Remember past heroes by pausing to reflect, TERRY BROTHERSTONE argues in this guest post, marking one hundred years since John Maclean’s speech from the dock
On 9 May, 2018, it will be 100 years since the Clydeside Marxist revolutionary, John Maclean, stood in the dock in the Scottish High Court in Edinburgh, refused to recognise its authority by making any plea in his defence against a charge of sedition, and instead delivered an audacious, hour-and-a-quarter-long speech denouncing World War I as a murderous capitalist enterprise inflicting death and disaster on the working people of Europe.
“I have taken … unconstitutional action … because of [these] abnormal circumstances”, he said. “I am a socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the
benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place.”
You can read his speech, with some contextual analysis, in a recent edition here.
The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The sentence was five years with hard labour. When the war ended, and in the light of a growing protest movement in Maclean’s support, and Government fears that his continued persecution might stimulate more serious working-class disaffection – the Russian Revolution was much in their minds – he was released after only a few months.
However, there is little doubt that Maclean’s several terms of imprisonment in the harsh conditions of Scotland’s jails contributed to his early death in 1923, aged only 44.
At the time of Maclean’s 1918 trial, the outcome of the War – which by then had been waged for over three and three-quarter bloody years – was still in the balance. The German Spring offensive, which had been encouraged by Russia’s withdrawal from combat after the October Revolution and the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty of March 3, had not yet been decisively countered.
Maclean was one of a small number of revolutionary internationalists who, from the beginning, had taken an active stand against the war and the abandonment of the commitment of the social-democratic parties of the Second International actively to oppose it: as a consequence, he had been appointed by the Bolshevik government as its consular representative in Glasgow.
His propaganda work in working-class areas, his prosecutor Lord Advocate James Clyde told the jury, had passed over the line at which “discussion of social questions” had become “the deliberate and persistent attempt … to plant the seeds of disunion, disaffection, sedition and mutiny among our people”. Maclean, he said, was encouraging workers “to turn society upside down by means of a general refusal to work … [aimed at] the ruin of the existing structure instead of its repair”. If that were allowed to continue, Clyde asserted, “this country [would face] the same catastrophe – the same betrayal – as overtook Russia”. The jurors must act to prevent “that kind of thing”.
Why today should we once again remember Maclean and begin a new discussion about his political legacy?
In late 1979, on the centenary of Maclean’s birth, the fine journalist, historian and novelist, Neal Ascherson, wrote a piece for The Scotsman newspaper in recognition of the Marxist teacher’s continuing importance in working-class political memory in Scotland: it was headlined “His Sacrifice Does Not Make Him Our Redeemer”. Ascherson was an active campaigner for Scottish devolution, which at that time had been the subject of a Referendum, though, in the event, its accomplishment was to be postponed until 1999.
Devolution was seen as potentially progressive by some radical liberals, aware that British social-democracy had reached a dead end, and concerned at the reactionary implications of the continuing post-imperial delusions of the Westminster establishment. They worried that the political energies of a generation, radicalised by les événements in Paris in 1968 and their aftermath in class struggle in Britain as elsewhere – including the unseating of a Tory government by the miners’ industrial action of 1973-74 – and by the experience of the anti-Vietnam War movement, were being channelled away from what was seen as realisable politics into the revolutionary romanticism of the would-be Marxist sects.
Forty years on, it must surely be recognised that Ascherson was right to warn against the sort of left-wing approach that would make past heroes like Maclean links in a golden chain of revolutionary leaders and thinkers connecting Marx and Engels to their own organisation in the present. And too many Scottish socialists and left-nationalists today seem still to be wedded to this form of misguidedly sectarian historical thinking, seeking to claim Maclean’s authority for their current political campaigns.
But it is also true that times have moved on. We are no longer in a period when limited political modifications to the social system controlled by global capital might seem to offer a way forward, to be prioritised above the longer-term – and difficult – theoretical work involved in analysing the implications of the long delay in bringing to fruition the perspectives first outlined in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto.
The effect of decades that have seen – far from the realisation of socialism – unprecedentedly murderous wars, the degeneration of revolutions into various forms of Stalinism, and the march of the capital system, recently behind the banner of neoliberalism, towards the destruction of the planet and of humanity itself, surely call on us to rethink this history and its meaning for future practice.
Maclean still matters: but not for Scotland alone, or even primarily. His speech from the dock – “I stand here, then, not as the accused but as the accuser, of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot” – speaks loudly across the years about his primary commitment … to socialist internationalism: it was for this that his “sacrifice” was made.
And what the history of the intervening century tells us is that the organisational forms that internationalism has taken since the days of Marx’s International Working Men’s [sic] Association (the First International) in the 1860s have all – in their principal goal certainly – failed.
Maclean, to his credit, was amongst those who recognised that the Second (social-democratic) International (formed on the anniversary of the French Revolution in 1889) had signed its own death warrant when the great majority of its parties voted in their national parliaments for war credits in 1914. After 1917, he acted and spoke out for the Bolshevik revolution and the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. He was specifically invited to the first Congress of the Third (Communist) International in 1919; but, suspicious of the calibre, and in some cases the motives, of its early British supporters, he held back from active participation. Stalinism – which of course he did not, and could not have predicted – was to corrupt it, destroy it as a revolutionary agency and then, in 1943, oversee its dissolution.
Trotsky’s optimism about the practical possibilities in the 1930s of a Fourth International – which thanks to the courage and selflessness of many of its adherents did play an important role in preserving the revolutionary aspiration so deeply compromised by Stalinism – came to nothing from the point of view of actualising the transition beyond the rule of capital to a society based on true humanity. After World War II, “Trotskyism” faced very difficult, unpredicted circumstances and it failed to develop Marxism in ways that could inform the practical revolutionary thinking necessary to meet the challenges of new forms of capitalist domination. Stalinism – born from the ruins of the hopes of 1917 and able to survive apparently promising working-class “national” revolts, notably in Hungary in 1956 – became, it is now clear, the brutal instrument for disciplining the world working class in those parts of the world where it held sway (or exercised decisive influence), in preparation for reintegration into the globalised capital system.
With the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91 and the terminal shock suffered by the triumphalism of so-called neoliberalism in the financial crisis of 2007-09, possibilities for the refoundation of a practical working-class internationalism have reappeared. As the forces of capital generate the reactionary movements they like to describe as “populist” in the UK, many parts of Europe and the USA, and the inheritors of Stalinist political methods act as predator dictatorial oppressors in Russia and China, so the shoots of oppositional struggle to re-emerge.
For all its shortcomings and disappointments, a new period opened up with the “Arab Spring” of 2010 and after. Women and young people are on the march against “Trumpism” in the USA. Students in
Britain have joined forces in an unprecedented way with their lecturers in fighting the wholesale marketisation of their universities; and in France they are seeking ways to join with workers in fighting President Macron’s Napoleonic ambitions to press forward with implementing a Francophile version of neoliberalism.
But this is not – as some headlines have suggested – a rerun of 1968. Much of today’s protest is much more thoughtful and aware that the future it seeks can only come about, not by reforms of this or that aspect of things as they are, but only through working to bring together apparently disparate causes and campaigns into a movement for radical social transformation.
We remember Maclean best – and we pay tribute to him and other working-class “martyrs” most appropriately – by pausing to reflect; by thinking through the implications of their sacrifice for the tasks today, not by looking upon them as “redeemers”. Their struggle does not do our thinking for us. It encourages us not simply to act but also to think. This is surely what Marx meant in his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” And the agency of change Marx uncovered was not “the industrial working class” – the social formation that scarcely existed in the period the Communist Manifesto was written but which to Maclean’s generation and to many of us in the mid-twentieth century looked so self-evidently to be the force for revolution – but labour.
What do Marx’s fundamental insights into the structural antagonism between capital and labour and the immanent need for labour to actualise that opposition to the point of social transformation mean today, when deindustrialisation in the West and the digital revolution have transformed the appearance of labour? How can the historically unprecedented developments in productive forces –
developments which as long as capital rules can only be destructive in their overall impact on humanity and the natural environment – be harnessed to the social good and the creation of a socialist world?
Thinkers such as István Mészáros – in my view particularly Mészáros – have wrestled with these questions during the decades since Stalinism’s collapse and, in the UK, Thatcherism’s “triumph”. In Mészáros’s case rethinking began with the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, in which he was involved. Afterwards, he had to take refuge in Britain, and drew from the Hungarian experience the conclusion that Marxism could no longer simply be “applied” – it had to be rethought from its roots. Following the later defeat of the “Prague Spring” and the beginnings of what he was to define as “the structural crisis” of capital in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he launched a major examination of how humanity might make the transition Beyond Capital (the title of his central work published in 1995) to a “social metabolism” that could serve human need.
“The mountain we must climb and conquer,” wrote Mészáros, in a later work, “is many Himalayas on top of one another.” And, “there are no native Sherpas to be exploited for the hard work.” This means that “we” – by which I take him to mean the working class that has emerged from this new period when manual and intellectual labour has been transformed and brought together in its structural antagonism to capital as never before – “must do it ourselves.” And it can only be done “if we are willing to confront the real stakes and the real obstacles.”
Uncritical memorialising of the past heroes of socialism is surely one such obstacle. And some of us of an older generation have to recognise that the “party-building” and related practices, which we devoted so much time to, are another. There needs to be, to cite the title of a recent book by the former secretary of one of the versions of the Fourth International, Cliff Slaughter, a Bonfire of the Certainties. As we abandon old “certainties” and rebuild new practical guidelines, we need to recognise that the agent of the urgently needed change to socialism will indeed be the working class – but that its appearance today comes in new and diverse forms. And that theory has to develop in the closest possible association with – not apart from and preaching “from the outside” to – a multiplicity of oppositional struggles.
John Maclean inspires us to understand that human beings can indeed rise to the challenge of “doing it ourselves”. His record should shame all those Labour “leaders” who have devoted themselves, in one way or another, to the service of capital and its warmongering. But neither he nor any other figure from our past can do the job that needs to be done for us.
Terry Brotherstone lectured in history at the University of Aberdeen until retiring in 2008. He is now a research fellow there. He has published articles on Chartism, “Red Clydeside”, the 1956 crisis in the Communist Party of Great Britain, the North Sea oilworkers’ industrial actions in the years after the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, and other topics. He has been President of the University and College Union Scotland. He was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party until its disintegration in 1985, after which he wrote regularly for the weekly Workers Press. He is a member of the editorial board of the Glasgow-based journal of socialist theory, Critique.