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.
Maxton was Keir Hardie's natural successor. Hardie created the Labour Party. Maxton sought to make it a Socialist Party. He did not succeed - few would say that it is yet Socialist in practice - but he converted more people to real Socialism, its spirit and purpose, than any man in Britain. In his sixty-one years he addressed more meetings and spoke to more people than anyone, and he rarely spoke without making converts, changing their conception of life fundamentally. He did this not only by convincing argument and inspiring eloquence, but because Socialism to him was a religion and his hearers sensed intuitively that his words were himself. When he entered prison he registered Socialism as his religion and when told that this was politics replied that it was his one guide to life. Walter Elliott in his obituary tribute on the BBC said that Maxton was a Socialist before Socialism. Everyone who knew Maxton knows how true that was. He treated all human beings as equals, the Labourer and the Lord, at the same time subservient to none. When sympathy was voiced that he had had to mix with criminals in prison he retorted that he had only twice seen criminal features - in a senior official of the High Court and in his mirror.
From time to time there comes into the world a man who is different from other men. It matters little in what circumstances he is born. He may be one of a large family, brought up in the same home, educated at the same school, and yet be as different from his brothers and sisters as he is from other men and women.
James Maxton is one of the different men. He is so unlike other men that we have no one with whom we may compare him. His standard of judgment is different. His standard of values is different. The things that entice and encourage other men to activity have no allurement for him.
James Maxton is the product of his times, but he would have become notable in any circumstances. He is that rare combination of fearless oratory and absolute truth. He has never been pulled up for an inaccurate statement. He is a great speaker. Sometimes he is more than that. He is a prophet.
He looks and speaks and acts like a man inspired. He loses himself, though he never loses his temper. At such times he speaks with tongue of fire, as no other man I have ever heard in the House.
In complete contrast by both temperament and appearance to John Wheatley was James Maxton, regarded as something approaching a saint by the electors of Bridgeton. Jimmy was a spellbinder as an orator, knowing how to combine sentiment with hard fact, and with a charm that nullified the most bitter of adversaries. His intellectual powers were such that he could have reaped the greatest rewards of politics but for his indolence - a defect about which he was perfectly frank. Jimmy was just unable to get up in the mornings, but he would explain away his laziness with such charm, and remedy dilatoriness with such brilliant common sense, that his most exasperating actions had to be forgiven. No constituency ever had a representative who felt its troubles so personally. I have often seen Jimmy Maxton weep as he read some letter of appeal for help. His subsequent slow and haphazard effort to remedy the wrong belied the fervid resolve which he felt. He was a man with great capacity for love, and he always spoke straight from his heart so that I have watched him sweep a hostile audience on to his side in a matter of minutes. This oratory, full of Celtic fire and sound sentiment, served him well on the hustings. In the calmer, more cynical atmosphere of parliamentary debate it failed him, although he was always listened to with the greatest respect by his colleagues.
James Maxton and I talked of the necessity for carrying on the work that Wheatley had left to our hand but in our hearts we knew that it could not be done. We were the men with whom Wheatley might have built civilization in Britain, but without him - we could only hope to fight on, whatever the consequence might be.
On Maxton's frail shoulders had fallen the sole burden of leadership, and I saw much of him at that time. I have never associated with a kinder, more impeccably honesty, loyal and courageous man; but he is without ambition, has no patience for detail, and a queer philosophy adapted to his inherent laziness which makes him an impossible leader for any movement. His politics are socialist, but his habits of thought and temperament are completely anarchist.
From September 1936 a steady stream of British volunteers travelled in small groups over the Pyrenees into Spain. Bob Edwards was captain of the ILP contingent. During the first months of 1937, they did a twelve-week stint on the Aragon Front, taking part in the capture of Mount Aragon and Saragossa. "We spent much of our time training members of the Spanish Militia how to take cover and we were constantly trying to persuade them that to walk upright and bravely into an offensive was not necessarily the best method," Edwards recalled later.
Edwards was joined in his contingent by George Orwell, who had by then applied to join the ILP. Orwell too had been a pacifist and according to Bob Edwards, had, during 1935, submitted a manuscript on pacifism which was "long and absolutist in character" for the consideration of the ILP. The two met again in December 1936 on the Aragon Front during the Civil War. Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's best selling account of the Spanish Civil War, was to follow.
As ILP members fought alongside the Republicans, Maxton stepped up his propaganda effort on the Spanish people's behalf. Writing in January 1937, Maxton argued that the overt intervention of Germany and Italy required a British response. Five months ago, he wrote, it might have been argued that it did not matter to Great Britain which side won in Spain and that a policy of intervention was the one calculated to limit the extent of hostilities and to hasten the restoration of peace. Franco had practically unrestricted aid from the two Fascist powers, Germany and Italy, while Britain had done nothing to help the Republicans. Worse than that, the Government had in effect tacitly supported the Fascists. Their "class prejudices were with Franco".
Maxton followed this up with an assault on the Government in Parliament. Non-intervention had actually been an act of discrimination against the Spanish People's Government. If Spain had been ruled by a right-wing government, it would have been accorded all the rights normally accorded to foreign powers. Maxton's intervention in the debate dwarfed other contributions. The speech, the Guardian said, showed "perfection from the technical point of view. After this brilliant example of the art of debating the other speakers seemed to be amateurish."