J. R. Campbell (communist)

J.R. Campbell, circa 1924.

John Ross Campbell (15 October 1894 – 18 September 1969), best known as J. R. Campbell and also as Johnny Campbell, was a British communist activist and newspaper editor. Campbell is best remembered as the principal in the so-called Campbell Case. In 1924, Campbell was charged under the Incitement to Mutiny Act for an article published in the paper Workers' Weekly. Campbell called on British soldiers to "let it be known that, neither in the class war nor in a military war, will you turn your guns on your fellow workers."[1]

The decision by the Labour government of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to withdraw prosecution of Campbell lead to the loss of a confidence vote in the House of Commons, forcing the elections which ended the first Labour government in October 1924. Campbell remained a top leader and leading public figure associated with the British Communist Party from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Early years

J.R. Campbell was born 15 October 1894 in Paisley, Scotland. Campbell joined the British Socialist Party in 1912. During World War I he served in the Royal Naval Division and was wounded in active service.[2] He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in battle.

Following the war, Campbell returned to Scotland and was active in the Clyde Workers' Committee. From 1921 to 1924 he edited its newspaper, The Worker. He followed the British Socialist Party into the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), of which he was a foundation member, and frequently served on its Central Committee beginning with its reorganisation in August 1923.[3]

In August 1923, Campbell and his close associate Willie Gallacher were named joint secretaries of the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions, with Tom Mann remaining as Chairman of the organisation.[4]

The Campbell Case of 1924

Main article: Campbell Case

In 1924, Campbell moved to London to become acting editor of the CPGB's Workers' Weekly newspaper. On 25 July 1924, Campbell published an article entitled "An Open Letter to Fighting Forces," which called on the armed forces to unite to form "the nucleus of an organisation that will prepare the whole of the soldiers, sailors and airmen, not merely to refuse to go to war, or to refuse to shoot strikers during industrial conflicts, but will make it possible for the workers, peasants and soldiers and airmen to go forward in a common attack upon the capitalists and smash capitalism for ever, and institute the reign of the whole working class."[5] The article, written anonymously by Harry Pollitt, together with a similar article published on 1 August 1924, was the basis for Campbell being charged under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797.

This became known as the "Campbell Case," and when the first Labour Government dropped the prosecution, the combined Conservative and Liberal Party opposition won a vote of no confidence, which in turn led to the 1924 general election.

Campbell defended the Communist Party's decision to publish the aggressive articles in a pamphlet published late in 1924:

"...[T]he Communist Party of Great Britain had to call attention to the fact that the Labour Government, while talking of its attachment to the cause of peace, was continuing the policy of previous imperialist governments. We had to expose to the Labour movement the true nature of this policy and to ask the Labour movement, if it was sincerely opposed to war, to fight war by all the means in its power.

"On the question of armaments, we advocated the policy of no credits for capitalist armaments.

"On the question of empire, we advocated that the Labour movement should force the government to abandon the brutal and cowardly repression of the struggling colonial peoples.

"We asserted that the Labour Government could prove its attachment to peace in a practical fashion, by publishing the secret treaties and the secret war plans in the archives of the Foreign and War Offices."[6]

Later political career

In 1925, Campbell was one of 12 members of the Communist Party convicted at the Old Bailey under the Incitement to Mutiny Act. He was sentenced to six months in prison, but was released before the British general strike of May 1926.[7]

Campbell was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1928, and used the opportunity to argue against its hostility to joint work with the Labour Party.

During the 1930s, Johnny Campbell was one of the public figures most closely identified with the CPGB in the public eye, along with Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher.[8]

In 1931 he unsuccessfully fought a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Ogmore in Wales, and would fight the same seat in the 1931 General Election, this time coming third to the Conservative candidate.

In 1932, Campbell became the Foreign Editor of the CPGB's Daily Worker newspaper, then later in the decade became its Assistant Editor, and in 1939 served briefly as its editor. In that same year, he published Soviet Policy and its Critics, largely a defence of the Moscow Trials, having spent a year in Moscow observing the events.[7]

On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the nation on the BBC, announcing the declaration of war between Britain and Nazi Germany. Along with CPGB leader Harry Pollitt, Daily Worker editor Johnny Campbell sought to portray the conflict against Hitler as a continuation of the anti-fascist fight.[9] However, backed with the knowledge of the details of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and seeking to preserve the Soviet Union by turning Hitler's attention to Western Europe, the Comintern quickly signalled that the conflict was to be portrayed by the world communist movement as an "Imperialist War" between two more or less equally culpable blocs of capitalist nations.

Harry Pollitt and Johnny Campbell remained opposed to this interpretation of the conflict. On 2 and 3 October the governing Central Committee of the CPGB met and voted 21–3 in favour of the Communist International's "Imperialist War" thesis. Pollitt was removed from his position as general secretary and Campbell as Daily Worker editor at that time, although the cashiering of the third member of the minority, Willie Gallacher, the CPGB's only Member of Parliament, was considered unthinkable.[10] Neither Pollitt nor Campbell publicly fought the party over its new Moscow-determined orientation and neither was expelled for their dissent.[11] When the party line on the war changed once again following Hitler's invasion of the USSR in June 1941, both Pollitt and Campbell were restored to the party's good graces.

From 1949 until 1959, Campbell again served as editor of the Daily Worker. In 1956 he supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary, although in 1968 he condemned the similar Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.


J.R. Campbell died the following year on 18 September 1969.[7]

Publications by J.R. Campbell


  • Eaton, James; Renton, Dave (2002). The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave. ISBN 978-0-333-94968-9. OCLC 48501179. 
  1. A.J.P. Taylor, English History: 1914–1945 (1965), pp 218, 225
  2. Eaton, James; Renton, Dave (2002). p. 23.
  3. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Vol. 1, p. 212.
  4. James Kluggmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Volume 1: Formation and Early Years, 1919–1924. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1968. p. 113.
  5. "On Open Letter to Fighting Forces," Workers' Weekly, 25 July 1924, cited in Gill Bennett, "'A Most Extraordinary and Mysterious Business': The Zinoviev Letter of 1924," Historians, LRD, History Notes No. 14. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jan. 1999. p. 10.
  6. J.R. Campbell, My Case. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d. [1924]. p. 3.
  7. 1 2 3 "Campbell, John Ross", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  8. Eaton, James; Renton, Dave (2002). p. 46.
  9. Eaton, James; Renton, Dave (2002). pp. 69–70.
  10. Eaton, James; Renton, Dave (2002). p. 71.
  11. Eaton, James; Renton, Dave (2002). pp. 71–72.

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Albert Inkpin
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain
February May 1929
Succeeded by
Harry Pollitt
Media offices
Preceded by
Dave Springhall
Editor of the Daily Worker
Succeeded by
William Rust
Preceded by
William Rust
Editor of the Daily Worker
Succeeded by
George Matthews
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