John Maclean (Scottish socialist)

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John Maclean MA

John Maclean (24 August 1879 – 30 November 1923)[1] was a Scottish schoolteacher and revolutionary socialist. He is primarily known as a Marxist educator and notable for his outspoken opposition to the First World War. Maclean is regarded as one of the leading figures of the Red Clydeside era.[2] His imprisonment for agitation against the war earned him an international reputation and he was elected an honorary vice-president of the Congress of Soviets and appointed Bolshevik representative in Scotland.[3]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Maclean was born in Pollokshaws, then on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, to parents of Highland origin; his father Daniel (1845–1888) was a potter who hailed from the Isle of Mull and his mother Ann (1846–1914) came from Corpach.[4][5] Raised in a Calvinist household, Maclean trained as a schoolteacher under the auspices of the Free Church and then attended part-time classes at the University of Glasgow, graduating with a Master of Arts degree in 1904. (Maclean often used the letters M.A. after his name when being published).

Political development[edit]

Maclean first came to politics through the Pollokshaws Progressive Union and Robert Blatchford's Merrie England. He became convinced that the living standards of the working-classes could only be improved by social revolution and it was as a Marxist that he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and remained in the organisation as it formed the British Socialist Party.

Maclean was also an active member of the Co-operative movement and it was his prominent role that led the Renfrewshire Co-operative Societies to pressurise local school boards to provide facilities for adult classes in economics.[6]

Marxist educator[edit]

By the time of World War I his socialism was of a revolutionary nature, although he worked with others on the left who were more reformist in outlook, such as his friend James Maxton. He heavily opposed the war, as he felt it was a war of imperialism which divided workers from one another, as he explained in his letter to Forward (transcript).[7]

His politics made him well known to the authorities of the day, and on the 27th of October, 1915 he was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act[8] and Govan School Board sacked him from his teaching post at Lorne Street Primary School.[9] As a consequence he became a full-time Marxist lecturer and organiser, educating other Glaswegian workers in Marxist theory. He would later found the Scottish Labour College.

During World War I he was active in anti-war circles and was imprisoned for his efforts in 1916, but was released in 1917 after demonstrations following the February Revolution in Russia.

Relationship with Russia[edit]

John Maclean on Soviet postage stamp

In January 1918 Maclean was elected to the chair of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets and a month later appointed Bolshevik consul in Scotland.[10] He established a Consulate at 12 Portland Street in Glasgow but was refused recognition by the British Government.[11]

As a revolutionary enemy of what he saw as an imperialist war, Maclean was fiercely opposed to the stance adopted by the leadership of the BSP around H. M. Hyndman. However he was not to be a part of the new leadership which replaced Hyndman in 1916.

Trial and imprisonment for sedition (1918)[edit]

On 15 April 1918, Maclean was arrested for sedition.[12] He was refused bail and his trial fixed for 9 May in Edinburgh. He conducted his own defence in a defiant manner, refusing to plead and when asked if he objected to any of the jurors replying, "I object to the whole lot of them." The prosecution case was based on the testimony of witnesses who had attended his meetings, who quoted extracts from his speeches using notes they had written up from memory after the meeting. Maclean objected to his words being taken out of context, saying. "The main parts of my speech, in which my themes are developed are omitted. I want to expose the trickery of the British government and their police and their lawyers."[13]

This speech from the dock has passed into folklore for the Scottish left. Lasting for over an hour, Maclean's speech began :

Maclean delivering his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’.
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 went on to say:

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.

His speech concluded:

I have taken up unconstitutional action at this time because of the abnormal circumstances and because precedent has been given by the British government. 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. .... 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.

He was sentenced to five years penal servitude, and imprisoned in Peterhead prison near Aberdeen. However, a militant campaign was launched for his release:

"The call 'Release John Maclean was never silent. Every week the socialist papers kept up the barrage and reminded their readers that in Germany Karl Liebknecht was already free, while in 'democratic' Britain John Maclean was lying in a prison cell being forcibly fed twice a day by an India rubber tube forced down his gullet or up his nose. 'Is the Scottish Office' asked Forward. 'to be stained with a crime in some respects even more horrible and revolting, more callous and cruel, than that which the Governors of Ireland perpetrated on the shattered body of James Connolly?' "[14]

Following the armistice on 11 November, he was released on 3 December 1918, returning to Glasgow to a tumultuous welcome.

11 days later he was the official Labour Party candidate at the general election in Glasgow Gorbals; he won a respectable vote but failed to unseat the sitting MP, a former Labour MP who had defected to support for Lloyd George's coalition government.

Formation of the Communist Party[edit]

As the BSP was the main constituent organisation which merged into the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain, Maclean was alienated from the new party despite his support for the Communist International. He developed a belief that workers in Scotland could develop in a revolutionary direction more swiftly than their comrades in England and Wales, and attempted to found a Scottish Communist Party. This grouping renamed itself the Communist Labour Party and dropped Maclean's distinctive positions, so he left in disgust. He attempted to found a new Scottish Communist Party, without success. It seems that he may have become a member of the Socialist Labour Party at this time.

It was around this time that Maclean formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party which combined Communism with a belief in Scottish independence.

Maclean's call for a Communist Republic of Scotland was based on the belief that traditional Scottish society was structured along the lines of "Celtic communism". He argued that "the communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis" and raised the slogan "back to communism and forward to communism".[15]

John Maclean's casket being removed from his Pollokshaws home.

Death and legacy[edit]

His stay in Peterhead Prison in 1918 caused a considerable deterioration in his health, being force fed through hunger strikes.[16] Milton quotes a letter that Agnes, his wife, wrote to E. C. Fairchild (a leading member of the British Socialist Party):

Well, John has been on hunger strike since July. He resisted the forcible feeding for a good while, but submitted to the inevitable. Now he is being fed by a stomach tube twice daily. He has aged very much and has the look of a man who is going through torture... Seemingly anything is law in regard to John. I hope you will make the atrocity public. We must get him out of their clutches. It is nothing but slow murder...[17]

When he died in 1923, aged just 44, his reputation was such that many thousands people lined the streets of Glasgow to see his funeral procession pass. In the intervening time Maclean's funeral has become known as the largest Glasgow ever saw. He left a legacy that has subsequently been claimed by both the Scottish Nationalist and Labour movements, making him rare in this respect amongst Scotland's historical figures. The modern Scottish Socialist Party lay claim to Maclean's political legacy, particularly the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement previously a faction (or "platform") within the SSP.

Nan Milton[edit]

Without the tireless work of Maclean's daughter, Nan Milton, the memory of her father might have been lost. It was not just that she helped found the John MacLean Society and served as its Secretary, she made the revival possible. At a time when no one was interested, she copied out all her father's writings from his own and other publications in the National Library and typed them up. That was how Hugh MacDiarmid read his works and then championed his ideas. Her first husband wrote a biography of MacLean and lent the only copy of the ms. to the West Indian Socialist CLR James, who left it on a London Tube train. Nan painstakingly reconstructed it for her own biography. Her devotion was remarkable because she hardly knew her father. He became separated from his wife and family when she was an infant because he had time for nothing except work.

John Maclean in popular culture[edit]

In his poem John Maclean (1879-1923) - written by 1934 but only published later in the 1956 edition of Stony Limits and Other Poems - Hugh MacDiarmid railed that "of all Maclean's foes not one was his peer" and described Maclean as "both beautiful and red" in his 1943 poem Krassivy, Krassivy[18] This was the inspiration for the title of Krassivy, a 1979 play by Glasgow writer Freddie Anderson.[19] Maclean was eulogised as "the eagle o' the age" and placed in the Scottish pantheon alongside Thomas Muir and William Wallace by Sidney Goodsir Smith in his Ballant O John Maclean.[20][21] In 1948, MacDiarmid and Smith (among others) gave readings at a "huge mass meeting" at St. Andrew's Hall in Glasgow, organised by the Scottish-USSR Society to mark the 25th Anniversary of his death.[22]

Maclean is the subject of a number of songs. Hamish Henderson makes reference to Maclean in the final verse of his Freedom Come-All-Ye and his John Maclean March was specifically written for the 25th anniversary memorial meeting.[23] John Maclean was known as "The Fighting Dominie" and this forms the chorus of Matt McGinn's song The Ballad of John Maclean. He is also referenced in several of the tracks on the album 'Red Clydeside' by folk musicians Alistair Hulett and Dave Swarbrick. The Celtic supporters on match days used to sing a song about his release from Peterhead in December 1918. It had the same tune as the Irish rebel song "O'Donnell Abu" and was called "The Day John McLean returns to the Clyde".

The Soviet Union (USSR) honoured Maclean with an avenue in central Leningrad[24] - Maklin Prospekt - which ran north from the Fontanka towards the Moika. It has now, like Leningrad/St Petersburg itself, reverted to its original name, Angliisky Prospekt (English Avenue). In 1979, on the centenary of his birth, the USSR issued a 4 kopek commemorative postage stamp depicting Maclean.[25]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Knox, William, (1984) Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-1939: A Biographical Dictionary (Ed. Dr. William Knox), Edinburgh, 1984, p.179. ISBN 0-906391-40-7
  2. ^ Red Clydeside: Key political figures of the Red Clydeside period
  3. ^ The Times, Thursday, 28 November 1918, "Bolshevist Candidate: Mr. Barnes's Fight at Glasgow"
  4. ^ Aldred, Guy A., John Maclean, Glasgow, 1940, p.17
  5. ^ John MacLean (1974), The war after the war, London: Socialist Reproduction 
  6. ^ Knox, p.181
  7. ^ Maclean, Forward
  8. ^ Strathclyde
  9. ^ McGuigan, "Govan School Board had their excuse to dismiss MacLean from his post as a teacher"
  10. ^ Thatcher, Ian D., (1992) "John Maclean: Soviet Versions", in History Vol. 77, Issue 251, p.424
  11. ^ Aldred, p.21
  12. ^ Milton (1973), p. 164
  13. ^ Milton (1973) p. 168
  14. ^ Milton (1973) p. 179
  15. ^ Maclean, John (1920) All Hail, the Scottish Workers Republic!
  16. ^ [1] John Maclean, Radical Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian University
  17. ^ Milton (1973) p. 178
  18. ^ MacDiarmid, Hugh, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, Volume I, (Eds. Michael Grieve & W. R. Aitken), Harmondsworth, 1985, p.485-487 and 604-605
  19. ^ GCU Research Collections > Publications
  20. ^ Smith, Sydney Goodir, Collected Poems, London, 1975, pp.45-46.
  21. ^ Broom, John, John Maclean, Loanhead, 1973, pp.196-197
  22. ^ Milton (1973), p. 11
  23. ^ Referred to on this page on Scottish music site
  24. ^ Thatcher, p.424
  25. ^ Michel stamp catalog Number.4871

Bibliography[edit]

  • Anderson, Tom, John Maclean MA, Proletarian Press, Glasgow, 1930
  • Aldred, Guy A., John Maclean: Martyr of the Class Struggle, Bakunin Press, Glasgow, 1932.
  • Bell, Tom, John Maclean, Fighter for Freedom, Communist Party Scottish Committee, 1944.
  • Broom, John, John Maclean, Loanhead, 1973
  • Clunie, James, The Voice of Labour, Autobiography of a House Painter, Dunfermline, 1958
  • Knox, William, Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-1939: A Biographical Dictionary (Ed. Dr. William Knox), Edinburgh, 1984, p. 179. ISBN 0-906391-40-7
  • Maclean, John, In the Rapids of Revolution: Essays, Articles, and Letters, 1902-23 Ed. Milton, Nan, Allison and Busby, London, 1978. ISBN 0-85031-175-6
  • McGuigan, Kenny. John Maclean: A Working Class Hero. Wellred Books, London, 2005.
  • McShane, Harry and Smith, Joan, No Mean Fighter, London, 1978. ISBN 0-904383-24-5
  • McShane, Harry, "Remembering John Maclean: Portrait of a Scottish Revolutionary", New Edinburgh Review 19, 1972, p4-10
  • Milton, Nan, John Maclean, Pluto Press Ltd., 1973. ISBN 0-902818-38-4.
  • Ripley, Brian J.; John McHugh. John Maclean. Lives of the Left Series. Manchester Univ Press. 1 December 1989. ISBN 0-7190-2181-2
  • Sherry, Dave. John Maclean. Bookmarks, London, 1998
  • Thatcher, Ian D., "John Maclean: Soviet Versions", in History, Vol. 77, Issue 251, pp. 421–429, October 1992
  • Young, James D. John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist, Clydeside Press, Glasgow, 1992. ISBN 1-873586-10-8

External links[edit]