With Fate Conspire is the long-awaited second (and concluding) volume of John Caldwell's autobiography. The first, Severely Dealt With, was an account of his harsh upbringing in Belfast and Glasgow (1911-1927), and the second volume begins with the sixteen-year-old Caldwell's first voyage on the transatlantic liners of Glasgow's Anchor Line. He gives a vivid account of life below deck, with the exploitation and petty tyranny that were the reality of this supposedly glamourous world.
Of more interest to readers of the KSL Bulletin, however, will be the rich insights the book affords into the lost world of Glasgow anarchism. John Caldwell is the last surviving member of an heroic band of comrades who kept its banner flying through the 1920s and 1930s, when it was all but obliterated by the onward march of state socialism in the form of the Labour and Communist Parties. In Glasgow, Guy Aldred was at the centre of a dedicated group of anti-parliamentarians who resisted this, and fearlessly exposed the futility of parliamentary socialism.
Caldwell joined them, and eloquently describes his first contact with Aldred and his comrades at the 1934 Glasgow May Day. Later, he joined their United Socialist Movement as a full-time worker. He relates their enormous sacrifices in sending comrades to Spain to work for the CNT-FAI in Barcelona and Madrid; their resistance to war and conscription and their assistance to COs (Caldwell himself was among these, and one of the most vivid of many hitherto unpublished photos is of a march by the Anti-Conscription League through the streets of Glasgow). Possibly most important of all, though, he recounts their struggle to start and maintain their own printing press (the Strickland Press) and paper (The Word), and the stream of propaganda associated with these for almost thirty years.
Particularly noteworthy here are Caldwell's stirring accounts of the desperate struggle, with the help of Willie McDougall, to produce the Barcelona Bulletin, so as to expose the Stalinist repression of the Barcelona anarchists in May 1937; and also of the marathon effort to print, and then distribute, the first issue of The Word for May Day 1938. Equally moving is the story of the prolonged struggle against poverty, bureaucracy, illness and old age which kept The Word going well into the 1960s.
The book is well produced, well written - Caldwell is an accomplished writer and storyteller and, as previously mentioned, illustrated with many excellent photographs (worth the price of admission on their own!) In addition, and for the first time, there is a detailed bibliography of the truly staggering output achieved by the minuscule but dedicated workforce of the Strickland Press.
In a time when parliamentary socialism is becoming more than ever irrelevant, and when its leader's idea of social change is to make a Faustian compact with the forces of the global market, it is important to keep in mind the example of those comrades who, in an earlier era, fought valiantly against capitalism and war. Caldwell has given us a salutary example in this book, which hopefully will serve to inspire the new generation of anti-capitalists who also, rather than parliamentarism, place their faith in direct action.
Paperback, (240 pp; 42 illustrations) price £8.95, available from Northern Herald Books, 5 Close Lea, Rastrick, Brighouse, West Yorkshire HD6 3AR or from AK Distribution.
In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 25, January 2001