Friday, 8 November 2013

Hidden History: John Maclean (Part 2)

In December 1918, just weeks after the armistice that ended the First World War, Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George signed papers authorising the release from prison of socialist John Maclean. His campaigning against the carnage that pitted worker against worker had led to him being ‘convicted’ of actions likely to undermine the war effort.

Although his health had been badly affected by his incarceration and the treatment he received while in prison, Maclean immediately threw himself back into campaigning, but found his position to be at odds with some who had previously been his closest colleagues. Both the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party favoured the creation of a British Communist Party, while Maclean passionately believed in the need for a Scottish Communist Party, arguing that the flame of socialism burned stronger in Scotland than in England. It was Maclean’s belief that Scotland was fertile ground for a workers’ revolution, which he saw as the first step towards a similar uprising in Britain as a whole. Because of these differences, Maclean did not join the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was formed in 1920.

Willie Gallacher, one of the leaders of the Clyde Workers Committee, had travelled to Russia, where he had meetings with Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. On his return to Scotland, Gallacher indicated the position of Lenin was that there should be only one Communist Party in Britain. Gallacher also said the Comintern (the Communist International) was now the ‘official’ voice of international socialist revolution and it, too, favoured a British Communist Party.

However, the position of Lenin and the Comintern was possibly little more than a reflection of how invisible Scotland had become as a nation entirely subsumed into the British Union, ruled and overshadowed by the larger partner, England. Indeed, Nan Milton, John Maclean’s daughter, recorded that Lenin had once referred to her father as ‘Maclean of England’.

John Maclean remained loyal to the Bolshevik revolution but believed the views expressed by Lenin and the Comintern regarding there being only one Communist Party in Britain were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual situation in Scotland. Point 17 of the Theses and Statutes of the Third International said there could be only one Communist Party in each country, and so the Lenin/Comintern/Gallacher position was based on the acceptance that Scotland was not a country. This was a perspective rejected by Maclean, as he explained in an article carried in the December 1920 issue of the socialist newspaper Vanguard:

“We in Scotland must not let ourselves play second fiddle to any organisation with headquarters in London, no more than we would ask Dublin to bend to the will of London. Whatever co-operation may be established between the Revolutionary forces in the countries at present composing the ‘United Kingdom’, that co-operation must be based on the wills of the free national units.

“Nothing in Point 17 precludes the formation of a Scottish Party as Scotland is a definite country.”

John Maclean worked unremittingly for the cause of socialist revolution in Scotland, to bring an end to the capitalist system that punished the working class, condemning ordinary men, women and children to a life of poverty and deprivation. However, he paid a very heavy personal price for his commitment.

Prevented by the authorities from working as a teacher, Maclean’s very limited income came from collections at public meetings and from the sale of his political pamphlets. Struggling financially, his wife and family had gone to live with a relative in the borders. His wife, Agnes, returned to the family home in November 1923, with the intention that the children, two girls, would follow as soon as a settled income could be established. Agnes had pleaded with John Maclean not to stand as a candidate in an upcoming General Election, but he was determined to continue the fight.

When she returned to Glasgow, Agnes Maclean found her husband in very poor health. Almost starved, he had continued to address outdoor public meetings in the depth of winter. His only overcoat he had given to his friend Neil Johnston, who was from Barbados and, Maclean believed, needed the coat more than him in a Glasgow winter.

In late November John Maclean collapsed while speaking to yet another street meeting. He was carried from the outdoor platform and taken to his home in Pollokshaws. Maclean was diagnosed as suffering from double pneumonia and died on November 30th 1923. He was just 44 years-old.

An election leaflet, written by John Maclean days earlier, was published carrying the date on which he died. An extract perfectly summed-up his passionate belief in the working class and the need to establish an independent Scottish socialist republic as a step towards a ‘socialist international’ spanning the globe:

“Scotland’s wisest policy is to declare for a republic in Scotland, so that the youth of Scotland will not be forced out to die for England’s markets. I accordingly stand out as a Scottish Republican candidate feeling sure that if Scotland had to elect a parliament to sit in Scotland it would vote for a working class parliament.

“The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England. The working class policy ought to be to break up the Empire, to avert war, and to enable the workers to triumph in every country and colony.

“Scottish separation is part of the process of England’s imperial disintegration and is a help toward the ultimate triumph of the workers of the world.”

* Originally published in the Scottish Socialist Voice.

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