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Campbell, John Rossfree

  • Monty Johnstone

John Ross Campbell (1894–1969)

by unknown photographer, 1956

Campbell, John Ross (1894–1969), political organizer and newspaper editor, was born on 15 October 1894 at 39 Lady Lane, Paisley, Renfrewshire, to Scottish working-class parents, John Campbell and Mary, née Stevenson. His father was a journeyman slater. Educated at an elementary school in Paisley, he started work at fourteen as an apprentice grocer's assistant. He joined the British Socialist Party in 1912 and soon became known as ‘the Boy’, publicly propagating Marxist ideas. In 1914, as a reservist, he was posted to the Clydeside section of the Royal Naval division and served throughout the war. Wounded at Gallipoli, he was permanently disabled at the battle of the Somme, where he was awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous bravery.

On his return to Scotland in 1918, Campbell played a leading part in the Clyde Workers' Committee movement, editing its weekly paper, The Worker, from 1921 to 1924. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain on its foundation in 1920 and in 1923 was elected to its central executive committee, on which he served until his retirement in 1965. He also sat on the party's political committee for most of those years. Among the party posts which he held were head of its industrial department in the 1920s, and Daily Worker foreign editor (1932–4), assistant editor (1937–8, 1939, and 1942–9), and editor (1939 and 1949–59). He was elected to the executive committee of the Communist International at its sixth (1928) and seventh (1935) congresses.

Campbell moved to London in 1924, becoming acting editor of the Communist Party's Workers' Weekly. He rose to national prominence in the Campbell case of that year, when on 5 August he was charged with incitement to mutiny for having published on 25 July an appeal to soldiers not to fire on striking workers. The article was actually written by Harry Pollitt. Under widespread labour movement pressure the Labour attorney-general, Sir Patrick Hastings, dropped the case, pointing in particular to Campbell's 'exceptional gallantry' in the war. This led on 8 October to the defeat of the minority MacDonald government by a combined Liberal and Conservative Commons confidence vote against it.

The next year, on 25 November, Campbell was sentenced to six months' imprisonment after being tried under the same act with eleven other Communist leaders. He conducted his own closely reasoned political and legal defence. He was released on 10 April 1926 in time to play an active part in Scotland in the general strike of 1926.

Campbell clashed with the Communist International on two major issues. In February 1928 at the Comintern's ninth executive plenum, he argued cogently against Moscow's demand for all-out opposition to the Labour Party. When this sectarian ‘new line’ was implemented he formally accepted it, but worked with Harry Pollitt to check its worst effects on communist influence in the trade unions. Their flexible approach here would pay increasing dividends in coming years. When war came in 1939, Campbell—alongside Pollitt and William Gallacher—argued with great force and logic against the Comintern's instruction to oppose it (King and Matthews). Outvoted and under great pressure, he subsequently rationalized the Comintern's position and publicly confessed to error in having opposed it. Later he believed his stand against the Moscow line had been correct.

Campbell liked to stress that his socialist convictions were rooted in the Scottish revolutionary Marxist movement, which he had joined before Russia's October revolution. Nevertheless, although standing out among Communist leaders for his independent-mindedness, he was strongly influenced and constrained by Stalinism during much of his political life. This is strikingly shown in his book Soviet Policy and its Critics (1939), which devoted two long chapters to a defence of the Moscow trials of 1936–8, which he recognized after 1956 to be unsustainable. It was also reflected in the ‘divided nature’ he revealed in confronting demands for fuller and more critical debate from many members of his Daily Worker staff in 1956–7 following Khrushchov's revelations about Stalin (Macleod, 191). Opinions differ on how far his stay in Moscow in 1938–9 had made him aware of Stalin's mass repression of innocent people.

While he remained a communist, Campbell's outlook evolved considerably in his last years. Whereas, for instance, in 1956 he had defended Soviet military intervention in Hungary, in 1968 he condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a Marxist economic specialist chairing his executive's economic subcommittee, he became increasingly cautious in his analyses, insisting on the basis of bitter experience that 'our Committee now makes no predictions'.

Campbell was a friendly but tough-minded Scot. His rather mournful face belied his ready wit and pawky humour. He and his wife, Sarah Marie Carlin, née O'Donnell, were married from 1920 until her death in 1965. He acted as father to five stepchildren and two daughters. He lived on a London council estate and ate with staff and printworkers in the Daily Worker canteen. A widely read and cultured worker-intellectual, he wrote over two dozen books and pamphlets and innumerable articles in his distinctive, sprawling handwriting. He was a recognized authority on Robert Burns, whose poems he recited in his strong Scottish accent. His humanity, selflessness, and down-to-earth intelligence led to his enjoying widespread popularity and affection, even among many who disagreed with him politically. He died on 18 September 1969 at the Middlesex Hospital, London, and was cremated on 23 September at Golders Green crematorium.


  • Communist policy in Great Britain: the report of the British commission of the ninth plenum of the Comintern, Communist party of Great Britain (1928)
  • The communist party on trial: J. R. Campbell's defence [n.d., 1925]
  • Communist Party of Great Britain Congress reports, 1920s–1960s [esp. 14th (1937) congress, with Campbell's report on industrial and trade union work]
  • F. King and G. Matthews, eds., About turn: the British communist party and the Second World War (1990)
  • A. Macleod, The death of Uncle Joe (1997)
  • WWW, 1961–70
  • Communist Party of Great Britain and Communist International biographical material
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • Morning Star (19 Sept 1969)
  • Morning Star (20 Sept 1969)
  • The Times (20 Sept 1969)
  • Tribune (26 Sept 1969)
  • Sunday Worker (25 Oct 1925)
  • W. Campbell, Villi the clown (1981)


  • Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, communist party archive, corresp., speeches, and writings


Wealth at Death

£2113: probate, 21 Nov 1969, CGPLA Eng. & Wales