from the International Socialist issue 1, Winter 1998
November 30th, 1998, will be the 75th anniversary of the death of one of Scotland's greatest socialists, John MacLean.
John MacLean was born in Pollockshaws, Glasgow, on August 14th, 1879. He was the 6th of seven children born to mother Ann and father Daniel. Unfortunately three of Ann's children died at birth, as was the sad norm of the day given the primitive medical assistance available. David MacLean died at the age of 43 when son John was only 9 years of age. It presented Ann, Johns, mother, with a task of Herculean proportions to try and feed, clothe and raise 4 children on her own. This struggle for very existence helped shape the political outlook of the young John MacLean.
It is a terrible tragedy that the life of John MacLean does not feature on the curriculum of our schools. Here is a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a world figure on the stage of politics. In a period of time when telecommunications and thus inter-country communications was difficult and inefficient here was a man whose name commanded respect throughout Europe and reached the shores of the world's first workers state in the Soviet Union in 1917. Lenin's Bolshevik government named John MacLean the Bolshevik consul in Britain, a tremendous honour at the time it was bestowed.
John MacLean was to be imprisoned 5 times during his life for political crimes. He was to be released early 3 times on the back of popular pressure. He was subjected to food poisoning, sensory deprivation and earned the title of 'Britains most dangerous man' from none other than Lloyd George, one of the Prime Ministerss in power during his period of political agitations and actions. John's life was cut tragically short when he died at the early age of 44. His body had been so badly battered and bruised during hunger strikes, cold cells, sleep denial and forced feeding through stomach pumps that he eventually succumbed to pneumonia on St Andrews day, November 30th 1923. His life and times deserves the fullest possible analysis, attentions and celebration by all international socialists and indeed any human being who admires the twin pillars of integrity and principle. For John MacLean was a rich source of both, a source who can provide much inspiration, not to mention guidance, to a whole new generation of international socialists today.
It is impossible in a contribution of this size to give only a mere glimmer of the life of MacLean. Several books and pamphlets have been written about him. Personally I would recommend the 1977 collection of writings called "In the Rapids of Revolution' as the most informative and inspiring as it contains MacLeans speeches and articles rather than someone else's commentary. Although his daughter, Nan Milton, does provide an excellent introduction to her father's life in her 1973 account entitled 'John MacLean'.
In early life MacLean was obsessed with education, a trait he later transferred to the heart of the labour movements in Scotland. Although his mother Ann was forced to return to her former trade as a weaver, and John had to take on various jobs to assist the meagre family income, he still found the time, with his mother's encouragement, to read and educate himself. He chose the teaching profession as his goal and satisfied this goal regardless of how difficult it was in those days for a working class boy.
During his studies MacLean discovered Karl Marx. Although most of Marx's writings were unavailable in English at this time his main work, 'Capital' was translated and MacLean studied it and many other articles written in support of Marxian theory and philosophy. Like so many others, then and now, the works of Karl Marx provided MacLean with a logical explanation of society and acted as a set of keys opening many doors to allow understanding of politics. economics, history and philosophy.
Marx studied capitalist society and through his analysis was able to expose the class nature of society and indeed history itself. "The whole history of society has proved that society moves forward as a consequence of an under class overcoming the resistance of a class on top of them", MacLean declared his famous speech from the dock' in the Edinburgh High Court on May 8th, 1918. This was a tremendous condemnation of both capitalism and war and was made in the most intimidating of surroundings and circumstances, standing before the very core of the ruling class bedecked in their wigs and stockings and with the power over MacLean's very life at their disposal. He was charged with sedition. "It has been said that they cannot fathom my motive. For the full period of my active life I have been a teacher of Economics to the working classes, and my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to it's foundations, and must give place to a new society". He proceeded to condemn the carnage and horror of war and said, "on that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention".
The horrible loss of millions of lives during the 1914-18 1st world war served as the backdrop to this famous speech. MacLean brought the reality of war and capitalism into the lion's den of the Edinburgh High Court and refused to be intimidated or coerced in any way. He was eventually sentenced to 5 years hard labour. He served only 5 months. He was released on the back of mass popular pressure, which included strikes, marches, demonstrations and huge public rallies for his release. He was out in time to contest the Gorbals seat as the official Labour candidate in the general election of 1918.
John MacLean joined the Marxist party of his day in 1899. He joined the Social Democratic Federation at a time when the term social democrat was synonymous with Marxism; certainly not it's depiction today. Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald's Independent Labour Party was also attractive to MacLean but he considered himself a Marxist and the SDF of Hyndman, Narin and others was avowedly Marxist.
Throughout the first years of our century MacLean toured Glasgow and Scotland with his interpretation of Marxian economics and class politics. From factory gates to street corners and public parks MacLean's classes became legendary. He also toured England and Wales and encouraged the trade unionisation of industrial workers as much as possible. He spoke to miners, shipyard workers and engineers. He assisted women weavers and developed a tremendous reputation as an incorruptible and committed socialist. Incredibly he also found time to meet and marry Agnes, with whom he had two children, Jean and Nan. Wars put ideas and individuals to the sternest of tests. The theory of class unity and human solidarity is fine in isolation but faced with state-sponsored jingoism and mass propaganda many a socialist has succumbed and lost their bottle. So it was for the bulk of the 2nd International grouping of socialists which contained the best of Europes socialists of the day.
To stand out against war could be very lonely, not to say dangerous. John MacLean did not flinch. He campaigned against the murder of German workers and British workers alike. As well as opposing the war he actively opposed it's many consequences. The super-exploitation of the munitions workers to feed the insatiable greed for profits of the war mongering factory owners. The bloodthirsty private landlords who attempted to take advantage of the increased demand for homes in Glasgow to increase rents. They were decisively beaten by the Rent Strikes of 1915, which led to the Rent Restriction Act of 1916.
MacLean was the perfect socialist role model during this period. Always willing to "dirty his hands" in the most immediate struggles of the day he also missed no opportunity to raise the wider and more permanent solution of socialist revolution.
He strenuously supported the struggles of Irish workers to overthrow the yoke of British imperialism and condemned the over proportionate use of working class lads in the British wars against Ireland and Germany. He learned of the Bolsheviks in Russia and their attempts to overthrow the Tzar and end the war. He became an enthusiastic and articulate supporter. After the 1917 Revolution in October MacLean helped organise the 'Hands off Russia' campaign, His anti-war activities and socialist campaigning had brought him to the attention of Lenin, leader, along with Trotsky, of the Bolshevik Party in Russia. In 1918 MacLean was named the Bolshevik consul in Britain.
From 1918 the question of tactics and strategy for the socialist movement became more complicated. MacLean's SDF had become the British Socialist Party in 1909. On the back of the Russian revolution, however, pressure to create communist parties in every part of the globe grew.
Throughout the years leading to the Communist Party of Britain's foundation in 1921 many heated arguments ensued over the nature and character of a new revolutionary party. MacLean was convinced by now that the best way to assist the world's first worker's government was not merely to assemble communist parties of the same mould and shape, to cheer-lead, but to confront the need for socialism in every other country of the world. In other words, MacLean remained true to his international socialism but saw the best way to assist world revolution was through the revolutionary break-up of the British state and the establishment of a Scottish Worker's Republic.
Some accused MacLean of nationalism and others accused him of being of unbalanced mind. This was the case particularly in Communist Party circles. How else could they explain that this giant of the Labour movement in Scotland was refusing to join the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain. In retrospect the impact of the GPGB and of MacLean could have been even greater had MacLean joined. The need for a united Communist Party at the time was obvious. He was not opposed to the principle of a revolutionary party. He was clearly a Bolshevik and supported 100% the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.
The all-powerful and un-questionable authority of the Comintern became a serious problem for the work socialist movement after Stalin and his cohorts were able to conquer control of the Bolshevik part from Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin wielded the authority of the Comintern to terrible effect in Germany 1923, Spain 1927 Germany again in 1933 and China in 1927 to name but a few of the most significant examples.
John MacLean's final years were spent building his Scottish Workers Republican Party. They campaigned against unemployment and stood in general and municipal elections. Much of their manifesto is still applicable today.
Perhaps the call for a Scottish Workers Republic is even more relevant today than it was in the 1920's. Remember the British Empire was still dominant throughout the world in that period. Being part of that Empire carried material benefits for many workers. As we approach the new millennium that Empire is greatly reduced, almost to the status of America's 51st state. The benefits materially of such a united Britain are much less apparent. The argument for international socialists that the break-up of the United Kingdom and the promotion of socialism in Scotland as part of a socialist "commonwealth" of states throughout Europe and the world is relevant and very potent today.
To stand against an independent Scotland would be to line up with the ruling class and the most conservative layers in our society today. But to support an independent Scotland on it's own in not enough. We must support an independent socialist Scotland, linking ourselves with the struggles of socialists throughout the rest of Britain and the world. Recognizing the futility of an isolated socialist Scotland and therefore the necessity of world socialism. While also recognizing, however, that the most powerful contribution to the crusade for world socialism is the struggle for socialism here in Scotland.
These are arguments we must develop within our movement over the coming months. The legacy of John MacLean and his ideas might just be very useful in the course of that debate. Certainly an attempt to match MacLean's principles, integrity and courage over the coming period would make our movement all the more powerful.
I look forward to the MacLean story on the big screen. It would more than match Collins, Wallace or Malcolm X for excitement content and message. I leave the last words to John MacLean.
"I am a socialist, and have been fighting, and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect and if everyone had done so this war (1914-18) would not have taken place. I act square and clean for my principles. I have nothing to retract. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Your class position (the Judges) is against my class position... my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and only they can bring about the time when the whole world will be one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a reorganisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world."
There certainly was "none like John MacLean, the fighting Dominie".