Flashback: John MacLean and the First World War

John MacLean

We reprint here a letter written by John MacLean in September 1914 and a report of a speech made by him in December of that year. They show not only that the great Scottish socialist took an unambiguous position against the imperialist war based on an understanding of its real nature, but that he did so from the very first moment. And he did not flinch under the pressure of pro-war public opinion. As his daughter Nan Milton writes in her 1973 biography of her father, 'When, after the first wave of protest, the ILP and the large body of unattached socialists on the Clyde became paralysed with doubt, MacLean stood firm and gave the example that ultimately rallied all the rest.' Nor was his opposition purely literary. When, as his close comrade James D MacDougall later recalled, 'under the shock of the terrible news and in fear of the widespread spontaneous patriotism, we will not say enthusiasm, of the great majority of the people, the ILP 1 retreated from the street-corners, stopped their big Sunday night meeting in the Metropole Theatre and took refuge in their local halls, where they could reach nobody but the converted 2, MacLean and his supporters conducted an active anti-war campaign through street-corner and factory-gate meetings all over Glasgow.

War and robbery

(Letter to Justice, 17 September 1914).

In last week's Justice 3 E. Belfort Bax exhorts us to 'hate the present Prussian military and bureaucratic state system. 'Our first business is to hate the British capitalist system that, with 'business as usual', means the continued robbery of the workers. After that I for one will transfer the larger portion of my hate to Russian soil against the devilish autocracy that prevents the peaceful development of the workers' organisations by organised murder, torture and scientific cruelty, with a regularity and on a scale that would make the Kaiser with all his evils intensified a thousandfold blush with shame.

So far as I can see, it will be impossible to tell whether Russia or Germany is immediately responsible for the war'

Even supposing Germany is to blame, the motive force is not the ambitions of the Kaiser, nor the brute philosophy of the Prussian militarists, but the profit of the plundering class of Germany. Colonial expansion was denied the Germans because the British, the Russians and the French had picked up most of the available parts of the world. What could the Germans do but build up an army and navy that would hold its own against all comers? This it has done steadily for the last generation. It is mere cant to talk of German militarism when Britain has led the world in the navy business. It is merely the 'struggle for existence' on a capitalist, national scale. The inspiration of German militarism comes as much from Darwin and Huxley, and applied by British economists and sociologists against us socialists, as from Bernhardi or any other German apologist of organised murder. Capitalism has neither conscience nor morality when it is brought to bay.

Every interested person knew that Germany's easiest road of entry into France was by Belgium. Sir Edward Grey had only to wait till Belgium's neutrality had been broken to seize the 'moral' excuse for Britain taking up arms. The real reason was that he and his class knew that war between British and German capitalism had to come sooner or later. Now was the day, and Britain struck. Plunderers versus plunderers, with the workers as pawns taking the murdering with right good will. The working class at home is beginning to be starved, and is being buoyed up with the assertion that this is the last great war.

Unless the social revolution bursts forth in Europe at the close of this present murder campaign, Russia will make a bold bid for Turkey, Asia Minor, Poland and a bit of the Persian Gulf area, with Sweden added shortly after that. If its allies try to intervene, we may have another war.

Even should this not happen, we all know that the commercial rivalry of Japan and the US ' similar to that between Britain and Germany ' must lead to a war in the Pacific basin. Canada and Australia will side with the States so that Britain will be dragged in or lose those colonies'

In view of eventualities like those indicated, it is our business as socialists to develop 'class patriotism', refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism. The absurdity of the present situation is surely apparent when we see British socialists going out to murder German socialists with the object of crushing Kaiserism and Prussian militarism. The only real enemy to Kaiserism and Prussian militarism, I assert against the world, was and is German social democracy. Let the propertied class, old and young alike, go out and defend their blessed property. When they have been disposed of, we of the working class will have something to defend, and we shall do it.

The war: its cause and cure

(Report of speech made at a Renfrewshire Co-operative Society conference. Published in The Scottish Co-operator, 4 December, 1914).

The chairman then introduced Mr John MacLean, MA, who was to read a paper entitled 'The War : Its Causes and Cure'. The chairman intimated that whatever opinions might be expressed by Mr MacLean, the council was not to be held responsible for them.

Mr MacLean, in the course of his paper, said that the attitude of co-operators should be such horror of war as would compel them to take steps to eliminate all possibility of its recurrence. They must adapt their environment so as to give opportunity for the full fruition of an all-embracing co-operation. Hitherto the world waste on war or preparations for war had not met with that consideration or discussion in co-operative circles that every form of waste ought rightfully to receive.

He was convinced that there was one fundamental cause of all modern wars. Bearing in mind international episodes during the past ten years, they could not but come to the conclusion that defence or theft of territory had much to do with all modern wars. But territory was not the sole object which nations had in view; coupled with it were the material advantages which today went hand in hand with the ownership of huge tracts of land. Monopoly of colonies for capital investment, for the sale of surplus produce, and for the settlement of surplus population, as well as the extremist exploitation of the native labour, was the steady and increasing force actuating the most civilised and so-called cultured races towards preparation for war and its regular recurrence. Men were not by nature fiends ' not even the despised Germans ' but the struggle for material existence or for material supremacy made fiends of most men. All the great nations of today had followed the lead of Britain in passing from an essentially agricultural economy to an industrial and commercial economy. Capitalism brought in its train machinery driven by vast forces of nature. Capitalist rivalry brought with it the ever-pressing need to revolutionise the methods of production, and it followed that more commodities per worker were turned out ' that more wealth in the aggregate was being created.

Most of them were now convinced, however, that, while prices had risen everywhere, wages had not risen as rapidly. The workers were producing vastly more than formerly and yet were getting in return a diminished quantity of the wealth they formed and fashioned. It was obvious, therefore, that the stores at the command of the capitalist class must be on the increase at a terrific rate. This class was forced to market a growing portion elsewhere in the world, and this was true not only of Britain and Germany, but of every other capitalist country. Experience had shown that colonies gave market advantages to their owners; they also provided the safest park for investments of surplus capital. The surplus of goods produced could not, however, be got rid of as quickly as they were produced, and thus trade depression, unemployment, and industrial unrest arose, and became a political danger to the state, which could best be got rid of by emigration to the colonies. All colonies had been taken by force and must be kept by force. It was therefore by no accident that Britain had the supreme navy of the world, and it was no freak of Kaisers and politicians that other nations had imitated her in the building of ships of war. The economic necessity was the ever-pressing force. Those who tried to delude the people into believing that this was the last war were either fools or knaves, and he inclined to think that there were more knaves than fools. Until capitalism with its growing robbery of the workers ceased, warfare and murder would ever occur.

If this explanation was the true one, it became comparatively easy to suggest the cure. They must get rid of capitalism. Mr MacLean said divergences of view existed as to how this could best be done. Everyone admitted that the various states were the supreme representatives of associated mankind. If peace was to be established, states must be captured by the workers. Once captured, the process of state ownership of the land and the means of production must be proceeded with at the utmost speed, until the creation and distribution of every product necessary for the existence of mankind was in the hands of each respective state. When industries were thus in the hands of the workers, rent and other forms of plunder would cease and capitalism would meet a well-deserved death; national co-operation would logically develop, and national independence would force the respective states to justly exchange their surplus produce; and this would call into existence a world parliament, binding race to race and man to man in one universal co-operative brotherhood. In such a commonwealth it would become transparently clear that the making of munitions of war or the maintenance of a soldier class was sheer, absurd and barbarous economic waste. Consequently, armies and navies must vanish and war, the fiend, disappear'


(1) The Independent Labour Party (ILP), formed in 1893, was an extremely heterogenous left socialist party which played a key role in the creation of the Labour Party, to which it affiliated. Clydeside was one of its strongholds.

(2) Quoted in Nan Milton, 'John MacLean', Pluto Press, London, 1973.

(3) Justice was the paper of the British Socialist Party (BSP) to which MacLean belonged in 1914. It was controlled by a pro-war minority which finally split from the party in 1916. The BSP was the main component of the Communist Party of Great Britain, formed in 1920. This letter was MacLean's last contribution to Justice.