Workers' Liberty #50/51  


The faith of a Scots internationalist

James D Young celebrates the memory of John Maclean.

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS after his death, the themes of the past, present and future of John Maclean (1879-1923), the Clydeside socialist, highlight what connects his life, times and legacy to 1998.

I am a socialist, or radical in Karl Marx’s sense of the word radical. It was Marx who argued that to be, “a radical means going to the root,” and that, “the root is man.” So we must try to see the now hidden connections between Maclean’s own life and times, the world of the late 20th century, and the possibility of a genuinely Scottish-International radicalism in the next century.

In his book Confound the Wise (1942), Nicolas Calas, Greek Trotskyist and surrealist poet, provided some excellent signposts suggesting how from the vantage-point of a radical vision of the world we could connect the past, present and the future. “The best historians,” he said, “are those who know what they want the future to be.” He insisted that, “the future is part of the past,” and that what we want must be in the future. In a key sentence — a sentence challenging post-modern pessimism and all the fashionable “doom and gloom” propaganda about the premature burial of socialism — he argued:

“If we do not believe in the prospects of the future, perhaps because we expect them to be blacker than the past, then we must try to revive modes of life of that part of the past we remember.”

John Maclean would have had no trouble in accepting this approach to history.

The main outlines of Maclean’s biography are now quite well known. The elements of continuity in his life and thought as a socialist before and after 1917 remain much more obscure. Maclean was a highly intelligent school teacher and socialist activist rather than a theorist or heavy-weight writer of learned tomes. As a thinker Maclean was not a Rosa Luxemburg; and he spent so much agitating that he did not have the time or leisure to write books. He contributed weekly articles to Justice, organ of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF, later the British Socialist Party) — the first Marxist organisation in Britain. His chief and best-known personal qualities were compassion for the “underdog”, integrity, and independence of mind.

In 1914 all Scottish socialists joined together to rubbish and ridicule the celebration of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, in which Scottish independence was secured against the English King. Maclean characterised it as a battle fought by serfs on behalf of, “a few barons.” Unlike other Scottish socialists — for example, John Carstairs Matheson, perhaps the major Scottish Marxist writer before 1914 — Maclean did support the agitation for Scottish Home Rule. He also objected to the fact that there was not a “single Scottish representative” on the national committee of the (British) SDF.

The “Great War” of 1914 transformed Maclean. In prison in 1917, for his anti-militarist and anti-recruitment speeches, he began to think about James Connolly — who, a wounded prisoner of war, had been shot by the British government in May 1916 after the Easter Rising, and the Irish question, his ancestors’ experiences in and eviction from the Scottish Highlands and Scottish Home Rule. Then he was inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He decided on a tactic of deepening the struggle for Scottish national independence to accelerate the break-up of the British Empire.

Maclean was, of course, influenced by his sense of identity as a Scot as well as his intense consciousness of his Marxism and internationalism.

More of an internationalist and anti-racist than ever before, in 1917 Maclean became known as a major international figure: he had been a jail-bird, an advocate of socialism from below and a critical supporter of the Bolsheviks. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was formed in 1920, but he refused to join it. And that was the rub: the origin of all the nonsense about his “insanity”.

One reason for Maclean’s refusal to join the CPGB was the Scottish national question; and in passing it should to be noted that between 1919 and 1923 there was a heated debate in the early British communist movement about the Scottish question. But there were other reasons — the reasons of a Clydeside man of principle, a man who was anti-racist and anti-imperialist.

The leaders of the early CPGB were, in Maclean’s eyes, guilty of a serious sin of omission, that is, of not opposing the First World War. None of them was sympathetic to James Connolly or to the Easter Rising in Dublin. And they were pro-imperialist. Indeed, at the Second Congress of the Third International, Tom Quelch told Lenin that they could not support Black struggles or anti-colonial revolts since the English workers would regard anything weakening the British Empire as, “treachery.”

The legacy

One aspect of Maclean’s legacy was the support for anti-racism, anti-imperialism and revolutionary socialism in the ILP in Scotland as distinct from its counterpart in England. The Scottish socialists — who should not be confused with the working class as a whole — were also more inclined to “direct action” at the grassroots and to extra-Parliamentary politics. The latter tradition was set by Maclean when, in 1907, he asked unemployed workers to march across the floor of the Stock Exchange in Glasgow to highlight the problems induced by poverty and unemployment.

Moreover, after Maclean’s death the CPGB became numerically stronger and ideologically more influential in Scotland than anywhere else in Britain. This pernicious Stalinist cultural orientation in the Scottish labour movement remains formidable — a cultural conservative bulwark shored up by New Labour’s continuation of the Thatcherite revolution and disgusting talk about the need to return to “the actually existing socialism”. And this is a good pathway into discussing the present.

The present

Our own times should have convinced socialists of the moral rottenness at the heart of contemporary capitalism. Unemployment; naked poverty; inadequate health care; the growing gap between the well-off and the unemployed and women and men who are paid dirt-cheap wages or sweeties; racism and the revival of fascism in conditions of economic scarcity: all these have combined to raise questions about capitalism. The propaganda of the New World Order communicates the “common sense” idea that free-market forces — i.e., global capitalism — will work. But for whom do they work, and for how much longer can capitalism survive? In contrast to the past — in contrast to Maclean’s time — the genuine democratic, class-struggle left is no longer in the ascendancy. Day in and day out working people everywhere are told that we have reached “the end of history” and that socialism — all visions of socialism — have been buried beyond any possibility of resurrection. In contrast to the past the left is isolated, often defeatist.

And yet the arguments for international socialism have never been more compelling or more difficult to refute in rational debate. In the midst of this situation historians like Kenneth Morgan and Christopher Harvey rubbish Maclean and the real Scottish national question. So does a so-called “Trotskyist” like Bob Pitt [editor of the discussion journal What Next?]. But in asserting that Maclean was “insane” because he advocated Scottish national independence, refused to join the CPGB and formed the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, they ignore the fact that even some of the Scottish prison doctors refused to certify Maclean as “insane”. Moreover Pitt ignores the fact that the Scottish prisons were, according to Peter Petroff, the Russian Bolshevik, worse than those in Tsarist Russia.

What is missing from the discussion about Maclean’s alleged mental instability is any international context. When the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer was put on trial in Spain in 1909, he was characterised as “insane” because he was an anarchist. Despite Ferrer’s world prominence as a rationalist, Freemason and educationalist, he was buried in a common ditch after being shot by a military firing squad.

In 1919 Rosa Luxemburg was declared “insane”, and buried in a pauper’s grave in Berlin. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 bulldozers were sent in to level the graveyard. Similar things were done in the 1920s in a Russia without soviets or workers’ councils. In the early 1920s, too, Sacco and Vanzetti, the American anarchists of Italian origin, were declared “insane” by the American authorities, and Vanzetti was jailed in a mental hospital.

What, then, is left of the Maclean legacy?1 The real importance of Maclean for 1998 is that he offered people a radical vision of the better world to be won, a vision of authentic socialism from the bottom up.

Although struggles for social justice and democratic control will develop during the next few years, the genuine Scottish Left’s critical and crucial role in the world at large is to expand solidarity and, above all, popularise its uncompromising vision of a radical egalitarian Scotland within a socialist world.

Far from socialism being inevitable, the “common ruin of the contending social classes” is a bigger danger than when Marx wrote those words in 1848.

However, if the world survives, it will be because socialists succeeded in developing a radical vision of a new global socialism free of inequality, poverty and oppression. Contrary to what authoritarian advocates of socialism from above have always argued, means and ends cannot be separated. And radical visions will be born inside the struggles against the New World Order.

The future

The myth of progress remains a dangerous one. In the circumstances of what is happening in various parts of the world, we should remember that Voltaire described history as, “a House of Funerals,” and that Hegel saw the historical process as, “a slaughter-bench.”

When he discussed the origins of “the inequality” of humankind, Rousseau wrote:

“The first man who enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor, you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’”

In a socialist world there will be no “unfree” market forces or private ownership of land or the means of production.

In a sustained discussion and description of socialism in the future, in Literature and Revolution (1925), Trotsky said:

“Life will cease to be elemental, and for this reason stagnant... The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous.”

But, although private capitalism was abolished in Russia after 1917, the dominance of Capital under totalitarian Stalinism thwarted the growth of any recognisable socialism. Any vision of a radical Scotland will have to repudiate any idea of “socialism in one country”. In the 1950s the Scottish nationalists campaigned on the slogan of “Our ain fish guts for oor ain sea maws.” Elements of that anti-internationalist mentality are again emerging from present-day Scotland. Radicals will need to stress that socialism must become thoroughly internationalist and global without distinction of creed, colour or sex. Just as the new radical movements of the Left will need increasingly to become multicultural, so a future global socialism will offer the vision of an emancipated humankind radiating all the colours of a beautiful rainbow.

  1. See my pamphlet John Maclean: A reply to Bob Pitt for a detailed account of Maclean's enduring influence on popular culture, including novels.

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