William Gallacher – Reminiscences of Lenin

Willie Gallacher served as a Communist MP for West Fife in Scotland from 1935-1950, and as a member of the Red Clydeside movement, where he played a very important part in the rise of socialism in Britain. Here we republish his writings on his meetings with Lenin, ahead of the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920:
Willie Gallacher served as a Communist MP for West Fife in Scotland from 1935-1950, and as a member of the Red Clydeside movement, where he played a very important part in the rise of socialism in Britain. Here we republish his writings on his meetings with Lenin, ahead of the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920:
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In 1920 I got appointed by the comrades in Glasgow, associated with the Clyde workers’ committee (Shop Stewards Movement) to attend the Second Congress of the Communist International. We were at that time “Left” sectarian and refused to participate in the discussions taking place between the B.S.P. and the S.L.P. on the questions of the formation of a Communist Party in Britain. We had the project in view of starting a “pure” Communist Party in Scotland, a party that would not under any circumstances touch either the Labour Party or parliamentary activity.

As I hadn’t a passport and as there was little likelihood of getting one I set out for Newcastle, where after a week’s effort I succeeded with the assistance of a Norwegian comrade, who was a fireman, in getting safely stowed away on a ship for Bergen. From Bergen I travelled up to Vords, from Vords to Murmansk and from there to Leningrad.

When I arrived at Leningrad, the congress which had opened there was in session in Moscow to where it had been transferred after the opening.

In Smolny I was made comfortable in a room while some of the comrades tried to find an interpreter. While I was writing one of them came in and handed me “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder,” which had just been printed in English. I started reading it quite casually, but when I came to the section dealing with Britain and saw what it had to say about me, I sat up with a jolt. I had come away from Glasgow with the notion that our case against the Labour Party and against participation in parliament was so sound, so unassailable, that all I would have to do would be to put a few well-rehearsed arguments and the B.S.P. and S.L.P. would be wiped off the mat. It was a real shock to find that already, before I had been anywhere near the congress, all the fancy building I had been doing was knocked into complete ruin. But at that time all the questions raised by Lenin were far from being clear to me, as was evident later in my speeches at the congress.

I got to Moscow on a Saturday at midday, was taken to a hotel just in time to be taken to a “subbotnik.” I got a job till eight at night stacking pig-iron in a foundry. On Sunday I was persuaded to play a football match and got myself kicked all over the field for an hour and a half. At night I met and had a very interesting talk with a young French comrade named Lefebvre, who had been lost along with another companion and three fishermen between Murmansk and Vords.

On Monday, with other delegates, I made my way to the Kremlin and to my way to the Kremlin and to my first acquaintance with an international congress.

In the main hall groups of delegates were standing chatting and arguing.

We passed through into the side room where delegates sat drinking tea, writing reports or preparing speeches. I was introduced to delegates from this and that country and then I got into a group and someone said:

“This is Comrade Lenin,” just like that.

I held out my hand and said, “Hello!” I was stuck for anything else to say.

He said, with a smile, as he was told that I was Comrade Gallacher from Glasgow:

“We are very pleased to have you at our congress.”

I said something about being glad to be there and then we went on talking about other things. I kept saying to myself: “Christ, there’s war everywhere, there are internal problems and external problems that would almost seem insurmountable. Yet here is a comrade supremely confident that the Bolsheviks can carry through to victory.” Lenin joked and laughed with the comrades and occasionally when I said something he would look at me in a quaint way. I later discovered that this was in consequence of my English. He had difficulty in understanding it.

I immediately felt that I was talking, not to some “faraway great” man hedged around with an impassable barrier of airs, but to Lenin, the great Party comrade who had a warm smile and cheery word for every proletarian fighter.

When I got going in the discussions on the political resolution and the trade union resolution, I got a very rough handling. Some of my best arguments were simply riddled. My opponents, when I got up to speak, never missed a chance of “cutting in.” Naturally I would snap back at them and things sometimes got very hot. As I felt the ground slipping away from beneath my feet I got very bad tempered. But Lenin, while carrying on an irreconcilable criticism in principle of my line, would always take the opportunity of saying something helpful, something that took away a lot of the soreness from the difficult position my wrong ideas had rushed me into.

In the Political Commission the same thing was going on as in the open sessions. Every time I got up to speak I would say things in such an offensive way that interruptions would start and then two or three of us would be at it hammer and tongs.

On several occasions at these sittings Lenin passed me short pencilled notes explaining a point or showing me where I was wrong.

When the sitting would finish I’d tear up my own notes and I tore up Lenin’s along with them. It seems incredible now that I could do such a thing, but I never thought of it at the time. Towards the end of the Political Commission, when I had been very aggressive about the B.S.P. and S.L.P., he passed me across a note which in a very short caustic way gave an estimation of these groups. At night I mentioned in confidence to one or two comrades that Lenin had given me a note about the B.S.P. and S.L.P. which if I had shown them would have made them blink.

“Where is it?” one of them asked. “Oh, I tore it up,” I casually replied.

“You what? You tore up a note in Lenin’s handwriting?” He was aghast.

“I tore up several,” I said, “but they were personal and I didn’t think he’d want me to keep them.”

This fellow, who turned out later to be a thorough renegade, got me to promise if I got another that I would give it to him. Two days later, in the Political Commission, in the midst of a breeze and while I was speaking, someone made a reference to “Infantile Sickness.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve read it, but I’m no infant. It’s all right to treat me as one and slap me around when I’m not here but when I’m here you’ll find I’m an old hand at the game.”

This latter phrase caught Lenin’s attention and some time later, when Willie Paul visited Russia, Lenin repeated it to him with a quite creditable Scotch accent. When I sat down after this effort he passed me a note which read, “When I wrote my little book, I hadn’t met you.” I gave that note to the aforementioned renegade to my present great regret.

While insistent in carrying through his political line Lenin gave both in the open sessions and in the Political Commission every conceivable assistance to myself and other comrades in order to help us to political clarity.

Then when I went to visit him at home I had my greatest experience. I sat down before him and we talked of the building of a party and its role in leading the revolutionary struggle. I had never thought much about the party before, but I began then to get a real understanding of what a Communist Party should be.

Lenin was dead against the project for a separate party in Scotland. I would have to work, join up in the newly-formed party in Britain. I made objections, I couldn’t work with this one or the other one.

“If you put the revolution first,” he said, “you won’t find any difficulty. For the revolution you will work with all sorts of people, for a part of the way at any rate. But if you start off by shutting yourself away from everyone, instead of getting in amongst them and fighting for the time of revolutionary advance, you won’t get anywhere. Get into the Party and fight for the line of the Communist International and you’ll have the strength of the Communist International behind you.”

In all our talk the “revolution” was the living, throbbing theme of all that was said.

I had never had an experience like it. I couldn’t think of Lenin personally. I couldn’t think of anything but the revolution and the necessity of advancing the revolution whatever the cost might be. This ever since to me seemed to be the outstanding duality of Lenin’s great genius. He never thought of himself, he was the living embodiment of the revolutionary struggle and he carried with him wherever he went the inspiration of his own great conviction.

During the course of the congress I had another very close friend, Artem, who was killed in an accident the following year. Artem, or Sergeyev, as he was more commonly known, used to talk a lot with me of the experiences they had had in the early days of the Party. He was only about 19 or 20 when Lenin broke with the Mensheviks. He was absolutely devoted to Lenin and the Party. In the course of one of our talks he said to me, “We have another great leader Comrade Stalin. Often when there is an exceptionally difficult problem before the Political Bureau, all eyes will turn to Stalin. In a few well-chosen sentences he will give his solution and it’s always clear and decisive.” That was the first time I’d ever heard the name of Stalin. When I returned to Glasgow and reported my impressions of the congress it was the first time any of the Glasgow comrades heard his name. It was not till I was over again in 1923 that I had the opportunity of meeting Stalin and learning at first hand how correct the estimation of Sergeyev was.

It was arranged that John Reed and I should go to Baku to the Toilers of the East Congress there. Then a message came to the hotel, Lenin wanted to see me. Off I went to the Kremlin. “When can you go home?” he asked me.

“I’m going to Baku,” I replied.

He smiled and nodded his head in a negative way.

“There’s a big movement developing in Britain,” he said. “Councils of Action have been set up to stop the attack that is being made against us. You ought to get back as quickly as possible. Do you agree?”

“I agree,” I answered.

“When can you go then?” he asked. “Tomorrow, if you like,” I replied. He smiled broader than ever.

“Why not tonight?” he said. “You could catch train.”

“All right,” I said, “tonight, I’ve got nothing to pack.”

“Good,” he said, standing up and holding out his hand, “be very careful on the way back, and when you get to Britain we’ll look to you as a loyal fighter for the revolution and the Communist International.” We shook hands very warmly, then I went on my way. That is the last memory I have of our great Comrade Lenin.

William Gallacher

Taken from ‘We Have Met Lenin’ by Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1939

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