted. The strike committees in Glasgow, London and Belfast were suspended by the executive of their own union, the ASE, and strike pay was withdrawn. The mass picketing was called off by the local leadership and the strike petered out with Glasgow like an armed camp.
The Labour and trade union leaders claim these events show that workers can never challenge the power of the armed state and that reforms through parliament are all that can be achieved. But John Maclean got it right at the time when he pointed out that 'the strike was defeated more by lack of working class ripeness than by tanks and machine guns.' In his book Revolt on the Clyde, Willie Gallagher, a revolutionary shop steward and one of the key leaders of the strike, claimed, 'We were leading a strike when we should have been leading a revolution. A rising was expected--a rising should have taken place.' Gallagher was wrong--George Square was not the Winter Palace and they were not leading an insurrection. But if Gallagher and the local leadership had led the strike as revolutionaries, and not simply as trade unionists, they would have won. If the local leadership had maintained the mass picketing instead of calling it off, if they had sent delegations to Maryhill barracks to fraternise with the troops, if they had sent delegations out to the coalfields and into England, then they could have won a victory against a terrified ruling class. In 1919 a victory over the British ruling class would have created a sharp political crisis and opened up the prospects for revolution.
At the time the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci described the potential: 'We say that the present period is revolutionary because we can see that the working class in all countries is tending to generate from within itself, and with the utmost energy, proletarian institutions of a new type--representative in basis and industrial in arena.' The Red Clyde was a part of this energy and its embryonic workers' council movement still points the way forward for socialists today--provided we learn from its weaknesses and stress the need for revolutionary political organisation.