John Maclean And The War After The War

John Maclean’s pamphlet The War After The War has been republished by the Bristol Radical History Group with a new Afterword by Jim Slaven. The Afterword is published below.

By Jim Slaven

In the hauteur of Inverkeithing

in spite of valour and pride

the high head of our story;

but he who was in Glasgow

the battle-post of the poor,

great John MacLean,

the top and tail of our story.

In this poem ‘Clan MacLean’ penned in the 1930’s Sorley MacLean, perhaps Scotland’s greatest poet and certainly the country’s greatest socialist poet, pays tribute to his namesake, John Maclean. But more than that the poet is also placing John Maclean within a cultural, and some would argue nationalist, as well as political context. It is the working class socialist revolutionary Maclean who is ‘the top and tail of our story’ not those who fought at the Battle of Inverkeithing. There is, however, a sense of continuity of struggle and resistance to empire and injustice implicit in Sorley MacLean’s words. We can imagine, given John Maclean’s political trajectory, that he may have approved.

Born in Pollockshaws, which at the time was a small industrial town just outside Glasgow, in 1879 John Maclean was the sixth of seven children (three died in infancy) of Daniel and Anne Maclean. Daniel was originally from the Isle of Mull (the poet Sorley MacLean from the Isle of Skye) and his future wife Anne MacPhee from the highland village of Corpach on Loch Linnie. Both Daniel and Anne (and Maclean’s grandparents) had been evicted from their highland homes as a direct result of the brutal landlordism which decided that sheep and deer were more financially rewarding tenants than human beings. The process of industrialisation forced Maclean’s parents and thousands of others south into the rapidly expanding slums and tenements of the central belt. By the time Maclean was 10 years old his father was dead from an industrial related illness.

Stories and personal experiences of the Highland Clearances were frequent topics of conversation in the Maclean home. They were also graphically outlined by Karl Marx in Capital, Volume One. Despite wretched poverty and family loss Maclean’s mother was determined he should get an education. It is likely these two factors: a loving and determined mother and an encounter with Marx led Maclean to view the world and his future through the prism of Marxism. Certainly by the end of the decade Maclean was a teacher studying for his MA and had rejected the religion of his childhood for the embrace of Marxian economics. Of this period he would write “It was the knowledge of the sacrifices 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 was good to his word. While teaching schoolchildren during the day Maclean began lecturing a series in Marxian economics in the evening for workers on a voluntary basis. In the early years of the twentieth century Maclean joined the Marxist organisation the Social Democratic Federation led by Henry Hyndman. In the decade running up to WW1 Maclean developed a reputation as a leading orator of the SDF in Scotland. Maclean tirelessly travelled throughout Scotland and the north of England agitating, organising and educating. In 1911 the British Socialist Party was formed after the SDF joined various other left groups and individuals with Hyndman, who for good reason normally has ‘idiosyncratic’ attached to his name, as its Chairman.

With war imminent the BSP was riven with divisions. Hyndman’s increasingly jingoistic calls for support for the UK state’s military machine as a means of national defence were opposed by those like Maclean who viewed the war as imperialist and took an internationalist line. When war was finally declared in 1914 most in the BSP, like other socialists in the Second International, abandoned their previous principled opposition and supported the war. Maclean found himself in the small but esteemed group of socialist leaders throughout the world who opposed the war. These included Lenin, James Connolly, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs and John Reed.

Maclean’s opposition to the war was not just theoretical. It was proactive and revolutionary. Glasgow at the outbreak of WW1 was a key site of struggle both for the state’s war effort and for those opposed to the war. Maclean recognised this immediately and declared ‘war on the warmakers’ in what was described as ‘the second city of the Empire’. As his biographer and daughter, Nan Milton, says “Maclean and his supporters conducted an active anti-war campaign through street corner and factory gate meetings all over Glasgow”.

From the outset Maclean’s opposition to the war was based on his anti-imperialism, hatred of capitalism and commitment to socialism. In September 1914, by which point Hyndman was calling on workers to join the British military, Maclean wrote “It is our business as Socialists to develop “class patriotism,” refusing to murder one another for sordid world capitalism. The absurdity of the present situation is surely apparent when we see British Socialists going out to murder German Socialists with the object of crushing Kaiserism and Prussian militarism. Let the propertied class go out, old and young alike, and defend their blessed property. When they have been disposed of, we of the working class will have something to defend, and we shall do it.”

Understanding the strategic significance of Glasgow Maclean threw himself into organising opposition within workplaces and communities. Crucially attempting to link the struggles in each. As landlords followed the logic of capitalism and viewed the war as an opportunity to push up rents in the tenements and slums. Maclean, a strong supporter of women’s rights, joined Mary Barbour and other women in organising a campaign of non-payment and defend those facing eviction. Maclean hoped the Rent Strike would build workers confidence, socialist support and lead to political strikes.

Following the introduction of the Munitions Act in July 1915 which limited workers rights to organise and/or strike in the workplace the Clyde Workers Committee was formed with Maclean a founding member. By the end of the year Maclean found himself arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act and charged with making statements which were likely to prejudice recruitment. Maclean declared “I have been enlisted in the Socialist Army for 15 years. God damn all other armies.” Sentenced to £5 fine or 5 days in jail, Maclean served the 5 days.

Maclean’s ability to link working class activity, whether against exploitation from landlords or bosses, with the anti-war movement was a major breakthrough for socialists in Scotland. As the rent strike spread throughout the city Maclean took the agitation to the shipyards and factories until the men threatened to strike against rent increases. The government was forced to introduce the Rent Restrictions Act underlining the significance of Maclean’s strategy of using the war to force economic concessions for the working class. As his colleague John Wheatley said “Our rulers fear Maclean more than they do the whole Labour Party.”

For over ten years Maclean’s working class education classes attracted hundreds of people at a time. His Sunday afternoon classes alone were known to attract over 400 people. Maclean formed the Scottish Labour College with the idea of establishing a full time course covering Economics, Law and History. The Labour College can be contrasted with the Workers Education Association (WEA) which was set up by the government in 1903 to improve the education of workers. This falling considerably short of Maclean’s political objectives he said “Personally, I wish to see all opportunities for self-development opened up to the working class. But I am specially interested in such education as will make revolutionists.” As James D Young has pointed out this political purpose was not lost on the state who, “did not want working people getting their education from agitators.” In fact many of Maclean’s students went on to take part in various workers direct action initiatives in the years that followed.

Divisions over the correct socialist position on the war dogged the CWC just as it did the rest of the socialist movement. Many on the committee opposed Maclean’s view that the war could be stopped with agitation and industrial action at home. Some syndicalist influenced CWC members argued that political activity should be kept separate from trade union activity. Some tried to focus only on defending workers conditions and attempted not to discuss the war while others were pro-war. Maclean’s relatively isolated political position was just the opportunity the state required. Maclean was arrested again and sentenced to 3 years for sedition.

At the end of May 1917 tens of thousands attended a rally in Glasgow Green opposing Lloyd George receiving the Freedom of the City and demanding Maclean’s release. Pressure eventually told and Maclean was released early, he immediately recommenced his opposition to the war and rallied support for the Soviets. At the end of June when Maclean was released it was into a Europe in flux. While the war raged there had been revolutions in Ireland and Russia. The implications of the Easter Rising and the aftermath in which the UK state executed its revolutionary leaders including Edinburgh born James Connolly were beginning to crystallise. In Russia the Czar had been deposed but under the period of Dual Power the Russians were still in the war.

Following the October Revolution Maclean, dubbed ‘The Scottish Lenin’, was appointed the first Bolshevik Consul in Scotland and an Honorary President of the Soviet Republic. Shortly after his appointment Maclean was arrested again and once more charged with sedition. During his subsequent trial he made his famous speech from the dock declaring “I come here, not as the accused but the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot.” The end of the war saw him released early from his five year sentence but not before he had endured months of force feeding after embarking on a hunger strike. His wife, Agnes, described his treatment as ‘slow murder’ by the state. While many others were imprisoned for anti-war activity during this period the treatment of Maclean stands out as particularly vindictive.

The war years had a huge influence on Maclean’s political development and strategic thinking. Prior to the war Maclean had viewed increased trade union militancy, workers educated in Marxian economics and more effective propaganda as sufficient for creating the conditions for societal change. Maclean was initially supportive of a socialist position that supported Home Rule for Ireland and viewed Connolly’s demand for an independent socialist republic, free from the UK state as at best unrealistic and at worst a diversion and an anathema to the socialist programme.

Against the backdrop of the war, the Easter Rising and the Russian Revolution, Maclean began to rethink the position of the Scottish working class and socialist strategy. A key staging post in Maclean’s thinking is the publication of ‘The War After The War’ setting out as it does his method of teaching. His ability to link economic theory with commonplace examples and clarity of thought is impressive. Indeed even his former friend and comrade Willie Gallagher was moved to write “The work done by Maclean during the winter of 1917-18 has never been equalled by anyone. His educational work would have been sufficient for half-a-dozen ordinary men, but on top of this he was carrying on a truly terrific propaganda and agitational campaign.”

By the end of the war Maclean had rejected the very idea of a British wide Communist Party and was arguing for a separate Scottish Communist Party with support for independence as a core plank of its programme. He is also retrospectively supportive of the Easter Rising and Connolly’s position of viewing the war and the independence as an opportunity for the working class and socialist revolution. Furthermore he enthusiastically endorses the need for break up of the UK state as the best opportunity for socialism on these islands and beyond.

The range and nuance of Maclean’s political interventions deserve re-examination one hundred years on. His principled opposition to the war, commitment to working class political education, linking workplace struggles with those in the community and his consistent attempt to locate the struggles of the Scottish working class in an internationalist and concurrently in a nationalist context are as relevant today as they ever were. For a century he has been ignored or confined to the political periphery. It is time to correct that. The one group of people who did engage meaningfully with Maclean’s life and work during the mid-twentieth century were poets and cultural figures in Scotland. Not only Sorley Maclean but also Hamish Henderson, Matt McGinn and of course Hugh MacDiarmid, who was a consistent voice in support of Maclean both in his work and in the public sphere. And it is MacDiarmid who most fittingly sums up MacLean:

Both beautiful and red

Lenin, she said, was “krassivy, krassivy”

John MacLean too was “krasivvy, krassivy”

A description no other Scot has ever deserved.


More information on the pamphlet can be found here or by clicking on the cover below.

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