Posted in Inverclyde Politics, Scottish Politics

John MacLean and Inverclyde

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.

Posted in misc., World Politics

Sacco and Vanzetti

(I was browsing some of our old radio broadcasts recently, and the short piece we did on Sacco and Vanzetti stood out as one of my favourites (clicky). It doesn’t read like my style of writing, so I suspect it was written by one of my comrades in Inverclyde SSP, although I genuinely can’t remember who. I’ve reproduced the script here with the music we played on the radio added at the relevant parts. Hope you enjoy! Beinn

In the South Braintree area of Boston in April 1920, five armed robbers got away with $15,000 from a robbery at a shoe factory.  In the process of the robbery they killed two men.

Over 7 years later, on the 23rd of August 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair by the State of Massachusetts. They had 6 years earlier been found guilty of the two murders, a judgment now accepted as being a miscarriage of justice. In truth, it was not the evidence of the case that condemned these two innocent men to die at the hands of the state; it was a combination of their political views and ethnicity.

Both were immigrants in America, both originally from Italy. And both adhered to a brand of left wing politics that advocated relentless opposition to violent and oppressive governments. Then, as now, the government of the USA met those criteria.  All attempts to appeal the conviction were denied, despite serious doubts over the reliability of the evidence and even a confession by another more likely perpetrator. By 1925 the case had generated an international movement, which continued to grow as details of the case against the men and their probable innocence spread. In 1927, protests demanding they be saved from the electric chair were held in every major city in North America and Europe, as well as cities in Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.

It would not be until 50 years after their wrongful execution that the American establishment would try to cleanse itself of this injustice, when in 1977 a proclamation was issued that the men had been unfairly convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”.  

Woody Guthrie, I Just Want to Sing Your Name

Nicola Sacco was born in the Italian town of Torremaggiore in April 1891. At age 17 he immigrated to the states where he found work in a shoe factory, got married and started a family.  Bart Vanzetti was also of Italian origin, being born in the town of Villaffalletto on 11th June 1888. When he was 20 he moved to the states where he found work as a fish peddler. Vanzetti was shocked and appalled by the treatment of working class immigrants, and this was instrumental in his becoming involved in left wing politics.  At one gathering of anarchists he met Sacco and the two men became friends, often attending political meetings together.

Like many on the political left, Sacco and Vanzetti were opposed to the First World War, and in 1917 when America entered the war they fled to Mexico to avoid conscription. It was a principled decision, one firmly rooted in their opposition to the imperial war in Europe, but it would be twisted by the prosecution into evidence of their cowardice and lack of patriotism.

The America that Sacco and Vanzetti lived in was changing rapidly. Both men had been able to move to the States due to that countries Open Door policy, which had been designed to make immigration to the States as easy as possible. In the lead up to the First World War, however, there was a shift in American public opinion towards the newcomers. Clear anti-immigration sentiments, and at times explicit xenophobia, started to become commonplace, especially among the more affluent classes.  Catholics and Jews in particular would feel the brunt of this rising resentment.

Racial persecution only intensified when America became gripped by the Red Scare. The collapse of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union worried many of the moneyed classes in America. Anti-communist paranoia and hatred was often directed towards immigrants, especially those from an Eastern or Southern European origin.

The America that Sacco and Vanzetti inhabited was therefore one which hated the two men, on account of both their ethnicity and their politics.

In court Sacco claimed: “I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will be always collision between one and the other. We fraternise the people with books, with literature. You persecute the people, tyrannize them and kill them. We try to educate the people always. You try to put a path between us and some other nationality, to hate each other. That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class. Well, you are the oppressor.”

Sacco and Vanzetti, by Woody Guthrie and David Rovics

At trial, the main evidence used against the men was that they were both carrying a gun when arrested. It was argued at the time, and even as recently as the 1980’s, that ballistics could trace the fatal shots to Sacco’s gun, although it has been agreed by experts that the evidence was so badly handled and tampered with that no judgment of any type can be made based on it. For example, the barrel on the gun had been changed at least once since it was confiscated, and as it is the barrel that leaves the tell tale evidence on a bullet it is therefore impossible to say whether or not this was the gun that fired the fatal shots.

Throughout the trial it became evident that the establishment were going to find the men guilty no matter what. Judge Thayer has been roundly criticised for showing blatant bias and prejudice against the two. At one point Sacco was asked to try on a cap which had been found at the crime scene, a cap  which eye witnesses said had been worn by the murderer but fell off as he made his escape. Those present at the court agreed that the cap was far too small for Sacco, but the prosecution lawyer continued to refer to it as “Sacco’s cap” for the remainder of the trial anyway, and was allowed to do so by Judge Thayer. During questioning it was clear that the two men didn’t fully understand many of the questions put to them, which led to them giving contradictory answers at times. Judge Thayer was well aware that the two men had only a limited grasp of English, but decided to let them incriminate themselves.

Eugene Lyons (a journalist who worked on the case) wrote in his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti, “It was not a frame-up in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a far more terrible conspiracy: the almost automatic clicking of the machinery of government spelling out death for two men with the utmost serenity. No more laws were stretched or violated than in most other criminal cases. No more stool-pigeons were used. No more prosecution tricks were played. Only in this case every trick worked with a deadly precision. The rigid mechanism of legal procedure was at its most unbending. The human beings who operated the mechanism were guided by dim, vague, deep-seated motives of fear and self-interest. It was a frame-up implicit in the social structure. It was a perfect example of the functioning of class justice, in which every judge, juror, police officer, editor, governor and college president played his appointed role easily and without undue violence to his conscience. A few even played it with an exalted sense of their own patriotism and nobility.”

By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Sacco and Vanzetti would be executed. Vanzetti commented to a journalist: “If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all! That last moment belong to us – that agony is our triumph.”

Here’s To You, by Testo Joan Baez