frontline 9 - flashback

Accuser of capitalism

John Mc Lean, revolutionary Marxist and leader of Red Clydeside, was arrested and convicted three times for his anti war activity. In May 1918 he stood in the High Court in Edinburgh, charged with inciting mutiny and sedition for his anti war activity. He was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Mass demonstrations and protests forced Lloyd George to grant him an unconditional release in December 1918. Below is an excerpt from his speech from the dock.

The full speech can be read at:

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 its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was "Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill", and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together.

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. He (the Lord Advocate) accused me of my motives. My motives are clean. My motives are genuine. If my motives were not clean and genuine, would I have made my statements while these shorthand reporters were present? I am out for the benefit of society, not for any individual human being, but I realise this, that justice and freedom can only be obtained when society is placed on a sound economic basis.

That sound economic basis is wanting today, and hence the bloodshed we are having. I have not tried to get young men particularly. The young men have come to my meetings as well as the old men.

I know quite well that in the reconstruction of society, the class interests of those who are on top will resist the change, and the only factor in society that can make for a clean sweep in society is the working class. Hence the class war. 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. So much for that. I also wish to point out to you this, that when the late King Edward the Seventh died, I took as the subject of one of my lectures "Edward the Peacemaker".

I pointed out at the time that his "entente cordiale" with France and his alliance with Russia were for the purpose of encircling Germany as a result of the coming friction between Germany and this country because of commercial rivalry. I then denounced that title "Edward the Peacemaker" and said that it should be "Edward the Warmaker". The events which have ensued prove my contention right up to the hilt, I am only proceeding along the lines upon which I have proceeded for many years.

I have pointed out at my economic classes that, owing to the surplus created by the workers, it was necessary to create a market outside this country, because of the inability of the workers to purchase the wealth they create. You must have markets abroad, and in order to have these markets you must have empire.

I have also pointed out that the capitalist development of Germany since the Franco-Prussian War has forced upon that country the necessity for empire as well as this country, and in its search for empire there must be a clash between these two countries. I have been teaching that and what I have taught is coming perfectly true. I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech.

No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot. The country has been exploited by the capitalist in every sphere, to get the toilers to work harder to bring victory.

I said at the commencement of the war that while this was being done, and while assurances were being given that at the end of the war the people would get back to normal, I said that circumstances would make such a return impossible. Now I have ample evidence to support that belief; I have used it at my meetings at Weir's of Cathcart, that they were asking the workers to work harder and harder, because there is going to be "the war after the war", the economic war which brought on this war. You see, therefore, the workers are brought into a position where they are speeded up, and they are never allowed to get back again. They are speeded up again and again. What is the position of the worker? This country is not a free country. The worker is deprived of land or access to the land; he is deprived of workshops or access to the materials and tools of production; the worker has only one thing to do in the market, and that is to sell his labour power.

The capitalist purchased that labour power, and when he gets the worker inside the workshop, his business is to extract as much of that labour power out of him as possible. On the other hand, when it comes to wages, then the employer applies the principle of "ca' canny". "Ca' canny" is quite justifiable when it comes to the employer giving wages to the workers, and we have seen it since the commencement of the war. Prices rose right away from the commencement of the war while the workers' wages were kept at the old normal. Their wages were kept low. The purchasing power of the workers' wages was therefore diminished. They were therefore robbed to that extent. At the same time the workers were asked in the name of the country to work harder. "But," said the employers, "we will not give you any more money, although the money you are getting is purchasing less in the way of food, etc." That is the position. The employers are changing their opinions now as a result of experience, but in the past they considered it in their economic interest to pay as low a wage as possible.

On the other hand the position of the workers is to give as little of their energy as they possibly can and to demand the highest wage possible. If it is right for the employer to get the maximum of energy and pay the minimum of wage, then it is equally right for the worker to give the minimum of his energy and demand the maximum of wage. What is right for the one is equally right for the other, although the interests of the two classes are diametrically opposed. That is the position, and in view of the fact that many of the workers have over worked themselves and have had to lie off through overstrain, and considering the treatment they get when thrown on the scrapheap, kicked out like dogs when they are no longer useful -- they are compelled to look after their own welfare. The worker has therefore in the past adopted the policy of "ca' canny", and I have in the interests of the working class advocated the policy of "ca' canny", not because I am against the war, but, knowing that after the war the worker will have the new conditions imposed upon him, I hold still to the principle of "ca' canny". I accede to that.

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 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 is against my class position. There are two classes of morality. There is the working class morality and there is the capitalist class morality. There is this antagonism as there is the antagonism between Germany and Britain. A victory for Germany is a defeat for Britain; a victory for Britain is a defeat for Germany. And it is exactly the same so far as our classes are concerned. What is moral for the one class is absolutely immoral for the other, and vice-versa.

No matter what your accusations against me may be, no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.