John Maclean was a prominent Scottish Marxist who played an outstanding
role in promoting the ideas and cause of Marxism before and after the
Bolshevik revolution. Dubbed the "Scottish Lenin", Maclean worked like
a Trojan to promote the principles of Marxism amongst the working class
of Scotland: at street meetings, pit-heads, work-gates, anywhere
workers would gather. He epitomised the "Red Clydeside" that emerged
after me First World War, and gave a concrete expression to the mass
movement of that time. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for his
revolutionary stand against the war, Maclean became an outstanding
figure-head of the revolutionary movement in Britain. To Lenin, Maclean
was one of the "heroic forerunners" of the Communist International;
when the Bolsheviks took power he was appointed me Russian consul in
Glasgow in January 1918, and as honorary president of the first
All-Russian Congress of Soviets/ along with Karl Liebknecht. In this
way Maclean’s courage and determination will remain an inspiration to
class conscious workers of every generation.
However, Maclean also made a number of serious mistakes in terms of
tactics and strategy. This is not the place for a thorough criticism of
those mistakes. Nevertheless his fundamental error was to succumb to
the pressures of Scottish nationalism. Maclean refused to join the
newly created Communist Party, advocating instead a Scottish Communist
When this failed to materialise he turned towards the idea of a
Scottish Workers’ Republic and the establishment of the Scottish
Workers’ Republican Party. "Russia could not produce the World
Revolution," stated Maclean shortly before his death in November 1923.
"Neither can we in Gorbals, in Scotland, in Great Britain. Before
England is ready I am sure the next war will be on us. I therefore
consider that Scotland’s wisest policy is to declare for a republic in
Scotland, so that the youths of Scotland will not be forced out to die
for England’s markets.
"I accordingly stand out as a Scottish Republican candidate, feeling
sure that if Scotland had to elect a Parliament to sit in Glasgow it
would vote for a working-class Parliament.
"Such a Parliament would have to use the might of the workers to force
the land and the means of production in Scotland out of the grasp of
the brutal few who control them, and place them at the full disposal of
the community. The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland
than in England…"
Thus he lost sight of the long held position of Marxists that there
cannot be a separate struggle for socialism or a workers government in
Scotland separate and apart from that in the rest of Britain. This was
a Utopian idea that John Maclean put forward in the early 1920s – an
idea which was derided by Lenin and Trotsky as fundamentally false.
This unfortunate turn of Maclean towards nationalism, reflected a
frustration with the current political situation. The revolutionary
tide that followed the war began to ebb after 1920. The revolutionary
movement on the Clyde revealed the revolutionary potential of the
Scottish working class. Maclean grew increasingly impatient with the
struggle in England which had teen largely side-tracked by the Labour
and trade union leadership. It was out of this impatience and
frustration that Maclean began to look towards the short-cut of a
socialist revolution in Scotland as an example to the rest of Britain.
This was a fundamentally false perspective. Within a few years the
whole of Britain was shaken by the 1926 General Strike, demonstrating
clearly that a socialist revolution was possible throughout the whole
Our task is not to emulate Maclean’s mistakes, but to learn from them
and inoculate the youth against impatience and short-cuts that could
lead the movement into the swamp of nationalism. Unfortunately it is
precisely John Maclean’s errors that were used to justify the turn
towards Scottish nationalism, albeit hidden behind socialist rhetoric,
on the part of some of the supporters of the Militant newspaper back in
the early 1990s. Alan McCombes, who was later to become one of the
leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party, quoted approvingly a
commemoration to Maclean: "The inscription says: To John Maclean, a man
who forged the Scottish link in the golden chain of world socialism.”
To emphasis the achievement of Maclean as forging the "Scottish link"
is precisely to underline his fatal nationalist mistakes. The whole
tone emanating from the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party
today is "the Scottish working class", "redistribute Scotland’s
wealth", "interests of Scottish workers", etc, etc. This whole emphasis
and slant represents a capitulation to nationalism – despite lip
service to internationalism. The main criticism we would make of the
leaders of the Scottish Socialist Party leaders is that they have
succumbed to the pressures of Scottish nationalism and with it to left
reformism. They are seeking solutions to the problems of the Scottish
workers within the confines of capitalism. They forget that the only
way forward for the working class in Scotland, as in England and Wales,
is to forge the maximum unity of the class – while at the same time
being sensitive to national aspirations – around a programme of
socialist transformation of society.
Without class unity, there is no way forward for the-Scottish workers.
That should be our starting point. Marxists must always set out from
the common interests of the workers of Britain, Europe and the entire
world. They should stress the unity of interests of the workers of this
Island in a common struggle against the common enemy – the Scottish,
English and Welsh capitalists.
This is not for sentimental reasons, but because the economies of
Scotland, Wales and England are indissolubly linked. A separation of
these countries would bring about a disaster for all of them, but the
heaviest price would, as always, be paid by the working class.