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Looking back a century to May 1918

ON MAY 1 1918 Glasgow experienced a massive May Day demonstration. For those taking part, it demonstrated that “patriotic” support for the war (with hundreds of thousands of casualties suffered since the German advance on the Western front had begun on March 21), ceased to be an argument on the table.

Some 90,000 people came on to the streets, bound for Glasgow Green. Speakers from 20 platforms were then heard. The British Socialist Party’s The Call soon afterwards commented: “It was quite plain to all that that great assembly of workers were out for Peace and the overthrow of Capitalism.” There were many shouts for the release of leading socialist agitator John Maclean, then in Duke Street prison, awaiting trial on May 9.

The first of May was also the day of the appeals heard in the London Inner Sessions at Clerkenwell by philosopher Bertrand Russell and peace campaigner and socialist Joan Beauchamp against their February sentences for encouraging “disaffection” in the Tribunal, the organ of the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF).

Russell’s sentence of six months in the “second division” was now upgraded to the privileged regime of the first, while Joan Beauchamp, previously given a fine or three months in prison, now received one month’s jail, having refused to pay the fine. Russell’s sentence was adjusted in the light of his being “a man of great distinction,” unlike, the judicial thinking may have run, the usual riff-raff of anti-conscriptionists.

London’s May Day meeting, unlike Glasgow’s, was to be on Sunday May 5, but was abruptly prohibited by the Home Office.

A year earlier, more than 100,000 people had turned out for the celebration, and another big gathering was expected. But late on May 3, police served notice on the Karl Marx Centenary Committee (comprising the British Socialist Party (BSP), Independent Labour Party and trade union branches etc) that the meeting and its associated processions were outlawed by the Home Secretary. It had been planned that seven marches would lead into Finsbury Park from different directions, and that fifty speakers would address the crowd from eight platforms.

The ban was promoted by the Daily Express, owned by the present Minister of Information, Lord Beaverbrook. On May 3 it proclaimed: “The peacetime toleration that permitted every addle-pated orator to let off steam is no longer possible. This proposed pacifist orgy is a direct incitement to a breach of the peace. They include however, middle-class pacifists … and various representatives of a mysterious body that calls itself the Karl Marx Centenary Committee.”

There was no mystery about the committee, or about the courage of the people (perhaps a thousand) who braved the ban to gather in Finsbury Park on May 5 to listen to speakers before being dispersed violently by mounted police.

Three miles away, at Highgate Cemetery, another show of defiance took place. A good number of people wishing to take part in a commemorative event at the grave of Karl Marx a century after his birth were prevented from doing so. Eventually the police allowed a deputation to go in to place wreaths on the grave. One wreath was the offering of “ambassador” Maxim Litvinov, who had been refused, like his government, recognition. It carried the inscription “From Russia, the first Socialist Republic, in memory of Karl Marx, who showed the workers of the world the path to self-emancipation.” Litvinov had by now moved with his family from West Hampstead to new rooms at 11 Bigwood Road, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and his BSP-published pamphlet The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning was available for 1 shilling.

On May 8 two leading members of the NCF were up before the Bow Street beak. These were Lydia Smith, undisclosed editor of the Tribunal, and Violet Tillard (“Tilly”), general secretary. They had refused to give police the address of the printer of the internally circulated NCF News, after the breaking-up and confiscation of the Tribunal printer’s equipment in April. Tilly was singled out, fined heavily, and appealed.

John Maclean’s trial took place on May 9 before judge and jury in Edinburgh. The previous night 30 Scottish socialists had tramped from Glasgow to the trial venue. The charges against him were of sedition, of prejudicing recruiting, and of attempting to cause disaffection, and were based on his recent speeches.

The Times on May 10 solemnly caricatured the prosecution case. “The prisoner advocated ‘downing’ tools, and said that socialists should break all laws. He advised the workers to take control of Glasgow City Chambers, the Post Office, and the banks, and urged that the House of Commons should be superseded by a Soviet, saying that he did not care whether they met in the usual place or at Buckingham Palace.”

If accurate, that would have been sufficiently outlandish to make prosecution ludicrous. Refusing to plead guilty or not guilty, Maclean gave a lengthy speech which newspapers did not care to report. It included, prophetically:

“If one side or the other wins, then the revenge will come … In view of the fact that the great powers are not prepared to stop the war until the one side or the other is broken down, it is our business as members of the working class to see that this war ceases today, not only to save the lives of the young men of the present, but also to stave off the next great war … I am out for an absolute reconstruction of society, on a co-operative basis, throughout all the world; when we stop the need for armies and navies, we stop the need for war.”

The middle-class jury found him guilty as charged without needing to retire, and the judge found sentencing an easy chore. He was given five years’ penal servitude.

“He is sentenced to this fearful punishment simply for talking,” commented Labour’s George Lansbury-edited Herald.

Within a fortnight the Clyde District Defence Committee was formed to work for Maclean’s release, while Maclean went on hunger strike.

On May 11 the Herald’s front page contained only the words “TERMS OF THE SECRET TREATIES (Special Number)” and inside seven pages were devoted to these deals for distribution of territorial extensions among Allied countries. The editor of the booklet on the treaties which had appeared the previous month, F Seymour Cocks, declared that the Allied governments had declined to speak out on the subject “because their mouths are stopped by the secret agreements … because their voices are choked by the ink and parchment of the shameful treaties they have signed.”

The previous day in Ireland, arrests of Sinn Fein leaders had taken place — of Eamonn de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Constance Markievicz and others, more than a hundred in all. According to Lord French, military viceroy for Ireland, they had been in treasonable communication with the enemy. As to this, the Daily Mail was confident, “there could be no doubt.” In fact those arrested were Irish patriots, interned for their independence activity and for their hostility to the conscription of Irishmen which the government had not yet dared to enforce.

On May 19 the annual conference of the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, which now became the Workers’ Socialist Federation, opened. Besides re-electing Sylvia Pankhurst as secretary, the conference declared its opposition to all war, demanded self-determination for all nations, and the release of John Maclean.

One leading conscription-refuser, at that moment in Liverpool’s jail, was Fenner Brockway, former Labour Leader editor. His decision to break the prison rule of silence was reported in the Herald on May 25. His example was swiftly copied by other COs, and before long he was transferred to Lincoln Prison.

On May 27 came another push of German forces on the Western Front, while large numbers of US troops were arriving to strengthen the Allied side.

Meanwhile, British military intervention in Russia was quietly developing. On May 17 the War Cabinet was informed that a military mission was setting off for Murmansk and Archangel, with a view to recruiting Czech forces for anti-Bolshevik designs in north Russia.

So it was that Britain’s war to keep and extend its empire was now also a war against socialism.

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