James Maxton was born in Glasgow in 1885 and both of his parents were school teachers. At the age of 15 he won a scholarship to Hutcheson’s Grammar School and continued at the school as a pupil teacher. The death of his father was a temporary setback to his teacher training but ultimately James matriculated from the University of Glasgow. His early political involvement was with the Conservative Club at the University and he joined the First Lanark Volunteers. During his time at the Glasgow United Free Church Training College James became increasingly involved with Socialism and, inspired by a lecture by Philip Snowden, joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He might well have joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) as he was influenced by John Maclean and credited him with his ‘conversion to Socialism’.
His authoritative speaking style made him much in demand as an ILP speaker and he was described as being of ‘unusual quality’.
In 1910 he graduated with an MA from Glasgow University, having had to interrupt his education through family poverty. He teamed up with John Maclean and started teaching evening classes but this was short-lived as the educational authorities deemed them to be too ‘political’ and not compatible with him remaining a school teacher. In 1912 he was elected to the National Administrative Council of the ILP, representing Scotland.
The outbreak of war in 1914 made James Maxton a better known figure owing to his principled stand as a pacifist. The ILP across Britain began a concerted effort against the war, even though the Labour Party supported the war as ‘patriots’. In 1915, Maxton took part in a ‘Workers' War Conference’ in Glasgow and denounced the position of the Labour Party for ‘blindly identifying themselves with the war which had (then) given the speculators their golden opportunity’. Such stout opposition attracted the attention of the government and members of the Clyde Workers’ Committee were imprisoned for sedition. The ILP gained ground through their work in the Glasgow Rent Strike and their links with the trades union movement.
Maxton was called up in 1916 and had to attend a military tribunal where he explained his pacifism and refused the offer of joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. Before the tribunal proceedings had reached a conclusion Maxton was found guilty of sedition at the trial in Edinburgh on 11 May 1916 and imprisoned for twelve months. The judge commented that Maxton and his co-accused had committed an offence of ‘dastardliness and cowardice’.
As a result of his imprisonment, Maxton suffered ill health and also lost his job as a teacher. Faced with another period of imprisonment he began work in a shipyard, undertaking work on ships destined for neutral countries.
Maxton stood for the ILP in Bridgeton in the 1918 General Election and the following year he began work as a paid organiser for the ILP in Scotland. Owing to serious illnesses of both his wife and newly born child he had to leave that post. After his wife Sissie died in 1922, having put the life of the child before her own, Maxton renewed his commitment to socialism and later recalled in Parliament that ‘I am interested in the tens of thousands of fathers and mothers tonight watching over the cots of little babies wondering whether they will live or die’.
Maxton was elected to Parliament for the ILP in 1922 and remained as an MP until his death in 1946. The Clydeside MPs took a stand against the bizarre Commons rituals and the easy acceptance of them by many Labour MPs. After speaking with great passion in a debate about cuts in health spending, Maxton and comrades were barred from the Commons for having described a Tory MP as a murderer.
Maxton was seriously ill in 1926 and returned to politics at the time when the ruling class was taking its revenge for the General Strike. The defeat made Maxton more determined to ensure that the ILP led the fightback but he encountered considerable difficulties and he attacked what he saw as a move towards reformism. Along with A. J. Cook he issued a letter ‘to the workers of Britain’ noting that the Labour Party should not ‘represent the views of Capitalism’. The actions of the MacDonald Government reinforced Maxton’s view that socialism was not the aim of the Labour Party, and the formation of the National Government further strengthened that view. Maxton led the ‘Socialism in our time’ campaign whilst serving as the ILP chair. The ILP subsequently disaffiliated from the Labour Party.
The ILP membership declined after the split with the Labour Party and Maxton took to building alliances with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and other left organisations.
Although his sympathies were with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War he still called upon the British government to remain neutral. The ILP and the CPGB tried to build an alliance during the Civil War, but there were profound ideological differences.
He accepted the invitation from Attlee to rejoin the Labour Party in 1938 but ill health and general disillusionment led to a decline in his political work and he died in 1946. He had opposed rearmament and supported Neville Chamberlain before the war and spoke little in the Commons during the war. Despite his Clydeside disdain for Parliamentary rituals, he was nevertheless called ‘the greatest gentleman in the House’ by Winston Churchill.
The Working Class Movement Library has a wealth of material to come in and read on the life of James Maxton. There are a number of biographies by William Knox [Shelfmark H16], John McNair [B10], Gordon Brown [I03] and Gilbert McAllister [B18].
Many of the speeches and ILP pamphlets by James Maxton can be found in ‘ILP boxes 1, 3, 8 & 10’. His biography of Lenin is available at B40. The McAllister biography above and ‘Scottish labour leaders 1918–1939’ by William Knox [G02] have both been consulted for this work.
In addition to books, speeches and pamphlets, the Library has many photographs of Maxton in its ILP collection and in Frow Archive Box 119, Scrapbook 40, plus a cartoon and a sketch. All of these can be consulted in the Library upon request.