Red Clyde Strike

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Red Clyde Strike

Scotland 1919


The events of Bloody Friday, 31 January 1919, in George Square, Glasgow, have become symbolic of the conflict between the workers and the state that took place in the Clydeside region of Lanarkshire, Scotland. The demonstration by around 60,000 striking workers who were demanding shorter working hours and subsequent violent retaliation by the police resulted from ongoing tensions that had emerged between the workers, their families, and the factory owners who were backed by the British government. Throughout the previous nine years, sporadic mass protests had been held to oppose infringements on workers' rights, rent increases, and Britain's participation in World War I. The context was a marked shift away from moderate Liberal politics toward support for Marxist political groups or the British Labour Party. The effects of growth in left-wing activism and the successful use of direct action to promote the workers' struggle were to characterize the relationship between workers and the state in Britain for the next 65 years and created the Scottish political character that still exists today.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a terrifying new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context


Historians have often attempted to downplay the extent to which Red Clydeside was indeed "Red" or Marxist-Leninist inspired. This is due to the largely organic nature of the unrest; as each dispute developed from specific grievances experienced by the Clydeside workers over a 30-year period. Across industrial Scotland, trade unionism had grown since the late nineteenth century; strikes were often called but had often been broken by force or threat of dismissals. The watershed occurred in 1911.

The introduction of limited automation to the Singer Sewing Machine plant at Clydebank led to an increase in workload but a reduction in the use of skills and so a decrease in wages. Twelve female cabinet polishers called a strike in protest and in two days 11,000 of their colleagues had joined them in support. The increased solidarity caused by shared grievances and involvement of political groups such as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led to initial successes. However, Singer's threat to close the works and move production to Europe led to an unconditional return to work on 10 April 1911. Systematic dismissals of the strike leaders, however, particularly those active in the ILP, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), and the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, meant tensions remained high. Trade union membership increased, as did membership in the Marxist political parties, and throughout Lanarkshire workers learned that unless "all the workers supported all the workers" then the factory and pit owners would always win.

John MacLean was instrumental in spreading the notion of worker solidarity. MacLean ran classes in Marxist economics and industrial history throughout Lanarkshire and was charged and imprisoned for sedition several times during World War I. MacLean encouraged workers to unite within trade unions and behind the Marxist parties (the ILP, SLP, and the British Socialist Party, which would later be re-formed as the Communist Party of Great Britain). His teachings inspired a generation of Scottish socialists including Willie Gallacher, James Maxton, Harry McShane, James Messer, Neil MacLean, and Emmanuel Shinwell, all of whom were instrumental in the Red Clydeside movement. During the 1920s, many of them entered parliament. The coming of World War I—which was, in socialist eyes, the "great imperialist war"—and its effects on the Clydeside workers and their families, gave a practical dimension to MacLean's teaching.

World War I

Industrial centers such as Govan and Partick became key production centers for Britain's war machine. Thousands of workers who had been brought into the munitions industry were rehoused on Clydeside. The demand for housing led to rent increases, and it was the women, many of whose husbands had volunteered or been conscripted, who created Tenants Strike Committees. By mid-1915, at the height of the rent strikes, 20,000 tenants across Glasgow were involved in the nonpayment campaign. British Prime Minister Lloyd George, afraid of the effects on munitions production, introduced legislation to cap rents. In practice, the Rent Restrictions Act (1915) standardized rents at prewar levels. The victory showed that collective action of entire communities, backed by the skilled workers and guided by the political leadership of the Marxist groups, was a winning formula. The act became symbolic of what could be achieved and the strikes became the blueprint for future action.

Industrial disputes and opposition to the war grew apace. The trade union leaders, however, were often conservative when faced with government pressure. The Labour Withholding Committee (LWC) formed following the collapse of the 1915 Engineer's Dispute, which had been caused by the dissembling of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers leaders. This organization passed control over industrial disputes directly into the hands of the workers, agitators, and political activists. The first battle staged by the LWC was in response to the Munitions of War Act, referred to as "the slavery act" by Clydeside workers. This act made it unlawful for a worker to leave the service of an employer without the employer's consent; a new position in a factory could not be refused, regardless of the rate of pay; overtime became mandatory; and tribunals, usually consisting of employers, were created to deal with transgressors. Inevitably agitators were sacked, blacklisted from working elsewhere, and often imprisoned for refusing the terms of the act. Threats of industrial action resulted in few victories and, on the whole, workers were too scared of losing their jobs to support strike action.

The fact that trade union leaders had participated in drafting the Munitions of War Act and were complicit in the dilution policy, which allowed employers to "import" unskilled, cheap labor to do work previously performed by skilled workers, meant that union support waned. The LWC, renamed the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), expanded its membership and became the only organization to represent the workers. The CWC also enjoyed the backing of all the Marxist parties, many of the leaders of which sat on the Committee. The Dilution Committee, a government body set up to coordinate the placement of the new workforce, refused to recognize the CWC as a legitimate trade union. CWC shop stewards were banned from recruiting the imported dilutees and were threatened with dismissal if they were caught trying. A new weapon against the political agitators, the Defense of the Realm Act (1915), reinforced these rules. Attempts to recruit dilutees resulted in deportation to Edinburgh and placement under curfew of a number of shop stewards. John MacLean was arrested in February 1916 and imprisoned for sedition for delivering anticonscription speeches. MacLean's arrest was closely followed by arrests of Willie Gallacher, chairman of the CWC, and Walter Bell, manager of the Socialist Labour Press. John Muir, editor of "The Worker's Freedom of Speech," was found inimical to the Defense of the Realm Act and throughout 1916 socialists across Britain were imprisoned. The movement was also given a martyr when James Connolly, an Irish socialist and ally of the Clydesiders, was executed for taking part in the Easter Rising.

A number of Peace Conventions were held throughout Britain during the summer of 1917. The largest, held in June at Leeds, was inspired by the Russian Revolution but borrowed largely from Leninist rhetoric. Willie Gallacher and a number of MacLean's students were in attendance and calls were made for the release of political prisoners. MacLean was released shortly after, and inspired by the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, he continued his teachings. His successes and his close contacts with the Leninist government led to his appointment as Consul for Soviet Affairs in Great Britain by Lenin. This was unofficial: his office was based in Glasgow rather than London and his activities led once again to his arrest on sedition charges. During his trial in Edinburgh, MacLean said, "I am not here as the accused. I am here as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot." His sentence of five years inspired nationwide demonstrations, which gained him a royal pardon on 3 December 1918. Characteristically, MacLean denounced the pardon, arguing it was the workers who had secured his release by threatening revolution. In speeches following his return to Clydeside, he told the king that his days as monarch were numbered.

Black Friday and Its Legacy

The main reason that the "Red" influence is played down is the reliance placed on parliamentary representation by the majority of the Clydesiders. Many of the CWC leaders stood in 1918, however, despite electoral reforms and extension of suffrage; only Neil MacLean was elected in the discredited "Khaki" Election. The inefficiency of applying the new electoral rules and the fact that many discharged servicemen found themselves disenfranchised contributed to the failure of the Marxist parties. The result was met with widespread dissatisfaction and increased the reliance on direct action as a means to effect the will of the workers.

The key concern for the Clydeside workers in 1918-1919 was the increasing levels of unemployment that would inevitably lead to reduced job security. Calls were made to reduce the weekly working hours to 40 to enable discharged servicemen to find employment. The lack of response led the CWC to call a strike and, by 30 January 1919, despite the lack of concern from the government or trade union leaders, 40,000 workers in engineering and shipbuilding and 36,000 miners from the Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire coalfields had set down their tools. The organizers deployed flying pickets and planned marches and rallies. The police led a violent and unprovoked attack on the largest march, which converged on George Square, Glasgow the next day to hear the Lord Provost's reply to their demands. Many of the CWC leaders were arrested and in two days English troop battalions were deployed to prevent the situation escalating into revolution. By 10 February the strike was called off. The strike did not achieve its stated goal of a 40-hour work-week, but the parties reached a negotiated settlement. Thus the power of direct action was again shown to be a force for exacerbating change.

Although Clydeside did not turn "Red," the 1922 ballot saw the election of many CWC leaders, most of whom represented the ILP or the Labour Party. The industrial regions of Scotland remained a source of radical left-wing and nationalist ideas. Willie Gallacher became the longest-serving communist member of Parliament (MP; 1935-1950). In broader terms direct action as a tool of the workers was established as a mode by which government policy could be changed until the 1980s, when trade union power in Britain was finally broken. The Clydesiders would again act decisively in ending British intervention in the Russian Civil War. In fact as long as industry was based on the banks of the river Clyde, the workers as a force would remain endowed with the spirit of 1919. As one Clydesider of the 1970s recalled, "We were a state within the United Kingdom. A little Bolshevik center that would always fight till the end. They could only destroy our power by closing the yards and the mines."

Key Players

Barbour, Mary (1875-1958): Barbour formed the Glasgow Women's Housing Association and was instrumental in coordinating the rent strikes. In 1920 she became the first female councillor in Glasgow.

Gallacher, Willie (1881-1965): Gallacher worked as an apprentice engineer at Albion Motor Works and became the political leader of the Clyde Workers Committee. He helped form the Scottish branch of the Communist Party and became the longest standing Communist MP, representing East Fife from 1935 to 1950. He wrote an account of Red Clydeside (Revolt on the Clyde, 1936).

MacLean, John (1879-1923): Taught classes on Marxism across industrial Scotland and was the chief ideological influence behind the event. MacLean's antiwar agitation after 1914 led to several arrests for sedition. Some 20,000 Clydeside workers attended his funeral; his eulogy declared him the champion of the laboring classes. Historians since have named MacLean the leading revolutionary of the 1910-1922 era.



Duncan, Robert, and Arthur McIvor, eds. Militant Workers:Labour and Class Conflict on the Clyde 1900-1950.Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992.

Gallacher, Willie. Revolt on the Clyde. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1936.

Kenefick, William, and Arthur McIvor, eds. The Roots ofRed Clydeside, 1910-1914. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1996.

Kirkwood, Davie. My Life of Revolt. London: Harrap & Co.Ltd, 1935.

MacLean, Ian. The Legend of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: J.Donald, 1983.

Shinwell, Emmanuel. Conflict without Malice. London: Oldhams, 1955.

Young, John D. The Very Bastards of Creation: Scottish International Radicalism, 1707-1995. Glasgow: Clydeside Press, 1997.


Foster, John. "Strike Action and Working Class Politics on Clydeside 1914-1919." International Review of Social History, 25 (1990): 33-70.

Melling, Joseph. "Whatever Happened to Red Clydeside?"International Review of Social History, 35 (1990): 3-32.


"Red Clydeside." Glasgow Digital Library, University ofStrathclyde, Scotland. 7 May 2002 [cited 22 July 2002]. html

Additional Resources


The John MacLean Resource Archive. http://

—Darren G. Lilleker