This month marks the 80th anniversary of the death of John Maclean.
Maclean was an outstanding figure. He was Britain’s most famous Marxist
propagandist and revolutionary organiser. At great personal cost, he
hailed the Bolshevik Revolution and fought hard to promote the world
socialist revolution. The following article gives a glimpse of his
life, commitment and contribution to the workers’ movement.
"NO HUMAN being on the face of the earth, no government is going to
take away from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong.
I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of
capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot."
This was the challenge issued by John MacLean, the great Scottish
revolutionary, as he stood in the dock at Edinburgh High Court in May
1918, charged with sedition.
MacLean’s real crime in the eyes of British imperialism was urging
workers to follow the Russian example and go forward to a socialist
revolution. Such was the standing of MacLean that the ruling class was
forced to imprison him on no fewer than five occasions.
His revolutionary socialism was recognised by Lenin and Trotsky, who
made him an Honorary President of the first All-Russian Congress of
Soviets, along with other giants of the international socialist
movement such as Karl Liebknecht in Germany.
MacLean is probably best remembered for his leading role in the
war-time upheavals that gave Glasgow and the surrounding area the
nickname "Red Clydeside". In addition there was his pioneering work in
the field of working class education. He explained the teachings of
Marx in language the workers could understand.
At one point in 1919 there were 43 classes with a roll of over 2,000
regular worker students. In addition, open-air meetings in Bath Street
in the centre of Glasgow attracted hundreds and often thousands of
workers, who stood every Sunday night for two or three hours, to listen
to MacLean and other speakers explain the need for socialism.
John MacLean was born in Pollokshaws near
Glasgow on 24 August 1879. At that time Glasgow was a melting pot of
Irish and Scottish victims of the Highland Clearances, (as MacLean’s
parents were), who had been driven from their land by English landlords
to make way for sheep.
These dispossessed elements provided the high concentration of workers
in the "heavy" industries of engineering, ship-building and mining on
the Clyde. These factors, together with seeing his mother struggle to
support a family of six children, after his father’s death of silicosis
at the age of forty-three, led MacLean to become a socialist while
still a young man. In 1903, at the age of twenty-four, he joined the
Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a Marxist organisation. When
MacLean joined, the SDF had just disaffiliated from the Labour
Representation Committee, because the latter had refused to accept
MacLean did not consider this a wise decision and campaigned throughout
the years to get the party to re-affiliate. He saw the need to
orientate towards working class organisations even if their programme
was a little confused.
He threw himself into the work of building up the SDF in the Glasgow
area with an energy and self-sacrifice which was to become legendary.
He organised demonstrations of the unemployed, so that by 1908 the town
council in Pollokshaws were forced to give work to over a quarter of
the town’s unemployed.
And he began his educational work. Along with his evening and weekend
classes, MacLean spent his six week summer holiday (until he was
dismissed from his job as a school teacher), touring Scotland on a kind
of propaganda tour. His pioneering work even took him as far afield as
Lerwick in the Shetland Isles-hardly a hotbed of revolution!
A tribute published at the time in Justice, the paper of the SDF,
claimed that "MacLean does the work of three men" and "Our Mac is a
bonnie fechter!" but warned of the danger to his health if he kept up
such a workload.
MacLean was not discouraged and worked on. He even utilised the 1908
Liberal Education Bill for his workers’ education classes. As provided
by the Bill, he got twenty of the young members of Pollokshaws SDF to
request the local school board for a continuation class in economics.
When this was granted, MacLean was appointed as official tutor.
In the years leading up to the war, with prices rising and living
standards falling, industrial unrest grew rapidly and Marxist ideas
sympathetically received. One incident which illustrates this, was a
strike by women textile workers near the mining village of Nitshill on
The factory employed thousands of local
girls on piece-work rates. Two girls were daughters of socialist miners
and led the demands for better prices. When these were refused the
whole workforce walked out. Completely inexperienced in how to organise
a dispute or trade union, John MacLean had proved to a whole layer of
raw working class youth that Marxism was not for the academics, but a
guide to action in the day to day battles to improve living standards.
The greatest service MacLean did to the international labour movement
in this period was his active opposition to First World War. He was not
a pacifist but saw the war as an imperialist conflict between Britain
and Germany in the interests of capital and not the working class of
either country. MacLean had been horrified when, as war broke out,
so-called "Marxists" in every country each supported their governments
and voted for war credits. This included Hyndman and Blatchford leaders
of his party, the British Socialist Party (the BSP, had been
formed-mainly from the SDF-in 1911). The real Internationalists,
maintaining class opposition to the war, were reduced to a small core:
Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Liebknecht and Luxembourg in Germany,
Adler in Austria, Connolly in Ireland and MacLean in Britain.
MacLean began his anti-war propaganda on the Clyde with his small band
of followers. The majority of the BSP in Glasgow supported his stance.
Because of his differences with the BSP Executive, his final contribution to the party paper Justice appeared at this time.
The article makes MacLean position clear:
"Let the propertied class, old and young, go out 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."
At first he received a hostile reception but, because of its
composition, the working class of Glasgow was never as fervently
patriotic as the rest of the country. They soon grew weary of the war
and the stringent measures taken by the government. They started to
listen to Marxists like MacLean. Action to protect their living
standards soon followed and Britain’s symbol of revolt, "Red
Clydeside", was born.
One of the first and greatest battles was the Glasgow rent strike of
1915. Thousands of munition workers had flooded into Glasgow and, with
housing scarce, landlords pushed up rents. Although munitions workers
were relatively well paid, many tenants were the wives and families of
servicemen fighting overseas and could not afford to keep paying the
The tenants, notably women assisted by anti-war socialists like
MacLean, organised and refused to pay further increases. When one
landlord’s agent came round and attempted to collect the increases, the
woman were roused by the banging of dustbin lids "and plastered the
poor man with flour and pease-meal and by the time the police arrived
he looked like a grain store in disorder!"
Large demonstrations were organised all over
the city, banners flying. One read "My father is fighting in France; we
are fighting Huns at home."
However demonstrations were not enough-they had to be backed up by
industrial muscle. On 18 November, when eighteen workers were summoned
to appear in court for non-payment of rent, ten thousand local shipyard
workers and housewives marched to the Sheriff’s Court.
One contingent stopped off at Lome Street School where John MacLean was
teaching under notice of dismissal. They carried him shoulder high to
the Court to address the crowd. That was MacLean’s last day as a school
He was instructed by the workers to send the following resolution to Prime Minister Asquith:
"That this meeting of Clyde Munitions workers requests the Government
to definitely state, not later than Saturday first, that it forbids any
increases of rent during the period of the war; and that, this failing,
a general strike will be declared on Monday 22nd November."
MacLean never received a reply to his letter, but within a short period
the Rent Restriction Act was introduced, keeping rents to their pre-war
Level. The workers of the Clyde were on the march!
The coming months saw increased action against the Munitions of War and
Conscription Act which took away all the hard won freedoms like the
right to organise and the right to strike. Time and again the
Government was forced to step down when workers refused to co-operate.
The reason for this success was their level of organisation. Under the
guidance of MacLean, shop stewards in the munitions factories and
shipyards formed the Clyde Workers’ Committee, probably one of the
first Shop stewards’ combines ever. Many members were revolutionary
socialists who had learned their Marxism at MacLean’s Sunday afternoon
classes and applied their ideas in the struggle against the government
and the war.
At the end of 1915, Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, decided
it was time to come up to Glasgow and ‘sort out’ the wild men of the
Clyde. He was due to address them in St. Andrew’s Hall on Christmas Day.
Unfortunately for him the Clyde Workers’ Committee commandeered the
distribution of the tickets and packed the hall. When Lloyd George
arrived he was greeted with this massive audience standing up, as one
man, singing verse after verse of the Red Flag as he attempted, without
success, to speak.
By this time MacLean’s Sunday afternoon economics class was regularly
attracting about five hundred workers and his Bath Street meetings many
thousands. The ruling class decided that something had to be done.
On 6 February, on his way home from a Bath Street meeting, he was
seized by the police, taken to Edingburgh Castle as a prisoner of war
and charged with sedition. Despite massive protests from workers on the
Clyde and many witnesses who spoke in his defence, MacLean was found
guilty and sentenced to three years’ hard labour. Protests were made
but it was not until the events of February 1917 in Russia rekindled
the revolutionary fervour on the Clyde that they began to take effect.
Mayday 1917 saw eighty thousand workers on the
march in Glasgow with a quarter of a million more lining the streets
calling for MacLean’s release. A meeting a few days later of many
thousands even called on the workers of the Clyde to follow the example
of their Russian comrades and form Soviets. Terrified of the
consequences if they detained him any longer, the government released
MacLean at the end of June.
When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, MacLean became their
Consul in Glasgow. He addressed many "Hands off Russia" rallies, but
recognised that the best way to consolidate the socialist revolution in
Russia was by spreading it.
He called for the 1918 Mayday demonstrations to take place, not on the
first Sunday of May as were customary, but as a one day general strike
in Glasgow on the first of May. The response was magnificent. One
hundred thousand workers downed tools to march through the packed
streets. Glasgow was on fire with red banners, ribbons, and rosettes.
Unfortunately MacLean was not present to witness the spectacle. He had
been arrested in April as the ruling class sought to stem the
MacLean was to be twice more imprisoned but it was this court
appearance when he proudly claimed the title "Accuser of Capitalism,
dripping with blood from head to foot" which was to go down in the
history books. MacLean’s complete distrust of the capitalists courts
was summed up when he used his right to reject any member of the jury
by saying, "I object to the whole of them!"
A week later he stood as official Labour candidate for the Gorbals in
the General Election (the BSP was now affiliated to the Labour Party.)
Although he did not win he received an excellent 7,436 votes for an
uncompromising revolutionary programme.
The next months saw the last great struggles of the workers on the
Clyde for a forty-hour week resulting in pitched battle with the police
in George Square at the centre of Glasgow. The forces of the state were
used to the full as tanks were brought into the streets of Glasgow and
troops brought in from all over the country. The soldiers in the nearby
Maryhill barracks were not used in case they were won over by the
However the workers were out-manoeuvred and the movement was smashed.
was during these last years of his life that MacLean became mistaken in
the tactics he employed. With the subsequent down-turn in the working
class movement he thought that the best strategy was to fight for
socialism in Scotland, and then spread the ideas to what he considered
the less advanced layers in England and Wales. Consequently he set up
the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party (SWRP) in 1922 and concentrated
his efforts over the next two years in building up its membership and
Although the pace of events slowed down, MacLean worked as hard as
ever, particularly in the educational field and was still considered
dangerous enough by the state to be imprisoned on two further occasions
before his death.
He had intended to stand as SWRP candidate in the 1924 General
Election. In fact his last election address, dated 30 November 1923-the
day he died-was written only ten days previously.
There are enormous lessons to be learned for workers today from MacLean
and the struggles in which he participated. He showed that Marxist
ideas can take root among the working class in a period of crisis if
they are properly explained and that a determined leadership can win
massive support in day-to-day battles against a reactionary government.
But probably the most important lesson of all, because it did not
succeed, is the need to link up industrial struggles with the political
struggle to change society. The Marxists in Britain today have a duty
to work conscientiously in both wings of the Labour movement, so that
an organised Marxist leadership is forged, able to lead the working
class to victory.
Finally, the words of John MacLean as he summed up in his speech from
the dock in 1918 can only serve as an inspiration to Marxists today as
they continue the work to which he devoted his life:
"My appeal is to the working class. I appeal to them exclusively,
because they, and only they, can bring about the time when the whole
world will be one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation.
That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a
reorganisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of
the world get the world and retain the world."