Helen Crawford: from Suffragette to Stalinist

April 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm (Guest post, history, Roger M, scotland, stalinism, USSR)

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Guest post by Roger McCarthy

BBC Scotland has produced a programme on Helen Crawfurd which I highly recommend for as long as it is available on iplayer (2 PM on 29th April).


Born in Glasgow in 1877 Helen had a respectable Victorian lower middle class upbringing with staunchly Tory parents, initially dreamed of becoming a missionary and married at 21 a Presbyterian minister who was old enough to be her grandfather.

However (at least as she recalls it from her autobiography written around 1950) her Christianity always had a radical and socialist bent which led her into the women’s suffrage movement – and inspired by her husband’s preaching of the text where Jesus chases the moneychangers from the temple the Sunday before a big suffragette ‘raid’ she gravitated into its most radical direct action wing.

This led the respectable minister’s wife into multiple stints in prison for throwing rocks through the Liberal education minister’s window and that of an army recruiting office, for setting off a small bomb at the Botanic Gardens and ‘inflammatory language’ and went on hunger strike three times.

After the death of her husband and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 she was appalled by the transformation of most of her radical suffragette comrades into white feather waving militarists and threw herself into Red Clydeside’s anti-war movement – joining the Glasgow women’s rent strike campaign in 1915, confronting her former idol Christabelle Pankhurst at a recruiting rally and becoming an increasingly prominent and militant member of the Scottish ILP, the Women’s International League and the Women’s Peace Crusade winning a reputation as one of Red Clydeside’s fieriest orators.

She also acted at some point (probably in the summer or latter part of 1915) as a courier between James Connolly and his old SLP comrades in Glasgow who around this time had taken over the printing of The Workers Republic and met Connolly himself and other Republicans in Dublin.

The October Revolution threw her further to the left as the Bolshevik publication of the imperialist secret treaties removed whatever lingering illusions she may still have had about liberal democracies and she was increasingly involved with the internationalist left-wing of the ILP arguing for joining the new Communist International.

And this led this 43-year old Scottish minister’s widow to make the difficult and dangerous pilgrimage to Russia itself in summer 1920, travelling via fishing boat, cargo ship and the Arctic port of Murmansk, meeting up with John Reed in Petrograd who gave her a tour of the revolutionary sights and finally in late August (her autobiography’s chronology is frustratingly vague) arriving in Moscow – a few days too late for the Second Congress of the Comintern itself.

Here her 1950 autobiography is probably less than fully frank as while she met Lenin (which seems to have been a standard feature of a Moscow tour at this point) and Alexandra Kollontai she has nothing to say about any meetings with Zinoviev or Radek or any of the other senior Comintern functionaries who were to become unpersons in the 1930s, but who were hardly likely to have ignored a prominent figure in the ILP who they needed to press for either its accession to the Comintern or the biggest possible split over the issue at its next conference.

She does however have a lot to say about John Reed who she met again in Moscow on his return from the Baku Congress in mid-September and accompanied him and Louise Bryant to the Bolshoi theatre, a night which 30 years later inspired one of the few lyrical passages in her autobiography:

The great Bolshoi Theatre was opened as the autumn days approached and John Reed got tickets for us to attend several performances of opera and ballet… One evening I was seated in a small box near to the great centre box … which had originally been the Czar’s . In the box on my left was an American millionaire named Vanderlip whom John Reed told me had been visiting to see if he could get a concession in Kamchatka for something or other. –

On that evening the Czar’s box was occupied by a delegation of peasants who had come from some of the distant villages for some conference. An old peasant was seated in the centre chair – the Czar’s chair – and around him were the middle aged  and young peasant men and women with bright kerchiefs on their heads. I looked at the old peasant with his greying beard and saw the expression of wonder on his face as he gazed at the magnificence and beauty of the scene being enacted on the stage. Then I turned to watch the millionaire in the small box on my left and the words of Mary in the Magnificat came to my mind ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hast exalted those of low degree. Thou hast filled the hungry with good things and the rich thou hast sent empty away’. The old Russian eagle had been removed from the shield on the front of the Czar’s box and the hammer and sickle had taken its place. The men and women who were out in the fields producing the food of Russia were honoured while the American millionaire who wanted to exploit the resources  of Russia got a third rate seat. l was on top of the world.

This for Reed and Bryant (whose tragic letter to Max Eastman about his final days talks about these trips to the opera and ballet but mentions no formidable Scottish widow in tow) would be one their last  happy days together as he was struck down by typhus only a few days after he returned to Moscow and met her there (a scene much romanticised in Reds) – Helen visited him in hospital and was on her way home via Talinn in Estonia where she heard about his death on 17th October.

As her explicitly religious language suggests this trip to her seems to have been a true conversion experience.

Before setting out she seems to have been a conventional left-wing member of the ILP and although she probably maintained her membership until at least the Easter 1921 conference where the ILP finally rejected the Comintern’s 21 conditions (and probably for somewhat longer as there was at this point no ban on ILP members also belonging to the CPGB or vice versa) she certainly appears to have been a Communist on her return and was to remain a loyal member of the CPGB until her death in 1954.

In November 1921 she (unsuccessfully) stood for election to Glasgow City Council with the slogan Work and Vote for Communism and All Power to the Workers! and by 1923 was a member of the CPGB’s Central Executive Committee alongside a squad of other Red Clydesiders like Tom Bell, Willie Gallacher, Bob Stewart and Arthur McManus – all of whom (barring McManus who died in Russia in 1927 and to some degree Gallacher for as long as he was an MP) were to be later sidelined by a rising new generation of London-based Stalinists like Pollitt, Dutt, Rothstein and Rust.

In 1922-3 we find her in charge of CPGB women’s propaganda organising women’s groups first in Scotland and then across Britain and in 1922 she becomes the British Committee secretary of Workers International Relief to which she devotes much of the next decade, travelling around Britain, Ireland (where she ran relief operations in Donegal and re-established contact with left-wing members of the IRA like Sean MacBride) and Europe addressing conferences and mass meetings.

In 1927 she is a key figure in the British section of the League Against Imperialism and helped organise its February Brussels conference – bringing her to the intention of MI5 who in May raided the London offices of Arcos which was the Anglo-Soviet trade body through which Moscow Gold was siphoned into the CPGB and the Comintern front organisations Helen worked for – and we find her also accused of facilitating the escape of an alleged Soviet ‘spy’ (i.e. a German Comintern agent called Kate Gussfeldt) from surveillance by exchanging clothes with her in a train carriage.

The Arcos raid had significant consequences for the CPGB and this led her to Russia for a second visit, ostensibly as part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution funded by the Soviet Co-Operative Movement (of which Arcos was the British subsidiary) but actually to report to Olga Kameneva who despite being the sister of Trotsky and former wife of Kamenev was still in good odor with the Stalin-Bukharin leadership and running VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Relationships with Foreign Countries).

And this is the point in her memoirs where the Stalin School of Falsification begins to fully take over as she talks of the First Five Year Plan and collectivisation as already in progress (in fact they began in 1928 and occasioned the break between Bukharin and Stalin) and being opposed by the Trotskyists – whereas in fact in November 1927 it was Stalin and Bukharin who remained wedded to the New Economic Policy and it was Trotsky who had been expelled for advocating a faster though not insanely and murderously accelerated programme of industrialisation and collectivisation.

And after her return in January 1928 she is in a minority on the CPGB Executive Committee arguing vociferously for the then newly emerging Class Against Class line.

She remains busy in the WIR, LAI and other front organisations through 1928 and 1929 and in 1930 was elected to the Berlin International Committee of the WIR and visits Russia again.

In her memoir of this trip she talks of well-fed peasants and food in abundance (in fact the famine induced by forced collectivisation was killing millions not just in the Ukraine but across the USSR) and of model prisons like a classic useful idiot, as well as describing a meeting with a repentant ‘Trotskyist’ who describes how his counter-revolutionary cell met secretly with Trotsky in the woods.

She did however meet the famous Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin (then in charge of global English language propaganda) which may well have been the true purpose of that visit.

But despite her ardent Stalinism the international front organisations she had devoted her revolutionary life to were becoming surplus to Comintern requirements, with the WIR and LAI both being wound down after the Nazi seizure of power and the belated shift to a popular front line.

This coincided with Helen suffering a serious illness and her moving to Dunoon – a small town on the other side of the Clyde from Glasgow – to live with her sister and she seems to have been significantly less active from 1933 onwards and is found mainly working with anti-fascist and peace committees in Glasgow rather than flitting between there, London, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Zurich and Moscow as she had done for the previous decade and more.

Needless to say as a party loyalist she had no problems justifying the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact as something that only the ‘ill-informed’ could criticise.

And by 1946 her political universe had contracted further still to Dunoon itself where she was elected to become the town’s first woman councillor (albeit as an Independent rather than an open Communist) and turned her still formidable organisational skills to its committee work, becoming Dunoon’s virtual housing commissar in charge of requisitioning empty properties and allocating them to the homeless and working to fix fair rents for tenants – an echo of her past as a militant supporting the great 1915 Glasgow rent strike.

In 1947 she married another CPGB member and in 1950 completed her memoir – which exists only in typescript in the Marx Memorial Library and the Gallacher Library (the latter being inaccessible due to a dispute over who owns that collection), was widowed again in 1951, chaired the CPGB’s Scottish conference in 1952 and two years later died at home in Dunoon at the age of 77 just hours after her sister Jean.

There are more inspiring memoirs of Red Clydeside far less tainted by Stalinism – Harry MacShane’s No Mean Fighter springs to mind – but Helen’s odyssey from a Presbyterian Manse to Perth Prison to revolutionary Moscow to Dunoon Town Council is an fascinating one even if her own autobiography is often more interesting for what it leaves out than what it actually has to say.

One wonders if she had lived another few years past 1956, Hungary and the Twentieth Congress whether she might have revised her recollections and been more critical.

Harry MacShane who knew her does seem to have thought that she was increasingly disenchanted with the CPGB in her old age(although given her tendency to ultra-leftism this may have had more to do with the adoption of the reformist British Road to Socialism rather than Stalinism) – but even a close reading of the memoir she left hardly supports this.




  1. Helen Crawford: from Suffragette to Stalinist | OzHouse said,

    […] Apr 26 2014 by admin […]

  2. What Maketh a Feminist? Helen Crawford: from Suffragette to Stalinist | Shiraz Socialist | The Pink Agendist said,

    […] Helen Crawford: from Suffragette to Stalinist | Shiraz Socialist. […]

  3. Matthew Thompson said,

    It’s interesting that not only were many suffragettes pro-war in 1914 but some of them went on to become fascists: educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=16918

  4. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Including the often forgotten third Pankhurst sister Adela who migrated to Australia and after becoming a founding member of the CPA ended up an ardent fascist interned during WW2 for advocating peace with Japan.

    And Sylvia of course ended up as a full-time apologist for the Ethiopan monarchy and received a full state funeral in Addis Ababa.

  5. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Thanks for putting this up.

    As you can see its a bit of a note dump and needs a lot of editing – however it does fill in some of the gaps in the BBC prog.

  6. Rosie said,

    Very interesting programme. Fascinating she ended up in Dunoon doing actual good works, whatever her illusions about the USSR.

  7. susan morrison said,

    Thank you so much for your kind words about the programme. I was the presenter – but the real genius is the producer, Louise Yeoman, who really dug out the information!

  8. honeypears said,

    Fascinating post, thank you! Just one note – Crawfurd was never arrested or sentenced for the Botanics bombing – nobody was (though police and press concluded suffragettes were responsible early on, on the basis of high-heeled footprints, cake and an empty champagne bottle in a bush). Helen’s autobiography claims only that she was hauled in for questioning about the bomb, although even then her chronology doesn’t quite stack up.

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