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31st January 1919 - the Battle of George Square

New pamphlet marks 100th anniversary of Red Clydeside and the Battle of George Square

“100 years ago tomorrow, on Friday the 31st of January 1919, tens of thousands of workers gathered in Glasgow’s George Square as their struggle for a 40 hour working week came to a climax.

In response to this massive display of strength and solidarity, and in anticipation of the workers’ reaction to the final refusal of the bosses to accede to their demands, the authorities, acting on behalf of the bosses, mobilised thousands of police in an attempt to cower the workers and beat them into submission.

What followed was a full frontal confrontation between the organised working class and the state. The police charged the crowd with bayonets drawn and the workers, in response, uprooted the palings around the square and used them as weapons to defend themselves.

This event was to become known as “The Battle of George Square”, and passed into working class folk lore. Eventually the Government authorised military force against the workers and that evening there were troops and tanks on the streets of Glasgow.” From 1919: Red Flag over the Clyde by Jim Cameron 

To commemorate the momentous events of Red Clydeside and to draw out some of the key lessons for today, Socialist Party Scotland has produced a new pamphlet 1919: Red Flag over the Clyde. Authored by Jim Cameron, and reworked and extended from his pamphlet of the same name for Scottish Militant Labour in 1993, this is our contribution to the seismic events that shook Glasgow and the west of Scotland from 1914 to 1919. We also dedicate a section of the pamphlet to the ideas and struggles of the outstanding Scottish Marxist John Maclean, who played a decisive role in the Red Clydeside movement.

The pamphlet is available for £3 from Socialist Party Scotland.

Introduction to 1919 – Red Flag Over the Clyde

This pamphlet by Socialist Party Scotland has been produced to mark and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the momentous events that rocked British capitalism to its core in January 1919. We are very grateful to Jim Cameron who has reworked and extended the pamphlet he authored in 1993 for Scottish Militant Labour titled Revolt on the Clyde.

The period of Red Clydeside, particularly the years from 1914 to 1919, are rich in lessons for today. As such they require serious study for socialists and all class-conscious workers. In producing this work we hope to assist in drawing out those lessons and the main conclusions we should draw a century later. Above all the decisive power that the organised working class wields as the key force that can and will challenge and eventually overthrow the venal capitalist system.

The highpoint of the revolutionary events of Red Clydeside was undoubtedly the week-long strike by tens of thousands of engineering workers for a 40 hour week in January 1919. This was no “ordinary” industrial dispute. Indeed the then secretary of state for Scotland famously blurted out: ”It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike – this is a Bolshevist uprising.” January 31st 1919 and the Battle of George Square was testament to the lengths the ruling class would go to try to crush the workers’ revolt.

The ruling class understood the threat they faced. Having watched with horror the success of the October Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 and the November/December 1918 uprising in Germany, they feared a similar development in Britain. And it was Glasgow and Clydeside that posed the biggest although not their only threat.

Socialists and Marxists, particularly the legendary John Maclean, had been instrumental in developing this leadership. So important was John Maclean’s role in the events of Red Clydeside that we dedicate a whole section of this pamphlet to his specific contribution.

While January 1919 represented the high watermark of the revolutionary events, there were many other outstanding examples during this period. Not least were the rent strikes of 1915 led by working class women in a mass movement that won a famous victory.

Revolutionary party needed

Lenin, the great Marxist and co-leader of the Russian revolution outlined four conditions necessary for a successful revolution. “Firstly, faced with a profound crisis, the ruling class is incapable of governing in the old way and begins to split into different wings, each seeking a different solution to the crisis. Secondly, the middle layers are in ferment. Thirdly, the working class seeks a way out, not on the basis of the old society, but of a new order. It moves into battle in a determined fashion. Fourthly, the most crucial condition is the existence at the head of the mass workers’ movement of a clear Marxist leadership, with the necessary strategy, tactics, and organisation to guarantee victory.” Quoted from France 1968: Month of Revolution by Clare Doyle

The incredible determination of the working class of Glasgow and Clydeside, the rising tide of militancy across Britain, not least in Belfast, Liverpool and London posed a mortal threat for the ruling class. Mutinies in the armed forces took place throughout 1917-19, in revolt against the bloody destruction of World War One. And then there were the police strikes in London in 1918. It led the then prime minister, David Lloyd George, to declare the country was “at no time nearer to Bolshevism”.

What was lacking for a successful socialist revolution was Lenin’s fourth condition. The existence of a powerful revolutionary party with real roots in the workers’ organisations that could unify the struggles through a general strike and the taking of power. Even on Clydeside, despite the heroic work of Maclean and others, that did not exist.

Lessons for today

The demise of the industrial base of Clydeside has changed the working class. The public sector, transport, electronics and the super-exploited industries of catering, hospitality and the service sector play a much bigger role. But how fitting that the recent mass equal pay strikes saw George Square filled with thousands of women fighting for pay justice, organised by the trade unions with socialists playing a leading role. The streets filled with union flags and banners, schools, nurseries and council services shut down. Working people taking events into their own hands and becoming conscious of their own power.

The echoes of Red Clydeside therefore still reverberate today. And their lessons, above all the potential power of the working class to change society, are as relevant as they were a century ago.

Today, as capitalism staggers from one crisis to another – economic, environmental, social and political – the ideas of revolutionary socialism are more necessary and relevant than ever. Socialist Party Scotland salutes the contribution of John Maclean and the heroic working men and women of Red Clydeside. Their enduring legacy enriches our struggle today, which is to build the necessary instrument – a mass revolutionary socialist party – to end capitalism and secure a socialist future.

Philip Stott

Socialist Party Scotland

January 2019