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Revolt on the Clyde


 Willie Gallacher


Edited by John Callow


 London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017 (new edition)

Paperback.  201 p.  ISBN 978-1912064694. £13


 Reviewed by Jeremy Tranmer

Université de Lorraine (Metz-Nancy)




Despite its small size and its relatively marginal status in British politics, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) has been the subject of numerous pieces of work. These range from the six-volume semi-official history of the party to academic studies of more precise aspects of its membership, activities and international affiliations. Since the transformation of the CPGB into Democratic Left in 1991 and the opening of its archives, much of the more recent work has been able to go beyond the façade of unanimity that the party presented for many years to the outside world. At the same time, innovative research methods, including prosopography, have also been applied. The lives of individual Communists have not been ignored, with biographies existing of leading British Communists, such as Harry Pollitt, Shapurji Saklatvala and Bert Ramelson.

Autobiographies of Communists are in many ways a particular genre, appearing during the party’s existence and just after its demise. The non-specialist will immediately think of books written by party members (or fellow travellers) who broke with Communism. And there are indeed numerous examples of books written by former British Communists who recanted with varying degrees of virulence (for instance, Douglas Hyde, Malcolm MacEwen and Alison Macleod). However, leading figures, including Harry Pollitt, produced accounts of their lives and experiences as (relatively) loyal Communists. One of the first such accounts to appear was Willie Gallacher’s Revolt on the Clyde, which was first published in 1936 and is the first of five volumes of autobiographical writings. A fifth edition of Revolt on the Clyde has been produced in the year of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event which had a profound impact on Gallacher’s political evolution. The publisher is Lawrence & Wishart, which for many years existed in the orbit of the CPGB. In recent years, its attempts to use copyright law to prevent volumes of the Marx and Engels Collected Works from appearing online have led to accusations of it eschewing its radical past.


The latest edition of Revolt on the Clyde has a foreword written by Gary Smith, Scottish secretary of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union and a twenty-one-page introduction by John Callow. The latter has worked in academia and the trade union movement, as well as being the director of the Marx Memorial Library in London. Callow gives a useful overview of Gallacher’s political career, presents the particularities of the labour movement autobiography as a distinct genre and gives information about the previous editions of the book. The book has been re-edited at a time when heavy industry has declined dramatically, the tertiary sector with its low levels of unionisation is increasingly predominant and the CPGB is but a distant memory. Nevertheless, both men argue in favour of the continued relevance of aspects of Gallacher’s politics, Smith emphasising the contemporary importance of trade unions and Callow praising the “power and vision” of Revolt on the Clyde and concluding that “[t]here is still a world to win, and chains to be shed” [21). The latest edition does contain the occasional error. It can be assumed that the “Gordon McLellan” that Callow refers to [4] is in fact Gordon McLennan, general secretary of the party from 1975 to 1991. Moreover, it is unfortunate that in one short passage [183-186] page numbers presumably from a previous edition appear in addition to those of  the present edition.


Readers expecting a detailed account of Gallacher’s childhood and private life will be disappointed. He makes it clear in the very first lines that they will only be mentioned in so far as they have “a definite bearing upon my becoming a working-class agitator” and that the aim of the book is to “tell of my experiences in the working-class struggle” [25]. In fact, Gallacher led a quite extraordinary life, as a participant in local, national and international working-class politics. Living in Clydeside, he was involved in militant opposition to the First World War and in struggles to create the Clyde Workers’ Committee and to improve the wages and living conditions of ordinary people. Working-class militancy culminated in the 1919 “Battle of George Square” in Glasgow, as a result of which Gallacher was (not for the first time) arrested and sentenced to prison. During this period, he was briefly associated with the major organisations to the left of the Labour Party (the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the British Socialist Party) before gravitating towards Communism. He was an immediate supporter of the Russian Revolution, but his political infatuation with the Bolsheviks was not initially reciprocated. In “Left-wing” Communism : An Infantile Disorder, Lenin berated Gallacher for his opposition to the affiliation of the CPGB to the Labour Party. Gallacher made his way clandestinely to the second congress of the Communist International, where he met Lenin and was persuaded to change his position regarding the Labour Party. He thus became a leading figure in the CPGB, and was elected to parliament in 1935 as the Communist MP for West Fife. The book ends at this point. 


Gallacher’s account of his life and times is both personal and partisan. His criticism of the leadership of the early CPGB, for example, corresponded to the official analysis of its past that the party held in the mid-1930s. He glosses over the changes in line the party underwent in the late 1920s (“Class Against Class”) and the mid-1930s (the Popular Front). However, in spite of (and also because of) this, the book reveals a great deal about Gallacher, his politics and his times and is consequently of potential interest to historians. Gallacher embodies the combination of indigenous radicalism and admiration for the Soviet Union that led to the creation of the CPGB and characterised it for most of its existence. He was thus typical of a small section of the British labour movement that was transformed by the experience of the Russian Revolution (“For the first time in history, the workers, ordinary men and women, had thrown off their oppressors, had expropriated the parasites, and taken the land and industries into their own hands” [128]). Gallacher’s eyewitness account also offers an important insight into the unique political and social culture that existed on Clydeside during and immediately after World War One (as well as into measures taken by the British state to stifle it). Finally, it provides a corrective to the widely-held view that there was unanimous support for the First World War among the British people.     


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