John Ross Campbell

John Ross Campbell

John Ross Campbell was born in Paisley, Scotland, on 15th October 1894. He became interested in politics and in 1912 he joined the British Socialist Party where he came under the influence of John MacLean.

During the First World War he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was awarded the Military Medal. He was invalided out of the service after losing all the toes from one foot.

Campbell returned to Glasgow in 1918 and immediately became a member of the Clyde Workers Committee and joined in the struggle against the government.

Campbell had been impressed with the achievements of the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution and in April 1920 he joined forces with Tom Bell, Willie Gallacher, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Arthur Horner, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Rajani Palme Dutt, Albert Inkpin and Willie Paul to establish the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers.

In 1921 Campbell was appointed as editor of The Worker. Three years later he moved to London and became acting editor of CPGB's Worker's Weekly newspaper. On 25th July 1924 Campbell published an "Open Letter to the Fighting Forces" that had been written anonymously by Harry Pollitt. The article called on soldiers to "let it be known that, neither in the class war nor in a military war, will you turn your guns on your fellow workers". Sir Patrick Hastings, the Attorney General, initially advised Ramsay MacDonald, the Prime Minister, to prosecute Campbell under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797. However, Hastings later changed his mind because he was "a man of otherwise excellent character with a fine war record."

In September 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev Letter urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, told Ramsay MacDonald that they were convinced that the letter was genuine.

While this was going on Ramsay MacDonald faced a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons over the way he had dealt with the John Ross Campbell case. The opposition parties accused the minority Labour government of being under the influence of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the debate that took place on 8th October, MacDonald gave an unispiring account of events and when he lost the motion by 304 to 191 votes, he decided to resign and a general election was announced for Wednesday, 29th October, 1924.

It was initially agreed that the Zinoviev Letter should be kept secret. However, just before the election, someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. With his 151 Labour MPs, MacDonald became leader of the opposition in the House of Commons.

On 4th August 1925, Campbell and 11 other activists, Jack Murphy, Wal Hannington, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Harry Pollitt, Hubert Inkpin, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, William Gallacher and Tom Bell were arrested for being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and charged with violation of the Mutiny Act of 1797.

Campbell later wrote: "The Government was wise enough not to rest its case on the activity of the accused in organising resistance to wage cuts, but on their dissemination of “seditious” communist literature, (particularly the resolutions of the Communist International), their speeches, and occasional articles. Campbell, Gallacher and Pollitt defended themselves. Five of the prisoners who had previous convictions, Gallacher, Hannington, Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust, were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment and the others (after rejecting the Judge’s offer that they could go free if they renounced their political activity) were sentenced to six months." It was believed that this was a deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the impending General Strike.

(Back Row): Jack Murphy, William Gallacher, Wal Hannington; (Middle Row)Harry Pollitt, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Albert Inkpin; (Front Row)John R. Campbell, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, Tom Bell.
(Back Row): Jack Murphy, William Gallacher, Wal Hannington; (Middle Row)
Harry Pollitt, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Albert Inkpin; (Front Row)
John R. Campbell, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, Tom Bell.

Campbell was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1928. However, his main role in the party was as a journalist. In 1932 he became the Foreign Editor of the CPGB's Daily Worker newspaper.

J. R. Campbell was a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin in his attempts to purge the followers of Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union. In 1936 he defended the proposed trial of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin. Later that year all sixteen men were found guilty and executed. In 1939 he published Soviet Policy and its Critics, a defence of the Great Purge.

In September 1939, Harry Pollitt welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. Joseph Stalin was furious with Pollitt's statement as the previous month he had signed the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". He added: "Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line." Bob Stewart disagreed and mocked "these sledgehammer demands for whole-hearted convictions and solid and hardened, tempered Bolshevism and all this bloody kind of stuff."

William Gallacher agreed with Stewart: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades." Harry Pollitt joined in the attack: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten."

Harry Pollitt then made a passionate speech about his unwillingness to change his views on the invasion of Poland: "I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."

Campbell thought the Comintern was placing the CPGB in an absurd position. "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said."

However, when the vote was taken, only Campbell, Harry Pollitt, and William Gallacher voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.

On 22nd June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That night Winston Churchill said: "We shall give whatever help we can to Russia." The CPGB immediately announced full support for the war and brought back Harry Pollitt as general secretary. Membership increased dramatically from 15,570 in 1938 to 56,000 in 1942. On the death of William Rust in 1949 Campbell became the editor of the Daily Worker.

During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Harry Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive".

James Friell (Gabriel), the political cartoonist on the Daily Worker, argued that the newspaper should play its part in condemning Stalinism. He argued the newspaper should take the same approach as the Daily Worker in the United States. The editor, John Gates also encouraged debate on this issue by devoting one page of the newspaper to their readers' views: "The readers thought plenty. The paper received an unprecedented flood of mail, and even more unprecedented, we decided to print all the letters, regardless of viewpoint - a step which the Daily Worker had never taken before. The full page of letters, in our modest eight pages, soon became its liveliest and most popular feature... Readers spoke out as never before, pouring out the anguish of many difficult years."

Gabriel drew a cartoon that showed two worried people reading the Nikita Khrushchev speech. Behind them loomed two symbolic figures labelled "humanity" and "justice". He added the caption: "Whatever road we take we must never leave them behind." As a fellow worker at the newspaper, Alison Macleod, pointed out in her book, The Death of Uncle Joe (1997): "This brought some furious letters from our readers. One of them called the cartoon the most disgusting example of the non-Marxist, anti-working class outbursts..." Macleod went on to point out that a large number of party members shared Friell's sentiments.

Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.

James Friell condemned Campbell for supporting the invasion. He told Campbell: "How could the Daily Worker keep talking about a counter-revolution when they have to call in Soviet troops? Can you defend the right of a government to exist with the help of Soviet troops? Gomulka said that a government which has lost the confidence of the people has no right to govern." When Campbell refused to publish a cartoon by Friell on the Hungarian Uprising he left the newspaper.

Over 7,000 members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigned over what happened in Hungary. This included Peter Fryer, who was in Budapest at the time of the invasion. He later recalled: "The crisis within the British Communist Party, which is now officially admitted to exist, is merely part of the crisis within the entire world Communist movement. The central issue is the elimination of what has come to be known as Stalinism. Stalin is dead, but the men he trained in methods of odious political immorality still control the destinies of States and Communist Parties. The Soviet aggression in Hungary marked the obstinate re-emergence of Stalinism in Soviet policy, and undid much of the good work towards easing international tension that had been done in the preceding three years. By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such."

Campbell remained loyal to the Soviet Union until 1968 when he spoke out against the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia.

John Ross Campbell died on 18th September 1969.

Primary Sources

(1) John Ross Campbell, Workers’ Weekly (16th January, 1925)

One of the most important features of Lenin’s teaching is that concerning the role of a revolutionary party in the struggles of the workers. Lenin’s theory, based upon a long experience of the Labour Movement, comes up against not only the principles advocated by the Social-Democracy, but also those advocated by certain Marxian schools in Great Britain.

The existing moderate Socialist parties attained their greatest development in the years before the war, when capitalism was expanding and the profits of colonial robbery were flowing in a steady stream into the hands of the big capitalists in the leading capitalist countries. Those capitalists were able to grant a number of social reforms to the workers and to spread amongst them the illusion of a steady progress, under capitalism, to a greater state of well-being.

As a consequence of this development there arose in the Socialist Movement the “Revisionist” school who contended that the Marxian analysis was wrong, that capitalism was not moving to a crisis, and that the class struggle so far from intensifying was softening down.

This Revisionist doctrine was never fully accepted by the Continental Socialist parties in theory. In their programmes Marxist doctrine continued to have a place of honour allotted to them. Marxist phrases were widely used in speeches and in the press. The practice of these parties, however, were completely revisionist. Thus there was in the Social-Democratic Parties a complete disharmony between theory and practice.

As the parties were mainly concerned with getting electoral majorities, the question of discipline was naturally a secondary one. Groups with the most diverse views of Socialist theory and policy sheltered under the same expansive Social-Democratic umbrella. The result was that the Social-Democratic parties contained groups and schools waging continuous war against each other. There was no ideological unity.

Against this method of party organisation Lenin waged unrelenting war. The conditions in Russia were such that only a disciplined party, ideologically united under strong central direction, harmonising theory with practice, could lead the workers in the struggle.

This idea of the role of a party was naturally more acceptable in Russia, where the workers were organising and struggling illegally, than in the countries of Western Europe, in which Liberal ideas had infected the Labour Movement.

Since the war, however, the expansion of Western European capitalism has stopped. It is no longer able to throw sops at the workers, but it can only live by intensifying their exploitation and their misery.

We are therefore in Western Europe also entering upon a period of mass struggle leading up to the conquest of power.

One only requires to envisage the problem of bringing large masses into the struggle effectively to realise that unless those masses are under the influence of a trained and disciplined leadership their efforts will be sporadic chaotic, and aimless.

A Communist Party is a party, embracing or aspiring to embrace all the advanced members of the working class. It incarnates the collective experience of the working class gained in the struggle against capitalism. Such a party must be closely linked up with the workers, understanding their problems, sensing their moods, and assisting, them in the every-day struggle. It is fatal for a workers’ party to pursue a policy which does not take into consideration the state of mind of the masses.

It must be in contact not with the more active workers in the trade union branches and the Local Labour Parties, but must also be in contact with the masses of workers in the workshop. (Hence factory groups.)

A revolutionary party must, however, lead the workers. It must not allow itself to he dragged along by the masses, but must understand the development of events, give its lead to the workers in order that their struggle can be waged in the most effective and revolutionary fashion. It must become the political leader of the working class.

(2) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977)

On July 30th, the director of public prosecutions brought the article to the notice of the attorney general, Sir Patrick Hastings. Hastings was a brilliant advocate, but a novice in Labour politics; he appears to have given no thought to the effect which a prosecution might have on the Labour movement. He decided that the article was an incitement to mutiny, and he instructed the director of public prosecutions to bring such proceedings under the incitement to Mutiny Act as he thought fit. The following Saturday, a warrant was granted for the arrest of the editor, John Campbell. The news was reported in the press; and on August 6th, Hastings had to answer questions about it in the House of Commons. There were angry protests from the Labour benches. Maxton asked whether the prime minister had read the article and whether he was aware that the point of view expressed in it was shared by a large number of Labour members; Buchanan pointed out that the article expressed "the views and findings of Labour party conferences"; Scurr and Lansbury threatened to raise the matter in the debate on the Appropriation Bill. After questions, Hastings saw Maxton and some of his colleagues in his room at the House. They told him that Campbell was only the acting editor, and that he had an excellent war record; it can be assumed that they also told him that if he persisted with the prosecution, he would incur bitter hostility from the left wing of his own party.

(3) John Ross Campbell, Labour Monthly (August, 1926)

The case against the General Council is that it refused to prepare against the O.M.S. strike-breaking weapon of the Government, and that it absolutely succumbed to the Coal Commission strike-breaking weapon of the Government. In all the months between the granting of the subsidy and the issue of the Coal Commission Report, the General Council refused to elaborate any consistent wage policy to be pursued in relation to the mining dispute. The reason for this was obvious. Nothing that the Coal Commission could do could alter the basic facts of the mining industry, namely that present wages could not be paid without either the adoption of a drastic system of nationalisation and unification without compensation, or by a continuation of the subsidy. Both of these methods of retaining mining wages were ignored because both of them involved a challenge to the normal principles on which capitalist industry is carried on, and involved preparation to bring pressure to bear on the Government.

The result of their refusal to adopt a consistent wage policy was that the General Council simply drifted along, hoping that the Report of the Coal Commission which the Government intended to use as a weapon against the miners would in some miraculous way turn out to be a weapon directed against the mineowners and the capitalist offensive.

(4) John Ross Campbell, Socialist Solution to the Crisis (1948)

It is not enough to reject Churchill, Hudson and Eden. It is also necessary to guard against the dangers of a thinly-camouflaged Tory policy being gradually introduced into the Labour movement by Messrs. Attlee, Bevin, Morrison and Cripps.

We know that there are working people who appreciate some of the social reforms which the Government has placed on the statute book, who appreciate the shorter working week, who in the lower paid industries appreciate the increases in wages. But our Party has the duty to convince these workers that all these things which they are cherishing today are in jeopardy because of the failure of the Government to tackle the growing economic crisis. Indeed, all these things are being whittled away day by day by the Government itself.

Last week we saw the opening of an attempt to put a most brazen swindle across the working class of this country. The Government White Paper on wages was perfectly clear. No wage increases except in the undermanned industries. And when some undermanned industries apply they will be told, “Why, you’ve just had a wage increase—you’ve had it, chum.” Freezing of wages. Refusal to peg prices. Refusal to increase the food subsidies. That is the Government’s policy.

(5) John Ross Campbell, The Communist Record (1960)

At the Labour Party conference in October, 1925, the reactionary forces organised by MacDonald rejected, by an overwhelming vote, a resolution calling for Communist affiliation to the Labour Party and endorsed previous decisions that no Communist could represent his union in any Labour Party organisation, and that no Communist should be allowed to be an individual member of the Labour Party. This was a signal to the Government.

So a few days later it arrested twelve Communist leaders on a charge of “seditious conspiracy”... Arthur MacManus (Chairman); William Gallacher (Vice-Chairman); Albert Inkpin (Secretary); Harry Pollitt, J. R. Campbell, Tom Bell, William Rust, J. T. Murphy (members of the Political Bureau); Ernest Cant (London Organiser); Walter Hannington (Secretary of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement); Robin Page Arnot (of the Labour Research Department who had been active in preparing the miners’ case, and Tom Wintringham (Assistant Editor of the Workers’ Weekly). Harry Pollitt was Secretary of the National Minority Movement and J. R. Campbell was Acting Editor of the Workers’ Weekly.

The Government was wise enough not to rest its case on the activity of the accused in organising resistance to wage cuts, but on their dissemination of “seditious” communist literature, (particularly the resolutions of the Communist International), their speeches, and occasional articles. Campbell, Gallacher and Pollitt defended themselves. Five of the prisoners who had previous convictions, Gallacher, Hannington, Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust, were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment and the others (after rejecting the Judge’s offer that they could go free if they renounced their political activity) were sentenced to six months. The sentences did not intimidate the Communist Party. An emergency leadership, which included Bob Stewart, George Hardy, Andrew Rothstein, Aitken Ferguson, and Emile Burns took over, and the entire activity of the Party was intensified. The circulation of the press grew; new members were made. A powerful campaign for the release of the prisoners was launched, in which 300,000 signatures were collected; but the main activity of the Communist Party was to induce the working class movement to prepare for the next round of the struggle.

(6) John Ross Campbell, The Communist Record (1960)

The British Battalion of the International Brigade was in all the main battles of the Spanish civil war and proved itself to be a hard hitting dependable force. During the life of the Brigade British comrades like Peter Kerrigan, Bill Alexander, D. F. Springhall, Sam Wild, Walter Tapsell, Bert Williams, William Paynter, William Rust and Bob Cooney were active in command. Harry Pollitt visited the battalion five times during the course of the war. One thousand, five hundred men served in its ranks. Five hundred and thirty-three were killed and the majority of the others were wounded at one time or another. One half of the members of the Battalion were Communist Party members as were one half of the dead.

During this period the Communist Party was to participate in one more effort to promote working class unity in the struggle against fascism. Conversations were held with the Socialist League, in which Sir Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, Barbara Castle, and Michael Foot were prominent members, and the Independent Labour Party with Fenner Brockway, James Maxton, John McNair at the head. An agreement on the lines of the campaign was drawn up and powerful enthusiastic demonstrations were held throughout the country. As usual the right-wing bureaucracy threatened the members of the Socialist League (affiliated to the Labour Party) and the character of the campaign had to be changed to protect these comrades. Nevertheless, the vast anti-fascist activity was having a tremendous effect inside the Labour Party. Local Labour Parties were clamouring for the right to elect their delegates directly to the constituency section of the National Executive Committee, instead of the entire conference, including the trades union delegations with their block votes electing them. At the 1937 Conference at Bournemouth they won this precious right and Sir Stafford Cripps, D. N. Pritt, and Harold Laski were amongst the lefts elected to the N.E.C.

(7) John Ross Campbell, The Communist Record (1960)

Even when it became clear that Hitler was about to attack Poland the Chamberlain Government refused to build an effective political and military front. Under the pressure of public indignation they pretended to be anxious to discuss the formation of a bloc of peaceful states, including the Soviet Union. They even sent a mission of fourth-rate military personalities by slow boat to the Soviet Union, but these had no firm propositions to discuss and it was only too clear that the government still hoped to divert the Nazis against the Soviet Union; and so the Soviet Union, in self-protection, had to sign the Soviet-German non-aggression pact.

The Anglo-French declaration of war in September, 1939, did not basically challenge the aggressive plans of fascism. The aim of the “phoney war” was to force Germany to a compromise in the West and to encourage it to turn East against the Soviet Union. Thus, although France and Britain had superiority in the West, they did not attack, and remained passive when the Germans were over-running Poland.

The capitalist press naturally sought to divert attention away from the British Government’s refusal to agree to a bloc with the Soviet Union by denunciation of that state. During the Finnish war it made such bellicose anti-Soviet propaganda that it was clear that a section of the British imperialists, while failing to develop the struggle against the Nazis, were enthusiastic for a war against the Soviet Union. They rushed planes and equipment to Finland and sought Norwegian permission (which was refused) to send a British force across Norway to fight alongside the Finns against the Soviet Union. Indeed, until France and Britain were defeated in the offensive of the Nazis in May, 1940, there were strong elements in both countries who argued that it was necessary to “switch the war” against the Soviet Union.

Throughout this period the Communist Party fought for adequate air raid protection for the people, defended the workers’ interests by building up powerful shop stewards’ organisations; demanded the suppression of war-profiteering; denounced the repressions in India; combated the anti-Soviet lies and kept the way open for an understanding with the Soviet Union, which was ultimately made possible by the strong resistance trends emerging in Europe and by the warlike hostility of the Nazis to the Soviet Union (which they recognised was an obstacle to their plans), culminating in their declaration of war in June, 1941.