On the sidelines

Debating the legacy of John Maclean

In my article, ‘Shades of John Maclean’ (Weekly Worker June 19), I tried to show how incarceration in the state’s prisons can have a destabilising effect which may subsequently lead to mental health problems. That was the point of describing the ordeal of Michael Hickey, one of the Bridgewater Four falsely accused of murder.

I did not imply, as Paul Smith states, that in every case the suffering of the state’s victims “is so dehumanising that their subsequent thinking and behaviour can be dismissed as irrational” (Letters, July 3). Phil Sharpe’s statement in the same edition of the Weekly Worker that “Peter implies that mental health problems are identical to political degeneration” is equally off the mark.

It is self-evident that in some cases a ill-treatment in prison can result in mental breakdown (Maclean himself believed that the British state had a deliberate policy of attempting - in some cases successfully - to destroy political prisoners both physically and mentally). It is also clear that some mental problems can impair political judgement - what is the point of denying that?

I am not interested in making a “crude attempt to discredit” anyone, as comrade Sharpe alleges. I do not start from an assumption that Maclean was mentally disturbed and then casually go on to dismiss all his political ideas. I start from his refusal to play any part in the most significant event of British working class history - the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain - and try to explain how it was possible that such a heroic and dedicated socialist revolutionary could end up actually condemning the whole project.

Comrade Smith justifies Maclean’s position by pointing to the actual and potential defects of the Party and its leaders: its “potentially undemocratic nature”, “more inclined to anarchism than to Marxism”; the “insufficient understanding of the hold that social democratic ideas had on the consciousness of the British proletariat”. He goes on to inform us that “the CPGB stood to the right of the Third International” and that its leaders “had sacrificed quality for quantity of cadre”; he also reminds us of “the Party’s deplorable accommodation to Stalinism in subsequent decades” - presumably Maclean’s political acumen was so astute that he was able to predict the CPGB’s degeneration even before it was formed.

Comrade Smith could also have mentioned the economism, propagandism, reformism and chauvinistic prejudices that were present to varying degrees amongst the founder members. What else would you expect when such a heterogeneous collection of organisations and individuals are propelled towards unity through the sheer impact of the Russian Revolution?

There is a difference, Paul, between criticising “the ideas of the leadership of the CPGB” and refusing to take part in such a stupendous event. It is not only legitimate, but essential to constantly expose such faults and shortcomings. But what of Maclean’s slanderous accusations that the founding comrades were “conscious and unconscious tools of Lloyd George and the propertied class of Britain” (‘Open letter to Lenin’, reprinted in R Pitt John Maclean and the CPGB London 1995)?

Was it correct to stand back from the CPGB project and even attempt to set up a rival organisation? Comrade Smith does not openly say so, although the implication is clear.

Phil Sharpe has no such reticence however. For him, “The formation of the CPGB was upon the opportunist premises of a tame, pro-Moscow stance.” The Third International, he says, promoted “a nationalist ideology based upon the prestige of the October Revolution”.

What idealistic nonsense. Without the Russian Revolution there would have been no International, no revolutionary upsurge, no CPGB. Organisations do not spring up, lily-white and pure, out of a vacuum. Comrade Sharpe seems to think that defending the gains of the international proletariat in the shape of soviet power in Russia can be counterposed to extending the world revolution - as if the one does not in fact complement the other.

It is one thing to make such absurd claims. But it is quite another to project them onto John Maclean. Comrade Sharpe states: “Maclean’s ‘Open letter’ to Lenin makes the case for an open democratic centralist communist international upon an equal political basis.”

That is completely untrue. Even a cursory glance reveals that the whole purpose of the letter was to prove that British communist leaders such as Willie Gallacher were unworthy of Lenin’s support. Instead, the open letter argues, the Russian leader should give his blessing to Maclean’s own comrades: “It was my fidelity to you and the cause of revolution that got me the five years’ sentence in 1918,” he wrote. On the other hand, “The man in Britain [Gallacher] who is against Marxism is against Bolshevism in Russia too.”

When it comes to Maclean’s claims that specific communist leaders - in particular Gallacher, Theodore Rothstein and L Malone - were agents of the British state, comrade Smith simply denies that any such allegations were made, despite all the evidence assembled by Bob Pitt in John Maclean and the CPGB. Pitt quotes various secret British state documents, including several extracts from the Report on revolutionary organisations in the United Kingdom for 1920.

In January it was reported to the Cabinet that Maclean’s relations with others in the working class movement were under serious strain because of “his constant reference to ‘spies’ being present at public and private meetings”. In March, the Report alleged, “Maclean announced on a public platform that all the leading communists in the country, mentioning them by name and including that of Theodore Rothstein, were police spies.”

By April the state agents had concluded: “The communists have been slow to realise, what was patent to everyone else, that John Maclean is the victim of the monomania of the hidden hand’, and they are now reaping a harvest of suspicion from their loyalty to him.” The report continues with smug satisfaction:

“Maclean’s obsession is quite likely to break up the communist movement, for he has a large following in Glasgow and in season and out of season he gives vent to these denunciations” (Report on revolutionary organisations in the United Kingdom April 8 1920, CAB24/103/CP1039).

When Maclean accused Willie Gallacher at a Glasgow public meeting of being “no better than a government agent” (Daily Record December 27 1920, quoted by Pitt), Gallacher responded furiously: “We can’t have a man going round trading on his past and accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being a government agent” (The Worker January 8 1921, quoted by Pitt).

But Maclean simply repeated his charge: “I have insisted in public that you never hit the governing class but they hit you back in reply. Gallacher obviously was their instrument this time” (The Socialist January 13 1921, quoted by Pitt).

Despite comrade Pitt’s careful research, Smith and Sharpe continue to claim no knowledge of any such accusations against Gallacher and Rothstein. However, both combine their profession of ignorance with statements which imply that Maclean’s allegations against Malone were true. Smith refers to Lieutenant-Colonel Malone as an “anti-socialist Liberal MP”, even though he subsequently joined the British Socialist Party and was one of the founders of the CPGB.

Malone’s conversion to communism was certainly remarkable and clearly superficially based, for he soon left the CPGB and drifted out of politics, but his role in mobilising support for the young Russian republic should not be underestimated. There was never the slightest proof that he was a secret agent of the state during his short period as a communist. Nor did Maclean offer any.

Maclean’s Open letter to Lenin’ makes clear allegations against the newly formed CPGB as a whole. He writes that the posing of Labour leaders such as MacDonald and Snowden as friends of Russia would not deceive Lenin. Lloyd George “must therefore make way for a Communist Party whose ‘leaders’ are controlled by him”. And of course Maclean ends with the “conscious and unconscious tools” smear.

Comrade Sharpe would have us believe that Maclean was merely criticising the CPGB leaders’ opportunism - and then goes on to repeat the smear himself: “Maclean was certainly not exaggerated in his remarks about the CPGB acting as tools of the Lloyd George government, given their softness towards the Labour Party ...”

So let us sum up the objections of comrades Smith and Sharpe. They appear to be saying that John Maclean’s treatment at the hands of the state left him with no lasting mental problems; but even if he was mentally disturbed that did not affect his political judgement. They say that Maclean never accused the CPGB leadership of being, collectively or individually, agents of the British state; but if he had made them the allegations were probably true.

Our differences with the comrades are not primarily about John Maclean and the founding of the CPGB. Our main differences concern the need for a Communist Party today. Is it correct to stand and watch from the sidelines while others attempt to build what is necessary? Is it enough to point out their shortcomings, or should those who claim to know better attempt to shape a real movement themselves? Should disagreement over tactics and strategy keep us apart, or should communists agree to organise as a unity and test them out in practice?

And should professed revolutionaries hurl false accusations in an attempt to cover up their own refusal to join such a project?

Peter Manson