These notes were written by one of our members as the basis for a talk on MacLean’s life.
Born in Pollockshaws, then an industrial town outside Glasgow on 24 th August 1879 John MacLean was the 6 th of 7 children, only 4 of whom survived. His father, Daniel, was a potter whose family had come from Mull, and his mother Anne’s family hailed from Corpach nr Fort William. Both families had been victims of the Highland Clearance , and John was brought up with the stories of injustices at the hands of the landlords. When John was 8 his father died of silicosis. In order to finish the education that his mother was determined to give him he had to take a number of part-time jobs. After leaving school he attended the Free Church Training School and became a certified teacher. He had been brought up in the religion but had by this time renounced it and remained a devout atheist. In fact this was to lead to his first brush with authority in his first teaching post under the employment of the Govan School Board (GSB). He was in conflict with the headmaster over the teaching of the Bible to pupils & was ultimately transferred. While this was going on he was also attending Glasgow Univeristy as an evening student & completed his MA in this way.
MacLean had already decided on his road in life though, and that was a commitment to class struggle based on the revolutionary Socialism of Karl Marx. He joined the Social Democratic Federation and immediately set about rebuilding the Party after the split of the SLP. From 1903 onwards he began to take on a massive workload. His first task was to form a Glasgow Press Committee, which was responsible for writing letters to the Press, drafting leaflets, producing manifestos and all election literature. And he also began activities that he was to continue until his dying day, namely to educate, agitate and organise workers in the methods of revolutionary Marxism. His whole life became consumed with education. After teaching in school during the day he would set about the education of class conscious workers in the evenings.
During the winter months he would hold weekly classes in Advanced (Marxian) Economics and Industrial History and by 1908 was taking classes every night of the week. Whilst his 2 months summer holidays were consumed by grand tours of Scotland, conducting open air meetings from Lerwick in the North, Aberdeen in the East, Hawick in the South and in every centre of industrial central Scotland.
By 1907 he had written his first pamphlet The Greenock Jungle. About butchers supplying diseased carcasses in Greenock which led to the introduction of a meat inspectorate for that town’s slaughter hose. He was also that year invited to Belfast by Jim Larkin and the Belfast Socialist Society to speak on behalf of workers during the Belfast Transport Workers Strike , which was the beginning of the modern Irish Labour Movement, and MacLean’s first experience of a big industrial strike. He also in this year founded the Pollockshaws Branch of the SDF in which he met James MacDougall , who was to remain a trusted friend as was Peter Petroff, a Russian émigré of the 1905 Revolution, whom MacLean took into his own home and taught to speak English. Even as early as July 1907 the SDF paper Justice was able to state about MacLean “ no better man has ever been produced by the SDF".
For the next few years MacLean was to continue with this constant agitation, often holding up to 5 meetings a day on his summer tours and his economics classes continued until his imprisonment in1916, and it was soon to pay dividends.
Whilst the build up to War was continuing Industrial life in Britain became embroiled in a series of Strikes from 1911-13. The first major outburst of this in Scotland was the Singer Strike in Clydebank 1911. The Strike was broken but the authorities attempted to break the movement by dispersing the leaders around Glasgow. Far from breaking the mood of the Strikers though all this did was to spread the influence & teaching of MacLean throughout the area, as many of the shop stewards, such as Willie Gallacher, were pupils of his. In July his tour took him to the Rhonda Valley in South Wales , where he was warmly welcomed for his work amongst the miners in Lanarkshire and Fife. Shortly after this 12,000 men walked out in support of 800 miners locked out by management. The rank and file demanded that the Miners Federation of Great Britain should back them in this issue and extend the strike for a national minimum wage. MacLean’s constant agitation ensured that the Scottish miners were fully behind the strike and in Feb 1912 1 million miners came out on Strike. A Minimum Wage Act was passed by the Liberal Gov. but instead of a national minimum wage it agreed to series of locally decided wages. The discontent felt by the rank and file at this saw the formation of the first rank and file organisation the South Wales Miners Reform Committee , aided and abetted by MacLean.
The period of strikes was conducted against the build up to War and helped mask the great split that was appearing in what was now the British Socialist Party. The 1912 Conference of the 2nd International in Basle, Switzerland had maintained uncompromising opposition to War. However when War was declared the International failed at its first real test. The International Solidarity of the working class was swept aside in a wave of jingoism and nowhere was this more evident than amongst the leadership of the BSP, under Hyndman (By September they were calling for recruitment). The Labour movement was found wanting and it was up to the Revolutionaries to oppose it.
This opposition centred in Clydeside and there were 2 important factors in it. Firstly the high concentration of heavy industry massing together advanced sections of proletariat Ð engineers, dockers, shipyard workers & miners. Secondly a large % working-class were either 1st /2 nd generation Highland/ Irish immigrants forced from land by Clearance & Famine & so Patriotism was not high. MacLean issued a damning indictment of the War & was forced from the pages of Justice. Both he and MacDougall immediately set about educating the workers about the real nature of war by taking the message directly to the shipyard gates and at his large Bath Street Sunday night meeting, across from the Army Recruiting Office. Willie Gallacher wrote "From the first moment he declared his Marxian faith Ð War against the Warmakers"
In February 1915 there was a strike at the munitions factory Weirs of Cathcart. The odds were stacked against them. The Defence of the Realm Act had made strikes illegal and the TUC had made a pledge of industrial peace for the duration of the War and so the Strike was an unofficial, shop steward led strike, (most of whom were pupils of MacLean), in defiance of the Union. The workers formed rank and file Labour Withholding Committee to conduct the strike but were forced back to work with no strike pay. However this was to prove the start of real militancy on the Clyde.
Since the start of the War the factors (in accordance with other capitalists) had taken the opportunity to push up rents. MacLean helped organise the women, under Mrs Barbour, and in Govan the women refused to pay increased rents. The agitation soon spread to other areas of the city as working class women organised against the factors. MacLean took the fight to the shipyards and factories until the men declared that they were ready to strike to prevent the rises Ð the political strike. (MacLean campaigned strongly for women’s rights and prominent amongst this was the earlier Neilston factory girls strike.)
passed July 1915 Ð prevented right to organise/ strike/ move from workshop, the rank & File soon learnt that the unions were preparing to betray them and so took steps to reform LWC. Delegates were sought from every shop across Clydeside & a Manifesto was drawn up, “ To organise the workers upon a class basis and to maintain the class struggle until the overthrow of the wages system, the freedom of the workers and industrial democracy have been attained ". The new body became known as the Clyde Workers Committee & it was to play a central role in Clydeside’s opposition to War. Many of the delegates were pupils of one of MacLeans classes (the central Glasgow one alone was getting 400 students/week.) John Wheatley said of him at the time, “ John’s ability and fearlessness have singled him out as one of the great rebel leaders of our time, and consequently one of the first subjects of prosecution. Our rulers fear MacLean more than they do the whole Labour Party."
As part of the employers offensive MacLean was arrested under DORA and charged with making two statements likely to prejudice recruiting. The statements were (i) “I have been enlisted in the Socialist Army for 15 years, God damn all other armies” and (ii) saying that a soldier who shot another soldier was a murderer. At his trial on 10/11/15 MacLean pled not guilty & stated that it was not the soldiers who were murderers but those who sent them. He had expected a 6 month sentence but the Judge, recognised the farcical nature of the trial & sentenced him to £5 fine or 5 days imprisonment.
16 th November Govan School Board called meeting to dismiss MacLean, which they had wanted for some time. Workers crowded into the meeting, Chairman deserted and Board members fled to Committee rooms where they decided to dismiss MacLean to the outrage of Clydeside workers.
18 th November Factors had decided to sue householders to collect increased rents. 18 men summonsed to Sheriff Court. Mrs Barbour organised women to march to Sheriff Court. Govan Shipyards & factories on strike and deputations march to town, one of which marched via Lorn Street School & carried MacLean (who was working under notice of dismissal) shoulder high to Sheriff Court, this was to be his last day as a teacher. In the town they met deputations from all over the city & MacLean addressed a crowd of 10,000 and demanded that if rent rises were implemented a General Strike should be called. The Sheriff realised the desperate situation & phoned Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, who told him to stop the case and announce that a RENT RESTRICTION ACT would be passed. MacLean hardly had time to celebrate though because next day he was jailed for refusing to pay his fine.
Believed that for a successful Revolution workers must be grounded in Marxist principles. His Sunday afternoon class alone, now had 481 students. From his classes he formed the Labour College Committee which planned an Inaugural Conference 12/2/16. It was planned to run a full time course of 3 terms a year, funded by Unions & covering all aspects of Industry, Economy & Labour Laws/ History.
However the Government offensive stepped up. Forward, Vanguard (Launched by Mac 1913), Worker all banned -Petroff arrested and no reason given. —Made criminal act, under DORA, for anyone to impede war production & it was clear that Gov was planning big crackdown.
Inevitably MacLean became the first victim of this. He was arrested 6 th Feb and held for a week in Edinburgh Castle, so missing the SLC meeting. Gallacher, Muir and Bell arrested shortly afterwards. Then March—9 leaders of CWC were seized and deported to Edinburgh, where it was reckoned they would cause fewer problems. Next day Maxton and McDougall urge a general strike at meeting on Glasgow Green, but a mood of fear was creeping over the workers, and this was compounded when Maxton and McDougall were later arrested for sedition.
11/4/16 Ð MacLeans trial. 6 counts against him connected with statements made that were ‘all likely to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection amongst the civil population, and to impede the production, repair and transport of war material.’ All prosecution evidence came from 18 polis. MacLean gave a valiant defence and the Judge admitted definite conflict of evidence but decided in favour of polis, as to do otherwise would mean that the polis were guilty of conspiracy. Jury found MacLean guilty on 4 of the charges and he was sentenced to 3 years penal servitude (hard labour) at which point MacLean turned a waved to his wife & the crowd sang the Red Flag.
Although the Brit Gov may have temporarily abated the Strike movement on the Clyde the effects were to reverberate internationally. Seumas Reader, Commander of the Scottish Brigade of the IRA during Irish Civil War agreed with MacLean that “when Jim Connolly saw how things were going on the Clyde he determined on the Easter Rising" (less than week later)
Demos held throughout country to protest at treatment of political prisoners as Scottish prison conditions were worst in Europe, McDougall suffered nervous breakdown. The Feb Russian Rev had helped galvanise revolutionaries position & MacLean was elected to Exec of BSP when Hyndman clique were forced out.
Mayday March saw 80,000 marchers & 250,000 lining streets to support the Soviets and demand MacLeans release . At the end of May 100,000 people demonstrated on Glasgow Green at Lloyd George being given the Freedom of the City & to demand the release of Mac . When Lloyd George came to Glasgow 1000’s took to the streets to protest & the Gov. was forced, under intense pressure from the working class to release MacLean to pacify crowds . As soon as he was released he set about denouncing the War & Capitalism & gathering support for the Soviets. This work was to see him appointed an Honorary President of the First All- Russian Congress of Soviets and appointed Bolshevik Consul for Scotland . The authorities refused to recognise the Soviet Gov. and MacLean’s consulate. They refused to deliver mail addressed to him & he had trouble getting funds to run the newly opened office. His Asst. was arrested and deported to Russia. MacLean saw that the best way to help the Soviet Government was agitation at home Ð later said that the Sinn Feiners ‘though non-Socialists at best’ had done more to help the Soviets than Brit labour by keeping Capitalism busy at home. Willie Gallacher testified to this when he wrote "The work done by MacLean during this 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 a truly terrific propaganda and agitational campaign. Every minute of his time was devoted to the revolutionary struggle, every ounce of his extraordinary energy was thrown into the fight." & the SLC now had 17 classes with over 1,500 pupils
Meanwhile the Americans had joined the war & the British Government feeling assured of victory decided to crush the anti-war movement. In April 1918 MacLean was arrested on his return from a tour of Durham and was arrested for sedition. The workers took the 1 st of May for MayDay celebrations at MacLeans insistence for the first time & after listening to the speeches from 22 platforms on Glasgow Green a huge crowd marched to Barlinnie Prison where MacLean was being held.
At his trial on 9 th May the Indictment took 10 mins to read & consisted of 11 charges the main one of which that he said the Workers should follow Russia and strike a blow for Revolution. He conducted his own defence & cross examined 28 witnesses 25 of whom were employed by the polis. Called no witnesses of his own but instead gave an impassioned speech lasting for 75 minutes giving a full & unashamed account of his own activities & beliefs with his famous quote
“No human being on the face of the earth, no government, is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I AM NOT HERE, THEN, AS THE ACCUSED: I AM HERE AS THE ACCUSER OF CAPITALISM DRIPPING WITH BLOOD FROM HEAD TO FOOT.”
He was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude in Peterhead
The Clyde District Defence Committee was formed to protect activists and provide for MacLeans family. Monthly demonstrations on Glasgow Green to demand his release and the July demo was attacked by polis. When his wife Agnes got to visit him in October she found out that he had been on hunger strike since July as he claimed he was being fed drugged food . Since July he had being force-fed by Warders, a practise which killed the Irish hunger strikers Thomas Ashe in 1917 and Terence McSwinney 1920. Such was the fury of the Labour Movement the Gov, was forced to sit up and take notice. More than anything they feared Social Revolution at home similar to that which had happened in Russia and was happening in Germany and elsewhere. 10,000 marched to demand his release in Finsbury Park, London. Released on Dec 3 less than7 months into a 5 year sentence. And launched straight into an election campaign standing for Labour Party but on a revolutionary platform denouncing parliamentary methods. His return to Glasgow is best given in this contemporary account “ I do not believe the extraordinary and deeply moving spectacle of that evening will be easily effaced from the memory of those who witnessed it. The slowly moving carriage being dragged through the thronged streets by a score of muscular workers who had taken the place of the horses, the surging, exultant mass of people, the incessant cheering and singing and standing upright in the carriage, supported by friends, was the challenging figure of John MacLean waving a large red banner with an air of triumph and defiance"
He then began working again with the miners in Scotland , S.Wales and N.England. The rank & file Reform Movement was revised and MacLeans ‘minimum programme’ was adopted Ð 6 hour/day, 5 day week, £1 day. The CWC also adopted this programme in early January 1919 but then formed a Joint Committee with the official trade unions. Sent out a demand for a 40 hour week or there would be a General Strike starting on 27 th Jan. MacLean had asked them to postpone the threatened strike for 1 month so that the miners could come out in support and was in England when the strike took place. On Monday 27 th Strike spread rapidly over Industrial Scotland. After a rally on Wednesday at St Andrews Hall the crowd gathered in George Square and a deputation met the Provost. They were told to return in 2 days for an answer. The workers were confident but the state had a surprise. When the crowds gathered to hear the reply to the workers demands the polis attacked them in George Square. The workers responded with anything they could their hands on & a battle took place. The Riot Act was read and the strike leaders were arrested. The next day Glasgow woke up to find itself occupied by English soldiers who had been told to sort out a Sinn Fein Rebellion. The Scottish regiments had been confined to Maryhill Barracks lest they sympathise with the strikers. The Government outlawed strikes by the Electrical Trade Union (ETU) and the official unions pulled out.
Soviets had been set up from Russia(East) to Limerick in the West, Bavaria, Berlin, Hungary.
The Gov’s fear was contained in a memorandum from Lloyd George at this time "The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of Revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against the pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to another"
MacLean continues constant agitational and educational work around industrial Britain, foresaw that increasing unemployment due to the war ending would weaken revolutionary situation. However this was coupled with a growing disenchantment with the BSP which had come under the influence of people MacLean could not work with. In particular a Lt Col Malone who a year prev. had been member of the Russian Reconstruction Society an anti-revolutionary propaganda body. They had wanted him to become a full-time organiser of the Hands Off Russia campaign but MacLean saw that the best way to help the Russian Rev was to fight for Rev. at home. He refused and warned against increasing Russian control over International affairs. A warning of the future dangers of Stalinism. At this time he was campaigning for the setting up of unofficial committees to work as Soviets & for them to set up Labour College Classes and he addressed 150,000 workers on MayDay with this message and to demand the release of socialists Eugene Debs (US) and Pete Larkin in Australia. The SLC went full time in September 1919 and by 1920 had classes Aberdeen, Arbroath, Dundee, East & West Fife, Falkirk, Edinburgh & all around Glasgow
MacLean was forced out of the BSP at the Easter Conference 1920 & immediately relaunched Vanguard paper at Mayday rallies. He rallied workers to him with the accompanying leaflet “All Hail The Scottish Communist Republic” and immediately built a small nucleus of dedicated revolutionaries around him. McDougall, Harry McShane, Peter Marshall and Sandy Ross. All their activities were financed through the sales of literature & collections at mass meetings. They set about agitating around their Fighting Programme Ð a series of concrete immediate demands for workers.
MacLean attended Highland Land League Conference and reported that “ there was a general approval of Communism under the control of the industrial workers, fishermen, crofters and other land workers ” He then visited Lewis to support the land raiders arguing that this was the application of Bolshevik tactics to the Highlands.
It had become clear to him that “ Since the British Empire is the biggest obstacle to Communism it is the business of every Communist to break it up at the earliest moment. That is our justification for urging a Communist Republic for Scotland .”
The sceptre of unemployment was haunting the workers following the defeat of the 40 hrs strike & MacLean began to organise the Unemployed into local Committees & to lecture them in Marxist economics. By the start of 1921 he was holding twice weekly meetings of 3,500 unemployed workers in the City Halls and in Feb was elected Secretary of the Scottish Provisional Unemployed Committee . Moves were afoot to create one united Communist Party in each country, as dictated by the 3 rd International from Moscow. He had joined the SLP because it remained to all extent & purposes a Scottish Party and he wished to turn it into a pro-independence organisation. MacLean issued a call for a Scottish Communist Party because he believed it would further the cause of Revolution, that conditions in Scotland were more advanced & open to Revolution. But he also objected to the increasing Moscow domination of the new International Ð “ We stand for the Marxian method applied to British conditions. The less Russians interfere with the internal affairs of other countries at this juncture, the better for the cause of Revolution in those countries ". In so doing he was representing a strain of thought which emphasised a fundamental belief in humanitarian Socialism. He did not trust many of those now calling themselves Marxist & grouped around the new CPGB.
Still the Capitalists offensive continued the mines had been re-privatised and the miners locked out and there were round-ups of Sinn Feiners in Glasgow. MacLean & Sandy Ross were soon to fall foul of the authorities and were arrested in Airdrie on 11 counts of “ addressing an audience of the civil population and using language calculated and likely to cause sedition and disaffection amongst His Majestys forces and the civil pop"
At his trial Mac was asked what he meant by Revolution. He held out both hands, one above the other; he said this represents the two classes in society, the top one being the capitalist class . He then swung his hands round to the reverse position and said this is revolution.
Both Mac & Ross sentenced to 3 months imprisonment. MacLean threatened hunger strike for political status and was granted it, which was unprecedented in Scotland.
Whilst in jail both men were chosen as candidates for the municipal elections by the Unemployed Committees and on their release were back into the thick of political action. However it was not for long as both men were to be arrested again for “ telling the unemployed to take food rather than starve". McDougall had already been sentenced to 60 days for this. Both men denied charges. MacLean in his trial stated “ All I am out for is food for my class & I am not afraid to say itÉ I am glad of this prosecution today because it has brought out that John MacLean is not prepared to see human beings die of starvation."
12 months in Barlinnie although he was granted political status, which allowed him books, papers and 1 hours exercise a day & he beat the Labour candidate from his cell.
Release 25 the October 1922 Changed days. No huge crowd. No wife/family. No pay from SLC Ð voluntary basis now. Penniless & out of pocket for election expenses. Jimmie McDougall was out of action for some years due to prison experiences, Sandy Ross emigrated after his 2 nd term in prison, Harry McShane had, along most of the left, joined the CPGB so only Peter Marshall was left with MacLean. The CPGB had taken over the Unemployed Movement & MacLean had left the SLP over its refusal to back independence.
Announces plans to stand against “traitor” Barnes in Gorbals election. Barnes stands down and eventually Buchanan decides to stand. MacLean used the election as an opportunity to give a straightforward account of his Marxist principles. He also reissued under a different name ‘All Hail the Scottish Workers Republic’ & explained that in order to carry out the work necessary to achieve a SWR he would adopt the Sinn Fein tactics and would not go to the House of Commons staying in Scotland, helping the unemployed and workers, educating in the SLC & carrying revolutionary propaganda the length & breadth of Scotland , and beyond. He came second but was well beaten as Labour candidates swept across Central Scotland. In Glasgow 10 ILPers were elected and the night they left St Enochs Station was a scene of great rejoicing. Jimmie Maxton declared that “the Clyde would get the better of the HoCÉ we are not leaving Glasgow as individuals but as a team working towards an ultimate goal..the abolition of poverty ". 18 months later Maxton was to declare MacLean had been right, that the Clydesiders should return to the Clyde & take up the challenge of creating a Scottish Socialist Commonwealth as nothing could be won from Westminster.
MacLean did not rest though. He set about the task of building a new revolutionary party, the Scottish Workers Republican Party. He set about building it round the remnants of the Unemployed Movement that hadn’t joined with the CPGB.
Once again he set about the resurgence of the SLC which lacking his drive had stagnated during his last imprisonment.
The SWRP stood in various municipal elections often defeating the Labour candidates & letting the Moderates win. With the left grouped together in a United Front , MacLean remained the sole pole of attraction for those Socialists who could see the dangers of Parliamentary methods & wished to keep the spirit of independent working class activity alive. However this United Front of LP/ILP/CPGB got the SLC to ban teachers from political activity in an obvious attempt to silence MacLean . MacLean announced that he would stand again in the Gorbals at that the SWRP would stand in all the Glasgow seats, and in this election he was aided by Sylvia Pankhurst the famous suffragette, whose Workers Dreadnought organisation also stayed outside the CPGB. His Republican Manifesto warned of the wrongs of reformism & also the coming danger of Fascism.
But he was in a bad way, his health was deteriorating and he had no source of income. Whilst in the past he had received an income from large meetings, his work was now concentrated amongst the Unemployed. His wife, Agnes, had returned to him to find him chronically sick, but still out agitating every night of the week in the cold November fog. His only overcoat he had given to a Jamaican comrade whom he typically believed needed it more than him . Eventually the years of merciless activity and state persecution took its toll . Whilst giving an election speech he had to be lifted from his open-air platform, mortally ill with double pneumonia , and was carried home to die.
5000 took part in the Funeral procession on the 4 miles from Eglington Toll to Eastwood Cemetery & many thousands more lined the streets to pay tribute to this greatest fighter of the working class.
Annual march every year until 1947
1948 25th Anniversary, Mass Meeting of Scottish-USSR Society
Both Maxton & McDougall attempted biographies but felt they could not do him justice.
First biographies came from official communist sources Bell & Gallacher Ð which both had there own reasons for denouncing MacLean as mad. Gallacher’s Revolt on the Clyde was written solely to discredit Peter Petroff, who had left Stalinist Russia & moved to Germany, which being of Jewish origin he left before Hitler came to power & wrote a damning account of the role of the CP in the rise of fascism. Gallacher by now a faithful communist set out to discredit both him & MacLean, who must have been ‘mad’ for not joining the CPGB.
Recently released Gov Papers show that Basil Thompson head of Brit Military Intelligence believed MacLean most dangerous man in Britain & stated that he would smear both MacLean & Pankhurst by spreading rumours that they were mad. These papers also show that at least two members of the newly formed CPGB Central Committee were British Intelligence Agents.
Kept alive in folk culture by Hamish Henderson, Matt McGinn and none more so than Hugh MacDiarmid.