Harry McShane

John Maclean: Socialist

(October 1958)

From Socialist Review, October 1958.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 278–82.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“I am not here, then as the accused; I am here as the accuser
of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

These words are taken from a speech made from the dock by John Maclean when charged with sedition during the first world war. His closing words were:

“No matter what your accusations against me may be; no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a reorganisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.”

John Maclean stood out against war. He supported every effort of the workers to secure higher wages. He took part in the rent fight of 1915. He organised the unemployed. He helped the miners.

Harry McShane, friend and disciple of the great revolutionary, writes in memory of his death just over 34 years ago.

One of the most stirring events I can remember took place on cold winters night in December 1918. Those of us who had supported John Maclean in his fight against the first world war were delighted at the great crowd of workers who turned up at Buchanan Street station, Glasgow, to meet the train carrying him from Aberdeen after his release from Peterhead prison.

John was a Labour candidate in Gorbals. His opponent was George N. Barnes. Barnes refused to leave the Cabinet when the Parliamentary Labour Party decided to withdraw from the First Coalition Government. Neither Barnes nor any other candidate in Glasgow could speak without facing interruptions over the continued imprisonment of John Maclean. A week before polling-day he had to be released.

The train was late. Old Jimmy Johnstone, a rigger who never wore a collar and tie, spoke to the vast crowd that waited for the train. He was an old friend and comrade of John Maclean and was the first Clydeside Socialist to fall foul of the police for his anti-war activities. His earnestness and rough natural eloquence kept the audience interested until the train arrived.

One can never forget that exciting scene. A lorry came from nowhere and John was on top of it. A monster red flag appeared and John grabbed hold of it. The lorry was pulled down through the streets and John Maclean, although weak after a prolonged hunger strike, waved the flag with great vigour. On arrival at Carlton Place speeches were made by the romantic James Maxton, the then fiery Neil McLean, William Gallacher, Harry Hopkins and others.

Classes in class war

I first heard John Maclean speak in the early part of 1910. He was acting as chairman for a Henry F. Northcote who was delivering a lantern lecture under the auspices of the Social Democratic Party. John denounced Lloyd George’s famous budget and criticised Macdonald and Snowden for having described it as a “Socialist Budget” John was already well known because of his classes in economics and his propagandist activities.

I met him later the same year on a joint committee of the provisionally-formed British Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party. I had the temerity to oppose a proposal by John and for the first time, but not the last, got only my own vote.

In 1911, the Social Democratic Party agreed to merge with the British Socialist Party. I was then to see and hear much of John Maclean. I attended his classes and received weekly inspiration. There was nothing academic about John Maclean. He drew lessons from current events and the class struggle was there all the time.

There was, at that time, a body in Glasgow, known as the Catholic Socialist Society lead by John Wheatley, one of the ablest men ever produced by the working class movement. He was the man behind Maxton, Kirkwood and the others who went from Clydeside to Westminster in 1922. The Catholic Socialist Society held indoor meetings on Sunday afternoons. I went to hear John speak to one of these meetings on The Coming of Socialism.

John enjoyed himself, and so did the audience. He started with the nebular theory and the formation of the earth. When he came to deal with the origin of man Wheatley touched his hand and whispered that he was speaking to a Catholic audience. John told the audience and said that he had delivered the same lecture to Protestants and did not think he was insulting them. He then sat down. The audience demanded that the lecture continue.

Provokes discussion

The highlight came when John dealt with the Socialist movement throughout the world and closed by saying, “This is the only country in the world where you have a Socialist party that is not class-conscious; I refer to the Independent Labour Party “. There was a storm. The Catholic Socialist Society was affiliated to the ILP. I have never listened to a better discussion than the one I heard that day. It seemed to cover everything. I came away with a greater admiration for John Maclean than ever before.

When the first world war broke out John was on holiday at Tarbert. Following Sir Edward Grey’s speech in the house Commons, he chalked the streets of Tarbert with the words “Sir Edward Grey is a liar.” On his return to Glasgow he spoke at meeting at Nelson’s Monument, Glasgow Green, and declared his opposition to the war. The British Socialist Party, the Independent Labour Party and even the Socialist Labour Party were all split on the war at this stage, but John did not waver.

War and prison

It was in February 1915 that the first strike in wartime took place. This led to the formation of the Clyde Workers’ Committee. Its concentration on economic questions to the exclusion of the issue of the war led to some disagreements. John Maclean and others were held at arms’ length.

Later the same year John was given five days’ imprisonment for a speech he made in the presence of soldiers. He refused to pay a fine of five pounds. He was released in time to take the chair at a meeting with Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury as speakers. The meeting had to be held in the open air because the magistrates had prevented its being held in the City Hall.

Because of his imprisonment, Govan School Board decided to dismiss him. This led to interruptions at the meeting of the Board and large demonstrations outside. He was given a month’s notice of dismissal. He was serving his notice when a procession of workers from Fairfield Shipyard stopped at the school and took him with them. That was the day when the Sheriff had to telephone to Westminster and got the promise of rent restriction. It was November 1915. John never returned to the school.

He prompted the Glasgow District Committee of the British Socialist Party to issue the Vanguard in order to counter the pro war propaganda conducted in the official organ Justice. When Forward was suppressed in January 1916, Vanguard was also seized. Shortly after this he was again arrested and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Shop stewards were deported and a number of leaders were sent to prison. The Government had decided to wage war on the Clydeside workers. A reception was given to all the leaders released from prison in St. Mungo Halls. One man was missing and that was John Maclean. From that night onwards the agitation for his release was intensified. He was ultimately allowed out on ticket-of-leave. His health was obviously affected but he did not rest.

Leninism and workers’ power

I recall one night after the Russian Revolution at a meeting in International Halls when he declared himself a Leninist in reply to Ramsey Macdonald who, at a meeting in Glasgow, had said that he was not a Leninist.

He spoke of the steps the workers would take when seizing power. He then said these were not the steps that would be taken but he had outlined them in order to provoke thinking on the matter. This and other meetings led to him being again arrested. He was given a five years’ sentence.

Following his release in December, 1918, he threw himself into the struggle again. He had differences with some of the Clydeside leaders. He fell out with some members of the EC of the British Socialist Party over an attempt to get him to drop all his work and concentrate on the Hands off Russia Committee. He left the BSP and re-issued the Vanguard. The branch of the BSP of which I was secretary, broke from the party about the same time. In 1920, I was dismissed from my job, John proposed that I work with him on a propaganda campaign. This led to the formation of a team known as The Tramp Trust Unlimited. We covered the whole of Scotland. There were clashes with the Communist Party formed later in 1920. John held that Moscow could not dictate to Glasgow.

He agreed with Communist Party policy but was opposed to its make-up so far as leadership was concerned. He later advocated the formation of a Scottish Communist Party.

Unemployed struggles

In November 1920, we convened the first meeting of the unemployed. On John’s suggestion the unemployed marched to the City Chambers where a deputation met Wheatley, Shinwell, Dollan and others. This began a new struggle. Similar activities led by Wal Hannington, in London, led to the formation of a national unemployed organization.

John Maclean was taken away from this, in 1921, when he was arrested for speeches to locked-out miners. He was given three months’ imprisonment. He was tried in Airdrie and made a speech it his defence.

Again in 1922 he was arrested for speeches to the unemployed. During his trial the court was cleared because of cheers given to statements he made. He was given a twelve months’ sentence. Later, I was arrested. On my release I joined the Communist Party. I last saw John in May 1923, when he came to protest against my eviction from my house. We both marched crowds to the place and spoke on two different platforms.

A step ahead

I left Glasgow on August of the same year in search of a job. He died in November. Thousands of workers attended his funeral, his coffin being carried by four ILP members of Parliament.

This was the end of a man who sacrificed himself for the movement. He was recognised by Lenin. His classes were known about in Germany during the war. He educated the Socialists of Clydeside and of Scotland.

There are many gaps in this account of my memories of John Maclean. Let me say that he had a greater influence on me than any man I have ever known. He was often out of step because he was a step ahead.

Last updated on 29 June 2014