John Maclean’s name remains a byword for radical socialism – he left a lasting impression on the social history of Glasgow and Scotland writes Sean Leadwith

The anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 and the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence makes 2014 a particularly appropriate year to revisit the legacy of one of the greatest revolutionary activists ever seen in the British Isles. John Maclean is a dimly-remembered figure today and regrettably there is currently no collection of his substantial written output in print. It is remarkable therefore that Lenin and the Bolsheviks regarded him as the most significant personality on the British left when they came to power in 1917, as reflected in their appointment of Maclean as an honorary president of the new workers’ state  and their desire to construct a British Communist Party around him a few years later. In the middle of the First World War, Lenin had noted:

“The world working-class revolution began with the action of individuals, whose boundless courage represented everything honest that remained of that decayed official “socialism” which is in reality social chauvinism. Liebknecht in Germany, Adler in Austria, Maclean in Britain—these are the best-known names of the isolated heroes who have taken upon themselves the arduous role of forerunners of the world revolution.”

The three individuals named above would all become honorary foreign presidents of the Soviet Republic shortly after Lenin’s tribute. The comparison with Liebknecht, who would go on to heroically lead the failed German revolution of 1919, is testament to the high esteem in which the Bolsheviks held Maclean. Unfortunately, the British state shared Lenin’s estimation of his revolutionary worth and subjected Maclean to five spells of imprisonment throughout WW1 that ultimately wrecked his health and led to his premature death, aged 44. The punitive actions of the British ruling class ensured that Lenin’s hope Maclean would become the lynchpin of the British Communist Party was not fulfilled.

Second City of Empire

The man who would be dubbed the ‘Scottish Lenin’ by his biographer and daughter, Nan Milton, was born in 1879 when the British Empire was at the zenith of its power.

Maclean’s parents had both been evicted earlier in that century, along with his grandparents, in the brutal Highland clearances, vividly described by Marx in Volume 1 of ‘Capital’. It is quite feasible that acquaintance with this description, encouraged by his mother, would play a role in converting Maclean to marxism in his adolescence.

The family had to join the thousands compelled by rapid industrialisation to make the journey to the poverty-wracked tenements of Glasgow, the city that was evolving into the second city of the empire. Shipbuilding, coal mining, heavy and light engineering turned the Clyde Valley over a few decades into a sprawling epicentre of superprofits and exploitation. When Maclean was nine his father succumbed to an industrial-related illness and over the following years he would witness three of his siblings die in infancy due to chronic privation. Fortunately, his mother was determined at least one of her children would escape the squalor of the tenements and she drove him towards a career in education, motivating him to qualify as a school teacher at the turn of the twentieth century. Maclean became part of a loose group of radical teachers in the city who were committed to not just elevating the attainment of the pupils in their charge, but also to disseminating adult education on a voluntary basis. Not the least of Maclean’s achievements in his lifetime was to secure a reputation as one of the best, and most  in demand, teachers of marxist economic theory active in Britain. Even today, his evening class lecture notes are as good a starting place as any for a beginner in this area.

The SDF years

Maclean also developed a reputation as an outstanding orator and was frequently to be seen outside factory gates or on street corners in Glasgow and cities in the north of England, surrounded by an appreciative crowd. In 1907 he visited Belfast and witnessed the magnificent non-sectarian strike action of that year that briefly united Catholic and Protestant shipyard workers. He also worked closely with James Connolly and James Larkin, the other two outstanding revolutionary socialists active in the British Isles in that era.  His activism led him into the orbit of the first significant marxist organisation in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation. However, the SDF was led by an idiosyncratic figure, Henry Hyndman, who had earlier been castigated by Marx and Engels for plagiarising and trivialising the key elements of their theoretical system. The SDF orientated most of its activity purely to propaganda and failed to grasp the opportunity to organise among the working class that was being presented by the militancy of the ‘Great Unrest’ that preceded WW1. Some Scottish members of the SDF became frustrated with the narrow horizons of Hyndman’s abstract propagandism and split away to form the Socialist Labour Party in 1903. They were motivated by a laudable desire to forge closer links with workers in struggle, but unfortunately adopted  an approach, in reaction to Hyndman’s elitism, that led them to ignore existing unions and try to construct their own rank and file organisations from scratch.

Maclean stayed loyal to the SDF (renamed the British Socialist Party in 1911) but his grassroots activism led him to develop an insightful critique of the two main socialist organisations of the pre-war years. The SDF had neglected trade union activity, while the SLP had failed to emphasise the political dimension of industrial militancy. Both groups were typical of the Second International brand of marxism that dominated contemporary thinking on the left, based on a strict demarcation between economic and political agitation. Maclean, like Lenin and a handful of other international socialists, was inching towards the view that a new type of revolutionary organisation would be required in the near future.


Unlike Lenin, however, Maclean was not equipped with an embryonic  new type of party when the catastrophe of August 1914 shattered the foundations of the international left. The Second International’s increasing separation of trade union and electoral activity inevitably led to its member parties -above all the German SPD-voting to back the militarism of their respective governments and tear up any hope of fraternal solidarity between workers in the belligerent nations. Maclean was stunned by this game-changing betrayal but it did not take him long to recover his revolutionary focus. He was on holiday on the west coast of Scotland when he learned of the declaration of war, but promptly abandoned his break to spend an afternoon chalking anti-war graffiti on walls before heading back to Glasgow for an open air rally!

Nan Milton noted her father’s intransigent reaction to the psychological shock that left many other socialists reeling:

‘When, after the first wave of protest… 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. ..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…Maclean and his supporters conducted an active anti-war campaign through street-corner and factory-gate meetings all over Glasgow.

Class patriotism

Maclean’s analysis of the real nature of WW1 was based on implacable hatred of imperialism and a trenchant re-affirmation of socialist internationalism. The years he had spent teaching marxist theory to others, along with his deep roots in the Glasgow labour movement, had inoculated him against the tide of jingoism that swept Britain in the early months of the conflict. In September 1914 he wrote:

… is our business as Socialists to develop“class patriotism,” refusing to murder one another for 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. Let the propertied class go out, old and young alike, 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.

Maclean’s greatness lies not just in his theoretical clarity, however, but also in his organisational genius. He was quick to grasp that Glasgow’s industrial significance made it a lynchpin of the British war effort, and therefore a strategic location for anti-war agitation. Asquith’s Liberal government enforced the Defence of the Realm Act, wartime legislation limiting the ability of trade unions to negotiate over pay, conditions and productivity. Inflation led to spiralling rents, particularly in the slum housing areas of the city that Maclean himself was all too familiar with. Learning from the combined failings of the SDF and the SLP, Maclean realised the situation in 1915 was the perfect opportunity to merge economic and political activism, and link the struggle against exploitative landlordism with the anti-war movement.

Red Clydeside

The formation of the Clydeside Workers Committee was premised on this dynamic perspective and inspired by Maclean’s insight. By the end of that year, he found himself in the dock, charged with both inciting a rent strike by 30 000 Glasgow tenants and stirring up sedition among conscripts for the Western front. He defiantly declared to the judge:

“I have been enlisted in the Socialist Army for 15 years, God damn all other armies.”

Maclean was forced to accept a five-day incarceration but was triumphantly carried out of court on the shoulders of Clydeside workers to take part in a demonstration of 20 000 supporters. One of Maclean’s colleagues on the CWC noted:

“John’s ability and fearlessness have singled him out as one of the great rebel leaders of our time, and consequently one of the first subjects of prosecution. Our rulers fear Maclean more than they do the whole Labour Party.”

Shortly after, Asquith passed the Rent Restriction Act, marking a spectacular vindication of Maclean’s strategy of using the war to exert economic pressure on the government.

Vengeance of the state

However, he was only part of a minority on the CWC who believed the military conflict could and should be ended by concerted industrial action at home. Other members of the Committee were still under the influence of syndicalist ideas and believed trade union activity should not overlap with political agitation.  There was even a significant number who were pro-war. The divisions  among the leadership of the CWC gave the British state the opportunity to enact its vengeance on Maclean. In 1916, he was arrested again on charges of encouraging sedition and mutiny and sentenced to three years hard labour.

That sentence would not be fully served, however, as early the following year the revolutionary upsurge in Russia swept the tsar from power and triggered a new wave of anti-war mobilisation across Europe. Huge demonstrations erupted in Glasgow, expressing support for Russian workers and demanding the release of Maclean. A giant march of 100 000 in Glasgow   finally forced the government to accept this demand in June 1917. He resumed his anti-war agitation as if he had never been away. A few months later, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war altogether and the whole continent appeared to be on the brink of international revolution.

President Maclean

It was in this febrile atmosphere that Maclean was appointed honorary president of the Soviet Republic as a tribute to his indefatigable anti-imperialism. In the preceding years, Maclean had come to share Lenin’s conviction that state power needed to be conquered by force but repeated persecution by the British state had cut him off from contact with the labour movement and limited his ability to forge an organisation capable of such a task. In summer 1918, the state struck again and sentenced Maclean to five years hard labour in the notorious Peterhead Prison, nicknamed ‘Scotland’s Gulag’.

The accuser

Once again, government fear of public anger led to Maclean’s early release at the end of 1918. The following year saw Britain swept up in the revolutionary wave that impacted across postwar Europe. The campaign by Scottish engineers  for a 40 hour week climaxed in the Bloody Friday riot in Glasgow in February 1919.  This  pre-revolutionary situation was only quashed by de facto military occupation of the city. However, Maclean was not able to influence this opportunity as much as he would have liked as his health had been badly affected by imprisonment and he lacked  a suitable organisation to shape events. The formation of the British Communist Party in 1920 might have provided Maclean with such a mechanism but political rivalries inherited from the CWC mistakenly led him to not participate. This decision would leave Maclean  isolated on the revolutionary left and deprive the CP of potentially its greatest asset. Subsequently ,he came to believe Scottish nationalism could play a progressive role in the wider cause of anti-imperialism and  set up the Scottish Workers  Republican  Party to campaign for independence. The context  is obviously not the same, but Maclean’s rationale for such a strategy is not dissimilar to the Radical Independence Campaign in 2014. In 1920 he declared:

“I hold that the British empire is the biggest menace to the human race…. We on the Clyde have a mighty mission to fulfill. We can make Glasgow a Petrograd, a revolutionary storm-centre second to none. A Scottish break-away at this juncture would bring the empire crashing to the ground and free the waiting workers of the world.”

The memory of Maclean’s  physical and political courage is over-due a renewal in 2014 as the descendants of the ruling class of 1914 try to justify the insane slaughter of WW1. Speaking from the dock at the end of the war, Maclean launched a ferocious attack on the capitalist system that has lost none of its power or relevance :

“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.”

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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