Some will seek to dismiss the ideas and programme for which John MacLean gave his life as being outdated. It is hoped that this modest contribution will revive those ideas and contribute towards the real memory of John MacLean - the greatest revolutionary Scotland has ever produced.
"I am not here as the accused - I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot..."
Ours is an age when much of history, and particularly the history of the socialist movement, has been distorted and falsified, when political deception has become so widespread that it discourages huge numbers from participating. Some will seek to dismiss the ideas and programme for which John MacLean gave his life as being outdated. It is hoped that this modest contribution, despite its limitations and deficiencies, will simultaneously revive those ideas and contribute towards the real memory of John MacLean-the greatest revolutionary Scotland has ever produced.
The system which MacLean fought so hard against is the same one which robs us today. The exploiters and profiteers who view workers as a means to enrich themselves deliberately contrive these conditions. John MacLean's ideas are as relevant today as they were in 1923 when he died at the premature age of 44 years, having given his life to the cause of revolutionary socialism. In John MacLean's death, the movement lost an outstanding Marxist revolutionary theoretician and tireless activist. MacLean had little use for the windy blatherskite or for the cloister sociologist. His life, his work and his premature death should be an inspiration to socialists worldwide. For not only is MacLean's memory a golden heritage of the early Marxist struggle against capitalism and British Imperialism, but should be studied to advantage by the workers of all lands. MacLean is Scotland's most precious contribution to the international proletariat.
We live at a turning point in world history. This brief work outlines the life of John MacLean, his background and his political ideas. It is meant as a message of optimism-but John MacLean also made mistakes, which must be examined honestly. This is not to denigrate MacLean; we will leave that task to others. We do it to learn from the lessons of history to avoid a repetition of those mistakes.
As time has passed, some Scottish nationalists have sought to claim MacLean as their own. In the pages that follow, reasons will be given for the rejection of this fraud. In this present period, a number of individuals, and groupings within the Scottish Socialist Party have recently busied themselves revising MacLean's politics to justify their capitulation from International Socialism to "left" Scottish Nationalism, and with it their continuous watering-down of even the most basic socialist ideas. Sadly, this false perspective is seducing many of the SSP "leaders" and "strategists" who previously claimed to be Marxists. This flawed strategy-very similar to the one which has until now failed the working class of Ireland-with the notion that "labour must wait" until after independence is achieved, acts as a deception and diversion from the real struggle of the working class.
It is a tragedy of enormous proportions that many of the "left" in Britain at the present time seek to find a way of solving the problems faced by the vast majority of working people within the system of capitalism. These political activists know nothing and forget everything. If it is true that the world has never created so much wealth; that technology knows no bounds-then why are we being forced to work longer hours at and under more pressure than ever before? Yes, the human race has made much progress, but tell that to the parents of one of the children who drop dead every three seconds for want of food or medicine. Tell it to the 1 in 3 children born into poverty in Britain every single day. Tell it to the 55,000 old age pensioners who die of hypothermia every winter in Britain, the fourth richest country in the world. And this, at a time when Chancellor Gordon Brown tells us we are living in a period of unprecedented financial growth. Britain as a country is now £1 TRILLION in debt, outstripping our Gross Domestic Product. In December 2004 the Office for National Statistics reported that the wealth gap in Britain had widened significantly since New Labour came to power in 1997, with the top 1% of the population now owning 23% of all wealth, up from 17% in 1991. The report, entitled "Focus on Social Inequalities", also shows that just 25% of the population owns 75% of all the wealth. 1.6 million workers in Britain take home over £8,000 a week while nearly a quarter live on less than the official poverty income of £194 per week. 8 million individuals are classed as "economically inactive". That means they are not working and not considered for work. In other words, they do not appear in the official figures. This indictment on the system of capitalism and the cowardice and duplicity of the "leaders" of the working class would have been MacLean's business and that is why we make it ours.
It is an inescapable fact that the struggle forward for humanity can never succeed on the basis of tinkering with the system of capitalism. There will be no future for the emancipation of the working class unless it is part of the socialist transformation of society. This historic and inevitable struggle by the working class against exploitation and oppression will triumph under the leadership of the working class, or it will never triumph! This was the message of John MacLean and this is the message of this modest contribution. For socialist struggle is international or it is nothing!
Edinburgh, July 2005
British Imperialism: the World's First Superpower
The Scottish bourgeoisie assisted in the development of the British Empire to such an extent that without their connivance, it would have been impossible for the English ruling class to develop in the manner in which they did. Comparative to size, the Scottish bourgeoisie played a greater role than any other section of the new order. Scottish merchants and capitalists benefited enormously from the new exploitation and Scottish dynasties were built up and prospered. The contrast with Ireland could not have been greater. Dominated, exploited by England, the feeble Irish bourgeoisie had been halted from developing. The oppression was fuelled even stronger resentment when a series of brutal and inhumane policies by the London government saw the Irish population fall by 3 million in the "Great Famine" of the 1840s. British imperialism and Scottish capitalist's interests in particular, played an important part in developing the north east part of Ireland for industrial exploitation around Belfast. This proved very useful to British imperialism, when in order to cut across the social revolution developing in Ireland, the living body of the country was divided and six counties in the northeast remained under British rule, underpinned by the monster of sectarianism.
Scotland was politically and economically different from Ireland. While the Irish bourgeoisie were stunted and the nation, generally, oppressed, the Scottish ruling class benefited from the Act of Union, eagerly collaborating with their English counterparts to reap the fruits of expansion and imperialism as the Empire grew.
In the late 1880's, Britain was the leading imperialist power in the world. During the last 20 years of the nineteenth century British investment in foreign and colonial stock quadrupled while its exports went amass to the less developed world. The entire planet was carved up between the major capitalist powers-much like today. A group of twelve ruling elites were in cut-throat competition with each other. Between 1870 and 1900 the entire sub-Saharan Africa was partitioned into 23 colonies owned and operated by 6 European powers. Britain was the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world, the foremost industrial power and the banking centre for the world's finance. British shipyards supplied 90% of the world's ships and the British merchants with their products dominated the world's shipping lanes. The British Empire covered more than a quarter of the globe. It had the world's most powerful army and the British ruling class was the richest and most successful in history. The Clydeside area produced 70% of all iron tonnage in Britain between 1850 and 1870 and one wave of successful manufacture followed another. First there was tobacco and cotton and later heavy industry and coal. The first steel-hulled ship in the world was built and launched on the Clyde, and by 1855 when steel was replacing iron, Clydeside accounted for 50% of the world's annual tonnage of shipping while it was the world's biggest exporter of steam locomotives.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Glasgow was the "second city of the Empire". The Clyde Valley district was a world centre of coal mining, shipbuilding, steel production and heavy and light engineering. This district contained Britain's biggest concentration of capital accumulation, giving rise to giant Scottish companies and the dynasties that ran and milked them. In turn, they were tied to the indigenous Scottish banking system. All this and they enjoyed privileged access to the British state.
The enormous wealth being created in Britain at a spectacular rate was unprecedented. However, in Marxist terms, there was a massive contradiction about these new developments in the system. While all this wealth was being created, the workers involved saw their conditions and wages become worse by the year. Until the middle of the 1890s real wages rose slightly but irregularly, from 1896 till 1900 they remained static, then, after 1900 they began to fall. The privileged and parasitic few had never had it so good while for the majority it was a daily grind in disgusting and pitiful conditions. The repercussions of this obscene exploitation manifested itself in the period known historically as "The Great Unrest". From 1910 - 1914 a massive wave of working class militancy and political struggle, rocked the British establishment...
A Revolutionary is born
It could be argued that John MacLean was born a revolutionary. His parents, Daniel and Anne (nee MacPhee) were both victims of the barbaric Highland Clearances. Daniel, from the Isle of Mull and Anne from Fort William had witnessed their families being unceremoniously evicted from their homes as the landlord left them with nowhere to live, nothing to eat and no means of earning a living. A scenario repeated throughout the Highlands of Scotland forcing families to emigrate to America or move to other parts of the country where work could be found so that men could feed their families. Family units were broken up forever with parents never seeing their children again and husbands separated from wives.
Many years later, "wee Johnnie's" maternal grandmother would sit him on her knee and relate the horrors of that time which sank into young John's consciousness. And so it was that as a young man, when he read Marx's account of the notorious Clearances MacLean was able to recall his family's suffering at the hands of these truculent, barbarous and ruthless tyrants.
John MacLean was born on 24th August 1879 in Pollokshaws, at that time an industrial town in Renfrewshire on the outskirts of Glasgow. He was the sixth of seven children and life was extremely tough, Daniel plying his trade as a potter for a modest wage. Only four of the MacLean children survived which was about average survival rates for the working class at that time. When John was nine years old, his father died of silicosis an illness brought about by his working conditions.
John was a bright and industrious pupil at his elementary school, Pollok Academy, a fact not lost on his mother who encouraged him to stay on at school. Her meagre widow's pension was augmented by John working as a message boy before and after school, and he also earned extra as a caddy at Thornliebank golf course on a Saturday. He witnessed factory life at first hand working in a printing works through the school holidays. It was a punishing schedule and one that John MacLean would maintain for the rest of his short life.
At that time, most working class children left school at twelve years of age, primarily because the wage was needed in the household. But John's mother was adamant that her "wee Johnnie" should remain in education and he moved to Queens Park Secondary before moving on to Polmadie School as a pupil teacher, and finally graduating as a qualified teacher in 1900. It was an outstanding achievement by someone from MacLean's background.
During MacLean's formative years he and his family were Calvinists and regular church attendees. "The poor will always be with you," said the Bible, and they certainly will be so long as the assortment of businessmen, mill owners, landlords and factory bosses, steal the surplus value from their employees. In his youth the sight of prosperous and wealthy churchgoers had a great effect on MacLean.
A free thinker with an enquiring mind and insatiable thirst for knowledge, John MacLean epitomised the theory that one's environment determines political development and consciousness. MacLean was rapidly coming to understand, without having even read any theory, that the endemic poverty which surrounded him and in which he and his family were forced to live, was the result of the capitalist system.
In 1900, when he was 21 years of age, MacLean was teaching at Strathbungo School and had become politically involved in a loose gathering of advanced political thinkers and radicals, who "discussed philosophic, scientific and literary subjects. Problems of present day interest and especially those concerning the social and religious life of the people." Nan Milton's hugely enjoyable biography of her father, John MacLean, tells how this grouping caused near apoplexy locally with large numbers disapproving of them. Every subject imaginable was debated and discussed, from anarchy to astronomy. However, Nan Milton recalls that one of the main topics of interest was religion - seen by many working class people as a barrier to socialism to this day, which it need not be. Nan wrote:
"The majority of members although they might not call themselves atheists, hated the churches and their superstitious doctrines. They believed that the first step to a better life was the breaking of the religious yoke. Then the eyes of the poor, ignorant priest-ridden proletariat would be opened to the wonders of the universe and to the potentialities lying dormant in each individual."
In the Progressive Union, MacLean was encouraged and inspired by some of the most advanced thinkers of the time, few of whom ever received the recognition they deserved. Men like John MacDougall and his brother Daniel. Willie McGill, an anarchist who became renowned for his fearless confrontations with the enemies of the working class and who met injustice head-on, wherever he encountered it. MacLean formed a close friendship with Bill Stewart, who despite his youth was an advanced Marxist and respected throughout the socialist movement. Indefatigable MacLean enrolled on a course on economics at Glasgow University at his own expense, and here he found a pearl of great truth in the most important work of them all, Capital by Karl Marx. Capital laid bare the system of capitalism in a scientific way and confirmed the young MacLean as a Marxian socialist.
Period of Great Political Unrest
By the end of the Nineteenth century, the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF), Britain's first Marxist organisation, had gained a certain success where leaders like Tom Mann and Ben Tillet led the movement for "New Unionism", the great organisation of the unskilled workers into general trade unions. In Scotland, despite it's 20-year existence, the SDF had made little impact, but managed to hold some ground until the Scottish Labour Party was formed 1888. The Scottish Labour Party was a party based on the needs of the wage-earning class and concerned itself primarily with "bread and butter" issues. When the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in Bradford in 1893, the Scottish Labour Party was reconstituted and renamed the Scottish Council of the ILP. Interestingly, a Marxist of equal calibre and talent to MacLean, and who was then employed by Edinburgh Corporation and an early member of the ILP. His name was James Connolly, later one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, who was subsequently executed by the British.
It was a period of great political unrest with old ideas and institutions being challenged throughout Europe by the new organised working class. By 1902, John MacLean had become a fully conscious Marxists and we reprint a letter he had published in September of that year in the Pollokshaws News:
"To make wealth rapidly, capitalists have wrought men and women and children long hours at high speed and for wages that just keep them alive. Here the class struggle begins with the desire to steal the maximum from the workers. The workers feel the necessity for united effort, so that they may resist the attacks of the enemy, the capitalists. Trade Unions are formed and the strike is used to get as much of the wealth produced as possible. But wives and children starve and the unions must yield. Though united, the workers still fight an unequal battle. Hunger brings them to their knees and so most strikes have resulted in loss to the men. Whatever gains are made is soon lost at times of depression, when the masters need only threaten the lock-out to reduce wages..."
In this short piece, MacLean covers the basic different interests of the two main social classes: the proletariat (wage earners) and the bourgeoisie (exploiters). He shows the tactics used by the bosses and the only real option open to the workers, the strike weapon. He makes clear the need for the workers to unite into trade unions and how the boss class forces the worker to pay the penalty when the system goes into crisis.
MacLean spent as much time as he could educating himself in Marxist theory, economics, and working-class and industrial history. He was gaining personal confidence in his profession as a teacher and making progress and contacts in the Progressive Union. That he was a first-class orator has never been in doubt. What he was searching for was a scientific approach to politics, as opposed to the formalism and sterile approach adopted by the majority of the left and the liberal reformists. He found this approach in the science of Marxism.
The early 1900s saw an explosion of growth in trade union membership and also in the co-operative movements, led in the main by Liberal Party politicians and supporters. Up until this time, given the absence of a strong, organised party of labour, the working class viewed the Liberals as allies, more likely to grant concessions than the Tory Party, which was seen as the party of the rich. The ILP was yet young and enjoyed only limited working class support. 1900 saw the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, set up by a number of trade unions as well as groups like The Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation. In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party, and by 1906 had gained 29 Members of Parliament, including Keir Hardie.
When MacLean joined the SDF in 1903, it was the only openly Marxist organisation in Britain. Founded in 1881 by H.M. Hyndman as the Democratic Federation, two years later it adopted Marxian Socialism as its main principles. However, the leadership of the SDF, especially Hyndman, were deeply sectarian. This was a bone of contention within the ranks of the SDF, even before MacLean joined. In particular, its trade unionist members became increasingly critical of Hyndman's sectarian leadership. The main problems over lack of serious work in the trade unions and lack of organisation, together with divisions over syndicalism (the belief that industrial action throughout the organised working class was sufficient to bring about the fundamental changes for a better society), led ultimately to a split and the formation of the Socialist Labour Party. The new party attempted to connect revolutionary politics to the struggles taking place in the workplaces. Hyndman stayed in the SDF, as surprisingly did MacLean.
However, the sectarian degeneration of the SDF was becoming increasingly evident. While the party continued to enjoy some support, not least because of the efforts of MacLean and his comrades who worked tirelessly to build, it became increasingly isolated and impotent at times of great class struggle. As with all the pre-war socialist groupings, they remained simply propaganda circles, incapable of linking Marxist propaganda to the real everyday struggles of the working class. Their organic sectarianism remained a barrier to their involvement in the real life of the working-class movement.
Marxism on Tour
In 1902 MacLean was teaching at Kinning Park School and during the school holidays embarked on a speaking tour of Scotland, holding meetings and addressing workers whenever and wherever he could. On a tour of Hawick, MacLean stayed at the home of a local man, James Stothart, who owned a small business in the area. Naturally, MacLean tried to interest Stothart in his politics, but it seems got no response. But there was to be a silver lining after all. The man's niece, Agnes Wood lived with her uncle in the house and MacLean was able to embark on a friendship with her that would eventually lead to romance. Four years later, the couple became closer when Agnes moved to Glasgow to begin her training in nursing, and the couple eventually married in 1909. MacLean, however, continued with his punishing political schedule and built up a great friendship with Tom Kennedy (later Labour MP for Kirkcaldy) who was the SDF's Scottish organiser.
MacLean, while understanding the importance of trade unions, made every effort to argue for a mass revolutionary party based upon the organised working class. He did this in spite of the SDF's obvious indifference towards trade unions in general and their refusal to change policy even after their damaging split. MacLean however remained a member of the SDF, always arguing the case for the entire working class to be united. To this end, he saw potential in joining the co-operative movement and became an active member of the Pollokshaws Co-operative Society to which he gave much of his time. A tireless campaigner and public speaker, MacLean succeeded against all the odds in attracting solid recruits to the SDF. He held classes on economics and industrial history, regularly attended by hundreds of people. His open air meetings in Glasgow and elsewhere have become the stuff of legend and he wrote enthusiastically for the SDF paper, Justice.
However, the continuing refusal of the SDF leadership to have anything to do with the Labour Party was causing MacLean some concern. Nevertheless, events were gathering apace. Certainly at this time, MacLean was relentless in his constant political activity. By now, he was taking advanced economics classes in Greenock, Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Fife, speaking at meetings or outdoor gatherings, and even on his lunch break would visit a factory gate to address the workers and tell them of socialism. He explained in straightforward language the system of rent, interest and profit, and how exploitation produced surplus value, using everyday examples. The result of this work was a growing influence of Marxist ideas and the recruitment of some of the best layers of the workers and youth to the SDF. Branches were formed as far north as Lerwick.
In 1907, Jim Larkin, the leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, invited MacLean to Ireland. It was at the time when the Great Belfast Dock Strike was underway. MacLean addressed meetings of thousands, as Protestant and Catholic workers, mainly unskilled, stood shoulder to shoulder against the Unionist bosses. Police and troops were sent in to attack the strikers and three men were killed. This whole episode revealed conclusively to MacLean what he had been urging for some time: that industrial struggle politicised the working class. Dave Sherry, in his pamphlet John MacLean, correctly points to this time as being a turning point for MacLean and his political attitude. "From now on", writes Sherry, "he would be quick to recognise the revolutionary potential of trade union militancy wherever it raised its head..."
On his return to Scotland MacLean submerged himself into political activity like a human dynamo. He immersed himself in issues like the Education Bill as legislated for by the new Liberal government. MacLean campaigned for a "real Education Bill for Scotland" with provision to be made for secular education, free books, medical attention for all children, an extension of the school leaving age to 16 years, grants for working people to allow their children to go into higher education and university and more. MacLean was not entirely successful, of course, but he had succeeded in pushing at the boundaries of general working class thought and traditions and again inspired the more advanced. One of the reforms, which the Bill did contain, provided for School Boards to provide classes in any subject proposed by groups of more than 20 people.
The SDF began a campaign to have socialists elected to the School Boards with some success and instigated classes in economics. In the Eastwood School Board area, this was granted after the usual spat, and MacLean was appointed tutor, receiving the going
rate from the authorities for teaching Marxism! He was assisted in his teaching, by James Maxton, who had been influenced by MacLean during his student days. A trusted band of comrades, schooled in Marxist ideas, by anyone's reckoning. These included a young Co-operative employee, Jimmy MacDougall, who also assisted MacLean in his classes every week in central Glasgow, Pollokshaws, Greenock, Lanarkshire, Paisley, Govan and Falkirk.
By 1910, socialist ideas were no longer thought of as some remote or utopian dogma, but were proving a great attraction to significant layers of the working class
throughout the country. Nan Milton in her biography of her father illustrates an incident, which can only have reinforced MacLean's new direction and orientation, begun by his experiences at the Belfast Dock Strike a few years earlier. She relates the incident described to her by Jimmy MacDougall as follows:
"One of the villages in East Renfrewshire where he (MacLean) carried out systematic propaganda work was in the village of Nitshill. Like many other mining villages and towns throughout the country men and boys found employment in the mines, while the girls travelled to the nearest textile factories. These happened to be thread mills situated at Neilston some miles away. This was a very large factory employing thousands of girls and, of course, they were on piecework. One or two of the Nitshill girls, daughters of socialist miners, worked in the cop winding department, and they put forward demands for better prices. When the demands of the girls were refused, the whole mob of girls streamed out of the mill, shouting defiance at the management. Many of them were quite young, none of them had any experience whatever of organisation, but their fathers at Nitshill knew that to carry on strikes there had to be meetings, and so, they went for MacLean and his friends to come up and organise the girls.
"MacLean came and infused his own vigour and courage into these girls. He instructed them how they must act in order to win, not only in the immediate wage demand, but to be able in the future to protect themselves against the tyranny of the foremen or any unjust demand that might be made upon them. They must get into a trade union. MacLean himself took the initiative of writing to the Federation of Women Workers and very soon an array of women organisers and speakers were on the scene, including the famous Mary MacArthur. Miss Kate McLean, later Mrs Kate Beaton took a prominent part in organising the girls.
"The manager lived many miles away in Pollokshields, a 'posh' Glasgow suburb. The most prominent incident of the strike was when it was decided to have a march from Neilston right through the intervening towns and villages to Pollokshields in order to interview the manager. It can be understood that to lead such a disorderly, undisciplined horde of young girls, to whom the thing was more of a joke than anything else (they were carrying effigies of the manager which were intended to be burned) was by no means an easy job, but MacLean was equal to anything of that kind. He was full of fun and chaff, and so took the hearts of the girls that they would have done anything for him, with the result that no serious trouble occurred.
The march, with great banging of tin cans and shouting and singing, pursued its noisy way from Neilston to Pollokshields, where the respectable inhabitants were thoroughly disturbed. The meeting was held in a field adjacent to the managers' house, and then the weary strikers dispersed to find their own way home as best they might. The wage demands were won, the whole of the girls in the factory were organised, and a great mass of virgin minds received a favourable impression of their first contact with socialism."
MacLean came to realise that the Social Democracy throughout Europe, while strong on rhetoric was weak in substance. MacLean on the other hand maintained his principled and selfless approach. No matter what political distortions are made about John MacLean he was never in politics for himself or his own personal glory.
MacLean soon discovered that the Social Democracy movement throughout Europe, while strong on rhetoric was weak in substance. Almost all the left organisations in the Clyde area suffered from internal faction struggles. All sorts of manoeuvres and intrigues were developing but MacLean maintained his principled and selfless approach. The message was always more important than the messenger for this most disciplined politician. No matter what political distortions are made about John MacLean he was never in politics for himself or his own personal glory.
His unrelenting schedule saw him visiting the Rhondda Valley where he addressed large crowds of Welsh miners, then involved in a rancorous and bitter dispute with the Cambrian Coal Company. Syndicalism was once again the major political influence, but this mistaken outlook did not dishearten MacLean, who patiently explained the need to link their struggle to the overall class question and build a revolutionary party, based on the method and theory of Marxism. At this time the SDF (British Socialist Party from 1911 onwards) repeated their now organic mistakes of concentrating on political propaganda while the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) insisted that political organisation while of huge importance, was secondary to industrial organisation.
MacLean continued with his method of approaching the increasingly politicised organised working class and arguing the importance of political organisation over sectional struggles or elitism among workers and their organisations. He had realised for some time that his former fellow revolutionaries were becoming more seduced with the parliamentary road to socialism than class war and revolution.
It was a period where Britain was gripped in jingoism, the agenda set by the press barons and other mouthpieces of the ruling class. With the Liberal and Tory parties calling for a strengthening of Britain's naval fleet and an increase in the defence budget as they prepared for the coming war for markets with Germany, Hyndman at last came out in his true colours. As the Tories and Liberals he came out for national defence, splitting the SDF's membership in the process.
By 1913 MacLean could contain himself no longer and began taking a more active role in opposing the SDF (by now the PSP) right wing. At the 1914 party conference, MacLean openly argued for the party's paper to be taken out of Hyndman's control and for the party's conference delegates to decide policy, which should thereafter be adhered to by the BSP candidates. He lost the vote, but the episode and the result signalled the beginning of the end for the BSP. Ironically today the leading lights of the Scottish Socialist Party regularly ignore party policy and regard internal democracy expendable, many preferring to sort out internal differences using the capitalist media - as recent events have shown.
On August 4th 1914, with the outbreak of war between the imperialist powers, the international socialist movement was in disarray. The leaderships of each national party now moved firmly into the camp of their own particular governments and "national interests". The previous declarations of international solidarity to defeat the capitalist plans for war were quickly abandoned. Lenin was scathing of their treachery. "Hyndman," he wrote, "having turned to the defence of imperialism prior to the war, was looked on by all decent socialists as an unbalanced crank...Now the most eminent Social Democratic leaders of all the countries have sunk to Hyndman's position". MacLean was disgusted at the breakdown of the Socialist International.
The period before the war had been one of great unrest and political and industrial militancy. Trade union membership had doubled. Now the government, in collusion with the real rulers, the capitalists, intervened, taking over key industries and passing draconian laws designed to stunt trade union activity. Strikes were banned, civil liberties suspended and workers were forbidden from changing jobs. Labour leaders openly told trade unionists they had a duty to forget about wage increases and join together to defeat the enemy, Germany. The betrayal of the Second International disorientated large sections of the working class. Ideas like pacifism and defencism were touted. Patriotic feelings stirred a desire to protect the country from aggression. As always, the capitalist media whipped up the mood and prostitute journalists constantly played on the decency of the honest working people of Britain that they must bravely do their duty.
John MacLean was clear. The war, he said, was for markets and the division of the spoils afterwards. "The working class are but pawns," he told a mass meeting at Glasgow Green. "It is our business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism".
Socialist International Splits
Despite the efforts of John MacLean and other genuine internationalists, the socialist movement was deeply split over the war. In Germany only the great Rosa Luxembourg and her comrade Karl Leibknecht stood firm along with Lenin's Bolsheviks. In his autobiography, No Mean Fighter, Harry McShane, who was prominent in the anti-war movement, describes the situation. The extract conveys his deep disappointment. "Many socialists were pacifists. In the ILP there was a good deal of anti-war feeling but the leaders of the ILP took a very weak stand and the national policy of the ILP was not clear. In February 1915 Keir Hardie presided over a meeting in London of socialists from the allied countries that actually declared in favour of an allied victory."
A short time later, addressing a meeting in his Merthyr constituency, Hardie stated: "A nation at war must be united. With the boom of enemy guns within earshot, the lads who have gone forth to fight must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home." From then on support for the anti-war movement waned. The left-wing Daily Herald, edited by George Lansbury, refused to print any anti-war articles while Manny Shinwell, a Glasgow ILP councillor never committed himself at all. Hyndman enthusiastically organised war propaganda and Ben Tillet and Victor Grayson, whose reputations had been built on being militant socialists, publicly declared for the war. MacLean did his best to campaign against the war consistently linking class issues and practical social problems to the capitalist war.
In such favourable conditions, the government and the employers wasted no time on going onto the offensive. Legislation was rushed through parliament ensuring trade unions and socialists could be severely dealt with. Dilution was introduced, giving the jobs of skilled workers to unqualified men and women and wages were slashed while productivity was increased. The previous few years of trade union progress and the hard won gains must have seemed like an eternity away.
The entire wage-earning class was now seeing the state and the bosses with their teeth bared. The well dressed, well-mannered, eloquent gentlemen of just a few years before now revealed their real nature. The protectors of a decaying system, who could send young men into a battle, displayed not a vestige of regret. Prices had been rising steadily for 12 - 14 years but now they rocketed, rising by 32% in the first 12 months of the war alone. Rationing was introduced, another exclusive measure hitting the workers hardest. Few members of the ruling elite joined the British people in such sacrifice. Rents for the slum dwellings went through the roof as the parasite landlord class grabbed their opportunity to squeeze every penny from the workers and the families of those fighting in the capitalists' war.
The vast array of anti-trade union laws and restrictions on civil liberties had the desired affect of cowing the workers. While many industries declined, skilled engineers were in demand, and this led to a stream of engineers into the Glasgow district. With 50% of the population living in two rooms and 15% in single rooms the housing shortage was aggravated. Landlords reacted with further increases in rent adding considerably to the social unrest. MacLean, as ever, was in the thick of things. He held impromptu meetings in the streets and in back courts, explaining in simple terms the real reasons for the war and exposing the hypocrisy of British firms who were selling weapons to "neutral" countries, which then sold them onto Germany.
Despite the draconian industrial laws, the engineers' union the ASE put forward a claim for a two-penny increase an hour more. The employers were horrified and resisted, fearing other pay claims would follow. Interestingly, the government decided not to use the legal system against the ASE, realising that their laws were unenforceable in the face of mass defiance. In the end, the men only succeeded in gaining an increase of a penny an hour, but a new confidence had been found. This laid the foundations for new campaigns against slum housing, rising rents and evictions, in what became known as the Glasgow Rent Strike. Meanwhile, a worker at Parkhead Forge was found guilty in court of "slacking and causing others to slack" and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment. When the entire workforce threatened to strike, the man was released from jail and reinstated.
The stirring of the working class saw the reorganisation of the Clyde Workers Committee. While MacLean was not a member of this body, his authority was such that he was allowed to attend their meetings and contribute to debates. It was an important step forward and workers all across Britain followed the example. The CWC was intent on representing the rank and file, bypassing the union officials when necessary. But it was not all success. In 1916, after suffering defeat over Dilution, many of the CWC leaders were either jailed or deported from the Glasgow area.
The industrial campaigns and jailing of political leaders, including MacLean, was running alongside the rent strike campaign and the fight against evictions. The housing situation was appalling with all the tenement housing privately owned. Rents were soon beyond the reach of many ordinary people and increasing numbers of eviction orders were granted against tenants who were unable to pay.
As legal actions continued, local women formed Tenants Committees demanding the freezing of rents and that the government build more houses. MacLean saw the rent strikes as a chance to link up the struggles. Despite some opposition from leading lights in the CWC, MacLean succeeded. By October 1915, 30,000 tenants were refusing to pay any rent. Mass demonstrations and resistance met the Sheriff Officers every time they attempted to evict anyone. (Sheriff Officers-Bailiffs in England-are a peculiar breed of animal, too dim-witted to be policemen and too craven to do a job of any social use, they continue to be despised in Scotland where they were taught some harsh lessons during the poll tax resistance.) In late October, a tremendous demonstration in St Enoch's Square demanded that the government take immediate action to stop the rent racketeers. Rents had increased three fold since the war started yet the government made no provision to control prices. In the end the government fudged the issue palming off the strikers with the promise of a commission of inquiry. Immediately the landlords raised the rents again!
On 10th November 1915, John MacLean was brought before the Sheriff at Glasgow on a summary charge under the Defence of the Realm Act (DOTR Act). He was charged with making statements calculated to prejudice recruitment to the British forces. Large crowds of MacLean's supporters had assembled and the court was packed. Many of the men present had downed tools for the day. Four police constables who had been present at the open-air Bath Street meeting gave astonishingly similar accounts of MacLean's utterances. Despite a robust defence, MacLean was fined £5 with the alternative of five days imprisonment. Now Govan School Board had their excuse to dismiss MacLean from his post as a teacher.
The following day, a number of munitions workers were summoned to the debtor's court for failing to pay the increased rents. Many workers on the Clyde struck work and marched to the court. While passing Lorne Street School, the crowd took MacLean out and carried him shoulder high through the streets. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 protestors were at the court. A delegation was allowed in to speak to the presiding Sheriff, and they left him in no doubt that continuing the action against the debtors would result in mass strikes across the Clyde. The Sheriff dropped the cases. The organised working class had sent a strong message-if nothing was done about the rent situation they would strike. A short time later, the government passed the Rent Restriction Act, which returned rents to their pre-war level. It marked a fantastic victory for the working class who were seeing what solidarity and organisation could achieve.
In the aftermath of the rent strike victory MacLean began his five-day jail term. Resolutions were passed throughout the trade union movement condemning the jailing and a number of Lanarkshire pits were closed by strikes. It was not to be MacLean's only taste of prison life.
MacLean, who had been submerged in constant activity, now prepared to confront the right-wing leadership of Hyndman. He launched his own paper The Vanguard in Glasgow as the paper of the BSP, arguing that strike action combined with political organisation could stop the war. This perspective was at odds with the syndicalist-led Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), who continued with a narrow, defensive policy.
The "Dilution of Labour" scheme was an important weapon in the governments plan to win the war. It meant that unskilled men would be given jobs previously done exclusively by skilled workers. The aim was to rapidly increase the production of war materials. It would also serve to weaken the craft unions and the CWC, which had been a thorn in the government's side. The employers warmly welcomed the dilution scheme. MacLean and other activists also understood that the introduction of dilution was an attack on terms and conditions and a precursor to conscription. It is interesting here to mention that prior to this time, MacLean was in favour of dilution of labour. This was based on his experiences of the Singer's strike and the need to combat the elitism of the craft unions at the expense of other workers. Under war conditions, he changed his position (and was politically mature enough to acknowledge his error) because he realised that dilution was an attack on the working class as a whole.
The Move to Smash the Clyde
The syndicalist-led CWC had neglected political organisation, regarding it as an irrelevance, or at least subordinate to the trade union struggle. This weakness did not go amiss on the government, who were determined to smash the militants on the Clyde. Rather than arrest the CWC leaders outright, the government to test the ground trained their sights on softer targets. MacLean's long standing friend and comrade, Peter Petrov and his wife Irma were detained under the DOTR Act in January 1916. Simultaneously, Hyndman, quite possibly in the pay of the British government, published an article entitled, Who and what is Peter Petrov?, casting aspersions on Petrov's socialist credentials. Petrov was soon deported. Within a short time, MacLean's paper The Vanguard was seized and never appeared again during the war years.
In February 1916, MacLean was arrested for sedition. Then the Socialist Labour Party's offices were raided and their printing press smashed up. The same thing happened to the CWC and their equipment. Willie Gallacher and Johnny Muir were arrested and charged under the DOTR Act. In the same week the police were doing their utmost to silence the socialist and anti-war movement. Davy Kirkwood, later to become a Labour MP, took it upon himself to sign a deal with government commissioners on behalf of the workforce at Parkhead Forge accepting dilution. It should have come as no surprise when the bosses at Parkhead Forge reneged on parts of the deal. Despite the anger at Kirkwood's action at the Parkhead Forge, the workers struck, but the government were in no doubt that the CWC was split and therefore vulnerable. Repeatedly during this period, syndicalism's shortcomings stood out.
Sensing the hesitation of the CWC the government moved quickly to fill the void. Weakness invites aggression and all the key figures in the CWC were arrested, including Kirkwood and the stewards at Parkhead, Arthur McManus and other militants at Weirs. The capitalist press were in full cry, denouncing the anti-war movement, the CWC, socialists generally and anyone arguing against conscription. Over a period of time, the campaign of the press alluded to major figures on the Clyde being in the pay of the Germans. Letters pages were filled with patriotic correspondents condemning the rabble-rousers and traitors. By early 1916, MacLean was being openly accused of being a German spy.
On the evening of 6th February 1916, after MacLean had addressed a large crowd at his usual meeting place in Bath Street, police detained him and he was conveyed to Edinburgh Castle where. On 14th February, bail of £100 (an enormous sum in those days) was posted and MacLean was freed, his trial fixed for 11th April. The press campaign to discredit MacLean went into overdrive. Sensational stories appeared about MacLean and others, Kirkwood, McManus, Shields, Messer, Bridges and Glass among them being involved in a "plot hatched in impenetrable secrecy" and of "vile conspiracy against the state."
Huge demonstrations took place with Glasgow Green a favoured location. Orators like Manny Shinwell, Pat Dollan, Helen Crawford and Jimmy Maxton addressed the mass crowds urging the workers to strike. The Edinburgh court was packed out with hundreds unable to gain admittance. The six counts of indictment were read out alleging to relate to statements MacLean had made in public and at different meetings in January 1916, all likely to prejudice recruitment, to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection among the civil population and to impede the production and transport of war material. MacLean entered pleas of not guilty.
Eighteen police witnesses testified. A Detective Chief Inspector told the court he had arrested MacLean on the instructions of the military. 28 witnesses gave evidence for the defence. The following day, MacLean took the witness stand himself. MacLean wasted no time in declaring himself a socialist and said he had been active in the campaign against conscription. He declared he believed the war was one of capitalist aggression and defence. His attitude was that, if having been attacked by Germany we were bound to defend ourselves, his answer would be that the matter of defence was the business of the capitalists whose interests were more immediately concerned. He said it was ridiculous for anyone to claim he had urged the workers to use guns. "The workers have no guns", he said.
By all accounts, MacLean gave a good account of himself. Nan Milton says that her father expected a guilty verdict and after an hour's deliberation, the jury returned and confirmed his expectations. He was found guilty of four of the six charges against him and sentenced to 3 years hard labour.
Two weeks later, his comrade and fellow working class hero, Edinburgh-born James Connolly led the ill-fated Easter Rising in Dublin. While Connolly languished in Dublin Castle, MacLean was incarcerated in Calton Jail. Connolly was so badly injured in the near week-long battle that he had to be brought by stretcher to Kilmainham jail, where he was tied to a chair and shot by British soldiers. Leon Trotsky, writing in the Russian journal Nashe Slovo, commented: "The Scottish soldiers smashed the Dublin barricades, but in Scotland itself coal miners are rallying around the red banner raised by John MacLean."
That Easter, the Hyndman group was ousted from the leadership of the BSP and MacLean was elected to the Executive for the first time. A campaign was launched for his immediate release. On May Day 1917, over 70,000 marched through the streets of Glasgow in solidarity with the February Revolution in Russia and demanding the release of MacLean. At the end of May, 100,000 marched through Glasgow to Glasgow Green to demand MacLean's release and protest at Lloyd George being granted the Freedom of the City. The workers were quickly recovering their confidence and were once again in militant mood. MacLean was released following an unrelenting campaign in June 1917, having served half his sentence.
The Russian Revolution
Before long, MacLean was back in familiar territory, leading from the front and meeting an exhausting schedule. His weekly classes in Glasgow attracted 500; Govan 100; Lanarkshire 300; and Greenock 125. He made no bones about putting political education at the very top of the agenda. Unforgivably today, this practice has now all but been abandoned in today's "socialist parties". Instead, like Hyndman and his followers, they consider Marxism outdated. In fact, these "theoreticians" are terrified of exposing their members to theory, as it would undermine their authority and expose them for what they really are.
In October 1917, the fantastic news that Lenin and Trotsky had led the Bolsheviks to a successful revolution in Russia against all the odds was greeted with wild scenes of jubilation on the streets of Glasgow. MacLean was reinvigorated and was accorded the great honour of being appointed Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow.
Throughout Britain there was a tangible change of mood. The war seemed never ending and the people looked to the example of the Bolsheviks who had begun the transformation of their society-free of tsarist oppression and a parasitic ruling class who produced nothing, sacrificed nothing and sponged off everyone. On the Clyde, as elsewhere, there were food shortages, back breaking labour for little reward and misery in abundance.
In January 1918 the British Shop Stewards Committee decided to call a national strike. Mass meetings took place with clear indications that the workers were willing to fight, but then at the 11th hour, the engineers balked at the challenge and argued instead for their own narrow interests of the continuing exemption of skilled workers from conscription. Here once more we see lessons to be drawn for serious thinking socialists. On the surface, it would seem that the skilled trades let the mass movement down. But the problem is wider and deeper than that. In Britain, the problem was that there was no mass revolutionary party of the working class, armed with the correct methods and programme. There was no Bolshevik Party here. John MacLean did indeed recognise the need for such a party. In Britain, and on the Clyde, the conditions were present on a number of occasions (the most glaring of which we shall examine later on) for a revolutionary movement to begin, but the revolutionary party with the correct leadership was absent.
The whole of Europe was in revolutionary fervent. Clydeside could have led the way. When the CWC called for a general strike the leaders' lack of confidence and distrust of the working class to fulfil their historic role was evident in a statement they made at the time:
"If only we could be certain that the German workers would follow suit we would have no hesitation in calling for an immediate policy of down tools and damn the consequences. But we are not in touch with our fellow workers in Germany. It may be that they are willing to do the bidding of their warlords."
Within days, 400,000 German workers struck against the war. There were mutinies in the armies, navy and police, and many towns and cities were under the control of workers' councils.
MacLean had been under close surveillance by the British secret service and had been discussed at the highest levels of government. In February 1918, the Commander of the Armed Forces in Scotland submitted a report about the overall situation. He recommended that MacLean was such a danger that the authorities ought to cancel his parole and rearrest him, or arrest him on new charges. Praise indeed for the sterling work MacLean was doing!
During April, MacLean undertook extensive work in the Durham coalfields advocating revolution everywhere he went. Huge crowds turned out to hear him. On his return as he opened his office at 12 South Portland Street, he was arrested, charged with sedition under DOTR Act and held in Duke Street jail to await trial. He was refused bail. For the period prior to his arrest, MacLean had been touring the country calling for a strike against the war on 1st May, traditionally International Workers day. Following his detention, the Glasgow May Day Committee called for the May Day demonstration to be held on 1st May, which was a Wednesday. This was the first time May Day had been held on a day other than Sunday. The capitalist press, who always poured scorn on May Day anyway, ridiculed the idea of holding it on a weekday. The usual glut of letters appeared condemning the selfish workers who only wanted to idle and take the day off. When it became clear that the May Day parade and commemoration would be going ahead, the press called for it to be banned. Over 100,000 workers downed tools, most in defiance of threats over their jobs, to attend the rally. They then marched in solidarity to Duke Street jail in support of John MacLean, who could clearly hear them from his cell.
On the eve of MacLean's trial a band of supporters about 50 in number set out to march the 40 or so miles from Glasgow to Edinburgh. At Bargeddie, miners joined the march and the group arrived in Edinburgh in defiant mood at 8 am. The 9th May 1918 was the day that the so-called independence of the Scottish judiciary was exposed, but it was also one of John MacLean's finest hours. Here was Scotland's greatest socialist revolutionary in the bosom of the protectors of the stinking capitalist system that he so deplored. John MacLean, Marxist, teacher and working class hero commanded more respect from the people of Scotland than 1,000 of their noxious judges. He had more courage and moral fibre than 10,000 of their court officials and lackeys. And he had more intellect and personal integrity than 100,000 of their sycophantic flunkeys and supporters. MacLean seized his opportunity to condemn the capitalist class and shine the torch of truth directly onto its agents. There were 28 witnesses for the prosecution, 15 policemen, 8 police agents, 2 police shorthand writers, a newspaper reporter who had acted on behalf of the police, one mining inspector and a bought-off labourer.
Three police agents gave the evidence pertaining to Glasgow. They testified they had heard MacLean "advocating strikes" and telling crowds "socialists should break through all the laws and establish their own rules and regulations". MacLean, they said, had claimed, "the Clyde district had helped win the Russian revolution..." At another meeting the agents told how MacLean had urged workers to take hostages and take control of the City Chambers, the Post Office and the banks, which would give a lead for others.
When MacLean cross examined the witnesses he showed that only one had taken a verbatim report at the time, one had taken no notes at all and the other made "a few notes on a piece of paper" before writing up his notebook at home. Yet, as MacLean pointed out, all three had given exactly the same evidence. The police evidence continued and predictably, all their accounts were exactly the same.
When the mining inspector took the stand he claimed that MacLean talked about revolution and that this had caused the man such grave concern that he reported it immediately to his employers, the Fife Coal Company. During his cross-examination of the inspector, MacLean asked him if he was aware that the land owned by the Fife Coal Company had been taken by violent force from the people.
MACLEAN: "Do you not object to the present owners holding the land when they had got it violently?"
INSPECTOR: "I might object, but it is a question of how you take it from them. For instance, in answer to a question as to how these things should be got, the question being 'Could we get these things by peaceful means', you said. "I am here to develop a revolution".
MACLEAN: "Do you infer that a revolution means violence?"
INSPECTOR: "You could not have put any other construction on your words after you said that the revolution here was to be on the same lines as in Russia. I understand that the Russian revolution was a violent revolution."
MACLEAN: "It is the most peaceful revolution the world has ever seen and it is the biggest. Don't you know that this war is the most bloody that has ever taken place and that revolution and bloodshed do not go together?"
MACLEAN: "You said it was a 'dangerous speech'. Dangerous to whom, the Fife Coal Company?"
INSPECTOR: "I was a servant of the Fife Coal Company and I was an official. It was my duty to report it."
The labourer also gave evidence regarding this meeting. He took no notes but remembered a few things said. The speech was a bit strong on revolution and likely to unsettle the audience. It could "carry people away, especially the younger people".
MACLEAN: "A canny place Fife?"
MACLEAN: "I should say the last place in which a revolution would take place would be in Fife?"
LABOURER: "It will take some working up from you."
MACLEAN: "Don't you think the war has unsettled the people, that it has an unsettling influence?"
Similar other statements were made by police witnesses and all impeccably corroborated each other.
MacLean called no defence witnesses and intimated he did not wish to go into the witness box, but would make a statement later. The Lord Advocate, prosecuting, said that the prisoner had a long history of violent, revolutionary addresses doing the best he could to create sedition. It was their duty to protect themselves from MacLean unless they wanted to be overtaken by the same catastrophe as had overtaken Russia. Nan Milton more than eloquently states in her 1973 biography of her father:
"Fifty five years of world turmoil and upheaval have passed since then and another, more bloody war has confirmed his darkest forebodings, but the years have added to the depth of his words. Today, the "Holy War" of 1914-18 has been stripped of its glamour. MacLean's statements and prophecies, regarded by many as the ravings of an unbalanced fanatic have been revealed in their historical truth."
The Subjective Factor
In the decades since Nan Milton wrote these words, one can imagine what John MacLean would have to say about today's conditions. The empty commercialisation of every aspect of existence, the inhuman and soulless outlook on life, crude materialism, endless money-grubbing, the destruction of the planet, the rape and plunder of our natural resources and the dog-eat-dog consumerism which turn the working class inside out and lead to despair and madness. In the fourth richest country in the world, one third of our children live in poverty, thousands of our pensioners die every winter because they cannot afford to heat their homes and 12% of society own 90% of the wealth. Over 140,000 Iraqi's have been murdered by Bush, aided and abetted by Blair, in their sickening drive to control that country's oil and secure their strategic interests. The streets of Britain are now awash with the blood of innocents as the people reap the whirlwind of the illegal actions of Bush and Blair. Gangsters are in power in every country in the world, donning the mantle of politicians, plundering the planet and enriching themselves in the process. Three quarters of the world's media is owned and operated by a handful of billionaires systematically brainwashing the entire globe. The vast majority of these specimens avoid paying tax in Britain while controlling and stirring up the mood of "benefit scroungers" and "asylum seekers who claim benefits". To the fore of this deluge of filth and lies is one Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. Rothmere is so patriotic that he registers his companies offshore to avoid tax. Rupert Murdoch, one of the richest men in the world, devises a travel schedule moving from these shores to one of his many other sumptuous mansions, just long enough to avoid being paying any tax. It is low-life like these two-and their pals-who are the real spongers and cheats in Britain and they are starving our schools, hospitals and services. Yet they force their opinions down everyone's throats. John MacLean is not just an historic figure, but his ideas and his politics are more relevant today than they ever were.
MacLean's epic speech at his trial was one of the finest political speeches ever made. As is always the case in projects like these, the question is what to leave out while producing an account that is both useful and worthwhile. The speech itself has been fully produced on many occasions. He used the dock of Edinburgh High Court to attack the barbaric system of capitalism which produces misery for millions, creates the conditions for wars and rips apart the very fabric of society and human relations. (For full text of MacLean's speech from the dock see the John MacLean archive)
"No human being on the face of the earth, no government, is going to take away 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 here then, not as the accused, but as the accuser, of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot."
The jury felt no need to retire, pronounced MacLean guilty and the judge sentenced him to 5 years hard labour.
While MacLean was in prison, the government called a General Election. The BSP were affiliated at this time to the Labour Party and the Gorbals Labour Party selected MacLean as their candidate, in spite of fierce opposition from Labour's national executive. A massive campaign had been launched for MacLean's release and in December 1918, the government panicked, fearing he would be elected to Parliament while a prisoner.
Lloyd George was anxious, "The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses... from one end of Europe to the other", he moaned. He was right. And in the looming crisis the government could not be sure it could call on its trusted servants to crush the working class because the police took strike action in London and Liverpool, while sailors and soldiers mutinied in their thousands.
MacLean, who described himself as a Bolshevik, a Marxist, who advocated that the working class of Britain should take power, firmly believed that Britain was on the verge of the Socialist Revolution. He commanded huge respect and affection among the entire working class. He was courageous, energetic and an outstanding politician. The ruling class and their mouthpieces in Parliament, their hired liars in the press, their slack-jawed servants in the courts, and their lackey's in the army, all knew that following the Russian Revolution there was every chance that there could be a revolution in Britain. So why did it not happen?
The answer is clear. MacLean did not have a Marxist party. He did not even have the base for a party. He could have built some type of organisation; that he didn't was a mistake on his part. That is not to be harshly critical of MacLean. Some of the reasons why no revolutionary party was built, we hope we have outlined. This was not simply MacLean's mistake alone. In fact, if the truth is to be told, only Lenin had a clear idea of the importance of the revolutionary party. That was one of the main reasons for the success of the Russian Revolution.
MacLean's heath suffered greatly in prison. He had refused to eat prison food for fear of being poisoned and had been force fed by the authorities. A rubber hose was rammed down his throat twice a day as prison wardens held him down. When Agnes MacLean saw her husband on a visit to Peterhead prison she was shocked at his physical condition. She wrote to all the socialist papers highlighting this disgraceful state of affairs. Meanwhile, the campaign to have MacLean released continued.
The General Election was approaching and when MacLean was freed on the 3rd December, thousands met him and his wife when the train from Aberdeen arrived in Buchanan Street station. The socialist paper The Call described the event:
"The whole city appeared to be on tiptoe for John's arrival. Everyone was expectant and when the carriage... appeared, from thousands of throats went up in shout Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Immediately followed by the vigorous singing of the Red Flag. It was truly a triumphant entry. MacLean was granted the freedom of the city in a far more real sense than the Lloyd George, when, behind a guard of bayonets, the latter received the burgess ticket at the hands of the Lord Provost."
Short speeches were made, but MacLean was unable to address the crowd as his throat was badly affected, a condition which was to trouble him until the end of his life.
MacLean was not fit enough to participate in the General Election campaign as fully as he would have liked. The government and the press carried out a skilful campaign, flushed by the victory over their German competitors in the capitalist market war. MacLean's opponent in the election, government cabinet minister George Barnes, ran on the slogan: " I am for hanging the Kaiser". Thus, the British war-makers turned the tables on the anti-war movement. MacLean managed to poll 7,436 votes, to Barnes' 14,247.
Nevertheless, workers militancy was still very much to the fore and on the 5th January 1919, the CWC began calling for a 40-hour week in shipbuilding and engineering. More and more men were coming home from the army and needed jobs. The munitions boom for the war effort was also over. MacLean appealed for the entire organised working class to link their struggle with the miners who were themselves planning industrial struggle. The miners were demanding a 30% pay rise, a reduction in the working week and nationalisation of the pits. The struggle of the miners was the key to this period. The mood among them was militant and their leaders appeared to be prepared. In The Call, MacLean who was attending the Miners' Federation conference in Southport, reported: "my good friend Bob Smillie (miners' leader) pointed out at the conference that we could produce enough in less than six hours a day if we are not producing to make millionaires".
Lenin considered MacLean an outstanding revolutionary and when plans were made to form a Communist Party in Britain Lenin was anxious that MacLean should play a leading role in it. MacLean, while defending the Bolshevik Revolution, refused to join the newly formed Communist Party, a grave mistake which prevented him from playing the role he could have played in these crucial years. In spite of his mistakes MacLean remains an outstanding Scottish revolutionary.
Revolution throughout Europe
The entire continent of Europe had been ignited by the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The successful overthrow of the corrupt tsarist regime and the parasitic ruling clique by the Russian workers and peasants had proved that with the proper application of a programme led by revolutionary socialists, backed by a mass party willing to struggle, was not a utopian dream, as had always been claimed by the rulers, but was demonstrably tangible and real.
In Germany, the navy mutinied and turned on its commanding officers, who promptly surrendered. Mass strikes broke out across the country. The Kaiser fled. Soviets (workers' councils) took charge of the running and administration of vast areas of the country. This development spread throughout Europe with revolution forcing regime change in Hungary, Bavaria and Latvia.
Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, was fraught with worry. Overall commander of the British armed forces, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, told the cabinet that he thought, "a Bolshevik rising was likely". He had good cause to draw such conclusions. In January 1919, 20,000 soldiers mutinied at Calais, demanding they be returned home. 10,000 troops at Folkestone refused to return to France and 4,000 demonstrated in solidarity at Dover. Sailors on HMS Kilbride removed the Union Jack and ran up the red flag, forcing the ship's officers to surrender the ship. In early summer the police in Liverpool and London went on strike.
Quite simply, Lloyd George, together with the various heads of the military and the Establishment, had to face the fact that the working class was on the march and revolution was in the air. Worse still from the governments' point of view they could not rely on the police and armed forces to crush the movement. The working class of Europe had taken on board some bitter lessons in the preceding period. Their exploiting masters would happily use them to fight their capitalist wars, offering praise and sycophantic honour, but little else! At a CWC Conference in early 1919 the militant mood among the workers on the Clyde was evident when they put forward their demands for a 40-hour working week.
But the contrast between the Bolsheviks and the forces of the organised workers in Britain could not have been clearer. Lenin and the leaders of the Russian revolution had engaged themselves in years of cadre building, learning important lessons along the way, including the unfinished revolution of 1905. Lenin had built a mass revolutionary party over a period of around 15 years, placing Marxist theory and education as a top priority for Bolshevik members. They sustained the production of revolutionary material in almost totally illegal conditions. The best of the militant workers and intelligentsia increasingly supported the aims of the Bolsheviks in their struggle for a better society.
While MacLean was an enthusiastic supporter of Bolshevism, a powerful advocate for revolution, and the notion that the working class in Britain were capable of seizing power, he did not have a mass revolutionary party to work in. The BSP, while formally adhering to Marxism, contained many of the traits of the sectarian SDF, and its members were prone to syndicalism. In fact, despite his personal influence, MacLean only had a small core of supporters. This weakness is one that should be of the utmost importance to serious socialists who are fighting to change society. Once more, despite the apparent calm under the surface, capitalism and the entire world order is being questioned by large layers of society, and it stands on the brink. In 1919, had a revolutionary party of the working class existed, even on a modest scale, it could have grown quickly and provided the subjective factor which was lacking. As we shall see, even the staunchest defenders of capitalism believed the game was up, as their beloved system collapsed around their ears.
The miners were about to join the struggle and put forward a claim for a 30% pay rise, a reduction in their working hours and nationalisation of the pits. The urgent need for coal meant the miners were in a powerful position. MacLean publicly called for the engineers in the CWC to link their demands and struggle with the miners, in a move that would almost certainly have guaranteed victory. MacLean also saw that such a struggle could push the ruling class to the very edge and begin the revolution in Britain. Unfortunately, the syndicalist leaders of the CWC failed to see the situation in this way. The dispute fell under the control of the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) and the Glasgow Trades Council. Manny Shinwell, then an ILP councillor (and later Lord Shinwell) was chair of the Trades Council. At the earliest opportunity, Shinwell, renowned for his political opportunism, declared, "This movement is not revolutionary in character. It is attributable solely to the fear of possible unemployment." This was music to the ears to the ruling class. The British Cabinet, which was following events, analysed the situation at one of their meetings. Winston Churchill, the Minister for Labour, regretted the rebelliousness in the armed forces.
"Once we had a well disciplined and ignorant army, whereas now we have an army educated and ill-disciplined". Churchill decided that the only option open to the capitalists was "a judicious use of force at an opportune moment". The comments of Shinwell and other working class "representatives" had emboldened the bourgeoisie who actively sought support from the trade union leaders. The more things change the more they stay the same!
Throughout early January, MacLean spoke at rallies in Leigh, Warrington, Liverpool and Glasgow, before taking his regular classes in Glasgow and elsewhere. He then addressed miners in Bellshill, Hamilton, Motherwell and Shotts. 10,000 Lanarkshire miners had just ended a successful unofficial strike demanding the reinstatement Mine Manager Willie Hughes who had been victimised because of his socialist beliefs. On 27th January 1919 the Clyde Workers Joint Strike Committee declared strike action, closing the shipyards and engineering shops and spreading throughout the Central belt. At a mass rally in the St Andrews Hall on 29th January, the striking workers marched to the City Chambers at George Square. A delegation including Davy Kirkwood sought a meeting with the Lord Provost to request the Council's backing for the demand for a 40-hour working week, which would assist in absorbing the newly demobbed service men into employment. Kirkwood asked that the council suspend the city's trams given the large number of strikers congregated in the city centre to reduce the risk of accidents. Some in the crowd scaled the front of the imposing building and fastened a red flag to the flagpole. The Lord Provost, clearly alarmed by the size of the crowd and concerned at the thought of insurgency in Glasgow, immediately contacted London. He was advised to tell the delegation to return on 31st January when he would give his decision. This ploy gave the government the necessary time to deploy troops and tanks to Glasgow. MacLean was not in Glasgow at the time, attending meetings and engagements in Warrington, Cumberland, Whitehaven and then London for an Executive Council meeting of the BSP.
On 31st January, thousands of workers poured into Glasgow City centre expecting the Lord Provost's answer. Nan Milton describes the crowd that day as "exhilarated, like the crowd at a cup final". Hundreds of police lined George Square, many of them on horseback. The delegation was allowed in to speak to the Lord Provost to hear his decision. Outside, Willie Gallacher was addressing the crowd when suddenly mayhem and disorder broke out. By all accounts the police, in an unprovoked attack, charged the crowds and indiscriminately battened and clubbed men, women and children, running over the top of them with police horses. A ferocious battle erupted when the workers had recovered from the attack and there was serious injury sustained on both sides. Kirkwood was battered to the ground and then arrested. The following day, Glasgow was like an occupied war zone with tanks in the streets and armed soldiers on strategic rooftops. The incident had shown the mood of militancy within a mass layer of the working class; it also pointed to the fact that they were willing to struggle against all the forces ranged against them. However, with the short-sighted and narrow outlook of the trade union leaders and the absence of a revolutionary organisation providing leadership, the effort proved futile and a wonderful opportunity was lost. The problem was not the working class but the deliberate blocking of the movement by the strike leaders. As a result the strike petered out.
Over one million miners, organised in the Miner's Federation, had voted overwhelmingly for strike action. Hyper profits during the war, when workers had sweated blood in the cause of their country, meant that the coal owners were willing to grant some concessions to the miners - but nationalisation of the mines was out of the question. Quite happy with state "interference" and support during the war, the wealthy mine owners now wanted a free hand in developing and increasing their lucrative business. The war was over, soldiers and service personnel were returning from foreign lands to mass unemployment. The capitalists knew that such conditions allowed them to drive down wages and conditions. The working class on the other hand had now to face the prospect of continuing their sacrificing for the bosses, or else challenge the capitalism system. The key to this struggle was with the miners. Lloyd George and the government were in a precarious position. With a disaffected army and the country bankrupt, they were at the mercy of the organised working class. As a detour they offered to set up a Royal Commission to look into the nationalisation of the pits and the miners' demands. The leaders of "The Triple Alliance", railwaymen, the transport workers and the miners, met with Lloyd George. It was a crucial moment in working class history. Aneurin Bevan recalled the conversation about the incident with Robert Smillie, the miners' leader:
"Lloyd George sent for the miners' leaders, and they went, so Robert told me, 'truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman.' At this, Bob's eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. 'He was quite frank with us from the outset,' Bob went on. "He said to us: 'Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in The Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied on. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps... In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do,' went on Lloyd George, 'have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and, by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state, which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,' asked the Prime Minister quietly, 'have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?' 'From that moment on,' said Robert Smillie, 'we were beaten and we knew we were'." (Quoted by Rob Sewell, In the Cause of Labour, p.156)
It was a monumental moment in British political history. The ruling classes were admitting to the organised workers that they were beaten. Power was there for the taking. Incredibly, the union leaders refused to take their responsibility and believed they were beaten. They accepted instead a report by the Sankey Commission that placed a subsidy on coal, while the government heaved a huge sigh of relief. A golden opportunity was lost! The union leaders sold the sap to their members without telling the full story and within a few years the government crushed the very same men who had done business with them. This is how the ruling class treats those who compromise! This compliance by workers with the capitalist representatives, whose interests are completely opposed to those who have to work, has now become the norm and history is heavily littered with such deeds of betrayal. Tory leader and astute representative of the ruling class, Bonar Law, said later: "Trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy - without it our position was hopeless."
MacLean and the Communist Party
Ever since the party's foundation, MacLean had remained a loyal and committed member of the British Socialist Party. However, despite its formal declarations, the party had not been built on firm Marxist principles and its leadership was subject to all kinds of influences. EC Fairchild, a political opportunist, won the leadership of the party in 1916 after Hyndman had split away. MacLean had been at the forefront of politically opposing Fairchild, who had adopted a pacifist position over the war. It was clear that the rump around Fairchild were moving away from a revolutionary perspective to one based on parliamentary action to take over the existing state as a vehicle for socialist legislation. Its affiliation to the Labour Party, while not incorrect, was seen more as a "ginger group" on the lines of the ILP. While not opposing in principle standing in elections, MacLean resolutely opposed this shift towards reformism. Today, similar processes have been occurring in the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party, which has abandoned a revolutionary perspective for fear of frightening off their more moderate supporters. MacLean had no arguments with other parts of the BSP's perspectives or orientation. These were to encourage greater unity within the Labour movement and that socialists should stand in elections using them as platforms to bring their revolutionary ideas to the masses.
Lenin considered MacLean an outstanding revolutionary and when plans were made to form a Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Lenin was anxious that MacLean played a leading role in its leadership. In 1919, MacLean's challenge to Fairchild's leadership and his ongoing disagreements with Willie Gallacher, Theodore Rothstein and Colonel Malone, gave rise to all manner of intrigues and rancour within the BSP. Politically, MacLean was head and shoulders above any of his contemporaries. The others, who had little if any theoretical grounding, were trying desperately to break free of their reformist or ultra-left traits. MacLean has been proven largely correct in his appraisal of the main grouping involved in the setting up of the CPGB. Gallacher adopted a brisling ultra-left approach (see Lenin - Left wing communism, an infantile disorder). Malone had no real understanding of Communism, and had been elected to Parliament as a Coalition Liberal in 1918. Rothstein, a refugee from tsarism, had played a certain role in the BSP, left for Russia in 1920 and became Soviet ambassador in Teheran.
At the 1919 BSP Annual Conference, MacLean was refused permission to participate as a delegate and effectively excluded from taking part in the critical debates. MacLean accused Rothstein of conspiring with others to have him secretly expelled from the BSP. In their accounts, both Gallacher and Harry McShane claim MacLean simply left the party; however writings of MacLean at the time suggest he was deliberately isolated. He did, however, simply move on from the incident without staying to fight his corner. This was despite the Communist International specifically requesting "that tendency represented by MacLean" should participate in its ranks.
Tom Bell, in his knowledgeable book, John MacLean, A Fighter For Freedom, which contains an enormous amount of statistics and information about the period, repeatedly refers to MacLean's understanding of the need for a Bolshevik party and his positive qualities. Bell laments the fact that MacLean never personally visited Russia and did not have the opportunity to speak personally to Lenin. MacLean had requested permission through official channels to travel to Russia but was refused by the Home Office. Had MacLean been able to speak to Lenin personally, events may have turned out differently. As it was, MacLean, while defending the Bolshevik Revolution, refused to join the newly formed Communist Party. This was a grave mistake, and prevented him from playing the role he could have played in these crucial years.
In August 1920, when the second Congress of the Communist International was held in Moscow, MacLean was invited and intent on going. However, once again the government denied him a permit and the only option open to him was to travel illegally. He refused to do this because as Consul for the Soviet Republic he felt he should have been able to go unhindered. Gallacher and others dispensed with such niceties and travelled under assumed names. It is a tragedy MacLean did not do likewise, as the Congress and meetings with Lenin, who wanted him to come, would have benefited him immensely.
Unfortunately, this did not happen. On Christmas Day, 1920, MacLean convened a conference in Glasgow with the object of forming a separate Scottish Communist Party. As Bell says, he was influenced in this direction by the independence struggle in Ireland. But this further widened the rift between him and his former comrades.
Isolated and almost certainly affected by his disgraceful treatment, MacLean's hostility toward the leadership of the CPGB increased, especially towards Gallacher, who he described as a clown. MacLean had endured harsh conditions of solitary confinement and penal labour in jail, undergone forced feeding and had been drugged. He lived a most frugal life, barely having enough to eat. In time, his poor wife Agnes could stand it no longer and moved away with their two daughters. MacLean had been slandered and abused by the press and lost his livelihood because of his political beliefs, and yet, he was totally incorruptible, holding to his moral, socialist principles to the very end. He now had to endure slanders from Gallacher who spread stories about MacLean being mentally ill. Was it so bizarre for MacLean to claim that warders whispered outside his cell during long spells of solitary confinement? Was it unreasonable for him to state that agents of the state were infiltrating the working class movements? Clearly not. Today, workers organisations and trade unions are infiltrated by the state. The miner's struggle in 1984/5 provides evidence of this.
However, what must be said here is that John MacLean's isolation affected his ability to think clearly. He had few people of equal standing he could discuss with.
Regretfully, the plaintive reality is that John MacLean, losing his bearings, had great difficulty in adjusting to the conditions around him. The decrease in the struggle on the back of demoralising defeats certainly had their effect. His failure to join the Communist Party along with the best elements was completely out of character. John MacLean's biggest mistake and a massive loss to the working class internationally.
MacLeans' isolation led him to look for other alternatives to the Communist Party. In February 1923, MacLean founded his Scottish Workers' Republican Party and put forward the aim of a Scottish Workers' Republic. He had developed a pessimistic view of the English working class, believing that they were lagging behind their Scottish counterparts in willingness to struggle. He began to think that Scottish workers were more advanced and open to revolutionary ideas. "The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England", he wrote in his Election Address of 23rd November 1923. "Russia could not produce the World Revolution. Neither can we in the Gorbals, in Scotland, in Great Britain. Before England is ready I am sure that the next war will be on us. I therefore consider that Scotland's wisest policy is to declare for a Republic in Scotland, so that the youths of Scotland will not be forced out to die for England's market."
MacLean was barely surviving on a semi-starvation diet, comprising mainly of porridge. Unable to pay his rates to the local authority his furniture and belongings were to be auctioned off in a warrant sale, surely amongst the most perverted laws devised. On 30th November 1923, John MacLean died in poverty and suffering from malnutrition. He was 44 years old. The only overcoat he had ever owned had been given away to someone who needed it more than him. The reverence in which he was held was reflected in his funeral to Eastwood cemetery on Monday, 3rd December, which was attended by 10,000 people.
He was honest to a fault and sincerely believed that the Scottish working class could lead the way in struggle, giving a lead to their English, Welsh and Irish brethren. However, he was wrong. Within three years of his death, Britain was gripped by the biggest industrial struggle of the last century, the General Strike of 1926. It is within this historical context that John MacLean's legacy must be viewed. He had been isolated and disorientated. His once razor sharp mind had been blunted by hard labour and political manoeuvres. MacLean had become very embittered. He searched desperately for a short cut to building a revolutionary party that he knew was missing from the political scene and desperately needed if the workers were to change society. He still managed to attract huge crowds and maintained his capacity as a terrific public orator. He had a core of followers, but with all due respect to these individuals, the best of the Clyde workers had joined the Communist Party.
There are no shortcuts to revolution. This is the mistake of the sectarian groupings and political hotheads over the past century. Many of them see themselves as the vanguard. "We will act on behalf of the working class," they say. But history cannot be rushed. The problem for all of us who would like to change society is that we cannot artificially create the conditions for change, no matter how good our skills. At these times, it is paramount that we patiently explain Marxist ideas to the youth and workers and to educate ourselves in Marxist theory and its methods. We must seek to build a mass revolutionary party capable of succeeding where previous generations have failed. This party must be linked to the organised working class who are organised in trade unions. The struggle must be a class struggle and the eventuality must be to take power out of the hands of the capitalists and bankers and create a workers' state. Unless the working class fulfils their mission in this respect then it will be a straight choice - Socialism or barbarism!
MacLean's death and Legacy
It would take a hard heart indeed not to attempt to understand that MacLean began to look for a new way forward for the revolution he so desperately wanted. In this respect he was as far removed from the Scottish nationalists as the east is from the west. He had argued consistently for the working class to be organised on revolutionary lines. This is certainly not the outlook of a nationalist. MacLean was an internationalist and Marxist to the very fibre of his being.
The 1926 General Strike did not fail because the working class of England and Wales were not willing to fight, but because, once again, the reformist leaders of the trade union movement, both left and right, capitulated and betrayed their class at the crucial times. As Marxists, we set ourselves, together with our British and international comrades, to educate ourselves in the history of the labour movement with the explicit aim of examining past defeats so that we do not repeat them. Our position is at variance with the leadership of the SSP who delude themselves that Scottish workers are more advanced and militant than their brothers and sisters south of the border. They too, with the SNP, have championed Scottish independence and have drawn close to nationalism.
Bourgeois commentators love to tell us "socialism is dead". Socialist ideas have taken a battering over the last few decades. The destruction of the manufacturing large industries has led to a lack of continuity in workplace. Trade union membership has fallen since the eighties. In the last decade or more, Britain has enjoyed a boom, but a boom at our expense. Parasites of every type, bankers, shareholders, speculators and business entrepreneurs have gained most. The media rejoices that days lost due to strikes are at their lowest level for many years. This is all about to change in the next period because underneath the apparent calm industrial waters, movements of tsunami proportions are stirring. The boom has witnessed other phenomena like record numbers of working days being lost due to stress-induced illnesses. The current boom is financed by credit, a manoeuvre, which takes the capitalist system beyond its limits. The vultures give you next month's wages to spend this month! Likewise inflated house prices allow millions to borrow against the equity in their house value and these conditions have fuelled the consumer boom. It will have to stop at some point. The gloating about how well the economy is doing and that we've never had it so good, will be exposed in time as a mirage. Millions will pay the price. Small businesses will be bankrupted, homes will be repossessed, jobs will be lost, interest rates will rise and public services will be slashed. Even more public utilities will be privatised and asset stripped - affordable rented property has already begun the greasy slide into the sewer of private ownership and the politicians are determined (despite all the evidence that it will be disastrous) to privatise council housing, the health service and education. In many cases this process has already started.
While the international terrorists Bush and Blair rampage the globe with the intention of stealing any worthwhile resources, millions are murdered in the process. Their policies have led directly to the terrorist attacks on New York, Madrid, Bali and London. Simultaneously, the governments of the USA and Britain use the fear factor and matters of national security to curb civil liberties, including banning the concept of free speech, detention without trial, Diplock courts and ID cards.
Yet still, the working class refuse to buckle. The British working class are now stirring from their slumber as they recover from the crushing blows of Thatcher and now Blair, which will be continued in the future, probably under Gordon Brown. Socialist ideas are finding a new audience among workers and youth. In this respect we must state clearly that all kinds of reformism and tinkering with the decaying system of capitalism has failed miserably. The entire period following the 2nd world war has now conclusively shown that far from socialism being dead, it is timid appeals to the "human face of capitalism" which have no place in the future of class politics. Every single reform, fought for and won, by our forefathers is now under threat. Nothing is sacred as the ruling class throughout the world try desperately to save their rotting system. The last period shows that reformism, both left and right varieties, has nothing to offer the working class.
As is always the case in these types of projects, there is much more to be said. We have covered what we consider would be interesting for the reader and sought to revive the ideas of John MacLean, not as a misty-eyed accolade, but as a glowing testimony to the man's integrity and contribution. John MacLean was no nationalist and he certainly cannot be claimed by the Scottish National Party as one of their own. Nor can the SSP leaders claim that they are acting in the tradition of and with the authority of MacLean, except to say that they are repeating some of his weak sides and mistakes. John MacLean was schooled, largely by himself, in Marxist theory, philosophy, and history. He was an internationalist and a revolutionary in every sense. He never minced his words or watered down his revolutionary message, unlike the opportunist grouping around today, including the SSP. His November 1922 Election Address was characteristic of the man:
"Electors and Fellow Members of the Wage-Slave Class:
"I stand in the Gorbals and before the world as a Bolshevik, alias a Communist, alias a Revolutionary, alias a Marxian. My symbol is the Red Flag, and it I shall always keep floating on high. For twenty-five years I have been a Socialist and have devoted the best of my energy to convert workers to Socialism and to teach Marx's writings on wealth production and his interpretation of the course and meaning of historical development during that period.
"In 1916 when Jim Connolly saw how things were going in Edinburgh he resolved on the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, the beginning of Ireland's new fight for freedom, a fight that can only end in an Irish Workers' Republic based on Communism...
"In 1919 I started a campaign for a united effort to overthrow British Capitalism by a General Strike, and at my meetings I made public that I had been drugged in prison through my food like other convicts. The Government's reply was the break-up of my family, the blocking my every move through traitors inside the Socialist movement, the attempted ruin of my reputation and loss of my tutorship in the Scottish Labour College (founded by me after my dismissal by the Govan School Board) through the dirty work of that Communist clown, Wm. Gallacher..."
Unfortunately frustrated and isolated in his latter-days he searched for a short-cut to bringing the masses to a revolutionary conclusion. But there are no short-cuts to be found.
John MacLean and countless others have bequeathed us a great legacy which in the first decade of the 21st century is as valid as it was in the first decade of the 20th century. MacLean gave his life and despite his mistakes, has left, along with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky the solid foundations for us to proceed with the building of an alternative, socialist society. The barbaric chaos we are presently witnessing is but the surface of this stinking, inhumane and disastrous system in which we are forced to live.
Today, the wind of change is already blowing in South America, throughout Europe and even inside the trade union movement in Britain. The coming period will be one of tumultuous battles, there will be victories and defeats as workers of all hues take to the road of struggle. We are entering a monumental period in world history. The very survival of the human race could depend on it. It will be an epoch when the working class of the world will have the opportunity to fulfil its historic task and transform society and take what is rightfully ours - "We only want the world".
Sources & Suggested Further Reading:
1. John MacLean by Nan Milton (Pluto Press)
2. Rent Strikes by Joseph Melling (Polygon)
3. Revolt on the Clyde by Willie Gallacher (Lawrence & Wishart)
4. Bolshevism - The Road To Revolution by Alan Woods (Wellred)
5. History of British Trotskyism by Ted Grant (Wellred)
6. Manny Shinwell by Peter Slowe (Pluto Press)
7. A Lost Left - Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism by David Howell (Manchester University Press)
8. John MacLean by Dave Sherry (Pamphlet, a Socialist Workers Publication)
9. In the Cause of Labour - History of British Trade Unionism by Rob Sewell (Wellred)
10. Harry McShane No Mean Fighter an autobiography with Joan Smith (Pluto Press)
11. John MacLean - Educator of the Working Class by James D Young (Clydeside Press)
12. John MacLean Article by Linda McIntyre Socialist Appeal Issue 117 Nov 2003
13. John MacLean - Accuser of Capitalism (Speech from the Dock) (Clydeside Press)
14. The Clydesiders - A left-wing struggle for parliamentary power by RK Middlemas (Manchester University Press)
15. John MacLean - A Fighter For Freedom by Tom Bell (Penguin)
16. Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder by VI Lenin (Pamphlet, Bookmarks)
By the same author:
The Great Miners' Strike 1984-85, A Year of Class Struggle (With Gordon Martin)
Comment of Tony Benn, Former Labour MP, on "The Great Miners' Strike 1984-85, A Year of Class Struggle":
"A truly formidable history of the Miners' Strike interlaced with political analysis which provides a clear framework to help people understand what it was all about. I have filed it in my political archives alongside items I saved at the time. Congratulations."
Kenny McGuigan is a writer and a member of the National Union of Journalists. He has been a socialist for most of his adult life and a Marxist for more than 20 years. He was expelled from the Labour Party in 1989 for his socialist convictions. He is a supporter of and regular contributor to the Marxist theoretical journal, Socialist Appeal and can be contacted at www.marxist.com, or PO Box 17299, Edinburgh EH12 1WS
(A marxist.com supporters' pamphlet Price: £1.50)
- John MacLean, a working class hero - The story of Scotland's greatest revolutionary figure – Part One and Part Two (August 2006)
- John Maclean - agitator, organiser, educator by Margaret McIntyre (November 2003)
- The one weakness of the outstanding Scottish Marxist John Maclean by Ted Grant (November 2003)