Culture and Socialism: Working-Class Glasgow, 1778-1978

Sexless, ageless, classless, nationless he/she is the all-important nothing of middle-class wisdom.

Royden Harrison

WE ARE GATHERED at the People’s Palace, Glasgow, on Thursday, 3 September, to inaugurate Ken Currie’s magnificent pictorial ode to all rebels, martyrs, fugitives and anti-capitalist saints and sinners in Glasgow between 1778 and 1978. The inauguration of this mural history of Glasgow ranging over a period of two hundred years is a unique occasion for creative, poetic, artistic, intellectual, and radical Scotland: an occasion for celebration and resurrection. Because the Left in Scotland has usually had to function in a hostile and philistine environment for a prolonged historical period, the radicals and socialists have always responded to massive poverty, inequality and class-engendered injustice by girning and flyting. But this is not an occasion for girning or flyting. It is rather an occasion for celebrating what the Scottish working-class movement has achieved, what it is achieving and what it will achieve in the years to come, Thatcher or no Thatcher.

Although the result of the general election in June, 1987, means that the Scots are now standing at a crossroads-crisis marked ‘national extinction’ at the hands of the multinational corporations or ‘national re-birth’ under the inspiration of our centuries-old radical tradition and outward-looking internationalism, Ken Currie’s mural history of working-class Glasgow is another major sign of our growing confidence and self-confidence. It is also a permanent landmark in the ongoing cultural revolution in late-twentieth-century Scotland.

What Ken Currie has achieved as an artist cannot be separated from political development in contemporary Scotland, though the relationships between the two are neither simple nor immediately obvious. This is important because in a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph entitled ‘Can the Tories govern Scotland?’, Norman Stone, the Glaswegian Thatcherite, attributed the Scottish Tories electorial annihilation to ‘the decline of Imperial consciousness’.1 Yet he deliberately ignored the cultural, spiritual and intellectual resurgence in this small corner of the modern world.

But if the connections between the resurgence in contemporary culture and politics are not obvious, there are identifiable links between what is happening in Scotland today and Scottish history. From the Reformation onwards, there were powerful negative and positive factors operating within Scottish society. The country was very poor by comparison with England; and the Scottish ruling class did not really encourage artistic or cultural endeavour. This specific, concrete material environment and heritage had a profound influence on the development of the history of radicalism in Scotland between 1778 and 1978.

As Frederick Engels always insisted: ‘There is no great historical evil without a compensating historical progress’. And the Scots’ centuries-old material poverty gave them an intense interest in theology and philosophy, a passion for the 3 Rs, and an argumentative, disputatious disposition. In the eighteenth century, this intellectual and cultural heritage allowed them to become the pioneers of modern economics, sociology, a rudimentary psychology and Utopian socialism. The ‘contradictions’ of modern capitalism were very sharp in the City of Glasgow. By the late nineteenth century, Scottish socialists were more successful than their English or French counterparts in disseminating and popularising Marxian economics among working-class men and women.

In surveying the history of socialist movements throughout the world before the First World War, Edward Roux, the South African socialist, said that Glasgow and Chicago had produced more socialist literature than any other cities in the world.2 In an article published in an American socialist magazine in 1941, it was asserted that Glasgow had been ‘the intellectual centre of British labour’ in the 1930s.3 The Scottish workers’ movement was, in fact, reflecting the national environment in which it had been shaped from 1778 onwards.

In the 1930s the Scottish working-class movement produced important socialist novelists and poets - James Barke, James Welsh, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Hugh MacDiarmid. The socialists in Scotland were now encouraging and fostering socialist poetry and doggerel. And out of the working-class struggle for better wages and better social conditions a market - a huge market - was created for the chapbooks and doggerel of John S. Clarke and Tom Anderson. There were also attempts to develop a workers’ theatre and a left-wing cinema.

Yet despite the first significant artistic and cultural stirrings in Glasgow in the 1920s and 1930s, the labour movement did not have the material resources to encourage, assist or commission a Scottish Diego Rivera. Indeed in 1938, when Hugh MacDiarmid first published ‘The Red Scotland Thesis’, he complained quite bitterly about ‘the philistine ‘common sense”, and the ‘self-satisfied anti-intellectualism’ in the Scottish working-class movement. In Hugh MacDiarmid’s opinion, Guy Aldred - and this in spite of Aldred’s anti-Stalinism and agitation for a Fourth International - was the only socialist writer in Glasgow who was worth reading. As MacDiarmid summed up: ‘His (Aldred’s) ‘Bakunin House’ has long been a tower of liberty and justice in the otherwise unredeemed cultural chaos of Glasgow.’4

When he published Scottish Studies in 1926, Hugh MacDiarmid had argued that ‘in music as in drama we (the Scots) are unique in the fact that we have practically failed to develop any worth considering at all’. He attributed the absence of a national tradition of any great music or drama to Calvinism and ‘the comparative material poverty of our country’.5 He did not say anything at all about painting or the pictorial arts.

Mexico was a much more poverty-stricken country than Scotland in the 1930s, and yet the Mexicans produced the great painter and revolutionary socialist, Diego Rivera. In producing magnificent murals of scenes from Mexican history - of the bitter and bloody struggles of the peasants and workers - Rivera became one of the great painters of the twentieth century. But there were two concrete reasons for the emergence of Diego Rivera. In the first place, there was a long tradition of painting murals in Mexico long before this all-round, multi-talented, almost renaissance man, came on the scene. Secondly, he could not have achieved what he did without the moral, spiritual and financial support of the workers’ movement in Mexico and America. Furthermore, the crucial importance of socialist institutions and a supportive culture did not detract from - or belittle - Rivera’s genius.

To the best of my knowledge Hugh MacDiarmid and Diego Rivera never met or corresponded with each other. Yet they both understood the revolutionary role of art, culture and poetry in the struggle for democracy, justice and socialism. In explaining the connection between the workers’ struggle for better material conditions and culture, Walter Benjamin, the German socialist and victim of fascism, wrote: ‘The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’.6 And yet Benjamin fought as few socialists have fought for an appreciation of the finer spiritual things in life.

A major reason for the absence of a Scottish Diego Rivera was the terrible mass unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, deprivation and ill-health. As socialists have always argued, the imaginative faculty depends on a reasonable material and spiritual environment. In 1938 Hugh MacDiarmid also wrote about ‘the disproportionately terrible social and economic conditions of Scotland compared with England and of the absolute needlessness of anything of the sort’.7 Capitalism was always more harsh, rapacious and brutal in Scotland than in England. Because they existed within a much poorer country, the Scots were more preoccupied with a struggle for the crude material things.

By the 1930s the first serious stirrings of working-class and socialist activity in drama and music were evident in Glasgow. The philistine bourgeoisie in Glasgow were much more interested in making profits and arms and in encouraging the dictators in Italy, Spain and Germany than in assisting artists, poets or prophets. Those who tried to make a living by writing novels or biographies had a very tough time; and the poverty-haunted Grassic Gibbon depended on Americans to buy the novels in which he portrayed working-class Scotland. But Gibbon did at least stimulate the middle-class dunces in Aberdeen to coin one immortal phrase: ‘Him write a book. I kent his faither’.

The cultural chaos that Hugh MacDiarmid saw in Glasgow in the 1930s has now gone; and it has been replaced by a socialist- inspired cultural revival, a resurgence and a vitality in historiography, poetry, literature, drama, the cinema, painting and the arts. Modern capitalism is coming to an end in the Western world; and the working classes from Nicaragua to Scotland are displaying a new self-confidence despite the brutality of the Thatchers and the Reagans. As Grassic Gibbon said in one of the last essays he wrote before his death in 1934: ‘Towards the culmination of a civilisation the arts, so far from decaying, always reach their greatest efflorescence’.8

Pat Lally, the leader of the Glasgow District Council, has described Ken Currie’s mural history as a major work of popular art. Moreover, this major work of popular art does not just represent a comparatively new and major talent in Scottish painting, although it does that vividly, graphically and visually in a permanent form. It is also a much deeper national expression of the forces of change and the voices of revolt against philistine money-grubbing at the expense of human dignity, creativity, curiosity, individual vitality and autonomy.

The good book tells us that ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’. Yet despite the Scots’ historic deficiences in music, drama and the pictorial arts, the Scots portrayed in Ken Currie’s mural history of Glasgow did not lack vision. The vision was there in the speeches, writings and agitations of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, in the struggles of the Black weaver, Mathew Bogie, who was one of the leaders of the Radical War of 1820, and in the superb pedagogy of ‘the great John MacLean’. And in our own times, the vision of a better society was seen in the UCS sit-in.

When I had the privilege of living in the home of Eugene V. Debs, the great American socialist described by Guy Aldred as ‘America’s vision-maker’, in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1980,1 encountered and enjoyed the murals dedicated to Debs’ fruitful life of struggle for justice and socialism. But Ken Currie has not just portrayed the lives of great individuals. He has, in fact, portrayed the lives and struggles of the working class in Glasgow - a magnificent class in a magnificent City - over a period of two hundred years.

To appreciate the unique scale and scope of Ken Currie’s artistic achievement and vision from a socialist perspective, we must yet again glance at what Walter Benjamin, the German authority on art and culture, had to say about the most important aspect of developing socialist I of the world around us:

Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.

Furthermore, in describing what separated socialists from Social Democrats, Benjamin criticised the right-wing elements in the labour movement for portraying the working class as ‘the redeemer of the future generations’. In summing up, he said: ‘This training made the (German) working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of the enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren’.9 The dominant socialist image in this mural history of Glasgow is the unbroken image of our ‘enslaved ancestors’ within a specific national setting.

In 1957 John McLeish, a brilliant psychologist from Glasgow, contributed an article to the magazine, Universities and Left Review.10 The article culminated with an unanswered but not rhetorical question: ‘Scotland a nation once again or the workers’ international?’ But in 1987 the forces of socialist internationalism outside of Scotland are telling us that the survival of the Scottish nation is the pre-condition for a socialist-humanist society in this small part of the world. And the most intelligent, imaginative, creative and radical Scots have always given a sympathetic ear to the democratic forces in the outside world from the French Revolution in 1789, right through to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Revolution in Nicaragua today.

What Ken Currie’s mural history of Glasgow conveys to us is that the Scots have been exiled inside their own country. For when a people have no access to their own real history, they are exiles. However, this mural history of Glasgow between 1778 and 1978 is proof of the profound changes occurring in Scottish artistic, cultural and political life. By forcing their way into the national culture, the murals of Ken Currie depicting the historic struggles of working-class men and women, together with other facets of contemporary working-class cultural activity, are feeding back into Scottish life and impinging on the political consciousness of socialists and trade unionists.

This was brought home to me when I visited my friend Harry McShane, the veteran Clydeside socialist, at Baxter House, exactly a week ago. Within minutes of my arrival, he showed me a letter that he was sending to Mrs. Thatcher. In this historic letter, he told Thatcher-Victoria that a Scottish Assembly was the very minimum change being demanded by the working-class movement. In informing me that he now favoured national independence rather than mere Devolution, Harry was expressing something much deeper than himself. This is simply another expression of ‘the new passions and the new forces’ represented in the new mural history of working-class Glasgow.

In the recent article in the Sunday Telegraph, Norman Stone observed with some sadness and nostalgia for the days of the Empire that the Tories in Scotland are now a ‘foreign’, ‘patrician’ group of outsiders. He might have added that they are full of bare-faced cheek. But this is not a new development at all. The real culture of the Scottish nation - not just the fight for crude material things, but the deep unconquerable spirituality of the producers of wealth - is depicted by Ken Currie. As Scotland increasingly moves towards self-determination, the new attempts to rehabilitate such reactionary obscurantists as Henry Dundas, the Dictator of the 1790s, will fail because the Tories in Scotland are now naked, exposed and indecent.

Contemporary Scotland is not just beginning to come of age as it moves towards self-government. It is simultaneously reaching out to ‘the Age of Reason’ anticipated by Tom Paine and Thomas Muir of Huntershill. What is happening in Scotland is a part of the international revolt that we have seen in Nicaragua and South Africa. But even in the heartlands of capitalism, the ‘new passions and new forces’ are agitating for a People’s art, a People’s history and a People’s culture.

In recent years I have been privileged to attend conferences on working-class history in Austria, West Germany and America. Despite the formidable obstacles facing socialists in those countries, they have done much to promote left-wing films, poetry, literature, drama and murals portraying the history of the really important people in their own societies - the producers of wealth, not the parasites.

But in Austria the Labour Party has created its own choirs and choral societies. Despite the enormous number of influential fascist sympathisers in the ruling circles in Vienna, local Labour administrations have had streets and squares named after such famous socialists as Otto Bauer. In the Austrian universities the socialists’ intellectual, artistic and cultural achievements and anti-fascist struggles are acknowledged and recognised as a part of the national culture. As I was preparing this talk, it occurred to me that the most accurate guide to the degree of democracy in any contemporary society is the continuous presence - or the continuous absence - of working-class struggles in drama, films, street-names and murals.

Although the socialists in West Germany have agitated and worked in a less sympathetic and favourable environment than their Austrian counterparts, they have begun to make some impression on the dominant culture. In 1968 the government of the West German Federal Republic asserted that the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 had been in accordance with martial law, though no charges had been made against her and no trial had taken place. Rosa was - even in death - ‘the enemy within’. Yet West Germany with its terrible fascist legacy is changing; and militant, democratic socialists are saying what socialists have to say in the universities and research institutes.

In 1985 an international cultural festival celebrating the contribution of Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg to human knowledge, culture and advancement was held in Hamburg. It attracted artists, painters, historians and film-makers from all over the world; and it was funded by official sources and, in turn, generated profit and stimulated other cultural projects. Next year a group of socialist scholars are hosting an international congress on the work of Upton Sinclair, the American novelist and author of The Jungle, in order to discuss and assess the relationship between socialism, literature and the arts.

In America socialists and radicals have published major biographies of Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs. Just as the Scots and the West Germans have forced the authorities to confront the issue of the systematic persecution of John Maclean and Roso Luxemburg, so the Americans are succeeding in securing the gradual rehabilitation of Gene Debs. By 1979 John Joseph Laska had completed his murals celebrating the achievements of the man who on five different occasions stood for election as the Socialist Party’s Presidential candidate. The murals paying tribute to Debs’ life and martyrdom in the cause of American and international Labour are in the attic of the Debs’ home in Terre Haute. Moreover, the Debs’ home is now classified as ‘a National Parks Department Historic Site’. As Glasgow prepares to become the cultural capital of Europe in 1990, perhaps we could do something to secure Labour’s ‘martyred dead’ even greater recognition in the schools and culture of Scotland’s most energetic City.

One of the questions I have asked myself during the last few days is this: ‘What united the multitude of individuals portrayed in the murals painted by Ken Currie?’ It would be comforting to suggest that they were all socialists. However, it simply would not be true. In the technical language of academic historians, the working class in Scotland before 1832 belonged to ‘the pre-industrial’ working class. But what the Scottish men and women portrayed in the eight panels of murals had in common was a passion for justice and freedom - a preoccupation more often than not with the crude material things as a pre-condition for art, culture and dignity. What they also had in common was a hatred of Absolutism, arbitrary authority, tyranny, injustice and hierarchy.

To understand the importance of the contribution to human advancement made by the individuals portrayed in Ken Currie’s murals between 1778 and 1850, we should remember that it was an era of rising ‘bourgeois individualism’ when ordinary people were regarded by ruling classes everywhere as un-persons whose poverty was a part of the natural order of things. In the eighteenth century, for example, the ‘great’ Samuel Johnson told James Boswell: ‘You are to consider that it is our duty to maintain the subordination of civil society; and where there is a gross or shameful deviation from rank, it should be punished so as to deter others from making the same perversion’.11 In the late 1840s Thomas Carlyle attacked working people for asking questions about the ‘natural’ hierarchy in the world. As he expressed it: ‘Recognised or not, a man has his superiors, a regular hierarchy above him, extending upwards, degree by degree, to Heaven itself and God the maker, Who made this world not for anarchy but for rule and order’.12

From the 1880s, when modern socialism was born, to the UCS sit-in in 1971, the presence of the socialist vision of the better world to come has been a constant factor in Scottish - and English, German, French, Italian and American - working-class struggles. In what is perhaps the best available definition of socialism in any language, Theodor Shanin says: ‘Socialism is about ending the domination of people by other people, about collectivism which is nobody’s prison, about social justice and equality, about making people conscious of their power and ability to control their destinies here and now’. This is the vision which united all of the colourful individuals portrayed by Ken Currie over a period of two hundred years; and this is what we are celebrating tonight as we look in the direction of what Antonio Gramsci, the Italian socialist, described as ‘the City of the future’.

We should acknowledge the determination and the hard, sustained work undertaken by Elspeth King and Michael Donnelly in helping in the birth of this work of popular art; and we should not be afraid to trumpet our socialist opinions from the rooftops, the squares and the market-places of this hard­working, honest and very cheeky City. And is doing so, it is appropriate to recall the words of the young American novelist, Norman Mailer:

We want a socialist world not because we have the conceit that men would therefore be happy...but because we feel the moral imperative in life itself to raise the human condition, even if this should ultimately mean no more than that man’s suffering has been lifted to a higher level.

1. Norman Stone, ‘Can the Tories govern Scotland?’, Sunday Telegraph, 14 June 1987.
2. Eddie and Win Roux, Rebel Pity (London, 1970), p.7.
3. Britannicus, ‘The ‘New International’ in England’, The New International, July 1941.
4. Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘The Red Scotland Thesis’, The Voice of Scotland, Vol.1, No.l, 1938.
5. Hugh MacDiarmid, Scottish Studies (Edinburgh, 1926).
6. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London, 1977).
7. MacDiarmid, ‘The Red Scotland Thesis’, op. cit.
8. Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, Little Reviews Anthology 1946 (London, 1946).
9. Benjamin, op. cit.
10. John McLeish, ‘The Uses of Literacy’, Universities and Left Review, Summer 1957.
11. James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, edited J. Brady (New York, 1968).
12. Thomas Carlyle, Chartism (London, 1960).