Created: Thursday, 09 December 2010 13:04
Written by Michael McGregor
From Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No.146 Dec 1998/ Jan 1999
Seventy-five years ago, on 30 November 1923, John MacLean died from pneumonia at his home in Pollockshaws, Glasgow. He was 44 years of age. He had been at liberty for just over a year, having completed a 12 month sentence for sedition in October 1922. The sentence had arisen from his advice to the unemployed, at a Gorbals street meeting, that they should not allow themselves or their families to starve. The year was 1921 and the unemployed were organising again, marching under the banner of ‘1914-Fight! 1921-Starve!’. Now it was a real question of fight or starve. MacLean had dedicated his life to the fight against the two evils of capitalism and imperialism. His six terms of imprisonment in the living tombs of the Scottish gaol system between 1916 and 1922 were earned by his steadfast and courageous opposition to war and poverty. This record, in itself, is a grim testament to the soulless determination and foul cynicism of a ruling class determined to crush this remarkable revolutionary communist.
Ireland and Scotland, Connolly and MacLean
MacLean was of the same generation as fellow Scot and comrade James Connolly who was to lead the Easter Rising of 1916 against British rule in Ireland. Connolly, born in Edinburgh of Irish immigrant parents, had been active in the labour movement in Scotland and had been a member of the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist organisation, in Glasgow at the same time as MacLean. Connolly was to remark before the Rising that British socialists would never understand what he was doing. MacLean’s subsequent support for Ireland’s struggle against British imperialism shows that he developed a clear understanding of the duty of communists in an imperialist country to oppose and organise against the oppression of other nations, to struggle to make common cause between the Irish and British working class. The pamphlet The Irish Tragedy; Scotland’s Disgrace is a searing indictment of Britain’s rule of terror in Ireland. Published in 1920, it stated that:
‘To any right-thinking person Britain’s retention of Ireland is the world’s most startling instance of a “dictatorship by terrorists”.’
But in April 1916, a fortnight before the Easter Rising, MacLean was sentenced at Edinburgh High Court to three years’ penal servitude for mutiny and sedition, crimes punishable by death. The charges had arisen from a year of defiant anti-war activity as MacLean had declared ‘War against the War-Mongers’. He alone in Britain, was equipped with the theoretical understanding and steeled attitude necessary to begin the process of building working-class unity against imperialism. While MacLean was removed from the struggle at a critical moment, Connolly was executed. The hypocritical calculations of the British ruling class at that moment, the fateful combination of opportunism and state repression and the threatening struggles of the organised and unorganised working class on the Clyde prevented a similar outcome for MacLean.
Ireland and Scotland were critically different. In Ireland the British ruling class faced an organised and armed challenge to their rule; where a section of the working class, in alliance with revolutionary nationalists, went out to declare the Republic. In Scotland, history determined that no similar correlation of forces existed. Despite all the talk of Red Clydeside, the powerful efforts of MacLean to unite Marxism with the spontaneous movements of the working class in a revolutionary direction were frustrated. Why? Other accounts of MacLean’s life and times basically blame MacLean for bad tactics, sectarianism, Scottish nationalism, heedless individualism or prison-induced paranoia. The truth is that, as he stated at one of his trials, he had squared his action with his conscience. Those actions were guided by his intellect. It was a principled Marxist intellect and MacLean was going head-to-head against a murderous ruling class that could only offer the working class years of slaughter, misery and poverty.
What is unarguable is that MacLean was able to clear and secure a space on the Clyde and in Scotland for socialist education, agitation and struggle founded on Marxist principles. His political life and battles contain innumerable lessons for communists today.
Tribune of the people
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Lenin wrote in What is to be done?:
‘...the Social Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary but the tribune of the people who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression...’
From the moment he joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1903 until his death 20 years later, MacLean was involved in a wide range of struggle; educating, agitating and organising. MacLean was inventive, audacious and creative in his approach to many questions. He could not only suggest an effective idea, a new tactic or angle on agitation but would lead it himself. In this period he would march with the unemployed to the churches of the ‘good citizens’ and shame or harangue the Christians into more than their usual pity – hard cash was collected and redistributed. On one occasion, in 1907, he led a demonstration of the unemployed in central Glasgow directly into the Stock Exchange of the Empire’s second city, marching right round the dealing floor and out onto the streets again! From then on the doors of the Stock Exchange were always firmly shut. MacLean wanted them that way permanently!
MacLean and the SDF took up every issue affecting the working class locally; issues of housing, health and hygiene. In 1904, he wrote a pamphlet called The Greenock Jungle, after Upton Sinclair’s novel about the Chicago meat industry, in which he exposed the trade in diseased carcasses among Greenock butchers and the SDF stood municipal candidates calling for councils to directly build and provide housing. Recently a Scottish west-coast butcher was responsible for the world’s worst outbreak of E-Coli and Glasgow’s Labour Council is to dispose of all its council housing stock. New Labour – old capitalism.
In this period too, MacLean demonstrated his brave and audacious attitude to police interference and intimidation. The battle for democratic rights; to speak and to organise, to hold meetings, distribute leaflets and papers is entirely bound up with the battle for socialism. How familiar to socialists and activists is this situation from 1904? The police had refused permission for the SDF to use a central square in Greenock and suggested an alternative away from the crowds. MacLean was having none of it and went ahead in any case; attracting large numbers of folk. The police did nothing.
In 1909, at a conference of the Workers Educational Association, MacLean asked leave to move a motion registering protest at the murder in a Spanish jail of the anarchist, Francisco Ferrer. The chair ruled the motion beyond the scope of the conference but MacLean, undaunted and defiant, led a march of 100 delegates to the Spanish consulate and, from the steps, denounced both the murder and Spain’s colonial war in Africa.
MacLean knew that the state would never tolerate his public speaking and organising against the war when it came. He was the driving force behind the Free Speech Committees, which united socialists, trades councils and progressive organisations in the campaigns for democratic rights during the war years.
MacLean and the working class – socialist organiser
The years leading up to the First World War saw the emergence of workers’ struggles amongst the organised and unorganised sections of the working class in both Britain and Ireland. As a socialist, MacLean threw himself into the struggle for union organisation and for the winning of the immediate demands of strikers, while pointing out consistently the wider aims of socialism. His first direct experience of a strike was, in fact, in Ireland. James Larkin had met MacLean in Glasgow in 1906 while organising the Clydeside dockers. He invited MacLean over the following year to address the Belfast dockers during their struggle for a union. On his return he learned that strikers had been killed and injured by British troops. Snowden, of the Independent Labour Party, defended the Liberal Government’s actions but MacLean, in speeches and writings, called the shootings ‘murder’. Later, Larkin and Connolly were to lead the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union during the Dublin strike and lockout of 1913. This revolutionary union spurned the ‘moderation’ and ‘compromise’ of the official British trade union movement. By contrast, the ITGWU was a fighting organisation with a political programme that included the demand for Irish self-determination. Writing in the Vanguard newspaper of June 1920, MacLean was to state: ‘Ireland’s fight started in 1907 during the Belfast dockers’ strike.’
In Scotland and Britain, despite the traditions of organisation amongst the skilled sections of the working class and the recent waves of unionisation amongst unskilled and women workers, political class-consciousness was barely developed. Individuals and organisations like the Social Democratic Federation worked to get the masses behind them. Sometimes to little avail, as a writer in the first issue of the Vanguard in 1913 bemoaned:
‘What’s wrong with Scotland? Here have we socialists been preaching Socialism for twenty to thirty years till we have everyone converted, or nearly, and yet we can’t get the converts to join themselves onto Socialist branches.’
The struggle for socialism is not an evangelical crusade based on the simple spread of conviction or faith. Every real step forward of the class struggle, which is much more than just a struggle over wages and conditions, depends upon the fusion of the spontaneous struggles of the working class with the revolutionary ideas of Marxism. Every struggle that a socialist gets involved in is towards this aim. Every aspect of organisation is towards this aim. Thirty years before, in 1879, the year of MacLean’s birth, Engels described the British labour movement thus:
‘One can speak of a labour movement here only insofar as strikes take place which, whether they are won or not, do not get the movement one step forward.’
This reality, the fundamental difference between trade union consciousness and revolutionary consciousness has been, and remains, a central issue for communists. It has a basis in material reality which Engels further recognises when he speaks of how ‘the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies’. British imperialism had created an upper layer of the working class, a labour aristocracy, of skilled and relatively secure and privileged workers who directly benefited from the super-profits of imperialism. Though a numerical minority, this layer is able through the trade unions and its Labour Party to dominate, confuse, sell out, scab, ignore and conspire against the interests of the mass of the working class.
MacLean was to confront this phenomenon and its manifestations over and over again. He represented the interests of the majority of the working class against this layer and a revolutionary challenge to the system which sustained it. MacLean recognised and condemned the traitors, the liars, the demagogues, the cowards, the corrupt rogues and clowns who make up the political representatives of the labour aristocracy. But, critically, he was unable to integrate this recognition into a set of principles and tactics with which to counteract and destroy the backward influence of this reactionary social force within the working class. If sheer energy, will-power and commitment could have done it, MacLean would have won through.
Lenin stated that the struggle against opportunism in the working class was central to the development of a revolutionary party and the victory of socialism. How was this to be done?
‘It is our duty, if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the real meaning and purport of the struggle against opportunism.’
MacLean’s consistent political practice fulfilled this injunction. His work with the unemployed and the unorganised workers in unskilled and low-paid employment brought him, as a revolutionary socialist, into direct contact with the real masses.
In 1910 a strike broke out among the women workers at a thread mill at Neilston close by to MacLean. Not for these strikers the trade union respectability of the organised labour movement. With MacLean’s assistance they joined a union and marched off to ‘interview’ the manager.
‘The march, with a great banging of tin cans and shouting and singing, pursued its noisy way from Neilston to Pollockshields, where the respectable inhabitants were thoroughly disturbed.’
This was MacLean’s territory. Further strikes of women and unskilled workers were to follow as living standards were attacked. In 1911 he was to express enormous optimism about the emerging industrial militancy:
‘The times we are living in are so stirring and full of change that it is not impossible to believe that we are in the rapids of revolution.’
That year another strike of women workers took place at the huge Singer Factory on Clydebank. The unorganised men marched out in support but MacLean characterised the refusal of the orthodox trade union members to support the strikers as ‘blacklegging’. The militancy continued. That summer, MacLean visited the miners of the Rhondda Valley in Wales, fighting against lockouts and for a minimum wage. In February 1912, over a million miners were to be involved in the biggest strike so far. Trade union membership had doubled but still only represented a minority of the working class. Militancy ebbed and flowed but hundreds of thousands of workers had experienced strike action during this period. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 meant a sudden decline in the level of industrial militancy. On Clydeside new struggles and forms of union organisation were to emerge and revolutionaries like MacLean had to develop ways of relating to these developments in the conditions of imperialist war. Would the war and the Russian revolution of 1917 alter the balance of forces in favour of MacLean, allowing him to expose, challenge and defeat the opportunist leadership of the working class?
 MacLean, ‘The Irish Tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace’ (June 1920), quoted in Nan Milton, John MacLean (Pluto Press, 1973), p.237
 Lenin, What is to be done? (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), p.80
 ‘J.G’, ‘Socialism and Pluck’ quoted in Milton, MacLean, p.70
 Frederick Engels, letter to Bernstein, 17 June 1879 in Marx and Engels on Britain (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), p.556
 Lenin, ‘Imperialism and the split in socialism,’ Lenin Collected Works: volume 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), p.120
 Description by Jimmy MacDougall quoted in Milton, MacLean, p.50
 MacLean, Speech to Renfrewshire Co-operative Conference, 1911 quoted in Milton, MacLean, p.61