MY grandfather was born January 13, 1899, and died December 29, 1980. Through most of the 20th century, he was one year older than the year. In October 1917 he would have been 18 years old. He was involved in the co-operative movement, becoming a manager of a Co-op before working as a foreman on building sites before he retired. I remember in the 1970s asking him what he could remember about the Russian revolution, how it was reported in Scotland and how he felt about it at the time. He had no doubt. He said he and all the people he knew thought it was a moment of great optimism for Scotland. Here was something happening that proved the class system could be beaten, that working people could take charge, that socialist revolution might roll out from Moscow all the way to Glasgow and make a better future for us all.

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. Some things are easier with hindsight, but not everything. Maybe it’s more difficult today to understand that optimism as something deeply felt and needed, rather than merely naïve. Hugh MacDiarmid, in the short poem The Dead Liebknecht from Penny Wheep (1926), saw the ambiguity in the moment with terrifying clarity. The poem is a translation into Scots of an English-language version of a German poem by Rudolf Leonhardt, a weird vision of both liberation and potential violence. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were German Communist revolutionaries, opposed to the First World War, both tortured and killed in Berlin after the Spartacist uprising of 1919.

The poem begins with a vision of the corpse like a huge barrage balloon or dirigible or vast dark cloud, lying above the whole city, while streaming from it into every square and street below, its blood floods out, spills down in cataracts, and every house is darkened by it. The image recollects Christopher Marlowe’s line from his play, Doctor Faustus (1592): “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” The ambiguity of Christ as saviour and the dead Liebknecht as someone whose promise of liberation cannot be fulfilled any more than Christ saved Faustus is already suggested. In the next stanza, we come down from the skies to the city streets, where factory horns blare out as the workers are let loose (it’s “lowsin’ time”) and they’re seen like swarms of ants, “skailin’ everywhere” or running free, scattering. And then in the last couplet of the poem, we go under the earth, to see “wi’ his white teeth shinin’ yet” the skull of the corpse, smiling underfoot. The echoing sense of the masses of people above, the memento mori of the skull below, the grin that might portend vengeance or simply death and the futility of all struggle, make the conclusion both terrifying and strong. If liberation is to be brought about, it will come at a cost: is the cost too great to pay? And are the masses, once free, able to direct themselves, not directionless but with purpose and prospect?

The ambivalence felt so keenly is there too in MacDiarmid’s Three Hymns to Lenin. The First Hymn appeared in 1930, the Second in 1932, part of the Third more than 10 years later, in 1943, but then in its entirety not until 1955. The dates are important because MacDiarmid’s attitude changes, from intensely passionate approval, through a questioning of the role, responsibilities and risks taken by the political leader and the poet, to a different kind of passionate condemnation of industrialised city slum-life and the secular prayer for a saviour to rescue human beings from such inhuman conditions as prevailed for so many people in 1940s and 50s Glasgow. First and Second Hymns are in metrical stanzas and fluent Scots, colloquial, immediate, argumentative, engaging. The Third is in English, in large verse-paragraphs, some of it transcribed from prose sources and imbued with sustained tones of disgust, contempt and anger, which reach to extremes, culminating in ferocity that transforms itself into illumination.

In the First Hymn MacDiarmid’s enthusiasm carries him to endorse the murderous Cheka as part of an ages-long process to make human life in general better – in this understanding, the ends do indeed justify the means. It’s an assertion that has prompted ample revulsion from critics keen to denigrate MacDiarmid but we should note that in another poem, Ballad of Aun, King of Sweden, he condemns “state murder” as the most barbarous of crimes. This poem tells the story of the Swedish king “who sent son after son // To death, buying with each another span / Of life for himself”: MacDiarmid’s point is that this is the same plan all governments pursue self-righteously:

But when will the people rise and slay
The ubiquitous Aun of State Murder today?
Realising murder is foulest murder no matter
What individual or body for what end does the slaughter!

In other words, the ends never justify these means. MacDiarmid’s poems are demonstrations of what extremes certain kinds of logic can take us to. In the First Hymn the liabilities are unstated and unexplored. In the Second Hymn they form an argument, as the poet rejects “romantic rebels / Strikin’ dilettante poses; / Trotsky – Christ, no’ wi’ a croon o’ thorns / But a wreath o’ paper roses.” MacDiarmid confronts the most pressing question of “elitist poets”:

Are my poems spoken in the factories and fields,
In the streets o’ the toon?
Gin they’re no’, then I’m failin’ to dae
What I ocht to ha’ dune.

But then, acknowledging that he cannot get through to “the man in the street, / The wife by the hearth,” he asks what great poet has ever done that: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Goethe, Burns? But the answer he doesn’t give is that great poets sometimes do, in different ways, “win through”. The people are not always, everywhere, immune to great art.

Poetry like politics maun cut
The cackle and pursue real ends,
Unerringly as Lenin, and to that
Its better nature tends.

The Third Hymn illustrates this essential point differently:

Lenin, lover of music, who dare not listen to it,
Teach us to eschew all the siren voices too
And get due diessetigkeit.

The last word refers to a sense of “partisanship” or necessarily fierce commitment to the cause. The liability in this, of course, is fanaticism, and we’re all too familiar with that in the 21st century. Yet it remains an argument used again and again, sometimes for better rather than worse. As a strategy, its intrinsic liability and danger is in its human application.

If MacDiarmid’s understanding of the Russian revolution, Lenin, and all the consequences, including the atrocities of Stalin, exposes his limitations and the liabilities inherent in the whole bloody era, it must be remembered that he was a poet. His job was to write these ideas out in words. That doesn’t forgive anything. It doesn’t apologise for anything. Our work as readers is to evaluate the words as poetry and, as human beings, to think about what the ideas mean, and what they portend for the future. We need to use hindsight carefully.

If pessimism is part of the problem, maybe sometimes we can be too easily persuaded by the optimism of possibility. Marshall Walker, in his wonderful book, Music for Life (2011), talks about Prokofiev’s musical “Salute” to Stalin, Zdravitsa. He argues the problem through like this: “If it’s inconceivable that a musical paean to Hitler could be performed today, what hope, then, should there be for a performance of a cantata commissioned to celebrate Stalin’s sixtieth birthday? The difference between the two monsters, presumably, is that Hitler was purely vile both in himself and in terms of the ideas he represented; Stalin, equally if not more obscene in his actions as a dictator, nevertheless represented the perversion of an ideology which, if misguided, was and still is essentially humane. Nazis cared only about the good of Germans; in theory, at least, Communists cared about the good of humanity. This is not to extenuate Stalin’s evil, but it is perhaps a way towards tolerating a musical work in his honour by an apolitical composer who was doing his job.”

The words of Zdravitsa tell us one thing, banal, brutal (“Your vision is our vision, dear leader”) but the music tells us of something else. The question remains: “if Soviet Communism had really been as light-hearted, tender and melodious as Prokofiev’s lilting music, mightn’t we have signed on as Stalinists ourselves?”

Edwin Morgan, in his translations of Mayakovsky into Scots, reproduces the linguistic energy and investment of optimism, though perhaps the pathos of the epic effort is suggested also, as Mayakovsky himself clearly understood, even by the early 1920s, that the Revolution carried within itself the seeds of its own disaster. Morgan never endorsed the brutalities of Communism but he was clearly in favour of a republican, socialist Scotland. The long-term legacy of the Russian Revolution in Scotland, its strengths, sweet hopes and ideals, serious aspirations and strategic realities, is perhaps best seen in our poets’ writing about John Maclean (1879-1923), the working-class Glasgow teacher, appointed by Lenin as Bolshevik representative in Scotland. MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Hamish Henderson and others praised and endorsed his example. Edwin Morgan’s poem, On John Maclean (from The New Divan, 1977), begins by quoting:

“I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow.”
Failures may be interesting, but it is the firmness
of what he wanted and did not want
that raises eyebrows

And then Morgan quotes him again: “I for one will not follow / a policy dictated by Lenin until he knows / the situation more clearly.” And comments: “Which Lenin hadn’t time to, / and parties never did”. Morgan approves Maclean’s drive towards and desire for a socialist Scottish republic, his refusal of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s UK-nationalism and his practice of trying to help working people through tireless teaching, education of the toughest kind. Yet he admits the failure, the fact that Maclean died unfulfilled, just as the revolution itself, one might say, has never delivered the promise my grandfather imagined it would, back in 1917. But let Morgan, and Maclean, have the last words. They still reverberate and challenge us all:

Well, nothing’s permanent. It’s true he lost –
a voice silenced in November fog. Party
is where he failed, for he believed in people,
not in partiinost’ that as everyone knows
delivers the goods. Does it? Of course.

And if they’re damaged in transit you make do?
You do – and don’t be so naïve about this world!
Maclean was not naïve, but
“We are out for life and all that life can give us”
was what he said, that’s what he said.

It’s what he said, what the meaning is, that still persists. And as readers, political thinkers, historians, simply as human beings in 2017, we have to pay sensitive attention to this, come to our own conclusions, and act. The dead always demand this of the living.


Alexander Moffat on Picasso, Stalin, Lenin and JD Fergusson

By the middle of the 20th century, the greatest living modern artist, Pablo Picasso, was also the most famous communist in the world. Remaining in Paris throughout the Second World War, refusing to co-operate with the Nazi occupiers, Picasso joined the Communist Party in October 1944, remaining a member until his death in 1973. After Stalin’s death in 1953, a special issue of Les Lettres francaises (the Communist Party’s literary magazine) was published with Picasso’s portrait of Stalin on the cover. A scandal ensued – the drawing met with scathing criticism from Party members. Picasso was furious. The art historian Pierre Daix recalled his response: “Why are they so concerned with what we are doing? Tell me that! They don’t know how to write or paint and that’s not what we ask them for. Why do they feel so concerned when they should be doing what they are supposed to do, healing the misfortune of the people.”

The Scottish artist closest to Picasso was JD Fergusson. While in Paris between 1907 and 1914 Fergusson lived in the same neighbourhood as Lenin and Trotsky. In a letter to Hugh MacDiarmid by Donald Bain, dated December 6 1961, there are vivid impressions of Fergusson in Paris in this era of political and artistic revolution: “I remember Fergus telling me of being in a Paris cafe at a time when the leading Russians of the Revolution were making their plans, and that was interesting to Fergus because the painters had already started their revolution.” It’s clear from Bain’s letter that Fergusson believed the artists were in advance of the political revolutionaries. Liberty and freedom were sadly never delivered by men like Lenin or Trotsky, but liberty and freedom are precisely what the paintings of Fergusson offer Scotland.