This week – Friday 30th November – sees the 95th anniversary of the death of the outstanding Scottish Marxist John MacLean. To commemorate this event, we look at MacLean’s contribution to the socialist and working class movement.
A leader of Red Clydeside, John MacLean was an outstanding orator, a peerless educator in Marxist ideas, Marxist economics in particular. He emerged as a leader of the anti-war struggle during World War One and an implacable fighter against capitalism and in defence of the rights of the working class.
His name and contribution is rightly mentioned among the other great Marxists of his generation; Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibkenecht. Indeed all six were born within eleven years of each other.
This “accident” of history meant being thrown into a tumult of revolutionary upheaval, war and counter-revolution. A period when the ideas of socialism and Marxism were taken up as a weapon by millions in the struggle against capitalism and blood-soaked imperialism. Above all it was a time when the collective experience of the working class internationally drove the oppressed masses towards the conclusion of the socialist revolution.
It was this task that MacLean threw all his energies into from a young age. John MacLean’s mother and father had been victims of the brutal Highland clearances and forced to migrate to Glasgow, a city that was an “urban inferno” of explosive industrial capitalism.
One million people – 20% of the Scottish population – lived in or within eight miles of the city. Many had been driven from the Highlands of Scotland to answer the demands of a rapacious capitalism. Irish workers also arrived in large numbers.
Glasgow was known as the second city of the British Empire, and for good reason. The cotton, mining, shipbuilding and engineering sectors required tens of thousands of workers. Between 1904 and 1911, half of the entire world’s tonnage in ships was produced on the Clyde.
Yet the conditions facing those workers and their families were utterly horrendous. The newspaper of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), whom MacLean joined in 1903, commented: “At least one-third of the people live in one-roomed slums, 10,000 women have no visible means of subsistence and 30,000 people are unemployed.”
Jim Cameron describes in the Red Flag Over the Clyde pamphlet produced by Scottish Militant Labour that: “Cholera, typhoid, smallpox and tuberculosis were rife because of poor diet and poor sanitation. In short, the average working class family lived in poverty, in over-crowded and insanitary conditions, amidst squalor and disease.”
It was upon this fertile ground that the ideas of independent working class politics, socialism and Marxism began to take root. The Independent Labour Party has been formed in 1892, the Scottish Labour Party was launched in 1888 by Keir Hardie and the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) Conference in 1900 led to the creation of the Labour Party.
The Marxist SDF had significant roots in Glasgow, a regular newspaper and effective public spokespeople in the 1880s and 1890s The SDF later became the British Socialist Party (BSP), within which MacLean was also active.
John MacLean was already an avowed Social Democrat – the term used to describe a Marxist – when he began work as a teacher in 1900. He also graduated from Glasgow University where he was politically active promoting Marxist ideas among students there.
On joining the SDF he found that the party was at a low ebb. However MacLean helped resurrect the fortunes of the party locally by “helping to organise demonstrations of the unemployed..playing an active part in the trade unions and cooperative circles, always as a revolutionary socialist. From spring to autumn he conducted intensive open-air propaganda all over the country…During the winter months he took classes in Marxian theory and industrial history.” (From John MacLean by Nan Milton)
As a teacher of Marxism, MacLean was exceptional. He organised regular education classes to explain the ideas of economics and capitalist exploitation. The subjects included “industrial history from the standpoint of the materialist conception of history as well as Marxist economics.” The main textbook was Marx’s Capital. MacLean was even paid the full teaching rate for the job by the Eastwood School Board. More importantly was who attended MacLean’s classes. Shop stewards from the engineering factories and shipyards from across Glasgow were schooled by MacLean.
In 1915, at the height of the rent strikes, the fight against conscription and other mass movements, 493 people attended MacLean’s weekly Glasgow class, including all the leading shop stewards from the major workplaces. He also trained educators for the BSP who organised similar classes in cities and industrial areas all across Scotland.
Mary Brooksbank, the Dundee poet and socialist-feminist, wrote on hearing MacLean speak: “I was spellbound by this man’s oratory. He spoke of the War that had just ended, and of the war that was to come. Always after that meeting, when it was my Sunday afternoon off, I got to find out where he was speaking and make it my business to be there.”
Willie Gallacher was the chairman of the Clyde Workers’ Committee – the CWC was effectively a city-wide shop stewards committee made of workers’ reps from all the major shipbuilding and engineering shops in Glasgow – and later a Communist MP in Fife. He explained in his own book Revolt on the Clyde: “MacLean never dealt in abstract Marxism…He demonstrated in the clearest manner that the war was a war for trade…He gave example after example. These examples were carried day after day into the factories.”
This example gives an insight into how John MacLean became the towering figure he was. And the huge impact Marxist ideas had on the working class in Glasgow. The anger at the social conditions of life under capitalism allied to years of socialist propaganda and education combined in a explosive cocktail that was to shake British capitalism to its core through the Red Clydside events. Working class men and women flocked to hear MacLean speak, not least because he spoke to them in a way that brought their own experiences to life. Nor was he in any way merely an educator in theory.
MacLean’s life-long orientation was to the working class and to support those in struggle. Hence the support he found among the organised working class and those looking to be organised.
He also had a very sensitive approach towards women workers, that was at times absent from the leaders of trade unions and even socialist organisations like the SDF and BSP. MacLean described in an article in the Justice newspaper of the strike of women workers at a cotton thread factory in Neilston: “At once we East Renfrewshire Social Democrats arrived on the scene, just in time to help the organiser of the Women’s Federation to get them into that union…we were encouraged to hold meetings and collect on their behalf all round Renfrewshire. Others carried on the work across the West of Scotland and after the Neilston strike got all the workers to join the Women’s Federation.”
No working class concerns were foreign to MacLean. He wrote and campaigned for municipal public housing, for public control of food and hygiene safety and common ownership of land and agriculture. His pamphlet The Greenock Jungle helped expose the scandal of diseased carcases being use for public food by Greenock butchers, and eventually led to a meat inspector being appointed to the local slaughter-house.
The sectarianism and opportunism of the leaders of the SDF led to clashes. The SDF had walked out of the LRC in 1900 – the forerunner of the Labour Party – because it would not accept socialism as its aim. MacLean, who joined the SDP in 1903, wrote that he had regarded this as a mistake, while at the same time remorselessly criticising the pro-capitalist policies of Labour leaders and a majority of their MPs at the time.
He fought for the idea that Marxists should not be apart from where the working class was but should instead fight alongside these workers looking towards the Labour Party and the ILP.
An even bigger clash was to emerge with the leaders of the British Socialist Party on the outbreak of the war in 1914. The so-called second international, including the SDP in Germany and the Labour Party in Britain, supported their own capitalist class when war began.
MacLean heroically refused to go along with the leaders of his own party like H M Hyndman, who adopted a chauvinist, apologist approach towards British imperialism. Justice, the BSP newspaper, became an organ for Hyndman’s capitulation to pro-war sentiment. The Executive Committee of the BSP even voted to call on party members to take part in recruitment campaigns to sign-up for war, but hastily retreated when faced with a revolt from the branches.
On 17th September, 1914, John MacLean wrote his last ever contribution for the BSP paper. In contrast to the leadership he said” “It is our business as socialists to develop ‘class patriotism’, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism.”
MacLean, alongside Lenin, Trotsky, Connolly, Luxemburg and Leibkenecht, came out against the war with an internationalist appeal to the working class. He threw himself into anti-war activity. In Glasgow the BSP with 500 members split. Many of the experienced cadres abandoned the struggle, although a majority of the members backed MacLean.
Undeterred, they organised regular street meetings, sent speakers to the engineering and munitions workplaces, not an easy task given the jingoism that existed at the start of the war. The famous weekly Sunday night anti-war public meetings in Bath Street also began. First of all a few hundred attended but as the anti-war mood deepened it grew to thousands to hear MacLean and others speak.
“Up the street, standing on a table and in the midst of a dense crowd of the proletariat, stood John MacLean…. The war, he told them, was not a accident. It was a continuation of the peace time competition for trade and for markets..The Scottish miners when on strike had often received financial help from the German miners…the real enemy was the employers, and that as long as turning lathes, ploughs, coal-cutters, looms, ships – all the tools of wealth production – were possessed by a small class of privileged people, then so long they would be slaves. To get free from that slavery was their real concern, and that could only be won with the assistance of his brothers in other lands, for socialism could not triumph in one country alone.” (Told to Nan Milton by James MacDougall)
Sometimes socialists need to swim against the stream, even if it seems like a tsunami. But by February 1915, the rumblings of discontent had broken out on Clydeside. Tuppence an hour extra was demanded by the engineers in Weir’s of Cathcart.
A labour shortage gave the workers confidence that they should act and strike action began, which spread throughout the city. It also was a major problem for bosses and profiteers who wanted to use the war as an opportunity to drive down wages and conditions.
This was unofficial action as the TUC had agreed a policy of “industrial peace” for the war effort. Moreover, strikes were illegal under the “Defence of the Realm Act”.
To get round this obstacle a strike committee was elected – the Central Labour Withholding Committee.
After the strike ended, this body became the Clyde Workers Committee, with delegates covering all the shipyards and engineering factories in Glasgow.
The CWC would go on to play a leading role in the revolutionary events to follow.
John MacLean and his comrades were now no longer swimming against the stream of working class opinion. Indeed, in Glasgow and Clydeside anti-war sentiment was higher than anywhere else in Britain at the time.
The next four years would bring mass working class struggles on the Clyde, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and imprisonment for MacLean.
Yet the first inspiring chapters of the historic events that became known as Red Clydeside had been written. And John MacLean was indelibly linked to them.
Working class militancy
Revolutionary agitators, under MacLean’s tuition, were increasing by the day, and were warmly cheered at mass meetings wherever they went. His indoor meetings were packed out; until he was forced to run two meetings a night… He was the centre of the anti-war movement; and all the other movements; whatever their tendencies, supported the general line he was taking. He demanded an immediate armistice with no annexations and no indemnities; along with this went his drive for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class.” Willie Gallacher – Revolt on the Clyde
The demand for labour for the war effort drew thousands of new workers to Glasgow and Clydeside, particularly into the munitions factories. Overtime was plentiful, although undermined by rapidly increasing prices. Pressure on housing was immense. The landlords and their factors saw an opportunity to squeeze more money from tenants and started to raise rents.
The section of the working class most immediately impacted were women, many of them mothers or wives of soldiers and sailors fighting abroad. Mass anger ignited into a campaign of non-payment of the rent increases. A local Independent Labour Party (ILP) councillor, Andrew McBride, played a key role in helping to organise the campaign. Rent arrears meant that the factors could go to the Sheriff Court for eviction notices to remove the tenants.
But they did not anticipate the determination of working class women. Govan was an epicentre of the struggle. Each tenement elected delegates. Street and back close meetings were organised to prepare the non-payment campaign and to defend families from evictions. Bells, whistles, drums and pots and pans were used to alert the community if the factors and sheriff officers arrived to try and evict. Women, including Mary Barbour, became leaders of the “we are not paying increased rent” campaign. The posters and leaflets were in the windows of every home.
In one case, reported in the ILP newspaper Forward, a factor who came to Partick to demand the rent increase was met by “women who turned out in full force and plastered the poor man in flour and pease-meal, and by the time the police arrived he looked like a grain store in disorder.”
This was a Glasgow-wide movement with marches across the city. The biggest was in October 1915 when an estimated 25,000 marched to the town council in George Square to demand support. Moreover the involvement of MacLean and other BSP members meant that the campaign was taken to the shipyards and engineering factories. Factory gate meetings were organised to agitate in favour of the rent strikes. The shop stewards inside also fought for support.
Under mass pressure the government were forced to set up a Committee of Enquiry to look at the issue of rent rises. John MacLean wrote in the Glasgow BSP newspaper that “We are certain that the factors and landlords are calculating on a compromise. If they demand an increase of £3 per annum…they expect the committee to suggest that they be 30 shillings.”
MacLean was right. Proposals for rent rises were put forward including those areas unaffected by rent rises previously. MacLean called for a mass non-payment campaign off all of the rent, not just the increased amount.
Faced with being unable to collect the rents and being unable to evict tenants, the government and factors went for wage deductions instead. A group of eighteen shipyard workers were summonsed to the court on November 18, 1915 to have their wages arrested for non-payment of rent. A general strike had been called for across Clydeside on 22 November unless the government agreed to a rent restriction act for the duration of the war.
Willie Gallacher described on the day of the court case: “From early morning… Mrs Barbour’s army was on the march. Mighty reinforcements were coming from the workshops and the yards…the dungareed army of the proletariat invaded the centre of the city. Right in front of the court, John MacLean was on a platform addressing the crowd as far as his voice could reach…The sheriff telephoned London and was put through to the Minister of Munitions, Mr David Lloyd George. ‘The workers have left the factories.They are threatening to pull down Glasgow. What am I to do?’ Stop the case, he was told. A rent restriction act will be introduced immediately.”
This massive victory reflected the enormous power of the working class and a growing revolutionary socialist outlook among sections of its most advanced layer. The ruling class also understood the threat, hence the concessions over rents. But this was also to be combined with brutal repression, particularly against its most prominent leader, John MacLean. In fact the day of the rent victory was MacLean’s last day as a teacher as he had been dismissed for his political views by the school board.
MacLean was sent to jail in November 1915 for five days, after being found guilty of charges under the Defence of the Realm Act for his anti-war activity. Conscription had been introduced in early 1916 and MacLean and the leaders of the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC) mobilised against it. This, of course, was in opposition to the official policy of the TUC and the trade union leaders.
The CWC constitution stated it would “organise the workers to maintain the class struggle until the overthrow of the wages system, the freedom of the workers and the establishment of industrial democracy had been attained.” The role of Marxists like MacLean and the members of the BSP, and the syndicalist Socialist Labour Party, played a crucial role in the formation of the CWC. MacLean attended and was welcomed at the CWC meetings.
Political strikes were commonplace on the Clyde. The years of anti-war and Marxist agitation by the BSP and Maclean and others had created the fertile ground for mass opposition to imperialist slaughter. In response, the state crackdown was widespread. Shop stewards like Davie Kirkwood, Willie Gallacher and others were arrested. The newspapers of the Glasgow BSP, the ILP and the CWC were suppressed. The capitalist press claimed MacLean and the Clyde workers were being financed by German gold.
MacLean was charged with sedition in April 1916 and found guilty on the testimony of eighteen policemen. His sentence was three years penal servitude in Peterhead prison where he was forced to carry our hard labour. In response, a huge campaign demanding MacLean’s release was launched.
His imprisonment lasted for fourteen months, until June 1917. By then the February Russian revolution had already removed the Tsarist dictatorship and electrified the working class across Europe. The May Day 1917 demonstration in Glasgow saw 80,000 marching in solidarity with the Russian workers, against war and demanding the freedom of John MacLean.
Minister for Munitions Lloyd George was offered the Freedom of the City of Glasgow on June 29th 1917. Yet more than 100,000 workers at the end of May marched to oppose this and demanded the release of John MacLean.
The All Russian Congress of Worker’s and Soldiers’ delegates sent a message in which they “send our greetings to the brave fighter for the International, Comrade MacLean.” As Lloyd George prepared to receive his honour Willie Gallacher described: “All round the centre of the city, the workers were gathering and shouting for the release of MacLean.” The British capitalist class were alarmed at the growing revolutionary upsurge and MacLean was released at the end of June.
His freedom did not last long. The rising revolutionary tide, boosted further by the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, drove the ruling class to strike again. Charged yet again with sedition in April 1918, MacLean was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment. But not before he had delivered possibly one of the most famous speeches ever.
Accuser of capitalism
MacLean defended himself at the trial and his 75 minute address to the jury was a master class in exposing capitalism and war while making the the case for socialism.
“I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech… No government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”
There were no workers on the jury of course. But MacLean finished his speech with the immortal words: “my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and only they can bring about the time when the whole world will be one brotherhood….That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.”
Despite the draconian sentence he was released within seven months. The Russian revolution and the fear of a workers’ uprising in Germany forced an end to the war on November 11, 1918. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, wrote in his memoirs of the British Government cabinet meeting on November 10; “Lloyd George asked me if I wanted this [Revolution in Germany], or would rather have an armistice. I unhesitatingly said “armistice”. All the cabinet agreed. Our real danger now is not the Boches but Bolshevism.”
There was mass support for the liberation of John MacLean. As his daughter Nan Milton wrote in her book: “Demonstrations were being held all over the country. When the red banners with slogans ‘Hands of Russia!’ and ‘Release MacLean’, were unfurled at the huge Albert Hall rally in London, the audience went wild…A resolution demanding MacLean’s release was passed unanimously at the special Labour Party conference…Ten thousand people demonstrated for his release in Finsbury Park.
On December 3rd, after his freedom from prison, and as he arrived by train into Buchanan Street station, MacLean was met by thousands of workers celebrating his release. He was carried via a carriage by workers, red flag flying, down Jamaica Street and towards the Clyde. “Three cheers for the German socialist revolution”, MacLean shouted.
The Bolshevik revolution set alight the Clyde as news filtered through of the victory of Lenin and Trotsky. John MacLean had been one of a handful of revolutionaries internationally who had aligned himself to the Zimmerwald conference in Switzerland in 1915 which founded a new revolutionary international.
Passports were refused by the British government but MacLean wrote of the conference that he would: “line up with our world comrades…we in Glasgow are internationalists first, last and all the time.”
Harry MacShane, a leading figure in the Red Clydeside movement, wrote how John MacLean was the first person he ever heard describing himself as a Leninist. Lenin himself, as early as 1916, declared that “In all the countries during the war there has been observed a trend of revolutionary socialism…To this trend belongs the Bolsheviks of Russia… who are persecuted for the same crimes for which MacLean and Karl Leibknecht are being persecuted.”
In recognition of his outstanding role in the struggle against the war and his support for the Russian Revolution, MacLean was elected as Honorary President of the first All Russian Congress of Soviets in 1918. Alongside him were Lenin, Trotsky, Leibknecht, Adler and Spiridnova.
Although MacLean never got to visit Russia and meet the Bolshevik leaders, he was appointed as the Bolshevik council in Glasgow – the first ever representative of Soviet Russia in Britain. The Glasgow Herald reported a decree of the revolutionary government: “the Consul-General at New York, Ustinov, is dismissed and John Reed [who wrote the book Ten Days that Shook the World] is appointed in his place. John MacLean is appointed Consul at Glasgow, Scotland.”
MacLean threw himself into mass activity. “Wherever workers gathered, at the street corners, at the pit-heads, at the factory gates, even at football parks, he was there. And wherever he went he lit fires of revolt.” Nan Milton. “The work done by MacLean during the winter of 1917-18 has never been equalled by anyone.
Every minute of his time was devoted to the revolutionary struggle.” Willie Gallacher.
MacLean’s release from prison at the end of 1918 marked the high point of the revolutionary movement on the Clyde. Demands for real improvements now the war was at an end, the impact of the Russian revolution and rising industrial unrest combined to pose a real threat to British capitalism. The demands of the working class for a shorter working week – 54 hours was typical on the Clyde – resulted in a mass strike wave.
A conference of shop stewards and the “official” trade union leaders in Glasgow in January 1919 was attended by 500. The demand for a 40-hour week agreed. A general strike was also called for 24th January. On that day all the main yards and engineering shops came out on strike. Mass picketing took place across Glasgow at the few workplaces who did not respond to the strike. On average 5,000 pickets amassed each day.
The strike wave was not confined to Glasgow either. Belfast workers were on strike for a 44-hour week. 1,500 miners in Lanarkshire occupied the miners union HQ to demand a general strike.
The strike rally on the Monday morning at St Andrews Hall in Glasgow was packed. 3,000 inside and a further 27,000 outside. The role of the official union leaders, who reflected the interests of the capitalist class as opposed to the shop stewards committees, was to limit the action. Apart from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast the strikes in other ares of Britain were not organised.
On the Clyde, all the main industrial, engineering, shipyards etc shutdown. A daily strike bulletin was produced and sold for a halfpenny. By the end of the strike, which lasted for two weeks, more than £193 had been made in profit from sales.
The then secretary of state for Scotland Robert Munro said:”It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike – this is a Bolshevist uprising.” The ruling class responded to this threat with savage repression. Thousands of police had been mobilised and when the workers assembled in George Square on Friday 31st January they charged with batons. Huge battles took place with workers trying to defend themselves, indeed again and again the police were driven back.
The “Battle of George Square” went on all day and night. Troops were mobilised from other parts of Scotland and England, while local service men back from the war and stationed at Maryhill barracks were locked up under orders from Winston Churchill, due to their unreliability.
There were no attempts to fraternise with the troops. Willie Gallacher admitted that: “there should have been a march to Maryhill barracks to enlist the support of the troops…we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out and Glasgow would have been in our hands.”
As it was an agreement was made for a reduction of the working week to 47 hours and the strike ended. It would not be until 1926 and the British general strike that a movement of this size and scope would erupt again.
A revolutionary party needed
Given the seismic events that erupted on the Clyde, why was there not attempts to take the necessary steps of forming soviets – workers’ councils and and a preparation for power? A key factor was the relative isolation of the mass strike wave to Clydeside, which was undoubtedly in the advance guard of the British working class.
The miners and transport workers had not taken action in early 1919, as MacLean had hoped for. Many national officials of the trade unions, especially the engineering unions, worked to ensure that the Clydeside movement was not repeated in other parts of Britain. A combination of concessions by the capitalist class and repression meant that following January 1919 there was a certain stabilisation from capitalism’s point of view. However this only lasted a few years until the outbreak of the general strike in 1926.
Crucially, the lack of a Bolshevik-type party in Scotland and Britain at the time was also a decisive factor. That’s not to say that such a party would have had a perspective of taking power only on Clydeside. A successful revolution against British capitalism would require the movement to extend way beyond Glasgow. A period of preparing the ground and building the forces of a disciplined Marxist party among the working class was necessary. But this was not done.
As Willie Gallacher, who was a key leader of the 40-hour strike movement, admitted: “we had possibilities of winning great new forces to our side….Revolt was seething everywhere, especially in the army. We had within our own hands the possibility of giving actual expression and leadership to it, but in never entered our heads to do so. We were carrying out a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.”
John MacLean represented the ideas around which such a revolutionary party could have been built. As were many of the shop stewards and workers who led and participated in Red Clydeside. There were of course illusions in reformism, even syndicalism – a trend which at one stage Gallacher defended. But the inexorable march of the world socialist revolution, and especially the victory of the October revolution in Russia, meant that the advanced section of the working class were looking towards Marxism.
Yet, in reality, there was not a distinct revolutionary Marxist party in Scotland or Britain at the time. The British Socialist Party had many outstanding revolutionaries in its ranks. Not least of all MacLean himself. But it was very far from being a disciplined and coherent revolutionary party. The BSP leaders were politically inconsistent at best. MacLean left the BSP, or was expelled, in 1920 after clashing with the leadership and accusing at least one of them of being an agent of the British state.
MacLean was certainly affected by the setbacks suffered by the working class in this period. The defeat of the 1918 German revolution, the isolation of the Russian revolution and the ebbing of the revolutionary wave on the Clyde impacted on him. In a period of relative defeat and setback, a coherent Marxist party is essential to allow for the drawing up of a balance sheet, to reorientate politically and to work out the immediate tasks facing the working class and its organisations.
No matter how outstanding an individual may be, and MacLean was an outstanding Marxist, without a revolutionary party to allow for such discussion and clarification mistakes are inevitable. Yet at this crucial conjuncture MacLean was largely operating as an individual, albeit still speaking to thousands for workers and educating them in Marxism. His role in the “Hands off Russia” campaign to oppose imperialist intervention was also immense.
He mistakenly refused to join the Communist Party of Great Britain, which largely drew together the BSP, parts of the Socialist Labour Party and others when it was founded in 1920. Lenin and the Communist International had rightly pushed for the creation of a revolutionary party in Britain to unite the disparate forces of Marxism. MacLean had been unable to travel to meet with Lenin and Trotsky. Willie Gallacher did however stow away on a ship and smuggle himself into Russia to attend the second congress of the Communist International in 1920 as a representative of the Clyde shop stewards.
At that point Gallacher, reflecting a syndicalist outlook, said he was opposed to any orientation to the Labour Party or to parliament. “I was an outstanding example of the Left sectarian as described by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder.” He recounts in his book discussions with Lenin on the role of a revolutionary party and the importance of orientating such a party to the working class and its organisations, including the Labour Party.
“Before I left Moscow I had an interview with Lenin during which he asked me three questions. Do you admit you were wrong on Parliament and affiliations to the Labour Party? Will you join the Communist Party of Great Britain when you return? Will you do your best to persuade your Scottish comrades to join it?”
Lenin was correct on this. The key task was to strive to build a genuine revolutionary party in Britain at that time. The death of Lenin, the isolation of the Russian revolution and the coming to power of Stalin impacted decisively on the Communist International and its national sections. From being an instrument of world revolution, within a decade or so, the 3rd International had became the opposite; a tool to defend the Stalinist bureaucracy and it’s policy of “socialism in one country”.
Was MacLean a nationalist?
John MacLean called for the creation of a distinct Scottish Communist Party, partly because he was repelled by some of the elements who were joining the CP. In his Open Letter to Lenin in 1921 he described them as “a heterogeneous mix of anarchists, sentimentalists, syndicalists with a sprinkling of Marxists.”
At that stage he also began to advocate support for Scottish independence and a “Scottish workers’ republic”. It’s important to point out that the labour movement in Scotland backed home rule and the creation of a Scottish parliament. Indeed that the ebbing of the revolutionary wave after 1919 probably strengthened the demands for democratic rights for Scotland.
Nevertheless, MacLean’s call for Scottish independence was a mistake and ahead of consciousness. As such it would only have been accepted by a small minority of class-conciousness workers at the time. It was also based on an overly pessimistic assessment of the potential among the working class in England. A potential that was to erupt in a direct challenge to capitalism through the 1926 general strike.
But MacLean, who backed Scottish independence as a detonator for world revolution, was a million miles removed from the pro-capitalist nationalism of the present day SNP leaders. As he wrote in 1920: “We can make Glasgow a Petrograd, a revolutionary storm-centre second to none. A Scottish breakaway at this juncture would bring the empire crashing down to the ground and free the waiting workers of the world.” And in his election address in the Gorbals for the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party in 1922: “I stand as a Bolshevik, alias a revolutionist, alias a Marxist…I wish a Scottish Workers’ Republic but also Scottish workers to be joined in one big industrial union with their British comrades.”
What a contrast to today and the SNP leadership’s craven support for capitalism and all of its institutions, including the bosses’ EU, Nato, the monarchy etc. MacLean today would have been to the fore in condemning SNP, and indeed Labour, politicians for their capitulation to capitalism and their implementation of austerity.
Today, support for independence has grown enormously over the last 20 years among the working class and young people. It is correct for socialists to advocate support for independence in the form of an independent socialist Scotland. As long as socialist independence for Scotland is also linked, as MacLean would have done, to a voluntary confederation with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland.
MacLean’s consistent socialist and class position was also evident when writing about Ireland. He visited Dublin in 1919 and, echoing James Connolly, explained at a public meeting that, “Irish labour would not be free under a Sinn Fein republic but only under a socialist workers’ republic”.
An enduring legacy
The repression continued against MacLean. He was jailed for three months in May 1921 and again, for the fifth time, in October of the same year for 12 months, being released in October 1922. Tragically, John MacLean died just over a year later at the age of 44. His long-term health problems, exacerbated by years of imprisonment took a terrible toll. MacLean made public his belief that while in prison his food was being drugged and contaminated. He went on hunger strike while in prison and had been force-fed by the authorities.
Out of prison, he lived on a very poor diet due to lack of money. Indeed he was almost certainly suffering from malnutrition when he died. Even while ill he refused to lesson his incredible workload, continuing outdoor meetings in freezing cold and wet weather conditions. In the end his body could no longer endure the relentless demands he placed upon it. As Nan Milton, his daughter, described: “He had to be lifted from his open-air platform, mortally ill with double pneumonia, and carried home.”
On the day of MacLean’s funeral thousands of workers turned out to say goodbye to their “Dominie”. The trade union and labour movement established a memorial fund that provided assistance for John MacLean’s wife and family for decades after his death. The cairn built in the 1970s in Pollokshaws to commemorate John Maclean carries the inscription; “He forged the Scottish link in the golden chain of world socialism.”
John MacLean’s contribution rightly places him in the front rank of the greatest Marxists of all time. Today, as capitalism staggers from one crisis to another – economic, environmental, social and political – the ideas of revolutionary socialism are more necessary and relevant than ever. Socialist Party Scotland salutes the contribution of John MacLean. His enduring legacy enriches our struggle today, which is to build the necessary instrument – a mass revolutionary socialist party – to end capitalism and secure a socialist future.