Robert (Bob) Stewart, the son of a farm labourer and handloom weaver, was born in Eassie, Scotland, on 16th February 1877. He was the tenth child of twelve. Two years later Stewart moved with his family to Dundee. He later recalled: "Our first house in Dundee was at 21 Lawrence Street, in a block of tenements, built like all the others, in close proximity to the jute factories."
Stewart went to school when he was seven years old. "It was in the period that free education became law. Just before then, the fee was 1s. 1d. a quarter. I was there until I was ten years old." Stewart became a shifter in Mitchell's Jute Mill.
At the age of sixteen Stewart joined the Temperance Movement. As he explained in his autobiography, Breaking the Fetters: "The public houses were evil, smelly places. I had first-hand experience because I used to go in them to sell newspapers, another sideline of mine to make an extra penny or two... All this squalor and degradation, seeing and experiencing the misery of some of my pals who went back on a Saturday night to a home with parents brawling and fighting in a drunken stupor, had a very profound effect on my thinking."
Stewart became a joiner at the Gourlay Shipyard. After a period of unemployment he found work at the Arrol Bridge Building Works in Annan. Stewart was also a committed socialist and became an active member of the Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners. In 1895 Stewart joined the Independent Labour Party.
In 1900 Stewart returned to the Gourlay Shipyard in Dundee where he became a shop steward and also a member of the yard management committee. One of his first jobs was to help build the Discovery, the ship which took Captain Robert Falcon Scott on the National Antarctic Expedition.
Stewart got married to Margaret, the daughter of a master painter, on 13th June, 1902. Soon afterwards he lost his job. After a period of unemployment he moved to South Africa. He was appalled by the racism he experienced in Pretoria. He later wrote: "I very soon discovered that the colour bar in South Africa was not only an idea in some people's minds. It was a way of life. On public transport, in places of entertainment, even in churches, there was segregation, special places for whites and others for the blacks, and to my horror even the Templars had white and black lodges."
Stewart moved to Cape Town where he joined the Cape Town Trades Council. He discovered that the trade union movement was weak in South Africa. "This weakness was aggravated by the attitude of the whites to the organisation of the coloured and black workers. My experience was that generally speaking the whites were not only against the blacks coming into the white trade unions but in many cases against the blacks and coloured being organised at all."
For a while he worked in a restaurant but the wages were so low he had little left over to send to his wife in Dundee. Once he saved up enough money he returned to Scotland where he became a full-time organiser for the Scottish Prohibition Party with a wage of 27 shillings a week. One of his tasks was to edit the newspaper, The Prohibitionist.
In 1908 Stewart was elected to the Dundee Town Council. He joined forces with Edwin Scrymgeour, the leader of the Scottish Prohibition Party. Stewart pointed out in his autobiography: "The employment position was so bad that I moved in the Council that we provide some work for the unemployed. I suggested that to provide work trees be planted in the Blackness Road to beautify the street. Many were against it because it was spending the town's money needlessly. However, I won."
Stewart left the Scottish Prohibition Party in 1909 because he "could no longer stomach the religious prattlings of Scrymgeour and some of his adherents." Stewart and some of his left-wing friends now formed the Prohibition and Reform Party. Apart from the aim of achieving the complete National Prohibition its aims included: "The abolition of private ownership of the land and the means of manufacture, production and exchange, and the substitution of public of social ownership without compensation."
On the outbreak of the First World War Stewart immediately declared his opposition. On 4th August 1914 he told a meeting in Peterhead: "Whatever else may transpire in the coming war, you will all learn in the course of it or in its aftermath that it is a capitalist war. It is not worth sacrificing the bones of your domestic cat, or your pet canary, even less those of your husbands, brothers and sons."
Stewart also actively campaigned against the Munitions of War Act introduced in July 1915 that made it "a penal offence to leave your work without the consent of your employer". Stewart pointed out in Breaking the Fetters: "There was the dilution of labour and imported labour imposed by the government with the assistance of the trade union leaders. Then came the rent increases and the steep rise in the cost of living. The militants had certainly plenty to battle against."
In 1915 Stewart became the local organiser of the Scottish Horse and Motormen's Union. He was paid 30 shillings a week. "This gave me the opportunity to do my work during the day and attend anti-war meetings in the evening."
Over 3,000,000 men volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces during the first two years of the war. Due to heavy losses at the Western Front the government decided to introduce conscription (compulsory enrollment) by passing the Military Service Act. Stewart joined forces with the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) and mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors.
Stewart was conscripted and ordered to go to Hamilton Barracks, about seventy miles from Dundee. When he refused to go on parade he was court martialed and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs. As he later pointed out: "Those who refused to submit to alternative service, which meant voluntary service in the prosecution of the war, were condemned to the established routine of serving sentences in civil prisons, repeated court martials and further sentences."
Stewart was released from prison in April 1919. He published a booklet of his poems entitled Prison Rhymes that became a local best-seller. Stewart also raised enough funds for building of the Unity Hall in Dundee.
In April 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF). Stewart also attended as a delegate of the Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP).
It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Early members included Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, John R. Campbell and Robin Page Arnot. McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB.
Francis Beckett, in his book, Enemy Within (1995) described Stewart at the conference. "After the main resolution was carried, the stout, sincere man with a sober moustache walked solemnly to the platform to ask the new Party to come out in favour of suppressing the manufacture of alcoholic drinks. Few thought much of the idea, but they liked Bob Stewart, so they referred it to the executive for action."
Stewart was appointed as the Scottish organiser of the CPGB. The region had provided several leaders of the party, including Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Helen Crawfurd, John R. Campbell and William Gallacher. Stewart always regretted his failure to persuade John Maclean to join the CPGB as he believed that he was "one of the greatest British socialists of all time" and would have brought in a large number of devoted followers.
On 7th May 1921 the police raided the party offices at King Street, Covent Garden. Stewart and Albert Inkpin, the National Secretary of the CPGB, were both arrested. Later that year he was prosecuted for having printed and circulated Communist Party literature and was sentenced to six months in prison. On his release he was the Communist Party of Great Britain candidate for the Caerphilly by-election. He received only 2,592 votes and finished in third place behind the Labour Party candidate.
In 1923 Stewart was sent to the Soviet Union to become the British representative to the Communist International. He worked closely with Joseph Stalin who he described as "a quiet, painstaking and efficient chairman". He was especially impressed with Clara Zetkin and Karl Radek. In January 1924 he was in the Soviet Union when Lenin died and was chosen to accompany his body from Gorky to Moscow.
Stewart had impressed the Comintern with his organisational skills and in 1924 was sent to Ireland. At the time the country did not have a Communist Party. Over the next few months he worked with Jim Larkin, the most important trade union leader in Ireland. However, Larkin changed his mind at the last moment and refused to join what became known as the Irish Marxist Party. Stewart later commented: "My own opinion is that Big Jim would never accept the democracy of a disciplined Marxist party."
On 4th August 1925, Tom Bell, Jack Murphy, Wal Hannington, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Harry Pollitt, Albert Inkpin, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot, William Gallacher and John Campbell were arrested for being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and charged with violation of the Mutiny Act of 1797.
Tom Bell explained: "The indictment against the twelve read as follows: That between 1 January, 1924, and 21 October, 1925, the prisoners had: 1. Conspired to publish a seditious libel. 2. Conspired to incite to commit breaches of the Incitement to Mutiny Act, 1797. 3. Conspired to endeavour to seduce persons serving in His Majesty's forces to whom might come certain published books and pamphlets, to wit, the Workers' Weekly, and certain other publications mentioned in the indictment, and to incite them to mutiny."
The Communist Party of Great Britain decided that William Gallacher, John R. Campbell and Harry Pollitt should defend themselves. Tom Bell added: "their speeches were prepared, and approved by the Political Bureau (of the CPGB). To challenge the legality of the proceedings Sir Henry Slesser was engaged to defend the others. During the trial Judge Swift declared that it was "no crime to be a Communist or hold communist opinions, but it was a crime to belong to this Communist Party."
John 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.
With Harry Pollitt in prison Stewart was elected as acting General Secretary. He recalled: "This was a new role for me, and also in new conditions. Before, I was always one of those in jail looking out at the fight. Now I was outside and with a heavy responsibility. Thousands of branches of the Labour Party, the trade unions, hundreds of trades councils, poured in protests to the Home Office against the arrests and demanding the twelve be released."
In the 1929 General Election Stewart stood as the Communist Party of Great Britain candidate in Dundee. He finished 5th with 6,163 votes. His old friend, Edwin Scrymgeour, won with 50,073 votes. In the 1931 General Election he did slightly better when he obtained 10,262 votes.
Stewart remained a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union. However, in September 1939 Harry Pollitt welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. Joseph Stalinwas 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."
John R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, 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."
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."
However, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, John R. Campbell 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.
Fred Copeman was one of those who resigned from the Communist Party during this dispute: "It has yearly become harder to make excuses to my conscience each time an action of the Soviet Government or the Communist Party has cut across my interpretation of personal freedom. The decision of the Russian Government to withhold arms to the Spanish Republic, in order that the Spanish Communist Party could gain a political point, needed some understanding. The trials of old Bolsheviks were even harder to swallow. The Soviet attack on Finland I found hard to accept, but was unable to prove completely wrong. Their alliance with the Nazis in 1939, aligned with the complete reversal of policy by our own Communist Party, forced me to begin to look elsewhere for an ideology and philosophy so fundamentally true that it would be possible for me to find real happiness in giving my all in the struggle for its acceptance by mankind."
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.
Stewart was seventy-eight years old by the end of the Second World War. He did not play an active role in politics but was sent on diplomatic missions, including one to China in 1955 where he met Mao Zedong.
In the 1960s Stewart dictated his memoirs to Dave and Elizabeth Bowman. The book, Breaking the Fetters (1967), was published just before his death.
(1) Bob Stewart, Breaking the Fetters (1967)
I went to school when I was seven years old. It was in the period that free education became law. Just before then, the fee was 1s. 1d. a quarter. I was there until I was ten years old.
I can vividly recollect my first two teachers. They were sisters named Shaw. The elder was in charge and we nick-named her "Tattie Shaw". She had a thick black strap which she wielded with great power. I know because I sold newspapers after school hours and to get quickly on my paper round, a necessity both to get the work done and to get the maximum time for play, I climbed the school railings for a short cut. When caught I felt the full weight of the black strap brought down sharply on my bare hand. Still I knew the newspapers must be speedily dispatched, so I continued in the fear of the black strap for many a day.
I remember another time when the strap tingled my fingers. A boy in my class named Tammy Soutar was my back neighbour one day. All pupils stood back to back when doing sums. Tammy was a very stupid fellow and as I finished my sums he asked me what to do. I said "swop slates" but, when caught, I was the one judged unable to do the sums and so I was punished for copying from Tammy Soutar. I was sure then there was no justice in this world.
Many years later, when my wife was canvassing for me at a municipal election, she knocked at "Tattie Shaw's" door. She was invited inside, given a cup of tea and a donation with the request to keep it secret as the opposing candidate was also an old pupil of hers and a lawyer to boot.
(2) Bob Stewart, Breaking the Fetters (1967)
When I reached ten years, in the natural course of events I became a half-timer. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at work, Tuesday and Thursday at school. The next week vice versa, but Saturday work till 2 p.m. This was law. When you reached thirteen you could leave school, if you had passed fifth standard. If not you had to remain until you were fourteen. At fourteen you left, no matter how uneducated or daft you were.
This meant working three days one week and two and a half the next. A short week's pay was 2s. 9d. and a long week's pay 3s. 4d. And work we certainly did. From six in the morning till six at night with two breaks for breakfast and dinner. Breakfast 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Dinner 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
I was a shifter in Mitchell's mill. My work was to shift the full bobbins off the spinning frames and put the empty ones on. I remember my first day very well. I was so busy cleaning out the waste from under the machines I did not notice that the other lads had gone, so I got locked in. Many times in my life I have been involved in "lock-outs" and to be locked in on my first day at work was not a very significant start. I banged and banged again on the door, shouted at the top of my juvenile voice, but with no result. Fortunately for me it was Friday and the lads came back to clean the machines, so I was released.
At the mill I had an interesting "gaffer" (foreman), Jock Carey. He was a striking man, powerfully built with a big red beard. A typical Hielandman, I always thought.
The cleaning out of the jute waste under the spinning frames was done when the power was off. That meant we were expected to do it during our break. We devised a few tricks to get this done at times other than the break, keeping the break for our leisure time. One of the tricks was to set the waste on fire while the frame was running. The spinner would think the frame was on fire and put the power off. I became adept at these tricks, and after getting the cleaning done would dash off in the break on my own ploys.
But big Jock Carey rumbled me and soon found me another job. Every morning he bought the liberal newspaper, The Advertiser, published by the Leng Publishing House, and this he made me read to him every day. So started the daily reading sessions. Big Jock could read very well, but like many other Scotsmen he preferred other people to do his "work" and so "Wee Bob" became official reader to "Big Jock". When the newspaper was not so interesting Jock brought in books and I had a go at these. These sessions gave me an appetite for reading and an appreciation of the written word that has never left me. It gave me a profound grounding in the art of expression which has stood me in good stead countless times in later life.
Apart from my half-time job, I had another job "on the side". I went out early in the morning wakening people for their work. This was done by knocking on their doors and I was called a "chapper". There were no alarm clocks in those days, and many workers were glad of such a service because to be late for work meant loss of wages. I knocked on the doors with a mallet, or "mellie" as we called it. A number of boys did chapping and woe betide any stranger who trespassed on our territory. If someone did we would hide in a dark alley with a well-laden treacle scone and push it in the trespasser's face.
We charged twopence a week for chapping. Anyone who missed paying it would not be chapped. Nor could they expect to cash in by hearing the chapper knock the next door neighbour. We covered our mellies with our bonnets so that the only people who would hear were in the house being chapped. I remained a chapper until I finished my apprenticeship.
(3) Bob Stewart, Breaking the Fetters (1967)
After my appeal to the tribunal had been rejected, as I was not a member of any religious or semi-religious organisation but a well-known socialist and anti-militarist, it being assumed that only religious people like Quakers, Christadelphians, priests in holy orders and their like could aspire to a conscientious objection to killing their fellow men, I was called to present myself for military service, which I refused to do.
Then came the law in the shape of two local detectives to take me to the police court to be charged with "absent without leave". However, the Chief Constable, who prosecuted, asked for a remand for a week, which gave me a little more time to prepare my wife to carry on my trade union and other work and also for me to put in a few more "no-conscription" meetings, much to the annoyance of the local respectables, who if they couldn't get me shot at least expected me to be put out of sight for a long time.
However it was back to the police court again, where a military guard was already waiting to take me over. After the preliminaries, an officer from the recruiting office toot the witness stand to prove that on a given day I was ordered to appear and did not do so. I was therefore marked absent and a warrant issued for my arrest. He looked rather pleased with himself, as did the magistrate, but their expressions changed when I asked, "Under what regulations do you mark a man absent?" "Under the King's Regulations," was the reply.
"Under which one?" I persisted. The beak looked blank. The assessor said, "Can you help us, Mr. Stewart?" a rather unusual form of address to a prisoner at the bar. So I helped them by quoting the appropriate paragraph from the manual of military law which contains the King's Regulations, in which it was clearly stated that a man could not be posted absent until twenty-one days had expired from the date of his call-up. Naturally the word of a prisoner cannot be taken as final, so a messenger hurried to the Sheriff Court next door to find a copy of the manual, which of course bore out my contention. The magistrate and his assessor consulted and it was then announced, "I am afraid we can't convict." So out again I went free, to the great glee of a small crowd who had gathered to see what would happen to Stewart, and the extreme chagrin of the military escort, beautifully polished, a straight slim soldier, handcuffs at the ready, waiting for me to be convicted. "Aye laddie," I said. "You're too early," and off I went.
So the responsible military authority had to start all over again with my call-up, the time allowance and the other routine. Actually it was by sheer accident that I had discovered this paragraph, which I came across when I was looking for a way out for another man who had declared his conscientious objection, and had asked me to assist in the preparing of his case.
But time is inexorable, and everything was in order on the next occasion, when I was duly convicted, handed over to the guard and taken to Dudhope Castle, an ancient and dilapidated building which served as the local military prison, there to await an escort to my regiment.
During the period of conscription, my wife and other women were busy in assisting other objectors who were arrested, bringing them food while they were waiting to be transferred to their regiments. So it was no surprise to me when a guard told me, "Your wife's outside, Bob, and she's brought you a parcel," which he handed over to me. This instantly made me quite popular.
(4) Bob Stewart, The Communist (5th August 1920)
The essence and value of the conference was its evident eagerness and sincerity. Its old men were young, and its young men did not lack wisdom and that comprehensive understanding which seeks and finds and acts upon its findings. To chair a conference where all can talk and nearly all wish to, where tension is strong, and issues are straight, is a test to try even a nimble-witted laddie like McManus, but he survived the ordeal, and will chair a bigger, where issues will be still further narrowed to immediate questions of life and death import. The leftest of the left and the rightest of the right showed an evident anxiety to start fair, and to keep the Communist Party of Great Britain free from puerilities and that ineptitude for action which has hitherto been a not uncommon feature in the debating stage of our growth. In resolute action and emulation of the high-spirited and farseeing but practical social revolutionists of Russia, minor differences will be relegated to their proper place, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, belated in arrival though it be, will play its part in the overthrow of capitalism and the raising of the first real common civilisation built by workers for workers.