John Maclean: greatest of the Red Clydesiders

SPEECH FROM THE DOCK: “I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot...” – John Maclean

by Bill Bonnar · This year (August 24th) marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of John Maclean. It also marks the 100th anniversary of Red Clydeside yet no memorial to those tumultuous events would be complete without reference to Maclean; the greatest of the Red Clydesiders.

Born in Glasgow in 1879 be became an active socialist from an early age. In 1913 he was a founder member of the British Socialist Party and was active in its predecessor; the British Social Democratic Federation whose leadership included the likes of William Morris and Elenor Marx.

Yet it was his militant opposition to the carnage of the First World War which brought him to prominence and made him a target for the authorities.

In 1915 he was jailed under the Defence of the Realm Act and as a result lost his job as a teacher. In 1916 and 1918 he was arrested again and jailed for sedition.

Open air lectures
After losing his job as a teacher he became a full time Marxist lecturer and organiser founding the Scottish Labour College. His lectures, often held in the open air, became legendary often with hundreds of workers attending.

Internationally his reputation grew and in 1918 was appointed by Lenin as ‘Bolshevik Ambassador for Scotland’.

When the British Communist Party was launched in 1920 largely absorbing the Socialist Party in the process Maclean decided not to join and instead attempted to launch a separate Communist Party of Scotland. Later this would morph into the short lived Scottish Republican Socialist Party.

His years in prison allied to generally poor health took a heavy toll and in 1923 Maclean died of pneumonia at the tragically young age of 44. His funeral was described as the largest ever seen in Glasgow then and now. Much has been made of the decision by Maclean not to join the newly formed Communist Party. After all he was an members of the British Socialist Party which became the CP and was an avowed communist. Yet his reasoning was clear cut.

The British Socialist Party emerged from the British Social Democratic Federation and largely inherited its structure. The key word was here was Federation. The Socialist Party was a fairly loose based organisation with a federal structure in which the Scottish Section had a great deal of autonomy.

The newly proposed Communist Party had a much more centralised structure which Maclean opposed. There was another reason. Most people within the Socialist Party in Scotland where strong adherents of Home Rule for Scotland. This included many who, like Maclean, were advocates of independence and the break up of the imperialist British state.

Most within the wider British Communist Party where hostile to the idea of Scottish Independence in part as a reaction to the rise of nationalist sentiments which helped fuel World War and because they believed it undermined the unity of the British working class. When, in 1921, the majority of the Scottish section of the British Socialist Party voted to join the new Communist Party Maclean left to try an found a Scottish equivalent.

It would be another 70 years before Maclean’s idea about establishing a Scottish based Socialist Party would come to pass. When the Scottish Socialist Party was founded in 1996 it saw itself as the direct heirs to John Maclean.

Like him the SSP unites the twin objectives of socialism and sovereignty around the aim of a Scottish Socialist Republic. Like Maclean the SSP rejects all forms of nationalism embracing instead the internationalism of the international socialist movement.

Imperialist UK
Like Maclean it sees the United Kingdom as an essentially imperialist construct whose demise is in the interests of all workers of Britain. If Maclean was around today he would be at the heart of the independence movement arguing that independence could never be an end in itself but rather a vehicle in the wider transforming of society.

We have just ended the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, For socialists like Maclean the was was the greatest collective war crime in history. A war not between good sides or bad sides; all were as bad as each other. A war in which countless millions of innocent young British, German, French, Russian soldiers et al were slaughtered on behalf of their respective ruling classes.

Maclean exposed this at the time and called for workers to revolt against the carnage.

Scotland has plenty of statues commemorating those who died in particular to the politician and generals who sanctioned the slaughter. Maybe its time for a statue to Scotland’s greatest anti-war hero; John Maclean.

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