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".
To be continued...
- John MacLean, a working class hero - The story of Scotland's greatest revolutionary figure – Part One (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)