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No mean fighter: the Harry McShane interviews

Portrait of Harry McShane by Stanley Bell

Portrait of Harry McShane by Stanley Bell, 1981

(National Galleries of Scotland)

A life on the left

Harry McShane (1891-1988), who was sometimes referred to in later life as 'the last of the Red Clydesiders', was one of the leading activists in the British Marxist movement. He was born in a working-class district of Glasgow and was brought up mainly by his Irish catholic grandparents. Having developed an interest in socialism, which soon led to a complete rejection of religion, he joined the Independent Labour Party in 1909, the newly-formed British Socialist Party in 1911, and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1922.

He was active in campaigns against Britain’s involvement in the First World War, which included activity during a brief spell in the army and in workplaces where he was employed as a skilled engineer, and was also involved in organising support for tenants evicted from Glasgow tenements because they could not afford their rents. He also worked for the Tramp Trust Unlimited, which was formed by leading Scottish socialist John Maclean to campaign for a minimum wage, a six-hour day and other socialist policies.

In the 1930s he led a number of hunger marches organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. In 1953 he left the CPGB over disagreements with its leadership and joined the International Socialists in 1963, remaining a committed socialist until the end of his life. He worked as an engineer until his retirement at the age of 69.

The interviews

These are clips from interviews of McShane conducted around 1972 by Joan Smith for Harry McShane: No mean fighter (London: Pluto Press, 1978). The recordings, which were originally made on forty-one tape cassettes, are available in digital form from our catalogue, as are the contemporary transcripts of them. Together they form an extensive record of a life which at the time had been devoted to left-wing politics for over sixty years.

Against the grain in World War One

"Everywhere you turned, Tipperary was being sung by marching men"

Symptoms of ‘war fever’ in 1914: It’s a long way to Tipperary eclipses the anti-war music hall song, Little man; women present white feathers to unenlisted men; tub-thumping pro-war tours by union leader Ben Tillett, journalist Horatio Bottomley and entertainer Harry Lauder.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

From the very day I entered the army I was in trouble

McShane joined the Royal Engineers in September 1914 with the sole and avowed intention of doing propaganda work. After leading an anti-inoculation campaign among his fellow soldiers he went on leave after nine months, had his uniform dumped in the Clyde and never returned.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

We all got in a bunch and we fought back

McShane and his colleagues are lured into attending a pro-war meeting addressed by suffragette leader Flora Drummond, but they stand up to their opponents both physically and verbally.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

Looking east

McShane recalls how Russia and the Soviet Union were a source both of encouragement and of disappointment for him and other socialists.

There were places all over the country where guns were hidden

The little-known story of socialist shopkeepers in Britain storing arms to be sent to the 1905 Russian revolutionaries.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

We . . . became a great deal bolder in our propaganda after 1917

How the Russian Revolution brought hope in Britain of an end to the war and enabled British socialists to gain a wider audience.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

I found it very inspiring; I was mistaken

McShane was enthused by the Moscow May Day parade on his visit as a party delegate to the Soviet Union in 1931, but he realised in retrospect that this was misplaced.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

We could've got a nuclear war within an hour, quite easily

McShane was often frustrated by the uncritical attitude of other British communist activists to the Soviet leadership. Here he notes the complete support given by Glasgow Trades Council members and others to Nikita Khrushchev, including over the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how this support ended when Khrushchev fell from power and never included making ordinary party members aware of his ‘secret speech’ of 1956 denouncing Stalin.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

The Glaswegian scene

As well as being a rich source of detail on Glasgow radical politics, the interviews also give insights into what life was like for ordinary people in the city.

Conditions were deplorable and incomes exceptionally low

Housing was very bad but fairly plentiful in the early 1900s, but when the First World War broke out a shortage soon led to rent rises and evictions. McShane played a leading role in fighting these.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

We never held Christmas in Glasgow

Before the First World War, a muted Christmas was followed by New Year festivities during ten days of unpaid holiday (which was often extended to eleven thanks to a curious brick-throwing custom).

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

A sail down the Clyde was as much as many of them ever got

The limited holiday options for Glaswegians before the First World War (the delights of Blackpool were largely unattainable until after the war).

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

An inspiring comrade

School teacher and revolutionary John Maclean (1879-1923) is often referred to in the interviews, and one cassette is entirely devoted to him. McShane first met him in 1910 and they later worked closely together on various campaigns, although they did not always see eye to eye.

He gave you the impression of a man in deep thought

Maclean’s sober appearance and his sincere and explanatory mode of speaking.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

Marching with the unemployed

Memories of leading National Unemployed Workers' Movement marches from Scotland to London in the 1930s.

As far as possible, we consulted the marchers on everything

The democratic enforcement of discipline and the marchers’ united front against attempted police obstruction in Wolverhampton.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

They were getting better fed than they were getting at home

Well-organised catering arrangements and a moving display of respect for a deceased cook.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

We always built a flute band on the road

Morale-boosting (except when played in the middle of the night) do-it-yourself music, including (to the interviewer’s apparent amazement) marching all day with a big drum.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

North American interludes

I got into an awful row one day for walking on the wrong side of the street

McShane’s voyages as a ship’s engineer took him to Texas around 1915, where he encountered racial segregation and the demoralisation of ‘coloured’ people, and fell foul of the rules himself.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview

And the big black thing rushed past me. I got the fright of my life!

In the 1920s McShane got a job in Canada building mechanical shovels for the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation. Among the experiences he describes from this period is this mercifully brief encounter with a bacon-stealing bear pursued by an axe-wielding cook.

Transcripts: clip; whole interview