'Hugh MacDiarmid', in a series of three articles in "The Scots Socialist" in 1940 & 41wrote of the difficulty confronting anyone attempting to write a biography of John MacLean. "To do so is to handle lightning... to write such a book would lead one to commit in the name of reality many a sin against left utopianism, for one must report the ridiculous, the inefficient and the reactionary in the Communist movement, as well as its noble, delightful, intelligent and moving aspects'. James Maxton and MacLean's younger daughter both attempted the task, but gave up because they came to the conclusion that they were too personally involved in the turbulent story, MacDiarmid himself had a go, but pressure of work forced him too to abandon the considerable undertaking. Now, after many vicissitudes, and set-backs, the present writer has succeeded in completing a full scale biography which, it is hoped, may soon be published. The following article is intended as a short appetiser.
Son of a Potter
John MacLean was born in Pollokshaws in 1879 the sixth child of a potter, who had been forced to move south from his father's croft in Mull during the hungryforties of the last century. John's mother was also Highland born and bred, and after her husband's premature death from 'potters chest' she brought up herlarge family single-handed. John wrote of this period, "It was the knowledge ofthe sacrifice made and self-denial endured by my mother and sisters to enable me to be educated, that made me resolve to use my education in the service of the workers". Maclean graduated, "M.A.", in 1904 at Glasgow University, and became a teacher of general subjects in various schools under the Govan School Board. But his consuming interest from early manhood was the emancipation of the working classes. By reading Blatchford's "Merrie England", he was converted to Socialism and by "Das Kapital" to Marxism. He felt that in Marxism he had found a philosophy which would put his, as yet unformed, Socialistic ideas on a scientific basis, and give a meaning to his life.
The 'Social Democratic Federation'.
Around 1903 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist organisationfounded by H.M. Hyndman in London in 1880, and swiftly became the principal speaker and debater of the Scottish Branch. Up to the outbreak of the 1914 war he stumped the length and breadth of the country, organising strikes, leading processions of the unemployed and agitating tirelessly for the overthrow of the capitalist economy. In 1911 the 'British Socialist Party' was formed by an amalgamation of the S.D.F. the 'Independent Labour Party', 'The Clarion' groups and various other left-wing societies. H.M. Hyndman was appointed chairman. But there was grave dissention within the new Party, almost from the start, Hyndman and some of his colleagues had become very jingoistic in their ideas, and were calling for a big navy to defend Britain from possible German aggression. They were opposed bitterly by the 'internationalists' within the B.S.P., including of course, MacLean, When war was declared in 1914 the great majority of Socialists everywhere threw their principles, courage and honour to the winds and pledged full support to their native country's cause. Yet, in spite of the great general betrayal there were a few brave men in every land who remained true to their International Socialist faith, including James Connolly and John MacLean in the British Isles.
Anti-imperialism and Imprisonment.
From the beginning MacLean never doubted for a second that the war wasbasically an imperialist struggle for markets and as such totally wrong. By hisexample, he inspired the converted and strengthened the waverers. The B.S.P.party organ, 'Justice', which was controlled by the Hyndman faction was violently pro-war from the start, and after September 1914 all articles by MacLean were banned. To counteract the influence of 'Justice', MacLean in 1915, launched a vigorous anti-war periodical of his own which he called, like those who have initiated the present brave venture, "The Vanguard". In October, 1915, MacLeanwas arrested and charged with making speeches likely to prejudice recruiting. In particular he was alleged to have said, "I have been enlisted in the Socialist Army - God damn all other armies". After his trial he was convicted and sent to prison for five days after refusing to pay a £5 fine. At the same time he was dismissed as a teacher, by the Govan School Board, ostensibly for insubordination. Freed now from school duties, MacLean threw all his energies into the anti-war struggle. But the Government were now prepared to go to any length to curb the Clyde "wild men'. Early in 1916 The Glasgow "Forward", (then edited by Tom Johnston), MacLean's "Vanguard" and the newly established "Clyde Worker" were suppressed. MacLean was arrested again in February and charged with sedition. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He suffered considerably, but as a result of tremendous working-class agitation, he was released after fourteen months.
"Is labouring according to true principles for our country we are labouring for humanity; Our country is the fulcram of the lever which we have to wield for the common good". (Mazzini)
The Great Russian Revolution, November 1917
The Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 filled Socialists everywhere with the hope that a world-wide workers' uprising
against capitalism was at hand. But nowhere was the jubilation more intense than on the 'Red Clyde', Lenin, early in 1918
appointed MacLean as the first Bolshevik Consul in Scotland, But he had barelystarted on his duties when he was once more arrested for seditious activity andconvicted. This time he got five years. During this trial he delivered his famous speech from the dock, containing the words,"! come here, not as the accusedbut the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot". The armistice in 1918 cut short this sentence, but MacLean's health had been gravely affected. He had been on hunger strike for some months, as he believed his food was being drugged. However, he stood for Labour in the Gorbals at the General Election in December, and, although well beaten by the Coalition candidate, George Barnes, he polled nearly 7,500 votes. In the years following the armistice MacLean continued to fight unceasingly on behalf of the down-trodden. Unemployment loomed large after 'the glorious war to end wars', and tired hungry and dispirited men could be seen at every street, corner. MacLean addressed meeting after meeting and wrote articles on their behalf. For his pains he was the guest of His Majesty for two further terms in 1921 and 1922, though this time under much less rigorous conditions.
A Scottish Communist Party.
In 1920 the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed from an amalgamation of various left-wing organisations, including the British Socialist Party. Maclean however, refused to join, as he wanted a distinctively Scottish Communist Party and one which could not be dictated to from Moscow. Gradually, he became more and more antipathetic towards Willie Gallacher, Tom Bell, Harry McShane and the other 'official' communists who, he believed, were betraying the working classes. Early in 19231 having ceased to call himself a communist, he founded the "Scottish Workers' Republican Party" and in the General Election of the same year put himself forward as a candidate under this label, but he caught a chill through campaigning in all weathers, developed pneumonia, and died on November, 30th., a week before polling day.
Working Class Education - "The Scottish Labour College"
MacLean's greatest positive achievement was probably in the sphere of working class education. For over ten years his weekly evening Economics Classes attracted hundreds of workers and gave many of them a startling new insight into the economic
forces governing their lives under capitalism. In 1916 MacLean founded theScottish Labour College, which had been his dream for many years. Unfortunately the College declined drastically during his various terms of imprisonment, and after quarrelling with various members of the committee, MacLean eventually resigned. The College did not survive him for long. Ever since MacLean's death the orthodox communists have been claiming that hismind became unhinged during his later years, and that this accounts for hisantogonism toward the newly-formed Communist Party and his advocacy of a 'Scottish Workers' Republic'. William Gallacher, in his "Revolt on the Clyde" and Tom Bell in his monograph on MacLean repeat this assertion 'ad nauseum'. There is no use denying that following his dreadful prison experiences in 1918 MacLean became increasingly suspicious of even his closest friends. He clearly did develop a kind of persecution complex that made him imagine at times that almost everyone's hand was against him. He delivered many scathing denunciations of his former comrades and associates and some, (especially those against Gallacher) were of a personal virulence which cannot be defended or even excused. But it is a gross exaggerationto deduce from this that Maclean at this time was mentally diseased. There is a world of difference between insanity and delusions of persecution to which we are all subject occasionally. MacLean's speeches and writings during his last years, andespecially his private letters to his wife and daughters, the last of which was written only a fortnight before his death, reveal no trace of mental derangement. The onus is on those who claim that MacLean's mind became unbalanced to prove the cruel charge. And this they have signally failed to do.
'United the diverse elements in Scottish life'
James Maxton described MacLean as, "A Scot of the Scots, a synthesis of all that is healthiest and best in our stormy history; the honesty, the forthrightness, the perseverance, the deep humanity, the shrewd practically, the undiluted materialism". MacLean, as MacDiarmid has pointed out, united the diverse elements in Scottish life in a unique way - He was of Highland stock, his work lay in the great industrial belt in the lowlands and he married a Borders woman. The unification of Scotland, Highland and Lowland, rural and urban, was complete in himself. MacDiarmid has often claimed that MacLean was the greatest Scotsman of this century. Some of us might prefer to reserve that high honour for the bard himself, but there can be no doubt that MacLean was a towering figure in Scottish Working Class history. Many of the evils that he fought against are still with us and it behoves those of us who desire and believe in the brotherhood of man, equality of opportunity, a planned economy, the freedom of Scotland and the abolition and the threat of war, to try to ensure that one of the greatest champions of these ideals did not live and die for them in vain.
"MacLean had ever been the mortal enemy of bourgeois respectability and constitutional formality".
This article originally appeared in Scottish Vanguard, Vol.1 No.1, 1967.