Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


John Maclean and the CPGB

Bob Pitt
John Maclean and the CPGB
Pitt Publications, London, 1995, pp. 44, £2.00

JOHN MACLEAN is a familiar figure to those with an interest in the politics of the revolutionary left in Britain. A member of the Social Democratic Federation from early 1903, he remained a committed Social Democrat up to the outbreak of the First World War, winning a modest reputation as a tireless propagandist and a skilful Marxist educator. On the outbreak of war, he adopted a position of active opposition to a war which he characterised as imperialist, and he consistently maintained the view that the destruction of the British Empire was an object to be enthusiastically desired and fought for. To that end he gave immediate support to the Dublin Rising of 1916 in terms not dissimilar to Lenin’s, and he remained committed to the cause of Irish liberation as a key element in the anti-imperialist project. It also brought him to the attention of Lenin, and, following the October Revolution, assured him an important status in the Third International. However, in 1920–21 Maclean became estranged from those who were forging a British Communist Party, and he never joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Instead, he criticised those who were initially prominent within it, and found a niche briefly in the Socialist Labour Party, and later the Scottish Workers Republican Party, before he died at the end of 1923, a largely isolated figure.

Bob Pitt has produced a pamphlet dealing with Maclean’s relationship with the CPGB, which was a decisive if not the decisive moment in his political career. The pamphlet is well and clearly written, and adds new information to that already available on Maclean’s rôle in the political debates surrounding the formation of the CPGB. It also contains a reprint of Maclean’s Open Letter to Lenin, in which he outlined his analysis of the general political situation in Britain, and his particular criticisms of the political manoeuvring then taking place on the revolutionary left.

Pitt’s thesis is not new, but is a reformulation of the orthodox Communist Party line that was first developed by Willie Gallacher and Tom Bell. It acknowledges Maclean’s courageous rôle during the First World War, which resulted in his imprisonment, and attributes Maclean’s estrangement from the developing CPGB in 1920–21 to the consequences of that imprisonment. These consequences are alleged to have undermined Maclean’s mental state to the point where paranoia profoundly affected his political judgement. Pitt cites various examples of Maclean’s paranoid behaviour, which involved a sense of being followed and watched by government agents, and his suspicious and startling criticisms of important figures within the revolutionary left, most notably Francis Meynell (the editor of The Communist), Colonel L’Estrange Malone and Theodore Rothstein, the long-time SDF member and the principal representative of the Bolsheviks in the processes leading to the formation of the CPGB. In addition, Maclean denounced Gallacher for lacking a real basis in Marxism, and for having betrayed him personally by asserting his mental instability in a letter to the SLP.

For Pitt, all this leads to the conclusion that Maclean was ‘mad’ at the crucial time when the CPGB was formed, and Maclean’s criticism of the party and its leaders can thus be safely rejected as the product of an unbalanced mind. Pitt’s purpose is not to denigrate Maclean, but ‘to set the record straight’, and counter those who would use Maclean’s criticisms to argue ‘that the Bolshevik Revolution and all its consequences were rotten from the start’. This is presumably aimed at someone like Walter Kendall, who has long held that the creation of the CPGB was the product of ‘external’ pressures, rather than a ‘natural’ development of the British revolutionary left. Moreover, Kendall sees this forced development as representing an ‘historic error on the grand scale’ because it effectively cut off the potentially rich tributaries of the left from the mainstream labour movement, leaving the left as a backwater.

It is not necessary to go all the way with Kendall to recognise that Maclean’s reservations about the revolutionary potentiality of the CPGB and its early leaders were not so absurd that they could not be shared by others who were no ‘madder’ than he. Indeed, it is worth noting that of those British left wing organisations specifically invited to the founding of the Third International, almost none lost its identity within the CPGB, but rather opposed its particular configuration. The CPGB did, however, offer prominent positions to Malone, a member of parliament with a history of virulent anti-Socialist outbursts, and Francis Meynell, who, along with Malone, was identified by Maclean as having no background in Marxism. Meynell himself subsequently observed that no revolutionary theoretical journal could have had an editor less theoretically versed in Marxism than he. Yet he was installed by Arthur MacManus.

It is difficult to judge Maclean’s ‘madness’ with any real confidence at this distance in time, and without a medical background. Certainly, as Pitt recognises, people like Maclean on the left were conventionally defined as ‘mad’ for holding the beliefs they did. But Pitt goes further, and accepts the evidence that Maclean was paranoid in the proper medical sense. For my part, the best evidence is that of Doctor Garrey, the Medical Officer at Peterhead Prison who refused to certify Maclean insane despite pressure from his superiors. The specific evidence of ‘madness’ related to Maclean’s allegations that his prison food was drugged. Since this was patently untrue, the medical practitioners saw this as clear evidence of mental instability. However, Garrey, who had the most contact with Maclean, refused to accept this diagnosis. Pitt’s suggestion that Garrey’s refusal to certify Maclean insane can be questioned on the grounds that having organised his forced feeding, he was anxious to deny that Maclean suffered ill effects that could have been attributed to his actions, is not a credible explanation. If Garrey had any concerns about how his treatment of Maclean might have been interpreted, the simplest course was to declare him insane. Maclean’s criticisms of leading Communists may well have been extreme. He may well have cited the wrong individuals as government agents operating at the highest level of the CPGB (ironically, the support for such a misconception comes from one such agent referred to in the pamphlet). However, there is no short cut to considering the essential criticisms made about the events surrounding the formation of the CPGB, nor about the inherent failings of that party.

Maclean was not an isolated revolutionary ‘non-joiner’, but was one amongst many. As Raymond Challinor has observed, the CPGB was formed as the result of a series of mergers, and, perhaps uniquely, the product of these mergers was less than the sum of those involved at the outset. Many of those who chose to remain outside did so because they believed it to be dominated by reformists and ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ to the revolutionary cause. Whilst some of these oppositionists can be seen as ultra-leftists or ‘infantile leftists’ in the Leninist sense, this is not a charge that could easily be laid at Maclean’s door. Maclean was not an ultra-leftist, and right up to the last few months of his life, when worn out, ill and isolated, he lost his sense of political reality, his letters and indeed his Open Letter to Lenin show him to be more realistic and balanced in his assessment of the political situation in Britain than the leadership of the CPGB. If you leave aside the vitriolic attacks launched on Maclean by members of the CPGB in language familiarly applied by Trotskyists and Stalinists to Socialists of all hues, then Maclean’s criticisms of the emerging and infant CPGB have a powerful ring to them. In taking them seriously, it is not inevitable that you are forced to repudiate the October Revolution, or even the need for a Communist Party in Britain, but maybe to ask whether the CPGB that was formed in 1921 was the only such party available, and if there were not better options.

Copies of this pamphlet can be obtained from the author at 92 Castlehaven Road, London NW1 8PL.

John McHugh

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011