On Friday 30th November 1923 a stunned working class population of Scotland read in their newspapers that their great leader, John MacLean, was dead. He was only 44, but years of selfless toil in the service of the people coupled with the hardships he had suffered during successive terms of imprisonment had seriously undermined MacLean’s health. MacLean’s death was a blow to the working class movement, not only in Scotland, but throughout the world. The esteem in which he was held was reflected at his funeral which was attended by over 10,000 people. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid recalled MacLean with the following words, “Scotland has had few men whose names matter, or should matter, to intelligent people. But of these MacLean, next to Burns, was the greatest, and it should be of him with every Scotsman and Scotswoman to the end of time, as it was of Lenin in Russia. When you might talk to a woman who had been a young girl in 1917 and find that the name of Stalin lit no fires, but when you asked her if she had seen Lenin her eyes lit up and her reply was the Russian word which means both beautiful and red. Lenin, she said, was “krassivy, krassivy”. John MacLean too was “krassivy, krassivy”, a description no other Scot has ever deserved”.
At times it seems like everyone in Scotland claims to be following in the footsteps of MacLean, from the Communist Party on the left to the SNP on the right. This has led many to ask the question, was MacLean a socialist or a nationalist? To those who have studied the man, it is obvious he wasn’t a nationalist. His desire to see Scotland independent was not based on a narrow parochialism, but on a much broader understanding of the necessary eventual failure of the British capitalist class and on a belief in internationalism. In fact, the stand that MacLean took on the topic of Scottish independence in the first few decades of the 20th century are remarkably similar to the stance that the Scottish Socialist Party takes now in the first few decades of the 21st century. While this is now regarded as the obvious moral position of any true socialist, in MacLean’s day it was the opposite and led to many criticisms of the man from people who should really have stood by him. As the referendum has shown, history has proven MacLean to be correct, and so we see many people who were always dismissive of MacLean’s politics on independence (such as the ultra London centric Socialist Workers Party) now try to claim MacLean’s name.
While John MacLean’s legacy belongs to the whole of Scotland, he did of course have a special relationship with Inverclyde, and Greenock in particular. Early in 1908 MacLean issued his first pamphlet, The Greenock Jungle. In this early piece of writing MacLean displayed his characteristic concern for the plight of the working classes and anger at the selfishness and insidiousness of the profit chasing classes. The pamphlet itself was a strong indictment of the slaughterhouse methods and trade in diseased meats that was being carried out in Greenock at the time. This pamphlet was a result of the tireless campaigning MacLean did in Greenock. He could often be found at the gates of the slaughterhouse in what used to be Crown Street, addressing the workers as they arrived for or left work. One such worker is prominent in MacLean’s pamphlet, and I’m certainly interested in finding out more about the person.
The Greenock worker who featured so heavily in Maclean’s pamphlet was a Mr Houston. He plays a central role due to the fact that he was the one who exposed many of the practices being carried out by the owners of the slaughterhouses, which included selling diseased meat for human food. It was a practice that targeted poor people, as any diseased meat would be made into “cheap sausages” for being sold to the working classes. MacLean argued that this was a direct cause of tuberculosis among the working class, and as a result of his campaigning a government inspector was appointed to investigate the slaughterhouse conditions.
Mr Houston deserves further mention for his role in these events. As a socialist, he was fully aware that he was risking his own job by exposing the practices of the slaughter house owners, but he did so anyway as he was driven on by a desire to protect his own class from disease and death. Mr Houston, after 31 years of service, was forced out of work as a result of his whistleblowing. His employer was a broker, who the owners of the slaughterhouses boycotted until they got rid of Mr Houston. When the pamphlet was published, Mr Houston had already been unemployed for 8 months, and MacLean makes an appeal in it to the good people of Greenock to assist in finding Mr Houston new employment. They certainly owed much to him, given his selfless defence of their health to his own detriment. So while the guilty owners continued to enjoy the profits of their enterprises, for only protecting others Mr Houston ended up in poverty. MacLean commented, “Why should the guilty one enjoy such a great privilege, while the innocent one must suffer the worries of unemployment, and the fears and forebodings accompanying the prospect of immediate financial ruin”. MacLean is commenting here on a theme that continues to this day, when we think about the persecution of the likes of Snowden and Manning. I don’t know what eventually became of Mr Houston, if anyone does know I would be delighted to hear from you.
Of course, this affair was not the only time MacLean would visit these parts. We find many references in the history books to MacLean coming here to address the working class. One such reference captures perfectly MacLean’s attitude and enthusiasm for politics. A member of the Scottish District Council recorded, “I stayed with John MacLean and I must say he is the most earnest worker for socialism I have ever met. He has just spent his seven weeks’ holiday preaching socialism in the North of England and Scotland. On my last day he arranged a sail down the Clyde, getting back to Greenock in time to give my last address. After I had left to catch my train to London, MacLean stepped onto the platform and went on with the meeting.”
MacLean also gave up much of his free time to give education to working men and women, and was often giving evening classes in Greenock on the topic of Marxist economics.
For many though, MacLean will always be remembered as a great anti-war hero, and it is probably for this reason more than any that his memory is so dangerous to the British ruling class, to the extent that his name doesn’t even appear in the approved school text books from which our children learn about the first world war. There is as much a need today for MacLean’s message as there was during that terrible war. As we see our country drift closer and closer to militarism, we need those voices who speak out, those who see the working class as more than mere cannon fodder to be used by our imperialist masters in their illegal wars. The poppy, once a symbol of remembrance of all those wasted lives is now being used by right wing politicians as a symbol of British exceptionalism. We have TV adverts from companies such as Sainsbury’s portraying the First World War as a rather pleasant experience. And now we even have the Royal British Legion attempting to sanitise the war by releasing heavily edited versions of an anti war song, The Green Fields of France, which omits any criticism of the war.
What MacLean knew was that, despite the jingoism and propaganda from the British state, the First World War was not fought to keep us safe. It was a war for colonies, for spheres of influence, for markets. In other words, it was a war for profits. A great Scot and contemporary of MacLean said: “If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?” These sentiments were shared by MacLean.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, Britain had seen a great deal of left wing activity, and MacLean was certainly recognised as one of the stalwarts of the left. Between 1911 and 1914 trade union membership had doubled, and Brits were increasingly active in the internationalist socialist circles as well. At the Internationalist Socialist Congress in Copenhagen British socialists were amongst those who agreed that “should war break out, their duty is to intervene to promptly bring it to an end and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination”.
Instead, and much to MacLean’s dismay, when war did indeed break out, many of these same socialists entered their national governments to help the war effort. Leading British socialists, such as Hyndman, actively and enthusiastically supported the war – including speaking on recruitment platforms. While a majority of socialists in the country didn’t sink this low, many did argue that the war could be supported on grounds of defence, to keep us safe from supposed German aggression.
MacLean had no time for either position. He argued right from the start that the war couldn’t be defended on any terms. “Plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is our business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. MacLean was clear that only socialists could bring about an acceptable end to the war. He insisted that a capitalist settlement of the war could only lead to further wars between the capitalist powers. His position stood out like a sore thumb at the time, but has proven to be correct as the settlement reached at the end of that war lead directly to that other great war of the 20th century – the second world war.
When we look back at the First World War through the eyes of the British state and its propaganda machine, the main stream corporate media, we would be forgiven for believing that there was universal and enthusiastic support for the war in the country. We’re told that “conscientious objectors” were widely hated and considered to be cowards. This of course is a complete misrepresentation of history. The war was in fact deeply unpopular with the population, and there were massive anti-war demonstrations all over the country. In fact, the anti-war movement during the First World War was even larger than what greeted New Labour when they made the despicable and illegal decision to take us to war in Iraq. The greatest threat to Lloyd George’s terrorist regime in London was not the German troops, but the anger of the British working class, which in Scotland was lead by MacLean. In order to impose their will and ensure their monarch got his war with his German cousin, the London government had to enact a series of emergency draconian laws to control the workers, which included suspending many civil liberties and making it illegal to strike.
To MacLean they were even more severe. For speaking out against their war, the British ruling class twice had MacLean jailed in Peterhead. The treatment he received while he was locked up was horrendous, he was drugged and force fed, and this time inside had such an adverse affect on his health that it contributed to his early death in 1923. That the ruling class would turn on MacLean is no surprise. He was after all, according to their own head of military intelligence Basil Thompson, the most dangerous man in Britain. Basil Thompson, we now know from declassified documents was involved in a deliberate campaign to smear MacLean by spreading rumours about his sanity.
The British State knew fine well that MacLean was sane, but the British left were only too keen to jump on this particular bandwagon. MacLean stood for an independent Scotland, which has earned him an everlasting vilification by the British left. All the British writing about MacLean declare him to be insane. Even today, the Socialist Workers Party continues to vilify MacLean due to his stance on independence. Their reasoning is easy to understand, as due to their own political bigotry they are unable to view any Scot who does not want to be ruled by London as anything other than insane or fascist or racist. Any slander will do.
While the British left vilified MacLean, to the Scottish left he was a hero. Beyond this island he was held in the highest regard by international socialists. In recognition of his principled stand against the mass slaughter of ordinary people in the First World War the Bolsheviks elected MacLean an Honorary President of the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, along with Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Adler, and Spiridonova, which was ecstatically received on his beloved Clyde; an area which had become known as Red Clydeside due to the likes of MacLean and many others. He became Lenin’s man in Scotland when the Soviet leader ordered that the Russian Consul be handed over to him. He was refused a visa to visit Russia; he could have travelled illegally but decided not to.
It was a tactical error on MacLean’s part and one which only increased his isolation in British politics. As it transpired, a certain Willie Gallagher took the opportunity to meet Lenin which MacLean had passed up. Like other revolutionaries of the period, MacLean hadn’t fully grasped the significance of the Bolshevik Party, even after the October revolution. With the encouragement of Lenin, Gallagher became instrumental in setting up the Communist Party of Great Britain, largely funded by Moscow wealth. The Bolsheviks regarded MacLean as the authentic voice of the revolution in Britain but he never joined the new party, although he remained a convinced revolutionary and supporter of Lenin.
His own party would never enjoy the success that MacLean’s popularity seemed to indicate it should. Party membership never amounted to more than a few hundred, and votes never more than a few thousand. His tactical errors in failing to meet with Lenin or secure funding from the Soviets were fatal to his political career. He continued to campaign for the Scottish working class right up to his death, but sadly left nothing behind in way of a Bolshevik style political organisation.
Rather than fade into political obscurity, however, MacLean remains every bit as relevant today as he was to those countless working class men who were sent to their unnecessary deaths during the Great War, or to Mr Houston whom he personally campaigned for when the bosses turned on him. Today, MacLean’s message about the necessity of revolution appeals to a new generation who are clamouring for real political change.
In May 1918, when facing jail for inciting the workers to transform war into revolution, he made his famous speech from the dock:
“I am not here as the accused – I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot. In the next five years there is going to be a great world trade depression and the respective governments must turn more and more to the markets of the world to get rid of their produce. And in fifteen years time from the close of this war we are into the next war – if capitalism lasts we cannot escape it. My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and they alone, can bring about the time when the whole world will be in 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.”
MacLean stood for internationalism, socialism and independence. That message is relevant now more than ever. We must keep the memory of MacLean alive, to ensure that the message did not die with the man.