James Maxton was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1885. Both his parents were schoolteachers and he was encouraged to have an academic career. After being educated at Hutchesons Grammar School and Glasgow University he became a schoolteacher in the city. Converted to socialism by speakers such as James Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald, Maxton joined the Independent Labour Party.
Maxton was involved in the formation of teachers' unions in Scotland including the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Socialist Teachers' Society. With John Maclean, Maxton gave lectures on politics and economics in the Scottish Labour College.
Maxton began working closely with other socialists in Glasgow including John Wheatley, Emanuel Shinwell, David Kirkwood, William Gallacher, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.
By 1912 Maxton was the leading figure in the Independent Labour Party in Scotland. Like most members of the ILP, Maxton opposed Britain's involvement in the First World War. As a pacifist he refused to be conscripted into the armed forces. Maxton was also involved in organizing strikes in the shipyards, engineering and munitions factories. Dismissed as a teacher he was arrested in 1916 and charged with sedition. Found guilty, he was imprisoned for a year.
In the 1922 General Election Maxton was elected as MP for Bridgeton, Glasgow. Also successful were several other militant socialists based in Glasgow including John Wheatley, Emanuel Shinwell, David Kirkwood, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh. The Clydesiders were constant critics of the moderate policies of Ramsay MacDonald. Maxton was also abusive about members of the Conservative Party and was several times suspended from the House of Comments for his comments.
In 1925 Maxton led the "Socialism in Our Time" campaign and the following year was elected as leader of the Independent Labour Party. Maxton also played a prominent role in the leadership of the trade unions during the 1926 General Strike.
Following the 1929 General Election, Maxton was highly critical of the Labour Government led by Ramsay MacDonald. When MacDonald formed the National Government in 1931, Maxton successfully persuaded the Independent Labour Party to break away from the Labour Party.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Maxton called for the government to support the policy of Non-Intervention. However, Bob Edwards disagreed and asked members of the Independent Labour Party to volunteer to join the International Brigades. Stafford Cottman was one of the men who offered his services: "I was asked to go along to their headquarters and I met Bob Edwards was its leader.... At headquarters we were all interviewed by Bob and a couple of others. They asked you simple things like why you wanted to go to Spain. The idea was to find out whether you did have a sort of principle or whether it was pure adventure."
Edwards arrived on the Aragón Front in 1936. Other members of the group included George Orwell and Bob Smillie. These men served alongside POUM forces and its leader, Georges Kopp later commented: "We have had a complete success, which is largely due to the courage and discipline of the English comrades who were in charge of assaulting the principal of the enemy's parapets."
As a pacifist Maxton opposed rearmament in the 1930s and supported the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. After the outbreak of the Second World War Maxton continued to argue for pacifism in the House of Commons.