John Leslie

John Leslie (1856-1921) was an Irish socialist, born in Edinburgh, who created the Scottish Socialist Federation and built up the Independent Labor Party in Scotland.

“One of the countless victims of the ‘enormous condescension of posterity,’ John Leslie was born of poor Irish immigrants in the ghetto of ‘Little Ireland,’ Edinburgh, in 1856. Twelve years older than James Connolly (1868-1916), whom he eventually met and influenced in ‘a community of Irish exiles’ historians still know very little about, Leslie had been brought up and educated as a Roman Catholic. Although Leslie was one of the most interesting and important socialist writers and agitators in Scotland, he has not attracted much attention from either Scottish or Irish historians…. Leslie did not leave much trace of his life. In the sparse opening contribution to ‘The Passing of John Leslie,’ H.W. Lee began the small column in Justice, 20 January, 1921 by saying: ‘Last week we could only make the bare announcement of the death of our old comrade John Leslie, and this week we can add few particulars. We understand that he had suffered from a weak heart, and appendicitis put more of a strain upon his weakened condition than it could stand.’ Himself an active socialist in Edinburgh a few years before the death of Leslie, W.H. Marwick, the Scottish Labor historian understood Leslie’s importance but he did not say anything about Leslie’s work or writings after 1893. Though he devoted less than a paragraph to Leslie’s work as a socialist pioneer, Marwick wrote: ‘He was chiefly responsible for the creation of the Scottish Socialist Federation which included members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Socialist League and other groups and ultimately merged in the SDF. He was secretary of the local branch of the Scottish Labor Party until its absorption in the Independent Labor Party (ILP).’ The fullest and most sympathetic, though inadequate, account of Leslie’s life and activities was offered by H.W. Lee and E. Archbold in Social Democracy in Britain. But they did not say a word about Leslie’s attitude towards the Easter Rising or the Bolshevik revolution. Lee and Archbold wrote: ‘When a boy, he tried to climb the Cat-Nick in Holyrood Park, and was picked up a mass of broken bones. At first he was not expected to live. As it was, he was confined to bed for some years, and was never physically what he might have been. During his long illness the priests saw to his education, with a view to his entering the Catholic Church. Leslie’s latent rebel instincts would have none of it, and he joined the Fenian movement when quite a youngster.’ Displaying his dual-consciousness as an Irishman and a Scot, Leslie later assisted in the formation of the Edinburgh branch of the SDF in 1884. The Catholic priests had stimulated Leslie’s interest in things intellectual; and, unlike Connolly, he did not have any inhibitions about denouncing the Catholic Church in public. Before he became a Marxian socialist in the early 1880s, he was a passionate nationalist and support of Michael Davitt. When recovering from his long illness, he read widely in Irish history and politics and taught himself French to acquire a thorough knowledge of the great French Revolution. A scholar and erudite man, he stirred the ire of the Calvinistic Marxist, William J. Nairn, by discussing poetry and poets at a business meeting of the SDF. An authority on the Irish National Question, he was a great asset to the infant socialist movement in Lowland Scotland. A fine writer and poet, he was a prolific contributor to Justice, the organ of the SDF, from the 1880s until his death. He lectured and wrote, especially letters to the Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening Times, on the Irish question and was a man of wide and diverse interests. Depicted by Lee and Archbold as ‘a poet and dreamer,’ he did not shirk from the practical tasks imposed on him by the socialist movement. Leslie was much closer to H.M. Hyndman and the London leadership of the SDF, ideologically and temperamentally, than James Connolly or John Maclean, the Clydeside socialist. Leslie was not one of their favorites. In H.W. Lee’s cryptic reference to Leslie as ‘a plotter and fighter’ he recognized that Leslie was more of a revolutionary socialist than Hyndman or Harry Quelch in the early years of the twentieth century. Hyndman’s Twentieth Century Press published several booklets of his poems, though the only extant one seems to be Proletarian Lays and Lyrics. He was, however, always dogged by ill-health; and, though well-known to Hyndman and other leading figures in the London SDF, he did not seek the national limelight. His early manhood was marred by irregular employment and poverty; his father was employed by Edinburgh Corporation as a navvy. Commenting on the hardship he endured with stoicism, Lee and Archbold said: ‘In later years he worked as an insurance agent. The last years of his life were a terrible strain for him, climbing, as he had to do, endless winding stairs of Auld Reekie’s soaring tenements while suffering from an aneurism of the heart.’ A salutary reminder of the capricious aloofness and snobbery of certain socialists, the wealthy Hyndman did not dip his hand into his pocket to help Leslie at critical moments in his life. Socialists like Hyndman were so in love with a superior, yet unborn, humankind that they did not condescend to alleviate the poverty of their comrades. But Hyndman’s greatest lack of charity towards Leslie and other rank-and-file socialists was the failure to acknowledge their heroic and self-sacrificing contribution to the infant socialist movement nationally and internationally. In his two substantial volumes of autobiography, Reminiscences and Further Reminiscences, Hyndman did not make a single reference to Leslie’s herculean work for socialism and the SDF. Combing with Hyndman’s neglect, Leslie’s own iconoclasm and sturdy independence of mind during and after the pivotal years of 1916 in Dublin and 1917 in Petrograd, and the ‘operational history’ of Stalinist historians in later years, it was inevitable that the memory of Leslie would be almost eradicated. Sharing Hyndman’s attitude to the Irish National Question, Leslie was an out-and-out Internationalist of the dominant type in the Second International. But, although he understood the Irish question as well as most other Irish socialists, he was less aware of the class dimension of Irish politics than Jim Connell, the author of ‘The Red Flag’. Like John Carstairs Matheson, the Lowland Scot, Leslie’s ‘internationalism’ was sometimes so abstract that it inhibited him from acknowledging the existence of Scottish (as distinct from Irish) nationality. In one of a series of articles in Justice in 1894 on the Irish question, Leslie wrote: ‘As an Irishman I can quite well understand the passionate desire of my countrymen to assert their national identity’. Elsewhere in the same article, he asserted that: ‘Neither do I believe that the interests of the Irish working class are more likely to be advanced by the men who constitute the overwhelming bulk of the present Irish Party, than the interests of the British (please remember British) working class are to be advanced by the men who compose either of the great British parties.’ Referring to the SDF as ‘the English party’ of the Second International, he looked forward in another article to Irish workers joining hands with the English socialists who hated ‘the English exploiting classes as deeply as the Irish themselves hate them’. He did not make any distinction between the vast majority of English workers and the small minority of ‘English’ (or British) socialists. But he did have some insight into national differences between distinct national working classes. Thus in an article titled ‘The Irish Question: The Outlook,’ he anticipated the unity of the ‘English’ and Irish working class thus: ‘They (the Irish) possess the faculty of ready and spontaneous organization, so characteristic of the Celtic peoples. The time is opportune, and they may imbue the slow-moving Englishman with something of their peculiar enthusiasm, while he in his turn may temper their impetuosity with a little (not much) of his calculating prudence. Everywhere in the English socialist movement the Irishman is well to the front, and there is not the smallest reason why the Irishman at home should not be to the front in the socialist movement as well.’ Later in the same year, the Twentieth Century Press published Leslie’s pamphlet, The Present Position of the Irish Question. And the man who would not in his articles in Justice recognize the smallest reason inhibiting the growth of a socialist movement in Ireland argued that: ‘The Catholic Church is, indeed, the most potent instrument for the preservation of the English connection; and the Orange leaders of the North know it; but they use the anti-Popery cry as a means of keeping the Irish democracy split into two parts.’ Moreover, Hyndman and Leslie did not want to end the English connection before the advent of a socialist Britain. Leslie asserted that ‘the Alpha and Omega of the Irish question’ did not consist of hoisting ‘the green and gold banner above the old Parliament House in Dublin.’ A less passionate critic of British imperialism in Ireland than his fellow countryman Jim Connell, Leslie had always conceived of the realization of Irish freedom within the context of the United Kingdom before 1918. Yet, Leslie persuaded Connolly to form a socialist party in Ireland and did not object to the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). An active member of the (British) ILP in 1898, Jim Connell wrote a pamphlet entitled Brothers at Last: A Centenary Appeal to Celt and Saxon. Though he did not possess Leslie’s detailed historical knowledge or scholarship, he employed a more passionate, revolutionary rhetoric. As well as identifying the imperialist role of ‘the British jailer and hangman’ in Ireland, he also insisted on his own thorough internationalism. Focusing on the experience of Ireland as a subject nation within the British Empire, he argued that: ‘In a country politically free, or in other words self-governed, Nationalism necessarily means that and nothing more; but in a country politically enslaved and socially enslaved, Nationalism frequently means revolt against injustice. The Irish people naturally attribute the misgovernment and maladministration from which they suffer to their British governors and administrators, and thereby make a national of what should otherwise be a class quarrel.’ Attacking British imperialism for the exploitation of ‘the Irish, the Egyptians, the Afghans, or the Zulus,’ the Irish socialist hoped that the workers in Britain and Ireland ‘could be brought to understand one another.’ Although he insisted that ‘we of the Socialist Party have the world for our country,’ Connell was not prepared to wait for the British workers to grant freedom to the Irish. In his most radical programmatic statement, he proposed that: ‘The ILP place on its program National Independence for Ireland. Let National Independence be clearly defined as meaning not the unintelligible Home Rule of the political time-servers, but absolute National Separation.’ From his entry into the SDF in 1884 until 1918, Leslie did not support the demand for Irish separation. In 1898 Connolly came into conflict with English socialists in the ILP, and his advocacy of Irish independence was seen by them as ‘a mere chauvinism calculated to perpetuate national rivalries and race hatreds.’ Hyndman almost simultaneously accused Michael Davitt of stirring up race hatred against the English, though he was tolerant initially of Connolly’s ISRP. Writing in Justice in 1898, Hyndman gave attention to the first issue of the Workers’ Republic with Leslie’s fine poem on Wolfe Tone and his attack on the ‘professional’ Irish patriots. In his persistent descriptions of the British SDF as ‘the English socialist party,’ Leslie was simply ridiculing and mocking the Scottish nationalists of the time. From an orthodox SDF standpoint all nationalism was inherently ‘bourgeois.’ But this did not blur his identification with Scottish workers’ culture. A master of the English language and excellent stylist, he sometimes reproduced Scots or Lallans in his reports in Justice of socialist activities in Edinburgh. In defiance of the SDF leadership in London, some of the Scottish SDF members including John Maclean assisted Bolshevik sailors to run guns to Russia through the Scottish port of Leith before the Russian revolution of 1905. The outcome was that Leslie, Thomas Edgar, William McKie, and W.C. Angus were arrested and put on trial in the Sheriff Court, Edinburgh. In an interesting glimpse of the Scottishness of Leslie, Lee and Archbold wrote: ‘When the defendants got inside the Sheriff Court they were congratulated on the result of the trial. John Leslie asked what the congratulations were for and was told they had got off with a nominal fine. ‘Good Lord,’ said Leslie, ‘I didna understan’ what the auld lad was haverin’ aboot.’’ Although Leslie became increasingly disillusioned with the Bolsheviks before 1917, he had particular reasons for being partisanly internationalist in 1905 and 1909. Throughout the Scottish labor movement the execution and martyrdom of Francisco Ferrer, the Spanish anarchist and educationalist, led to splits and bitter arguments. In one of the larger branches of the ILP in Glasgow in 1909, according to John Paron, the defense of Ferrer’s anti-clericalism provoked ‘the resignation of all our Catholic officers.’ At an ILP meeting in Glasgow, where the Ferrer affair was raised, Jim Larkin remained unusually silent. From America, Connolly wrote in the Harp about the insurrection in Catalonia ‘verging on civil war’ without even mentioning Ferrer’s name. In contrast to Connolly and Larkin, Leslie did not feel any inhibitions about denouncing Spanish clericalism’s role in the judicial murder of Ferrer. At the outbreak of the First World War, Leslie was pro-war. Although he did not say much in Justice before the Easter Rising, he remained for the rest of his life with Hyndman, Lee and the rump of the SDF or the sect known as the National Socialist Party. But he retained his independence of mind, and in May, 1916, wrote an informative appreciation of James Connolly. Claiming to have brought Connolly into the socialist movement, in 1892, Leslie characterized the Easter Rising as the ‘sad, bad, and mad outbreak in Dublin.’ He had always had a hatred of ‘bourgeois’ Nationalism, and particularly Sinn Féin. As he summed up his opposition to the Rising, he said: ‘And let me say right here that I characterize the outbreak in this manner not because of its want of success, but because of its utter futility even if it had been successful. The truth must be faced. Ireland is not ripe for socialism, and any attempt to impose socialism upon a people who do not want it is not only impossible, but the very attempt would be disastrous to socialism itself. It would lead to riot in the street, but never to revolution in the country.’ But the most interesting part of Leslie’s tribute to Connolly was his explanation of why Connolly had got so involved in a nationalist uprising. As Leslie put it: ‘In the most recent conversation I had with him, one could note a growing Irishness which, while it might not mean a narrowing of vision, yet showed plainly that if he had influenced Sinn Féin, the influence had been mutual and reciprocal, and that Sinn Féin had made its mark on him; but that does not explain everything. I will venture my own opinion for what it is worth. I have reason to believe that Connolly did not place a very high estimate upon the Labor or socialist movement here. Knowing the man, I say it is possible that, despairing of effective assistance from that quarter, and indeed believing that it would act as a drag upon his efforts to form an Irish Socialist Party, he determined at all costs to identify or to indissolubly link the cause of Irish Labor with the most extreme Irish nationalism, and to seal the bond of union with his blood if necessary.’ It was characteristic of Leslie that he made an appeal for financial assistance for Connolly’s wife and family. A few months later, he reviewed John Boyle’s book on The Irish Rebellion of 1916. He used Boyle’s material to stress that Sinn Féin contained within its ranks ‘the most hopeless reactionaries’ in Europe. He underlined the fact that they had approved of the execution of Ferrer, and had been hostile to militant workers in Dublin in 1913. By November 1916, Leslie was noticeably less hostile to the national struggle in Ireland. Identifying with the predominantly Protestant United Irishmen of 1798, he pointed out that the Ulster Unionists could not thrive without the support of the working-class descendants of the United Irishmen. But, although there was a distinctive change of emphasis in his attitude to the Irish question in November 1916, he remained critical of the Catholic Church. Thus he argued: ‘I speak with some knowledge of what I am saying when I assert that the Ulster democracy (and nothing else counts for me) can be won for Nationalism and Labor; but the first thing necessary for the winning of Ulster is that there should be a complete suppression in the ranks of Irish Labor of all self-constituted champions of the Catholic faith, and the sternest reprobation, whenever it dares to show itself, of that tendency towards venality and nepotism which has even been a dark stain upon the otherwise brilliant record of all peoples of Celtic stock.’ Although he did not contribute to Justice in 1917, Leslie worked with such pro-war elements in the Scottish labor movement as Alex Anderson and Thomas Kennedy. Veterans of the SDF, Anderson, a headmaster, and Kennedy, a coal miner, had been victimized for their socialist activities. In a contribution to the beginning of Justice’s thirty-fifth year in 1918, he characterized the three main enemies of the political labor movement as ‘anarchism, impossibilism and pacifism.’ In March 1918 he contributed a major article to Justice on ‘Sinn Féin and Irish Labor’ in which he wrote: ‘Just as anarchism can never realize anything but anarchy, so Sinn Féin seems destined literally to realize itself in ‘ourselves alone.’’ Attacking Sinn Féin for encouraging ‘hatred of the entire English race,’ he remained silent about the atrocities committed by the British army in Dublin. Neither did he say anything about the pogroms in the Belfast shipyards. By early 1918 Cathal O’Shannon, the editor of the Voice of Labor began to arraign the English labor movement. Countering some of Leslie’s criticisms of the nationalism of the Irish workers’ movement, O’Shannon wrote: ‘John’s active acquaintance with Irish movements ended in the early 1880s, when he hauled down the green flag with the crownless harp and hoisted the Red Flag.’ But he did not mention Leslie’s most vulnerable stance—support for the capitalists’ war Leslie could not escape the Scottish labor movement’s increasing support for militant workers in Ireland. Criticizing the attempt to impose conscription in Ireland, he contributed his last article to Justice on ‘The Address to the US President’ in July 1918. Now identifying with the struggle for Irish independence, he concluded that: ‘Although inclined to sectarian bigotry and hatred, one must remember that sectarian animosity was deliberately fostered and encouraged and subsidized by Governments in the past; it must be borne in mind that the Irish people are an intellectual and open-minded people, far more so than the English people are; and I believe one of the first results of Irish self-government would be the rise of a formidable Labor and anti-clerical movement in Ireland.’ A major shift in his previous attitudes, and a distinctive break with the position of Hyndman, Leslie insisted that ‘English Labor’ should now make ‘some definite pronouncement on the question of Irish self-government.’ But so should the Irish labor movement. Contributing to various Irish newspapers between 1916 and 1918, he remained active until his death. Leslie deserves to be better known, particularly since he grappled with such explosive issues as religious and ethnic tensions in labor movements. As pogroms and ethnic conflict inside national working classes have contributed immeasurably to the crisis of late-twentieth-century socialism, an interesting footnote to John Leslie’s life and times resides in the fact that the militant nationalistic Irish and Scottish socialists after 1916 took racism and imperialism more seriously than their English counterparts. Towards the end of his life, Leslie became more aware of the perniciousness of British imperialism, and in his own way expressed solidarity with the anti-imperialist struggles in Ireland. When Leslie died, the SDF was a very small, isolated sect on the fringe of the British labor movement. A poor, ill and much more isolated figure than John Maclean, Leslie died in almost total obscurity. He was, according to socialist folklore, a bachelor. The very small obituary notices in Justice by H.W. Lee, H.M. Hyndman and Thomas Kennedy offered very little biographical information about one of the most fascinating ‘British’ socialists of his generation. No-one mentioned whether he had been married or not; and a promised tribute in the following issue of Justice by Robert Allan, the general secretary of the Scottish TUC, who had known him for over thirty years, never materialized. The complicated relationship between Leslie, Connolly and Larkin and militant Scottish and Irish Labor in the early years of this century highlights the fact that religious and ethnic tensions within the ‘British’ working class were often more visible than class solidarity. But it was the militant and nationalistic Irish and Scottish workers who, in their struggle for self-government, fought the racism inside John Bull’s Celtic fringe. In 1923 Irish workers stood in solidarity with Black seamen against Havelock Wilson’s National Union of Seamen in Liverpool. As the Voice of Labor explained: ‘Everything looked good until, lo! a crew of whites, Britishers, Sons of the Sea, Glorious and free, took the places of the despised ‘nigger’ at the reduced rate. ‘Superior’ race, eh? Which?’ And in 1927 the Edinburgh ILP—the ILP built up originally by Connolly and Leslie—successfully thwarted the attempts to introduce ‘a color bar’ in hotels, restaurants and dance halls.”

—James D. Young, “John Leslie, 1856-1921: A Scottish-Irishman as Internationalist,” Saothar (v. 18, 1993, pp. 51-61)

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