Born 1911, in Edinburgh, of socialist parents, Gollan – a signwriter in his youth –
was involved in socialist and Communist Party activity in the city from an
early age. His first political activity was selling bulletins during the 1926
General Strike. He joined the Young Communist League and the Communist
Party in 1927. In July 1931, he was arrested for selling papers to soldiers
and sentenced to six months solitary confinement. A mass campaign
developed in Edinburgh in support of him, culminating in a demonstration
of some 5,000 supporters.
He went on to be successively editor of the Young Communist Leagues’s
newspaper Challenge in 1932 and General Secretary of the League in 1935.
His book, “Youth in British Industry” (1936) was a choice for the Left Book
Club and was a masterful presentation of data and analysis of fundamental
changes in the workforce that were then affecting youth.
Gollan was Communist Party District Secretary for the North East England
from 1939 and then for Scotland in 1941, during the course of which he wrote
“Scottish Prospect” (1945). He was appointed Assistant General Secretary
of the Party in 1947. From 1949 to 1954 he was assistant editor of the
Daily Worker. The role of National Organiser followed in 1954 and
General Secretary, succeeding Harry Pollitt from 1956-1976.
Left: Gollan on the campaign trail in the general election of 1966
Right : Gollan photographed by an MI5 surveillance team, leaving
the Party's central committee meeting in 1942
His retirement was tragically cut short all too soon by terminal illness in 1977, just as he was writing and researching more on the themes of democracy and Marxism that had often so interested him. He was the author of “The British
Political System”. Among the many pamphlets, such as “Victory in Vietnam”, that he wrote during his long career as a professional revolutionary was “Which Road? Democracy and Class Struggle”. His series of major articles
on Socialist Democracy from January 1976 began a big debate in the Party.
A modest and self-deprecating man, Gollan was closely associated with the development
of the British Road to Socialism, being Chair of the drafting commissions in 1952, 1958,
1968 and Secretary of the drafting commission in 1976. For this reason, and his pioneering
vision of socialist democracy that brought him to a critical analysis of the then existing
socialist countries, Gollan was often claimed retrospectively by revisionist adherents
during the inner-party turmoil of the 1980s. Of course, the truth is that no-one can be
certain of what Gollan’s stance would have been had he lived but one thing is very clear,
that he did not reject classical Marxism in the least.
Sources: GS notes c. 1983; plus some details from website description of papers
associated with an unpublished biography by Margot Kettle, written in consultation
with his widow Elsie Gollan, in Scottish National Archives.
ABOVE LEFT: JOHN GOLLAN IN THE 1960s
BELOW: [TOP LEFT] WITH HO CHI MINH (Bill Alexander is to his left), [RIGHT] FIDEL CASTRO
BELOW LEFT: WITH BREZHNEV