The Petrograd of the West

Issue 

REVIEWED BY ALEX MILLER

Red Clydeside
Alistair Hulett and Dave Swarbrick
Red Rattler

The extraordinary industrial and political militancy in the west of Scotland in the second decade of the 20th Century led Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin to dub Glasgow "the Petrograd of the West".

In his Red Clydeside, Alistair Hulett celebrates this period in a number of original, rousing, and sometimes deeply moving songs (written by Hulett and arranged by him and Dave Swarbrick).

The CD comes with a detailed booklet, written by Hulett, outlining the main events in the history of Red Clydeside, and doubles as a CD-ROM containing the lyrics and a number of weblinks.

The main figure is the man Lenin singled out as the leading light of Red Clydeside, John MacLean. MacLean, born in 1879 into a large highland family forced from the land, was a Glasgow schoolteacher famous for classes on Marxist economics that drew large numbers of workers into the revolutionary socialist movement in the period around the First World War. He was the Soviet Bolshevik government's first consul in the UK, and was elected an honorary president of the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets, alongside Lenin, Trotsky, and Kamenev.

MacLean's industrial agitation is celebrated in the songs "The Lassies of Neilston" and "Mrs Barbour's Army", covering the 1910 strike by young women at the Neilston Thread Mill and the 1915 Rent Strike led by a Govan homeworker, Mary Barbour.

MacLean is chiefly remembered, though, for his anti-war work, carried out in the face of a complete sell-out by the Trades Union Congress and the reformist left, whose leaders adopted a pro-war stance and had signed a "no strikes" deal with the government in London for the duration of the war. The chorus of Hulett's "Don't Sign Up For War" says it all.

MacLean was jailed many times by the British authorities, the longest sentences handed out in 1916 and 1918. MacLean conducted his own defence at the May 1918 trial.

MacLean was sentenced to five years hard labour in the notorious Peterhead prison in Aberdeen. The most powerful song on the CD is "The Granite Cage", where Hulett movingly imagines MacLean's thoughts and fears in his freezing prison cell, where he was drugged, force-fed, and brutally tortured by prison officers carrying out the orders of the British government.

Here, as elsewhere on the album, Hulett masterfully combines music and verse to profound effect. Such was MacLean's standing with the workers that widespread agitation forced his early release, and "When Johnny Came Hame Tae Glesga" provides a boisterous account of MacLean's return in December 1918, when a crowd of 200,000 amassed to welcome him off the train.

The agitation recommenced, and culminated in the notorious "Bloody Friday" attack by the British army on workers demonstrating in Glasgow's George Square in January 1919. As Hulett says in his notes, this resulted in the largest mobilisation of British troops on native soil, when home secretary Winston Churchill sent tanks and army regiments from England to restore order in the aftermath (Churchill confined local regiments to their barracks, fearing they would go over to the workers).

MacLean never recovered from the brutal treatment he received in prison, and died in poverty in 1923 at 44. One of his last acts had been to give his overcoat away to a comrade who needed it more than he did.

Hulett's final song "The Ghosts of Red Clydeside" starts at MacLean's funeral in the winter of 1923, before taking us up to the present day:

At the end of a century of carnage and fear
The vision continues and won't be denied
From Beijing to Seattle, Dounray to Algiers
Rebuild and fight on cry the ghosts of Red Clyde.

This collection represents the art of political song at its very finest, and, together with the accompanying booklet, an excellent introduction for those new to Red Clydeside.

[Visit .]

From Green Left Weekly, March 3, 2004.
Visit the