History Illustrated: “Red” Harry Whyte

Original illustration by Sophie Rowan

This is the first in a series of illustrated articles on the untold histories of the Scottish left. They are the product of the collective labour of the History Illustrated Working Group within the RSP. Original illustrations are the work of Sophie Rowan.

The revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia in November 1917 sent shockwaves across the world. Many of the millions of working class people inspired by it saw in socialism not just the prospect of some basic relief from the crushing pressure of harsh manual labour and world war, but the possibility of a society utterly transformed from top to bottom – in John Maclean’s words, “a new world rising out of the ruins of the old”.

The new Soviet government swept away homophobic and patriarchal laws decades before supposedly more advanced western countries like Scotland did the same. But when the tide of progress in Russia turned back in the 1930s, it was a gay communist from Edinburgh who made a desperate appeal directly to the Soviet leadership not to turn their back on human liberation.

Edinburgh’s forgotten socialist son

Harry Whyte was born in Edinburgh to parents of little means: William Whyte, a house painter, and his wife Harriet Otter. They were fortunate enough to secure their son’s entry into George Heriot’s School, which accepted him as a ‘foundationer’ in line with its liberal philanthropic mission to educate working class children. When he turned 16, however, Harry dropped out of the school to take up a job with the Edinburgh Evening News, launching his lifelong career as a journalist. He was radicalised in his late teens by the general strike of 1926 — which the National Union of Journalists had thrown its weight behind — and soon after joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), then led by Glasgow MP James Maxton. Later, in 1931, he moved to London and became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

The Moscow News had just been set up in 1930 under the editorship of Seattle union organiser Anna Louise Strong as the USSR’s first English-language newspaper, which was soon distributed around the world to help propagandise for the socialist cause. Harry joined the paper in 1931 and quickly rose up the ranks; he moved to Moscow and, by 1934, editor-in-chief Mikhail Borodin had appointed him as head of the paper’s editorial staff, effectively making him one of the USSR’s most important international propagandists. His name would almost certainly have a prominent place in the annals of left-wing history had he not struggled to reconcile the recriminalisation of homosexuality in 1934 with his understanding of socialist principles.

Homosexuality in the Soviet Union

Homosexuality was effectively decriminalised in Russia after the revolution in 1917, which swept away the backwards Tsarist criminal code. Work on a new Soviet criminal code soon began and the old offences like “sodomy” were deliberately left out in its first edition in 1922 and a subsequent revision in 1926. Though there was little open discussion of homosexuality in Moscow, a number of prominent figures in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union forged links with the nascent international movement for homosexual and transgender rights. Soviet health commissar Nikolai Semashko, for instance, established a direct relationship with German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, widely revered in the modern transgender rights movement for his work with the ground-breaking Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which advocated for legal reform and provided some of the first modern gender affirmation surgeries in the world before ultimately being destroyed by the Nazis early into their rise to power.

Soviet figures viewed the lifting of the persecution of gay men in the new Soviet system as part of a broader liberatory project, just like the empowerment of women and dismantling of the patriarchal family structure

Discussions between Soviet figures like Semashko and their German peers made clear that they viewed the lifting of the persecution of gay men in the new Soviet system as part of a broader liberatory project, just like the empowerment of women and dismantling of the patriarchal family structure. That this liberatory project lost steam in the late 1920s and was reversed in the following decade is devastating, and the reasons for this remain hotly contested today. Some see it as a consequence of the power struggle that saw Stalin cement his leadership of the Soviet Union, while others suggest it came into conflict with the wider strategic goals of an increasingly defensive and isolated state; in Lavender & Red, for instance, the late transgender American communist Leslie Feinberg connects the re-emergence of state-sanctioned homophobia to Soviet military conscription campaigns which “promoted the role of soldiers as hyper-masculine heroes” while presenting “feminine male homosexuals … as weak and untrustworthy”. This theme was also present in interwar Soviet propaganda which weaponised rumours of homosexuality in the ranks of the Nazi Party to discredit fascism.

By summer 1933, secret police had started to carry out raids in Moscow targeting gay men, a prelude to the formal recriminalisation of homosexuality later that year and its incorporation into the criminal code the following year, where it was made punishable by hard labour. One of these raids led to the arrest of a Russian man, whose name we do not know, who was in a sexual relationship with Harry Whyte. At great personal risk, Harry directly contacted the Soviet secret police to check up on his welfare. This experience was one of his motivations in writing directly to Stalin.

To Russia with love

Identifying openly as a gay man, Harry set out in a letter some of the reasons he had been given by Soviet police officers, government officials and his own boss as to why homosexuality had been re-criminalised, which diverged wildly. “All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law,” he wrote. He added that Mikhail Borodin, head of his paper, told him “that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, [but] at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked”.

Harry’s letter, which Stalin himself read, set out a detailed theoretical challenge to the new law. In response to conservative Soviets’ reliance on distorted medical science to justify the new persecution, Harry affirmed that “science has established the existence of constitutional homosexuals”. He suggested these “constitutional homosexuals” — in other words, gay men who were simply born that way — made up around two per cent of the population in most societies. “If we accept this proportion, then it follows that there are around two million homosexuals in the USSR,” he pointed out. “Not to mention the fact that amongst these people there are no doubt those who are aiding in the construction of socialism, can it really be possible, as law demands, that such a large number of people be subjected to imprisonment?”

Harry also connected the status of gay men with the status of women. He identified the criminalisation of homosexuality, abortion and contraception under capitalism as part of its economic need for “an enormous reserve army of labour and cannon fodder”. However, he pointed out that gay men, being so few, are “incapable of threatening … the socialist state”. He wrote passionately about the emancipation of working class gay men as something “inseparable from the general struggle for the emancipation of all humanity from the oppression of private-ownership exploitation”, invoking the fundamental principles of the revolution. He also mounted a robust defence against the suggestion that the working class masses were prejudiced and would reject a socialist movement which accepted gay men into its ranks.

Of course, some parts of Harry’s letter would today be read as far too conciliatory to homophobia. He drew a distinction between “constitutional homosexuals” like himself and those who “become homosexuals by virtue of their depravity” or “out of viciousness”. Queer socialists today would repudiate altogether the idea that there is any connection whatsoever between homosexuality and bourgeois decadence.

The Soviet response

There is no evidence that Harry ever received a formal response to his letter. He was spared the knowledge that it was rapidly relegated to the archives with a short handwritten note from Stalin which simply read: “An idiot and a degenerate.” In subsequent years, probably thousands of gay men were quietly put on trial, transforming Soviet courtrooms, in the words of historian Dr Dan Healey, into “a micropolitical environment in which new understandings of gender, sexuality, medicine and law were forged and inculcated”. The anti-gay Article 121 outlived the Soviet Union itself and was only finally, reluctantly repealed in Russia in 1993.

A year after sending his letter, Harry was expelled from the CPGB and from the Soviet Union. He became an itinerant, spending time in Britain, Morocco and eventually Turkey — but was refused permission to return to the Soviet Union in 1941, instead ending up in British military service, where he fortunately avoided a similar fate to Alan Turing. Harry later returned to work as a journalist for newspapers and press agencies until he passed away in 1960, aged 53. His role in the communist movement and his work as a journalist allowed him to see and experience much more of the world than most other working-class boys from Edinburgh would have. He would never know just how widely read his letter to Stalin would eventually become.

In Scotland today

Harry’s letter is particularly salient in light of the intensification of transphobia and homophobia in Scotland today. Having grown up in a vastly more conservative country, firmly in the cultural grip of a staid Presbyterianism, Harry would probably barely recognise modern Scotland as his home country. He never lived to see the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Scotland in 1980 or the flourishing of the LGBT+ rights movement. That we can recognise elements of the arguments he so fluently rebutted nearly 90 years ago within the modern pushback against queer and trans liberation from the right and the left, however, is the stuff of despair.

Harry explained, as well as any of us today could, that class struggle and queer liberation go hand-in-hand and strengthen each other in the fight against capitalism. By arguing on Marxist grounds, he demolished the assertion still bandied about by some on the Scottish and British left today that queer liberation is a liberal endeavour rather than a socialist one. His willingness to challenge the received wisdom of the socialist movement is a model for us in the present.

Harry Whyte is widely known today as “Red Harry”, or as “The Scot Who Challenged Stalin”. As far as republican socialists are concerned, he will always be an Edinburgh man, a working-class intellectual, a pioneer of queer liberation and an indelible part of our collective political history. Our movement needs more Harry Whytes — and perhaps, in the campaign for Scottish independence, more distinctly unconstitutional homosexuals.

Further reading

“Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” by Harry Whyte, translated into English and republished in full by Chto Delat.

Lavender & Red by Leslie Feinberg, Workers World, 2004-2008 (PDF).

Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent by Dan Healey, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Marxism and Transgender Liberation: Confronting Transphobia in the British Left, Red Fightback, 2020 (HTML).

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