Reclaiming Maclean

Seeking a prophet of old to bolster its "independent socialist Scotland" programme, the Scottish Socialist Party has adopted John Maclean - the outstanding opponent of World War I and supporter of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

At the SSP's annual school, Socialism 2001, held over the weekend of December 1-2, Maclean's life and legacy was the major theme. On Friday there had been a march from Glasgow's George Square to a rally in his honour. The main speaker being Tommy Sheridan.

To coincide with this Maclean fest, Scottish Socialist Voice published a double page article by comrades David Sherry and Gerry Cairns (November 30). Unfortunately, this article, in its studied diplomacy, is notable not so much for what it says as for what it does not.

In offering a corrective to the SSP's deification of Maclean, there is no intention to detract from his heroic stand against imperialist war nor his revolutionary commitment. It is, however, the contention of this author that myth-making has no place in Marxism, which above all needs the truth. (I have drawn heavily on comrade Bob Pitt's 1995 pamphlet John Maclean and the CPGB).

In 1902, Maclean, a primary school teacher, joined the Social Democratic Federation - Britain's first avowedly Marxist organisation. He spent the rest of his adult life fighting for revolution. He did not restrict his teaching just to schoolchildren: he ran evening classes in Marxism, especially Marxist economics. These classes helped produce a generation of activists who - alongside Maclean himself - were instrumental in the famous revolts on 'Red Clydeside' - both during and after World War I.

When the expanded British Socialist Party was formed from the merger of the SDF with some weaker socialist groupings, Maclean was full of enthusiasm. Writing in the BSP's paper, Justice, he commented: "I believe I express the sentiments of all north of Berwick and many of our dominant race south thereof when I say that we are proud of the latest 'combine', the combine of socialist forces" (The foundation of the British Socialist Party Marxists Internet Archive).

The BSP was in many ways a typical - if very small - representative of the Second International. Upon the outbreak of war, clear divisions emerged - just like in the International as a whole. Some leading figures, like HM Hyndman, took an overtly pro-war position; others were equivocal. Others still, Maclean included, adopted an internationalist, anti-war position right from the start. The revolutionary wing slowly gained strength - not least through the unofficial BSP paper, The Call - and ousted the social chauvinist Hyndman leadership in 1916. Maclean was recognised as one of The Call's most able orators and writers.  His opposition to the war and fight for internationalism was recognised by the Bolsheviks. Even in their Swiss exile Lenin and Zinoviev knew of Maclean. After the October Revolution they elected him honorary president of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and in January 1918 Maclean was also appointed the Soviet Republic's consul in Glasgow.

Comrades Sherry and Cairns garble this episode in Maclean's life: "Always an internationalist, he was relatively unknown outside the small milieu of the Scottish left. But his opposition to the First World War led him to break with the leaders of his party and he quickly became an revolutionary socialist of international renown" (SSV November 30).

This is the last time that the BSP appears in their narrative. Conveniently it creates the impression that Maclean left the BSP and that he was simply an isolated - albeit heroic - figure. In fact, Maclean remained a leading member until 1920, when the BSP was the largest group amongst those that fused to form the CPGB. It was the CPGB that Maclean refused to join. But the dictates of nationalism prevent comrades Sherry and Cairns from seriously examining this stubborn fact - if they did, they would be forced to discuss Maclean's real reasons for going it alone.

Maclean's commitment to the British Socialist Party creates an obvious problem for left nationalists, many of whom quite openly use the term 'Brit left' as a grievous insult. Maclean was a tireless worker for an all-Britain organisation and was totally committed to the unity of the working class in Britain. Later claims that he refused to join the CPGB out of some tartan objection to the very idea of an all-Britain organisation is pure invention.

His courageous stand against the war inevitably brought him into conflict with the state. He was jailed in 1915, 1916 and 1918. During his trial in 1918 he famously turned the tables on his accusers, delivering a powerful indictment against a capitalist system that he declared to be the "most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed" (Marxists Internet Archive).

However, cruel treatment in prison took its toll. At his trial in 1918, Maclean claimed that his food was being drugged. He announced his intention to refuse "government food" and went on hunger strike. There can be no doubt that a prisoner's diet was dreadful, but, as comrade Pitt points out, "No historian, even among Maclean's most vigorous defenders, has attempted to argue seriously that his charge of drugging was actually true" (R Pitt John Maclean and the CPGB p5).

His incarceration did not last long. Though he had been sentenced to five years imprisonment, the campaign to release him rallied substantial support from a labour movement outraged by his treatment. It was successful in getting Maclean released on December 3 1918: "He was greeted by a crowd of thousands, who unhitched the horses from his carriage, defiantly waving a huge red banner. This remains one of the most powerful and heroic images from the history of class struggle in Britain" (ibid p6).

During his imprisonment, Maclean had been selected as the Labour candidate for the Gorbals seat that was to be contested as part of the 1918 general election. Though he was unwell and William Gallacher deputised for him for most of the campaign, he still managed to deliver some speeches, in which he referred once again to the food-doping story. Gallacher recalls that Maclean's speech at an eve-of-poll rally was "full of good socialist electioneering", but was regrettably "marred by the sickness that had become firmly embedded in his mind: he kept on introducing the subject of how they had doped his food in prison and how he had got the better of them despite their dirty work" (ibid p6). Conspiracy theories had started to plague Maclean's mind. When his marriage broke down in 1919, he even claimed that the government was somehow directly responsible.

Comrades Sherry and Cairns do not mention the debates around Maclean's mental state during his later years - not even to dismiss them. As 'Socialism 2001' evidenced, it would appear that comrade Cairns believes that every word uttered by Maclean must be the gospel truth. So he argued at Socialism 2001 that Maclean was right to abandon the CPGB, because not only Gallacher, but other leading figures in the CPGB were "state agents" (see Weekly Worker December 6). Clear nonsense. Yet, unfortunately, that is what Maclean was repeatedly declaring in 1920.

It is the last period of his life that provides the most fertile grounds for the nationalists' portrayal of Maclean as one of their own. However, questions about Maclean's mental state in this period have obvious ramifications and are therefore best ignored. Thus comrades Sherry and Cairns present the following explanation for Maclean's refusal to join the CPGB: "[Maclean] had major political differences with some of those who presided over its formation" (my emphasis). A weasel formulation. "Some" who formed the CPGB is substituted for the CPGB as a whole - remember the CPGB was the British section of the Communist International led by Lenin, Trotsky, etc. That is what Maclean was refusing to join. Why? Left nationalists allege differences over the national question - conveniently forgetting that its emergence as a factor did not occur at all until after Maclean turned his back on the CPGB.

Maclean's politics were in their origins deeply marred by sectarian millenarianism. An example being his dispute with the BSP over the Hands off Russia campaign, which between 1919 and 1920 saw the BSP taking part in agitation to defend the Soviet Republic from imperialist-sponsored attack. Maclean argued at first that the demand for industrial action was far too timid. Instead he called for the "revolution in Britain no later than this year" (Pitt, p9).

But Maclean was increasingly preoccupied with conspiracy theories. Initially they focused on one Lieutenant-Colonel L'Estrange Malone MP. Having spoken with him at a meeting of the Hands off Russia campaign in Glasgow, Maclean afterwards denounced him as a government agent, "soothing the socialists whilst the government was preparing a spring offensive against Russia" (ibid p10). Malone's past allowed Maclean to construct a tortured case. Malone had been a Coalition Liberal and a member of the virulently anti-communist Reconstruction Society prior to a visit to Russia in September 1919, after which he moved dramatically to the left and eventually joined the CPGB in 1920 as a founding member - and first MP.

Sudden conversions are not unknown phenomena. They certainly do not constitute grounds upon which to base such a serious accusation as being a government spy. Unsurprisingly Maclean never produced a single shred of evidence to prove his allegations against Malone, apart from repeated references to his anti-communist past. His accusations did not gain any credence within the CPGB or Comintern.

Other denunciations quickly followed. Theodore Rothstein, a prominent figure in the BSP, was similarly regarded as being in the pay of the state. Rothstein was in fact held in the highest esteem by the Bolsheviks and was in receipt of funds from Russia, which helped to launch the CPGB. Maclean said the money was coming from the British government! Again Maclean produced no evidence.

At the BSP's conference of 1919, Maclean took the opportunity to repeat his slanderous allegations against Rothstein and others. After his outburst, Maclean was discretely dropped from speakers' platforms of the Hands off Russia campaign - though he later claimed that he was "secretly expelled", which was evidently untrue. He managed to get delegated from the BSP's Tradestone branch to the Communist Unity Convention in July-August 1920. His credentials were not accepted on a 'technicality' - the conference organisers clearly did not want a repeat of his sad 1919 conference performance.

It is only from this point onwards that Maclean begins to advocate the formation of a distinct and separate Scottish Communist Party. There can be no doubt that this position was influenced largely by his paranoia-fuelled hostility to the CPGB leadership. For example, he wrote: "To ask me to work with Malone for revolution is a joke "¦ To allow Malone to lead a revolutionary party is high treason to communism "¦ If England is to be led by Malone, then let us Marxians in Scotland forge ahead on entirely independent lines" ('A Scottish communist party', Marxists Internet Archive).

Maclean and the tiny group of followers he gathered around him (the 'tramps' trust') formed an alliance with The Worker, which was the publication of the Scottish Workers Committee. It was in The Worker that the call for a Scottish Communist Party first appeared. Alec Geddes authored the proposal. He had been a delegate to the Communist Unity Convention but had voted against the CPGB affiliating to the Labour Party. Geddes proposed that the Scottish Communist Party should be formed on the basis of rejecting affiliation to Labour, not on the basis of promoting Scottish nationalism. Or so he said.

Meanwhile Maclean was adopting an ultra-left pose. He refused to participate in a national Council of Action formed by the Labour Party and the trade unions to respond to the threat of war on Russia. He counterposed it to an imaginary 'Communist Council of Action' which would "assume the real power when the proper moment arrived" (Pitt, p16).

Maclean's 'tramps' trust' and the Scottish Workers Committee jointly issued a call for revolutionaries in Scotland to attend a preliminary conference for the formation of a Scottish Communist Party. Though this party was actually formed, it was almost instantly renamed the Communist Labour Party. Willie Gallacher convinced the founding conference that it should in fact be a provisional body in order to establish unity between the revolutionary forces in Scotland and those south of the border. There was no separatist upsurge - only the difficulties associated with leaving behind sectarian shibboleths and embracing the bigger cause of communist unity, not merely across Britain but globally.

The newly formed Communist Labour Party earned nothing but Maclean's scorn - it was now merely a bridgehead into the despised CPGB. He walked away, making another attempt to found a Scottish Communist Party. He called a conference for December 1920. Here, Maclean and Gallacher clashed, not for the first time, with Maclean denouncing Gallacher as "no better than a government agent" (ibid p19).

Again the attempt to form a Scottish party did not succeed. Significantly, however, at the end of the conference Maclean appealed to those present to join the Socialist Labour Party - an all-Britain grouping that did not by any means accept Maclean's plan for a separate Scottish organisation. Here we have the clearest possible indication that the national question was not the determining factor in Maclean's decision to stay outside the CPGB - indeed it appears to be no more than a cover.

There is no evidence that Maclean had ever promulgated the idea that Scottish separation or independence would advance the British revolution prior to 1920. When asked by the Scottish nationalist, Erskine of Marr, in January 1918 to sign an appeal to the US president, Woodrow Wilson, for Scottish home rule, he pointedly refused. If his views on the national question did not prevent him from working with the SLP, then how could they have prevented him from joining the CPGB, as comrades Cairns and Sherry seem to imply?

Maclean did, however, develop an incoherent nationalism in his last years. In an echo of present-day left nationalists, he did not make any attempt to argue that Scotland was an oppressed nation. Rather that the break-up of Britain would somehow weaken the ruling class and hence its empire, thus triggering revolutionism. In a very clumsy attempt at a polemical sleight of hand, comrades Sherry and Cairns try to confer the blessings of the Comintern on this Macleanite strategy: "Like the leaders of the Communist International, he regarded British imperialism as the biggest obstacle to world revolution" (SSV November 30). Needless to say, neither Lenin nor Trotsky advocated left nationalism. As a general principle, Comintern demanded that all sections be organised on a state basis, not according to nationality - ie, one state, one party. That was the principle.

Left nationalists claim another - their own special reason - why Maclean would not join the CPGB. It was a tool of Russia. This is of course a nationalist mindset. For communists the working class and its struggle is international - the revolution begins against a state but is completed globally. However, Maclean never opposed Russian 'interference' on principle: he thought that Moscow was intervening in favour of the CPGB on the basis of misleading information from spies, turncoats and traitors.

It was in this belief that he wrote his 'Open letter to Lenin' in 1921, warning of the unreliability of named individuals, including Malone and Gallacher. It ends, characteristically, with the advice to Lenin to "examine more critically than ever the fairy tales that are likely to be poured into your ears by conscious and unconscious tools of Lloyd George and the propertied classes of Britain" (Pitt, p40). Maclean was actually arguing that the Bolshevik 'franchise' to form a Communist Party in Britain should be awarded to himself.

After suffering two more periods of imprisonment in 1921, from which he was not released until October 1922, Maclean formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party. The sectarianism that Maclean indulged in beforehand now became a raging disease and quickly consumed the new group. Its electoral interventions were an embarrassment for the CPGB, which rightly condemned their "divisive" nature.

At the time, the CPGB's attitude was to support the Labour Party "like the rope supports a hanged man", to help it into power, where it would expose itself in the eyes of the working class. By contrast, the SWRP issued a blanket leftist denunciation of the Labour Party and stood against it 'on principle'.

Comrades Sherry and Cairns content themselves with the rather asinine comment that "as an isolated individual in a tiny organisation, [Maclean] was unable to influence events" (SSV November 30). For them, there is seemingly no link between his organisational weakness and his self-imposed isolation.

Maclean died in November 1923. He can be remembered in one of two ways. Left nationalists celebrate the Maclean who denounced the CPGB as a tool of the British government and eventually adopted the call for the break-up of Britain. Maclean's history since 1902 of militant internationalism and hostility to nationalism is ignored or downplayed. We on the other hand would highlight the successful fight Maclean participated in against the jingoism of the official BSP, his speeches denouncing the imperialist war and his inspiring solidarity with the Bolsheviks.

Maclean's subsequent disorientation and premature death must be squarely blamed on the British government. It imprisoned Maclean and badly damaged him physically and mentally. The sad results of that maltreatment should not be forgotten, but they should certainly not be emulated.

James Mallory