Fifty one years ago a crowd of some 40,000 Scots followed the funeral cortege of the Scottish Marxist and Labour Leader, John MacLean, to Eastwood Cemetery, Glasgow. He had died, aged 44, on St. Andrew's Day, November 30th 1923, broken in health, but not in spirit, of pneumonia. He had suffered hard labour in Peterhead Prison, force feeding and poverty through the loss of his teaching job. Today few Scots remember MacLean, and there is not one volume of MacLean's essays or lectures currently in print. Few people know just what this Scottish patriot stood for, despite being a close friend of James Connolly, and highly regarded by both Lenin and Trotsky. There are few Scots who have had their character so successfully assassinated by the Establishment.
John MacLean was born to Ann and Daniel in Pollockshaws, Glasgow, on August 14th, 1879, the 6th of seven children. His father was from Mull and his mother from Corpach, by Ben Nevis, and he was brought up on stories of the depradations following the Clearances. His father died when he was only 9 years of age, and his mother's struggle to bring up the four remaining children (3 died in infancy) may well have later helped form his political principles.
He qualified as a schoolteacher, having become obsessed with education at an early age, and whilst he had to take several jobs as a young lad, to help increase his mother's meagre earnings as a weaver. Despite this, he found time to study and educate himself to the point where he entered the teaching profession as a young man.
John MacLean joined the Marxist party of his day in 1899, due mainly to his zeal for social justice and also Marx's recognition of the Highland Clearances, a point markedly ignored by the English left. He also devoted himself to teaching working men Marxist economics; and his classes, which he began in 1906, laid the foundation for the Scottish Labour College. He also entered the Social Democratic Federation, and throughout the first years of last century he toured Scotland speaking publicly his interpretation of Marxist economics and class politics. He did this on street corners, outside factory gates, and in parks; he spoke to miners, shipyard workers, engineers, women weavers - anyone whose struggle he considered part of his own. He encouraged membership of trade unions wherever he lectured, and acquired a reputation as a staunch and committed socialist. During this period he also found time to marry his wife Agnes, who bore him two daughters, Jean and Nan.
The First World War brought him into open conflict with the Establishment. He was credited with telling workers at his rallies that if they wanted to fight a Hun, to go and fight the English king. Comments were also made to Ulster Unionists that England was defending Catholic Belgium against Protestant Germany, and using them as cannon fodder. He had a well-developed sense of irony! His denunciations of the war cost him his job, but he continued to campaign against the murder of German and British workers alike. He pointed out the war-mongering and profiteering of the munitions factory owners, and the private landlords who seized the opportunity (whilst their men were at war) to increase the rents in Glasgow. They were decisively beaten by the Rent Strikes of 1915, which led to the Rent Restriction Act of 1916.
He had launched a newspaper, the 'Vanguard', in 1915 but only 5 issues were released before he was arrested and imprisoned for sedition under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). In February 1916 he was arrested for a second time, and on April the 11th was sentenced to three years' penal servitude. He was released 15 months later due to pressure from prominent socialists and mass demonstrations. He supported his friend, Edinburgh born James Connolly, in his struggle for an Irish Workers Republic. Connolly, in the very last issue of "The Workers' Republic," also demanded MacLean's release. A fellow Scot also had a far-reaching effect on MacLean's political thinking. This was Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, a prominent leader of the Gaelic language revival in Scotland, who for years had advocated a Scottish Socialist Republic. Erskine had hailed both the Easter Rising and the Russian Revolution, and had taken an anti-war stance. When the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, MacLean was still in jail. Connolly was judicially murdered on the orders of the British State - shot whilst tied to a chair, as he could not stand due to his wounds. It is said that Labour MP's cheered in the House of Commons on hearing of Connolly's death...
On February the 1st 1918, on Lenin's instructions, MacLean was appointed Consul for Soviet Affairs covering Scotland and England and Wales. Despite harassment by the Special Branch, MacLean did much work to aid Russian political refugees. But the English Government had, at this time, militarily intervened to smash the young Russian Republic, and on May the 9th 1918, MacLean received a sentence of five years' penal servitude for sedition. "The whole history of society has proved that society moves forward as a consequence of an under class overcoming the resistance of a class on top of them", he declared in his famous ‘speech from the dock' in the Edinburgh High Court. This was a tremendous condemnation of both capitalism and war and was made in the most intimidating of surroundings and circumstances, standing before the very core of the ruling class bedecked in their wigs and stockings, and with the power over MacLean's very life at their disposal.
"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 it's foundations, and must give place to a new society". He proceeded to condemn the carnage and horror of war and said, "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 was released on 3rd December the same year following more strikes, rallies and mass demonstrations. He was out in time to contest the Gorbals seat as the official Labour candidate in the general election of 1918.
Throughout the years leading to the foundation of the Communist Party of Britain in 1921, many heated arguments ensued over the nature and character of the new revolutionary party. MacLean was by now convinced that the best way to assist the world's first worker's government was not merely to assemble communist parties of the same mould and shape, but to confront the need for socialism in every other country of the world head on. In other words, MacLean remained true to his international socialism, but saw that the best way to assist world revolution was through the revolutionary break-up of the British state and the establishment of a Scottish Worker's Republic. National Independence formed a prelude to social independence, and the two were basic halves of a democratic ideal.
In 1920 MacLean relaunched "Vanguard." and began to write numerous articles supporting the Irish struggle and urging Scotsmen, as fellow Gaels, not to be used as tools for murdering their brother Gaels in Ireland. During this time he published a pamphlet 'The Irish Tragedy - Scotland' s Disgrace', which sold 200,000 copies. In this he called for a General Strike and for the withdrawal of English troops in Ireland. MacLean addressed meetings on the Irish question in Ireland, Scotland, and England, and continually urged working class support for the Irish struggle. Orange mobs broke up one meeting in Motherwell.
In May 1921 he was again arrested and imprisoned for sedition, serving three months. In September 1921 came yet another arrest, and a sentence of one year. During this time he forced the prison authorities to concede him the status of a political prisoner, something never accorded by England, which refuses political status to obviously political prisoners. He continued to write various pamphlets, such as his famous "Open Letter to Lenin", which attacked his so-called socialist detractors, and in "All Hail, the Scottish Workers' Republic!" he wrote: "For some time past the feeling has been growing that Scotland should strike out for National Independence, as well as Ireland and other lands. This has recently been strengthened by the English Government's intention to rely mainly on Scottish troops to murder the Irish Race. Genuine Scotsmen recently asked themselves the question: 'are we Scots to be used as the bloody tools of the English against our brother Gael of Erin? ' And naturally the instinctive response was - No!"
MacLean went on: "Many Irishmen live in Scotland, and as they are Gaels like the Scots and are out for Irish independence, and as wage earners have been champion fighters for working- class rights. We expect them to ally themselves with us and help us to attain our Scottish Communist Republic, as long as they live in Scotland. Irishmen must remember that Communism prevailed among the Irish clans as among the Scottish clans, so that, in lining up with Scotsmen, they are but carrying, forward the traditions and instincts of the Gaelic race."
Maclean and a few faithful comrades formed the Scottish Workers' Republican Party early in 1923. They began to prepare for an election pending on December the 30th 1923. Hewas standing as a candidate for his Scottish Workers' Republican Party, which was slowly building its strength; but his own strength was, sadly, failing. On November 30th, worn out by his years of struggle, he succumbed.
"We will not see his like again"
John Maclean's March
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