William Gallacher

John MacLean

Source: The Communist International, 1924, No. 30, pp. 45-48 (1,580 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

In the midst of an election campaign, I read the announcement in the Press, “Death of John MacLean.” I could scarcely credit the evidence of my eyesight, surely it couldn’t be true! Just a week or so before, I had left Glasgow for Dundee, and at that time MacLean was holding meetings all over Glasgow. But then, that was the real make of the man. His body may be broken, his physical strength might fail, but the revolutionary spirit that inspired him kept him going no matter how great the obstacles were that opposed him.

During the past two years, his rigid revolutionary integrity brought him into bitter opposition with the official Labour movement, and as a result, many smug, self-satisfied successful Parliamentary representatives are inclined to refer to him with a sneer, more or less hidden in their voice, but I, who was through all the fighting on the Clyde, fighting that has made it possible for many of these men to score their electoral victories, know that no man played a bigger part in making Glasgow and its surroundings Red, than John MacLean. It is so easy for small men to step into the limelight and make fervent protestations of abiding devotion to the workers’ cause, when the workers’ cause is popular, and offers splendid opportunities for political advancement: it is so easy to fulminate against the evils of Capitalism to the accompaniment of enthusiastic plaudits from assemblies of workers, but it is also easy, and oh! so convenient, to forget that the chains that bound these workers to the policy of their masters had to be smashed, and that the smashing wasn’t easy. It was not a popular task; it was a task that meant calumny, abuse, and imprisonment, and all these MacLean faced, with dauntless courage and a never failing belief in the workers to whom he carried his message of revolutionary deliverance. I came into contact with MacLean when I entered the Socialist movement 18 years ago. I joined up in the Paisley branch of the Social-Democratic Federation. MacLean was at that time a dominating figure in the heart of Scotland and very early I came under his influence.

As a Marxian teacher he was second to none, and all the young men of the movement eagerly accepted his tuition. Very early he recognised the fact that H.M. Hyndman was an English bourgeois gentleman masquerading as an Internationalist, and that his influence in the workers’ movement was all towards bringing it in behind British Imperialism.

Throughout the movement he kept up a very energetic criticism of Hyndman, and assuredly succeeded in saving the movement in Scotland from being dragged into the maelstrom of 1914.

In the years prior to the war, he was an indefatigable worker in the Socialist movement. There never was his like in any section of the workers’ movement in Britain. Every night in the week he was at it and from early morning till late at night on Sunday.

Economic and industrial history classes, demonstrations, meetings of all kinds: he never had to be asked twice to give assistance if he had an hour or half-an-hour to spare. A demonstration of five thousand or a small group of five, it made no difference to him, there was a chance to sow the seed, and he sowed it well; alas, that those who now gather the harvest give so little thought to the labourer who went before. But if his activities were surprising before the war, what can one say of him when war broke out in 1914?

Surely in no country in Europe was such a tornado of energy let loose. Never for a moment was he in doubt about the war or what it meant. -With the first blast of the trumpets, he was on the streets.

“To hell with the war! if the Capitalists of Europe want to fight, let them do their own fighting. While they fight the workers must seize the opportunity to get power into their own hands and expropriate the expropriators.” Night after night he was at it. Accompanied by a small group of loyal comrades he carried on a terrific anti-militarist, anti-capitalist campaign. The first attempt of the authorities to get after him was on a mere technical question for which he was tried and sentenced to five days’ imprisonment.

Next he was dismissed from his position as a schoolteacher. But this, so far from damping his ardour, gave him greater opportunities to express it. Now, not only was he out at night, but during the day he was around the great shipbuilding area of the Clyde, addressing meal-hour meetings, vigorously exposing the capitalist interests behind the war and calling to the workers to rise in revolt against those who had so long exploited them.

The great strike which broke out on the Clyde in February, 1915 was the determining factor which sent Glasgow Red, despite the frenzied efforts of the “Patriots” in the Labour movement to keep it loyal and the propaganda carried on by MacLean did much to create the spirit that made such a strike possible.

A few months later, the “rent strike” broke out and its rapid development forced the Government to pass a Bill prohibiting house owners from raising the rents of the houses. The demonstrations held during this time were wonderful. Only in Petrograd could the working-class men and women turn out in the streets as they did during these days in Glasgow. Again, the outstanding figure was MacLean inspiring all who came into contact with him with his intense revolutionary fervour. At the beginning of 1916, the Government was preparing a Conscription Act. Before they could feel safe operating it there had to be a round-up on the Clyde. A number of us were arrested and held for trial for making seditious speeches, others were arrested and deported.

MacLean was the first to be attacked. Always he held the position of being the first man the authorities arrested when they feared trouble. At his trial, in April, 1916, he defended himself and the speech he made from the dock was published in pamphlet form and widely distributed throughout the country.

“I am not the accused,” he said, “but the accuser. I accuse Capitalism. Capitalism, dripping with the blood of millions of workers.” The mockery of a trial was carried through and MacLean was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. The next day several more of us were sentenced to 12 months’ and that ended our interest in outside affairs for a time at least. When we got out there was a strong agitation for the release of MacLean going on throughout Scotland, with the result that he was liberated when he had served 15 months of his three years’ sentence.

In i91S, when things looked pretty bad for the Allies, the British Government pushed through a man-power Bill, which enabled them to call up all kinds and conditions of people from 18 years of age and upwards.

They had great difficulty operating this, especially on the Clyde, and again they got after MacLean.

Once again, he had to go through the sham of a trial after which he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.

During this period, he was appointed Bolshevik Consul for Glasgow, an honour which he considered greater than any other that could have been conferred on him.

Again an agitation for his release was set going and we succeeded in getting him released when he had served only seven months of his five years’ sentence.

At the election in November, 1918, he stood as a candidate against the Labour traitor, Geo. N. Barnes, and polled over seven thousand votes. Barnes, of course, had the backing of the Tories, Liberals, Moderate Labourites and patriots of all schools.

During all this activity his classes weren’t neglected. He started them in all parts of the country. In Glasgow he had a class of 400 that met every Sunday to study and discuss the application of the Martian theory to the passing events of the time.

Only when he was in prison could he be separated from his class work, and then other faithful workers were there to carry on the work.

One of these, Comrade C. Dougal, could best write on this side of his work, and show how after much labour, he overcame obstacles that would have daunted most men, and securely laid the foundation of the Scottish Labour College. In 1921, he was once more in the hands of the police and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. All this imprisonment and the conditions under which he had to serve it, played havoc with his constitution. He needed a long rest, but the call of the revolutionary movement was always there. His spirit was too strong for his body, so we find him a few days before his death out on the streets in cold winter weather carrying the message of hope to the unemployed workers of Glasgow.

With his death there passes one of the greatest fighters the movement in this country has known. But he has left the movement a heritage that is worthy of the devotion he gave the cause.

Hundreds of young men, scattered throughout the country, in the colonies and America, heard the message from MacLean, were inspired by MacLean and now continue the work that death and death alone could force him to lay aside.