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Feared by the government, adored by workers, celebrated by Lenin and Trotsky; the head of British Military Intelligence called John Maclean ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’. The Scottish school teacher and revolutionary, who many thought would defeat capitalism in Britain, is the subject of a new biography by Henry Bell: John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside.

In this blog, Bell examines his work as an organiser and educator and considers what we can learn from Scotland’s most famous revolutionary.

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Even as the Easter Rising was brutally supressed in 1916 and James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by the British, Trotsky was writing that:

‘Scottish soldiers broke down the barricades in Dublin. But in Scotland itself the miners unite around the Red Banner raised by Maclean and his friends. Those very workers… will revenge themselves against the hangman Lloyd George.’[i]

Later, Lenin wrote:

‘the Scottish school teacher and socialist, MacLean, who was sentenced to hard labour by the bourgeois government of England for his revolutionary fight against the war, and hundreds of British socialists who are in jail for the same offence. They, and they alone, are internationalists in deeds.’[ii]

John Maclean would go on to be made honorary president of the Russian and Hungarian Soviets, and be celebrated by comrades including Countess Markievicz, Antonio Gramsci and Sylvia Pankhurst.[iii] Maclean was, during the First World War, one of Europe’s most famous Marxists, Britain’s foremost revolutionary, and the representative of the Bolshevik government in Scotland. The British cabinet feared him to such an extent that twice they freed him from prison due to public pressure, whilst noting that ‘if Bolshevik propaganda is largely put out in this country, Maclean will be leader.’[iv] By 1919, John Maclean was the pre-eminent voice in the British Socialist Party and Red Clydeside, was invited personally by Lenin to represent the British section of the third international and was planning a revolution that would put control of the means of production and distribution into the hands of the people. ‘Let’s Kill Capitalism’ and ‘seize Lloyd George’[v] were his rallying cries.

But one hundred years later Maclean is remembered by few people outwith the Scottish Left and the ceilidh bands that play the John Maclean March. The unveiling of a cairn in his native Pollokshaws and a stamp bearing his likeness in the Soviet Union in 1979 mark the last major commemoration of his life and his final sacrifice for the cause of world socialism.

At his trial for sedition in 1918 Maclean said:

‘The Lord Advocate pointed out here that I probably was a more dangerous enemy that you had got to face than in the Germans. The working class, when they rise for their own, are more dangerous to capitalists than even the German enemies at your gates. That has been repeatedly indicated in the press, and I have stated it as well. I am glad that you have made this statement at this, the most historic trial that has ever been held in Scotland, when the working class and the capitalist class meet face to face.’[vi]

john maclean hero of red clydeside scotland scottish socialist lenin trotsky henry bell communist prison gaol revolutionary revolution forgotten

The red flag is unfurled in George Square in 1919.

The trial is now barely a footnote in our history books, and Maclean’s part in Red Clydeside, the Battle of George Square, the Rent Strikes and the Irish Civil War figure even less. Yet in his speech from the dock Maclean defined the mass opposition to war and imperialism, coined the term ‘the underclass’ and gave perhaps the century’s greatest speech in defence of British and Scottish Socialism.  In that speech Maclean asked for no mercy and declared that:

‘No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.’[vii]

The trial was, in miniature, the class war which Maclean hoped to fight to its logical conclusion. He believed that we must either kill capitalism, or see the working class sent out to die. The century that followed Maclean’s trial has only served to prove his conviction that the unequal economic basis of our society must lead inevitably to unending wars for empire and markets. He argued that whilst it was the job of Marxists to fight for any palliative that might ease the life of the workers, only revolution and the ending of capitalism could bring about peace, prosperity and an end to imperialism. At the end of his life, in an election address written from jail, Maclean declared that a vote for him was a vote to get the homeless back into houses, but that:

‘Only when the world is run by the workers of the world for their own benefit, and not for the benefit of a landlord-Capitalist-Class, will security of livelihood and peace between the nations be obtained. That is Communism. That is why we are Communists. To convert Capitalism into Communism is a Revolution. In that sense we call ourselves Revolutionist.’[viii] 

However it was not the violence that might accompany such a revolution that attracted Maclean, but the violence that could be prevented by revolution. As a young man he had written to the local paper:

‘That the class struggle is bitter we need only reckon the annual death toll of the workers, the maimed, the poisoned, the physically wrecked by overwork, the mentally wrecked by worry, and those forced to suicide by desperation. It is a more bloody and more disastrous warfare than that to which the soldier is used. Living in slums, breathing poisonous and carbon-laden air, wearing shoddy clothes, eating adulterated and life-extinguishing food, the workers have greater cause for a forcible revolution than had the French capitalists in 1789.’ [ix]

And it was for these workers – dying before adulthood as three of his siblings had, and breathing poisonous air as his father had until his work killed him – that Maclean dedicated his life, wholly consuming himself with the class struggle and the liberation of his fellow workers in Glasgow, Ireland, India and Egypt. It was for that dedication that he was so admired, ‘the beloved leader of the Scottish workers’,[x] with tens of thousands lining the streets for him, chanting ‘Victory to the German Revolution, victory to the Russian Revolution, Victory to the British Revolution’ with ‘a volume of sound that the capitalists of Clydeside will often remember in the near future, when they are troubled with bad dreams.’[xi]

And yet now Maclean and those cries are almost forgotten. His health and standing were broken by the British State, his mental stability cast into doubt by the secret services and his life’s work and legacy co-opted and at times supressed by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Maclean is not taught in school, his collected works are out of print, and little has been published on him in the last three decades. In my new biography of the great Scottish Marxist, John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside, I hope both to explore Maclean’s continuing value to socialists, republicans, Scottish nationalists, and pacifists, as well as to help reveal the man who paid such a high price, and put his family through so much, in order to help those who needed bread to go out and take it.

In 1918 Maclean said:

‘I stand loyal to the class which creates the wealth throughout the whole of the world. We are out for life and all that life can give us.’[xii]

One hundred years later the urgency with which he fought for the lives of the oppressed is no less powerful. And the threats of the housing crisis, militarism and rising fascism, are no less present. Maclean’s legacy was obscured because the revolution he worked for came close but never arrived, but its lessons are no less useful in today’s capitalist crisis.

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John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside by Henry Bell is available now.

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Henry Bell is a writer and editor from Bristol. He edits Gutter Magazine. He is the editor of books including A Bird is Not a Stone (Freight Books, 2014) and Tip Tap Flat (Freight Books, 2012).

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[i] Trotsky, Leon, in Nashe Slovo, 4 July 1916

[ii] Lenin, V. I., Collected Works, Volume 24, April–June 1917, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974) p79

[iii] Pankhurst, Sylvia, The Home front, (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1932) p263, and Gramsci, Antonio in L’Ordine Nuovo, 1 March 1925

[iv] National Records of Scotland, HH 16/126

[v] The Guardian, 21 April 1919, p7

[vi] Maclean, John, Speech from the Dock, at the High Court, Edinburgh, May 9, 1918

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Maclean, John, To the Electors of Kinning Park Ward, from Duke Street Prison October 12 1921

[ix] Maclean John in Pollokshaws News, quoted in Milton, Nan, John Maclean, p21

[x] Lenin, V. I., Collected Works, Volume 27, February – July 1918, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974) p483

[xi] Montefiore, Dora in The Call, 12 December 1918, p6

[xii] Maclean, John, Speech from the Dock, at the High Court, Edinburgh, May 9, 1918