Willie, or as he was more widely known later in life, Bill, Paul was born in 1884. He joined the Glasgow Socialist Labour Party (SLP) early on and was to become its leading Marxist theorist and tutor and later a founding member of the Communist Party and one of its key figures in the 1920s.
Pic: Willie Paul in 1924
He was based in Derby from around 1910 or 1911 and earned a living by running a small hosiery and drapery market stall as a one-man business. This gave the necessary independence required to become a semi-professional revolutionary and was so lucrative that other stalls were opened in Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Rotherham and Chesterfield. These were surreptitiously used as centres for radical literature distribution and revolutionary fund-raising. Whilst this business and the role of wandering Marxist tutor brought Paul to temporary stays in many northern and midland’s towns and cities, he was mainly resident in Derby for the rest of his life, where he was married and had one daughter in the late 1920s.
During the 1914-18 war years, at least, in common with Arthur MacManus (see entry), Paul was a close personal friend of the Derby anti-war activist, Alice Wheeldon, and her family. (MacManus regularly came to Derby in connection with the shop stewards’ movement and was a welcome visitor to the Wheeldon’s; he eventually married the second daughter Hettie.) Alice Wheeldon, who may have been involved in assisting army deserters to escape via Ireland to the USA, was imprisoned after an agent provocateur testified that she had planned a plot to poison the Prime Minister, Lloyd George! However, it seems more likely that she had sought to obtain poison to dispose of guard dogs to aid conscript escapes from army prisons.
Paul was joint editor, with Tom Bell (see entry), of the SLP’s journal, `The Socialist’, and enjoyed a strong reputation as a formidable Marxist lecturer and theoretician. His SLP social science classes in Derby from 1917-18 were especially well attended and have been compared by the son of a contemporary `student’ as having the same degree of repute as the similar approach of the Clydeside, John MacLean, in that highly complicated questions were well understood by gigantic audiences of working class people.
A book of his lectures entitled “The State: its origin and functions” was published as a result of these classes. The work clearly follows classic Marxist themes, but more interestingly draws the same or similar theoretical conclusions as Lenin was reaching at the same time, without the benefit of Paul being able to read Lenin’s work at this point, since it had not yet been translated.
Paul was also involved in Derby’s Clarion Club and in Manchester played a role in the Labour Party. No doubt his base in Manchester facilitated his contesting the 1918 election in Ince for the SLP, where he took 13% of the vote in a straight fight with an official Labour candidate.
At the time of the foundation of the Communist Party, Willie Paul lived at ‘Pen Bryn’ in what was then athe village of Littleover, just on the outskirts of Derby. he was the key figure in the Derby Communist Unity group, which united local SLPers and Derby’s branch of the British Socialist Party. He was made a member of the Communist Party’s Provisional Executive Committee, having been particularly involved in the debates inside the SLP over the unity process and the nature of the new party. He was a major influence in coalescing those in the SLP who favoured joining the CPGB.
At the founding conference however, Paul displayed much of the revolutionary zeal, which the SLP had made its hallmark, by speaking against affiliation to the Labour Party in a most scathing and cynical way. This was of course entirely consistent with the SLP’s view of the matter. Nevertheless, the anti-affiliationists were beaten in the debate and the Communist Party’s policy was to be for affiliation.
Paul’s Derby Communist Unity Group was one of many smaller, local societies represented at the founding Unity Convention. The national Communist Unity Group was the faction inside the SLP, which had convened a special national conference at Nottingham to win the SLP to the notion of unity of all communist organisations. The majority of the SLP official leadership expelled the CUG activists for this action but most members followed Paul and his (subsequently more famous) Glasgow comrades into the new Party. Whilst the SLP rump carried on as a shell organisation it was a mirage for decades to come and eventually faded away.
Willie Paul (on the right) pictured with A J Cook, miners' leader.
Paul played an important role nationally for some time to come in the young Communist Party. He was editor of the `Communist Review’, the CPGB theoretical journal from 1921-3. He stood again for Parliament, unsuccessfully, contesting the Manchester Rusholme constituency as a Labour-Communist candidate in the general elections of 1922 and 1924. It should be noted that he was bravely following Communist Party policy, even though he disagreed with it.
Paul was, thus, well known in Manchester, having had strong local connections there for at least ten years. He had often “rendered songs of the Irish potato famine” at the OpenshawBSP meetings for Harry PoIlitt, later to become the long-standing leader of British Communism. Paul has been described by PoIIitt’s ‘official’ biographer as a “powerful and expressive baritone”.
He polled a respectable 21% of the vote against strongly fielded Tory and Liberal opponents in the 1922 election. In the following election, he achieved much the same result, but increased the share of the vote, this time as an official Communist with Labour backing.
Paul then became the editor of the Communist Party inspired `broad left’ journal, the `Sunday Worker’, for the short period of its existence in the late 1920s. The Worker was launched on the 15th March 1925, on the initiative of the Communist Party. Based at 74 Swinton Street, Grays Inn Road, London, the objective of the paper was spelt out in the editorial in the first edition: “Our policy will be to fight the battle of the working class, and of the working class alone”. Whilst he was editor, Willie Paul wrote his “Communism & Society”, of which many staunch things were said. Perhaps the most significant was that, in H J Laski’s own book, “Communism” [1927 Williams & Norgate London], the author stated that “Mr Paul’s book s easily the ablest English exposition of the Communist position”.
The Sunday Worker reached a circulation of 100,000 and was unarguably a great success for the Party, so much so that it encouraged the drive to achieve a daily paper, the Daily Worker. Thus, the Sunday Worker’s last edition was in November 1929 and the Daily Worker began on 1st January 1930.
The strain of managing even a weekly paper and commuting from Derby to London was beginning to be too much for Paul and he leftthe national stage during the period of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Party, mainly possibly to marry and bring up a daughter, Paul nonetheless remained on the fringes of Communist politics all his days. In the 1930she was loosely associated with the Left Book Club and reviewed some of its books. In the l940s he was closely identified with Soviet friendship activities in Derby. During the second world war, he was much involved in campaigning work in aid of the Soviet allies in Derby and produced a pamphlet for the Party on atomic energy in 1945. Hewas a prominent supporter of the Derby Peace Council in the l950s.
He was widely regarded as a man of substance in the local labour Derbyshire movement, even though he was not particularly active in his later years, some have suggested due to family reasons. A veteran Communist Party member in Derby once implied that first his wife and then his daughter were violently opposed to his politics, the latter being embarrassed by the fame that his name still possessed decades after his death. Sadly, all his papers and documents were disposed of by the family when he died in Derby on 9thMarch 1958,but he had foresight to leave his considerable personal library to the Party in his will.
Publications by Willie Paul: (All SLP texts published in Glasgow.)
“Debate between G G Coulton and William Paul – compulsory military service” SLP (1912)
“Karl Liebknecht: The Man, His Works and Message” SLP (c1914?)
“Hands off Russia … an analysis of the Economics of Allied Intervention in Russia” SLP (c1917)
“Labour and Empire – a study in Imperialism” SLP (1917)
“The State – its origins and function” SLP (1917)
“Scientific Socialism: its revolutionary aims and methods” SLP (1918)
“The State – its origins and function” [enlarged and revised edition] SLP (1919) -also reprinted by Edinburgh Proletarian Publishers (1974)
Preface to “The New Communist Manifesto of the Third International” SLP (August 1919)
“The Irish Crisis” Communist Party (1921)
“Labour Imperialism and the Experts Report” [concerns the Dawes Plan] Rushholme Division LP (1924)
“The Path to Power – the Communist Party on Trial” Communist Party (1924)
“Communism and Society” Communist Party (1927)
Sources: Graham Stevenson, personal knowledge and also `Defence or Defiance – a history of working class and progressive movements in Derbyshire’ (See elsewhere on the site.); `Official Report of the Communist Unity Convention’ – London July 31st to August 1st 1920 Facsimile Reproduction – CPGB (June 1968); John Mahon “Harry Pollitt” Lawrence and Wishart (1976) p35
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