By TERRY BROTHERSTONE
On 9 May, 1918, John Maclean was sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labour – of which he was to serve less than seven months. He won one victory – or thought he had as it proved short-lived – through his trial speech. He had seen Agnes, his wife, for a brief farewell after the verdict, and wrote to her next day to say that he had been taken to Edinburgh’s Haymarket station and from there north on the forty-mile journey to Perth prison. The next day:
After a talk … with the doctor, an agreement was come to, and, with the formal consent of the Commissioners, I understand will be carried out; that you arrange in Perth for my meals to be made outside by some friends, these to be brought to the prison gates, and there handed to me personally in presence of a warder or other officer of the prison; and that I must not speak to the party delivering same.
He asked Agnes to make arrangements for this to happen, having been assured that the prison authorities would pay, and suggesting various ways of implementing the agreement. In the event, by the time the Glasgow Forward publicised this development a week later – the Perth branch of the Independent Labour Party had matters in hand.
Maclean thought, that is to say, that he was in effect to be treated as a political prisoner rather than a common criminal – contrary to official Government policy of denying any special status to those whose alleged offences were political. This ‘humane proposal’, commented Forward, for the first time demonstrated some sensitivity to ‘the psychology of the working class’ by the authorities. ‘The forcible feeding or slow starvation … [of] John Maclean would not have contributed to industrial and political peace in Scotland’, and it might have had ‘its repercussions in Russia’.
As to this last point, Lenin several times since 1914 had cited Maclean’s stand – linking his opposition to the war with that of a handful of others such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg – as a signal example of internationalism in practice. Soon after the 1918 trial, he told a congress of trade unionists in Moscow that this latest imprisonment was ‘because [Maclean] exposed the objects of the war and … the criminal nature of British imperialism … this time not as a Scottish school-teacher but … as consul of the Federative Soviet Republic.’ He ‘acted openly as the representative of our government.’ But, since they had concluded the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, any diplomatic leverage the Bolsheviks might have had on British policy had been minimised.
The agreement about eating arrangements did not long survive Maclean’s transfer to the notorious Peterhead jail, north of Aberdeen, which was well away from Scotland’s major working-class areas – particularly Glasgow – where there were regular protests against his imprisonment. When Agnes was next allowed to see him – in late October – the agreement over food had long broken down and she was shocked at his condition. She stepped up the campaign to publicise the situation in the socialist press, indicating in one letter, dated November 5, that, since July:
He found the food that was sent in unsatisfactory, and refused to take it or the prison food (which he believed to be drugged), requesting to be transferred to Glasgow, where he could have food prepared by myself sent in… [H]e tried to resist the forcible feeding by mouth tube, but two warders held him down, and … never left him … night and day, till he was forced to give in… [T]hese statements were … made … in the presence of the prison Doctor and two warders and … evidence of their truth [was] supplied by his aged and haggard appearance [which] contradict[ed] entirely the assurances … by the Authorities that he was in good health.
‘The only alternatives,’ Agnes Maclean believed, were ‘his death in prison, or his immediate release …’
The campaign to free Maclean, ruthlessly resisted by the British government as long as the war continued, bore fruit less than a month after – at eleven o’clock on the morning of 11 November – the Armistice was signed. Efforts by Labour MP Ramsay Macdonald and the remaining Labour cabinet minister in the Lloyd George coalition, G. N. Barnes, to have the terms of his imprisonment alleviated had, until then, been denied; and Secretary of State Munro, questioned by a Liberal MP in the Commons had refused to accept that ‘there are thousands of men in Scotland who regard this man as a hero and a martyr’ and had seen ‘no reason … why he should be released.’ But, on 3 December, Maclean – looking ill and exhausted in the photographs that exist – returned from prison to an unwanted but unavoidable triumphal procession through Glasgow streets lined with thousands of workers: ‘Great John Maclean’s coming back tae the Clyde’, as Hamish Henderson’s much later, but still popular, marching song has it.
He was soon offered a royal pardon, for the interesting reason that the Scottish Office was concerned that Maclean, now adopted as official Labour Party candidate for Glasgow Gorbals (unenthusiastically endorsed by Labour’s national executive), might well win against Barnes, who was standing for ‘Coalition Labour’. The constitutional issues that would have attended the election of a convict to parliament would have been an embarrassment too far in a situation in which the ‘Bolshevik menace’, and the internal as well as the external dangers it posed, had rapidly replaced the German ‘enemy at our gates’ on the political agenda. Maclean’s refusal of the regal benevolence – ‘I do not accept [the] assertion that “the King” has granted me a free pardon. Not “the King” … but the fighting workers of Britain have regained me my freedom …’ – was ignored.
In the event the intriguing possibility that Maclean might become an MP was denied when Barnes was elected by 14,247 votes to Maclean’s 7,436. It was a remarkable tally considering that this was a general election conducted in an atmosphere of hysterical post-war patriotism (with slogans like ‘Hang the Kaiser’ and ‘Squeeze Germany till the pips squeak’); that, although the Labour Party made advances, it was not until 1922 that it achieved its major breakthrough in the West of Scotland, bringing ‘Red Clydeside’ into Westminster politics; and that the candidate had been too ill to campaign personally. He appeared only once, at an eve-of-poll rally on December 13, when – to the distress or annoyance of some of his supporters – he was evidently more concerned to expose capitalist barbarism than to demonstrate parliamentary credentials.
During 1919, a year of critical class struggle, Maclean devoted himself tirelessly to campaigning throughout Britain, and writing regularly, in support of what he was not alone – on either side of the class divide – in believing was a potentially revolutionary situation. Politically his commitment to the idea that a Marxist understanding of the crisis of capitalism that had plunged Europe into war was fundamental to the necessary development of mass revolutionary consciousness – and that no one had worked as he had to promote it – led him to move aside from the mainstream trajectory of revolutionary socialist politics, which led, in 1920-21, to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as the British section of the Third (Communist) International.
In June 1919, he formed the Tramps Trust Unlimited – a propaganda group fighting for demands such as a minimum wage, a six-hour day, full wages for the unemployed and Irish Home Rule, but stressing the centrality of revolutionary Marxist education. Lacking intellectual respect for, and even distrusting, many of the personalities who formed the CPGB, he advocated the formation of a Scottish Communist Party affiliated to the Third International. He had been the only named individual in Britain invited to the founding congress of the International in 1919, but, in 1920, when others did find their way to the much fuller second congress in Moscow, he insisted, as a matter of principle, on demanding a visa, which – after considerable consultations involving security chiefs and civil servants – the British Government refused. He was never to meet the leaders of the new Soviet republic – as did, for example, the former shop steward and future Stalinist stalwart, William
Gallacher. Gallacher – who had represented Maclean in the 1918 Gorbals election campaign but who, Maclean thought, was too ignorant of Marxism to be a serious revolutionary leader – was later to claim ownership of the story of ‘Red Clydeside’ through his autobiographical Revolt on the Clyde (which appeared first in 1936 and has several times been republished), with the effect of devaluing Maclean’s reputation.
Maclean continued to base his political campaigning on Clydeside, fighting against unemployment and for free speech. He temporarily allied himself with a section of the Socialist Labour Party that had not joined the CPGB. He received further short, but debilitating, prison sentences; stood, primarily for propaganda purposes, in a number of local and parliamentary elections; and, in February 1923, founded, with his loyal supporters, a Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, which aroused some enthusiasm and survived him – but only for a few years. On 30 November, 1923, he died aged only 44, and was buried, following a funeral procession attended by thousands, at Eastwood cemetery on the south side of Glasgow. His reputation allowed for a fund to assist his family to raise over £2000 (estimated as the equivalent of over £100,000 today) from many different parts of the world.
Maclean’s political life from his triumphal return to Glasgow in December 1918 to his premature death – exhausted, with damaged health and deprived of a stable personal life – can be traced in four substantial biographies. These are: first, the passionately personal account, published in 1973 by his daughter, Nan Milton; second, in the same year, a similarly sourced book by John Broom, which took further Milton’s argument that her father could be seen as a forerunner of left-wing Scottish nationalism; third, a sober, academic, 1989 study, making good use of government papers, by B. J. Ripley and John McHugh, in Manchester University Press’s Lives of the Left series; and fourth, James D. Young’s John Maclean: Clydeside socialist (1992) – the culmination of the author’s honourable efforts to have Maclean remembered as a sympathetic personality, indefatigable educator of the working class and a humane socialist who ‘bequeath[ed] … a rich [Scottish] tradition of extra-parliamentary struggle against unfairness and inequality.’ Young, not always the easiest historian to read, had original things to say about the local context of Maclean’s political life, his place in an unorthodox, radical Scottish educational tradition and the often underestimated extent of his international reputation.
Maclean’s story reached into debates generated by the ‘new labour history’ of the 1960s with the publication at the end of the decade of Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21. Later came substantial commentary in Raymond Challinor’s The Origins of British Bolshevism (1977); an entry on Maclean in William Knox’s 1984 Dictionary of Scottish Labour Leaders, 1918-39; and a long biographical essay by the mainstream labour historian, David Howell, who – in a spirit of nostalgic gloom in ‘North-West England, in the sodden summer of 1985’ where ‘there is not much hope’ – sought solace in a Celtic-focused scholarly triptych discussing the significance of James Connolly, John Maclean and the Catholic socialist and 1924 Labour cabinet minister, John Wheatley. A useful – if not always altogether reliably edited – collection of many of Maclean’s writings is In the Rapids of Revolution; and some of his articles and speeches can be accessed on the Marxist Internet Archive.
An entry on Maclean – in which John McHugh summarised his co-authored biography – found its way into the updated, twenty-first-century version of the Dictionary of National Biography. This semi-official recognition has not, however, influenced the curators of the much-vaunted new World War I gallery at London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM). The story of the various oppositions to the war is in general underrepresented – there is not too much interpretation that might ruffle the feathers of Michael Gove – but one striking omission is of any reference to Maclean. When, in the IWM, you come to an easily overlooked flip-file about anti-war figures – introduced in the context of the acknowledged war-weariness evident by 1917 – you find that the British oppositionists are a variety of liberal doubters like Ramsay Macdonald, E. D. Morel, Bertrand Russell and the poet Siegfried Sassoon. The consistently socialist position of those who had rejected the capitulation to nationalism in 1914 of the parties of the Second International is represented only by opponents of the German war effort – the Independent Social Democrats, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Hugo Haase. Britain’s revolutionary socialist, anti-war opposition, in which Maclean was pre-eminent, is ignored.
If there is any truth in Ripley and McHugh’s assertion that ‘Terry Brotherstone’s article’ on ‘John Maclean and the Russian Revolution’, published in 1988, ‘is a piece that all interested in Maclean should read’, it must derive from the fact that, at the time, I was trying to rescue my own understanding of Maclean’s significance from nearly two decades of writing about the Scottish revolutionary under the influence of the sectarian dictates of the particular form of Trotskyism that informed Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League and Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). I joined the former in 1970, about the time I contributed a feature on Maclean, under a nom de guerre, in the League’s broadsheet Workers Press; and was, with differing degrees of active commitment, a member of the latter from its formation in 1973 until its effective demise as a considerable (if deeply misguided) organisation – publishing the daily NewsLine – which came about through the overdue expulsion of its by then morally bankrupt and politically corrupt leader in 1985.
I allude to that only because it draws attention to how the way of looking at history that informed much of what I wrote about Maclean in those years – intended to draw attention to, and stimulate thinking about, his central importance in interpreting modern British history – came to contribute to the opposite outcome. From the 1960s on, the name of John Maclean was beginning to be recovered for history, but, until the efforts of Ripley and McHugh and of Howell, much of what was written about him only served what can now be seen as sectarian political ends. Far from drawing his story into a wider historical awareness, the tendency to claim it as endorsement of a particular organisation’s place in a continuing revolutionary tradition, which stretched back to Marx, helped to imprison it in a perhaps sometimes necessary, but too often arcane, world of political polemic.
The first book-length biography of Maclean, by the prominent CPGB member, Tom Bell, whose line on controversial matters followed Gallacher’s 1936 account of the wartime Clydeside ‘revolt’, set the example by being as much concerned to explain why Maclean had not joined the Party as to document
the life of a courageous revolutionary. The official Stalinist line was that Maclean had become unbalanced to the point of serious mental instability primarily as a result of his prison experiences and that this explained his failure to join the Party. It is a merit of the Ripley-McHugh book that it examines the undoubted nervous strain, even exhaustion, under which Maclean lived in the years after the war, without substituting this for a serious, if critical, discussion of his latter-day political positions.
The first challenge to the CP line came from left-wing Scottish nationalists, for whom Maclean’s efforts, after he refused to join the CPGB, to form a separate Scottish organisation seemed to provide some historical authority for their conception that Scotland on its own could nurture a greater body of effective socialist opinion than England. Often detached from Maclean’s impression – in the specific circumstances of the class struggle in the immediate post-World-War-I years – that there was a greater potential for revolutionary working-class militancy north of the border than there was in the south, this thinking has never entirely disappeared. As an aside, it found its way recently into the mainstream media in the very different circumstances of the debate about Scotland’s September 2014 independence referendum. In a BBC Newsnight Scotland interview, Unite the Union leader, Len McCluskey, proclaimed himself attracted to what his interrogator, Gordon Brewer, called ‘a sort of Maclean position’ on Scottish independence: that it could be supported not for nationalist reasons but because the Scots might provide ‘a radical vanguard for the rest of the UK’.
For the Trotskyists, certainly those in the WRP of the 1970s and early 1980s, on the other hand, the priority was to reclaim a major revolutionary – endorsed by Lenin – for their own anti-Stalinist tradition. This meant placing him in a continuity that led from Marx’s (First) International of the 1860s; through the fight against the betrayal of its anti-war commitment by the Second International (founded in 1889) in 1914 and the congresses of the (Third) Communist International that took place before the enunciation of the Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in a single country’ in 1924; and culminated in Trotsky’s fight for communist internationalism. Maclean fitted easily enough into this, but had to be chided for dropping out of the long march of history by not joining the CPGB. ‘Thus someone like Brotherstone,’ wrote Ripley and McHugh, ‘who recognised the importance of Maclean earlier than many socialist historians and has consistently shown sensitivity in approaching his legacy, has nonetheless criticised Maclean for his refusal to join the CPGB.’
The implied, if muted, critique of this way of writing history, is all the more relevant today. It can be sharpened by noting Ripley/McHugh’s further comment that ‘Maclean remained a neglected figure amongst revolutionary [s]ocialists until … his apparent discovery by the Scottish New Left in ways which have obscured rather than clarified his position as a revolutionary Marxist.’ But this was not only a failing of what these authors call the Scottish New Left. Every attempt to shoehorn Maclean’s significance into some ongoing political tradition obscures his real historical importance. It makes it all the more appropriate to return to what he actually said when on trial in 1918 with his liberty at stake, and to think imaginatively about the circumstances that led him to speak as he did. By reliving, as best we can, that dramatic historical moment and trying to understand better how things were then, we can at least begin to grasp this history not as dead knowledge to be afforded meaning only if it can endorse some existing political line today, but as part of the real, contradictory yet forward-moving process of human struggle – a process that, in the greatly changed and infinitely more challenging social and environmental crisis with which the ongoing hegemonic power of capital threatens humanity in the early twenty-first century, calls, not for a reiteration of old shibboleths, but for radically new thinking.
It is regrettable therefore to note that Dave Sherry, in recently reissuing his readable and, for the most part, serviceable booklet, John Maclean: Red Clydesider, should feel the need to contextualise the story with an introduction explaining Maclean’s relevance to the – to him apparently overridingly important – question of the Socialist Workers Party’s position on the Scottish Independence Referendum; and should repeat without reconsideration the line about how Maclean – seen as a kind of Bolshevik manqué – erred in isolating himself by failing to join the CPGB. The relative isolation of the revolutionary movement, particularly in Britain, now needs to be discussed, not from the point of view of correcting a few subjective mistakes, but in the light of the need for a radical revision of the now clearly mistaken analysis of Lenin, Trotsky, Maclean and others that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the conditions for socialist revolution had arrived and that resolving the crisis of leadership in the workers’ movement was all that was required to actualise it. Lenin and Trotsky particularly were right about many things, but not that.
Paul Mason (then BBC Newsnight’s economics editor, now with Channel 4) argued some years ago that, since World War II, and particularly between the 1960s and the Thatcherite 1980s, labour history became an academic discipline, adding greatly to knowledge but, in effect, complacently ‘rationalising the deal made in 1945 between employers and workers on both sides of the Iron Curtain’ – a deal that, at least in the major western countries, appeared to have delivered a partial solution to the massive social problems of the inter-war years and a potential platform for further advances. What was lost in this was a critical approach to the wider story, so that, when neoliberalism destroyed the welfare-statist consensus and the Stalinist system collapsed, little was left in the way of debate about ‘grand narratives’. The destruction of working-class communities moreover changed forever the world in which Mason had grown up, in which people like him learnt more about history from grandparents and community events than from books or the mainstream media. Today’s globalised workers, as they struggle to achieve and maintain the most basic conditions, Mason observes, have little access to the historical memory that used to sustain strikes and other working-class protest actions in the past.
Recovering that historical memory matters and must surely be central to any meaningful revival of the labour history that was so optimistically embraced by socialist historians in the 1960s but which, by the 1980s, was being politically stifled in the embrace of the academy. And this should surely be the spirit in which to revisit the life of John Maclean. His ideas about revolutionary organisation must of course be understood within the context of his times. But in the new and threatening times in which we now live what resonates most from his speech from the dock is his commitment – however limited might be his ideas about how it could be achieved – to the development of mass revolutionary consciousness as the basis for the fundamental social change to which human society, if it is to survive, must aspire. A century of bitter experience forces us to think anew about the obstacles to its achievement and how they must be overcome. But what Maclean said and did stands out from the reactionary confusion from which, for the most part, the official World War I commemorations we can expect between August 2014 and November 2018 will be unlikely to extricate themselves. ‘I have squared my conduct with my intellect,’ and have nothing to apologise for, Maclean told the Scottish court. His words deserve to be listened to – and with fresh ears – again.
 The Brest-Litovsk treaty, signed on March 3, 1918, was the peace treaty between Bolshevik Russia and the central powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, etc). Negotiations began on December 3, 1917. The Bolshevik delegation was led by Trotsky, who hoped, through delay, to encourage social revolution in Germany and the Hapsburg empire: see L. D. Trotsky, My Life (New York, 1980), pp. 362-94.
 National Library of Scotland, Acc. 4251/3: Maclean Papers. The evidence about Maclean’s treatment during his various prison terms, and its subsequent effect on his state of mind is evaluated – in a fairly balanced way – in B. J. Ripley and J. McHugh, John Maclean (Manchester, 1989), esp. pp. 96-103, 111-13.
 Henderson’s ‘John Maclean March’ was written for a large memorial meeting at St. Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Maclean’s death in 1948. Twelve years later, after the Sharpeville massacre, Henderson updated his heroic, internationalist image of Scotland’s socialist martyr when he concluded his even better known folk anthem ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ with the lines: ‘When Maclean meets wi’s friens in Springburn / Aa thae roses and geans will turn tae blume / An yon black boy frae yont Nyanga / Ding the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon.’ (When Maclean is reunited with his friends in Springburn [North Glasgow], all the roses and wild cherries will bloom, and that black boy from beyond Nyanga will knock down the cruel gallows of the bourgeoisie). The song was richly rendered at the opening of 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games by the South African soprano, Pumeza Matshikiza, part of whose childhood was spent in Nyana. Scottish folksong is one arena in which Maclean has not been forgotten. Dick Gaughan, a singer at many trade union events, is an exponent of Matt McGinn’s ‘Ballad of John Maclean’. The lyric is accessible on the Marxist Internet Archive: ‘Tell me where ye’re gaun, lad, and who ye’re gaun to meet – / I’m headed for the station that’s in Buchanan Street, / I’ll join 200,000 that’s there to meet the train / That’s bringing back to Glasgow our own dear John Maclean.’ The late Alastair Hullett’s still available ‘Red Clydeside’ CD includes the songs ‘When Johnny Came Hame tae Glesga’ and ‘John Maclean and Agnes Wood’.
 Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism (London, 1977); W. Knox (ed.), A Dictionary of Scottish Labour Leaders, 1918-39 (Edinburgh, 1984); David Howell, A Lost Left (Manchester, 1986): the main interest in this essay lies more in the fact that Howell – clearly convinced that, in the Thatcher decade, all was lost for ‘the left’ – decided to resurrect Maclean for a predominantly academic readership than in any particular insight.
 For which, see the Journal of the Scottish Labour History Society, no. 23 (1988); and my ‘Internationalism in the Twentieth Century: some comments on John Maclean’ in Terry Brotherstone (ed.), Covenant, Charter and Party: traditions of revolt and protest in modern Scottish history (Aberdeen, 1989). I made a further effort some years later to go beyond sectarian criticism towards serious critique in a more general piece on the historiography of Red Clydeside, published in a volume dedicated to Maclean’s sometime supporter, Harry McShane (1891-1988): see T. Brotherstone, ‘Does Red Clydeside Really Matter Any More?’, Robert Duncan and Arthur McIvor, Militant Workers: labour and class conflict on the Clyde 1900-1950 (Edinburgh, 1992), esp. pp. 56-7, 60, 66, 72-3: but, more than two decades on, there is much more rethinking to be done.
> Political antiquarians will find my articles on Maclean in party publications such as Workers Press (first series, 1969-75), NewsLine, Fourth International and Labour Review. Some of the content of these pieces still bears critical scrutiny, but the general approach and routine political prescriptions may safely be left to what Engels, in a more exalted context, called ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice’. My last such polemical pronouncement, I think, was T. Brotherstone, ‘John Maclean 1879-1923’, in Labour Review, VII, 5, Dec. 1983 – the cover story in that issue.
 This relatively minor episode in the CPGB’s long-lasting evasion of serious analysis of its own history fed into some lazy thinking by historians trying to fit the story of Red Clydeside into an Establishment version of British history that allows little space for taking revolutionary challenges to the parliamentary tradition seriously. Iain S. McLean in his The Legend of Red Clydeside (Edinburgh, 1999, first published 1983), for example, finds comfort in Gallacher’s account, taking it further with the extraordinary assertion that the ‘speech from the dock … shows that [Secretary of State for Scotland] Munro’s assessment of Maclean as “more or less a lunatic”, while exaggerated, was … not merely a petulant reference to his political views’, and going on to make much of his near namesake’s alleged ‘paranoia’ about the activities of his perceived enemies, leading to the conclusion that John Maclean was remote from the working class, ‘a True Believer [sic], who had found all the truth in one book [Capital]’, which he could not even persuade his followers to read – putting him in a worse position than ‘a Christian fundamentalist’. McLean (latterly an Oxford professor of politics whose own access to insights into working-class consciousness seems to derive largely from his acknowledged expertise in electoral statistics) reissued his ‘revisionist’ account of Red Clydeside as a paperback in the late 1990s perhaps in the hope that the Scots could at last be wooed away from their socialist ‘legends’ towards an embrace of the neoliberalism of ‘New Labour’.