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(Jim Clayson)

John MacLean addressing a crowd on Glasgow Green 1923Few people have attracted as much debate as John MacLean. There is never any shortage of people wishing to claim him for their own. A steady stream of writings continues to cast doubt on his motivation, his sanity and his commitment to an independent socialist Scotland. But very little real evidence ever emerges about his life. Frustratingly, the public records generally remain closed. In particular his Home Office file will not be released for many years to come, despite those of several equally renowned contemporaries being passed into the public domain. Nevertheless, there are a few nuggets available for those willing to look. One matter that recently came to light was his passport application. This matter is passed over in the main biographies. Tom Bell was the first to outline the story, recalling that; "On 10th May 1920 he [wrote] a letter to Lord Curzon, then Foreign Secretary" asking for "a permit to visit Russia during the months of July and August" of that year Five days later he received a reply suggesting that MacLean try again "towards the end of June." He duly re-applied on 17th June only to be bluntly turned down.


Bell notes that, "On 7th July, MacLean tried to get a Passport through Thomas Cook's agency, without success, and thereafter relinquished the idea". In Bell's view "It is a thousand pities that John MacLean never visited Soviet Russia to see in life.... that revolutionary order which he had been working all his life to establish in Scotland" (1)


John Broom simply gives a summary of the facts recounted by Bell, but adds a curious footnote, based on information supplied by Willie Gallagher, that "MacLean was eventually dissuaded from visiting Russia by the machinations of his so-called friends" (2) . Nan Milton adds a little more detail to Bell, noting that MacLean's request was in the context of "the trade negotiation going on between Russia and Britain." She also adds that his application to Cook's was "for a passport for Denmark and Sweden". (3) This would, of course have taken him along the old smuggling routes into Czarist Russia.


Ripoff and Hacksaw say only that; "MacLean ... chose to make an agitational and propaganda issue out of the Foreign Office s arbitrary discretion in issuing permits to some and refusing them to others, including him"(4)


They also add a curious comment, attributed to Gallagher, that MacLean would have benefited from the Bolshevik's experience in dealing with mental problems induced by long periods of imprisonment, a somewhat typical, though unnecessary slur. James D. Young hardly addresses the incident at all, but does provide valuable background information. MacLean was at loggerheads with the putative leadership of the embryo CPGB, and for this reason was being denounced as insane. This slur was to be resorted to whenever his opponents felt the need to impugn his MacLean's politics. Events have, however, proved him correct in his opinions, and as we shall see, very right to be concerned about the honesty of his chief ideological opponent at the time. (5)


Official files confirm the sequence of events as outlined by Tom Bell. He presumably based his account on the correspondence published by John MacLean in Vanguard. They also clarify official attitudes to John MacLean, and demonstrate where his real enemies lay. MacLean's first request was received by the Foreign Office on 11th May. He applied from the Offices of "The Russian Consulate at Glasgow", newly removed from South Portland Street to "Auldhouse Road, Newlands". A reply was drafted by J.D. Gregory on 13th May and a copy sent to Basil Thomson. A reply was sent, without alteration to the draft, on 15th May. This was presumably a stalling tactic. (6)


W Thomson's department replied to the Foreign Office on 18th May, who filed it the next day. This was probably a summary of a telephone conversation that i had taken place between the relevant officials, as it also recommends that MacLean reapply in June. It does contain some interesting comments though. After presenting his compliments to the Foreign Secretary, Thomson's official summarises the official view of MacLean's career to date; "John MacLean was appointed by the Soviet Government as their Consul at Glasgow during the war. He was sentenced to three years penal servitude for making seditious speeches at Glasgow and his public utterances have always been of a most violent character" (7)


None of which would have come as a great surprise to anyone. What comes next contains a great deal of interesting speculation. The report continues; "During the last few months ...he has shown marked signs of insanity which takes the form of accusing his colleagues in the Communist movement of being Police spies. The result has been that he is ostracised by his former colleagues and no doubt the members of the present Labour Delegation to Soviet Russia will have communicated to the Soviet authorities the mischief that he is doing to their cause"

 Soviet Consulate letter appointing John MacLean

It is touching to see the concern shown by the Director of Intelligence for the cause of Labour. But the suggestion that MacLean's "madness" was manifested by the suggestion that some of his "colleagues" were "police spies" does bear examination. Throughout the war Basil Thomson presented regular "Reports On Revolutionary Organisations" to the Cabinet. These are quite well known now, and have been regularly used by historians as source material (8) . It is quite clear from these that Thomson, and other intelligence organisations, had people reporting from within all of the socialist groupings of this period.


But Thomson's man was probably referring specifically to MacLean's attacks on two individuals in particular; L'Estrange Malone and Theodore Rothstein. The former was a much decorated fighter pilot, the latter worked for "the War Office as a translator" (9). Curiously, the only War Office Department employing "translators and interpreters" was MI7. Rothstein had some very strange friends.


The Secret Agent Robin Bruce Lockhart recalled a meeting he had with Rothstein in 1917; He needed help with introductions to Lenin and Trotsky as part of a semi-official visit to the newly established Soviet state; "Thanks to Rex Leeper, both tasks succeeded beyond my expectations. Leeper was on friendly terms with Rothstein official translator in our War Office." (10)


The "arm-chair revolutionary" kept strange company. Apart from being an adviser to Cabinet on Soviet affairs, Leeper was an intimate of the Milner circle and a senior official, with responsibility for Russia, in the Foreign Office's Political Intelligence Department. James D. Young asserts that, "A major reason for MacLean s secret expulsion was his denunciation of Theodore Rothstein" (11).He cites a spies' report, presented to the Cabinet by Basil Thomson, that "John MacLean rose and made charges against [Rothstein and other] leaders of being police spies". He cannot have been too far wrong for Thomson to be able to pass this on!


The other character maligned by MacLean was Malone. He had distinguished himself by visiting Russia and undergoing a "miraculous" conversion to the cause. MacLean was doubtful about this, remembering instead Malone's work for more reactionary groups. Far from being madness, John MacLean's caution was based on long experience in the socialist cause. Nevertheless Thomson's man was happy to conclude; "Though it is doubtless unusual to give passport facilities to an uncertified lunatic, sir Basil Thomson thinks that the application should not be finally rejected. If MacLean should renew his application at the end of June, the matter might be considered"


The cover of the Foreign Office Jacket was endorsed; "Mr. McLean is a violent agitator & shows marked signs of insanity. Suggests he should renew his application in June". (12)


John MacLean Pamphlet, The Irish Tragedy, Scotlands DisgraceAnd there the matter rested for a while. The Foreign Office was happy to accept Basil Thomsons' allegations, with no other supporting evidence. But why should they worry. Like all good bureaucrats, their interest was in whether to issue the correct form, or not. The person behind the application was of no interest to them, whatsoever. On 17th June John MacLean duly reap-plied for a passport. This time he applied from Auldhouse Road, without using the Consulate stationary. The letter was received in the Foreign Office on the 20th. (13) It landed on the desk of an official called R.H. Hoare who produced another interesting memorandum two days later. He summarised first the policy as it stood;


"The latest decision of the Supreme Council on the subject of passports for Russia is contained in Lord Curzon 's tel. Of April 19th from San Remo (No.192920):- 'permission for respectable persons to enter border states, even if their intention be to proceed to Russia, cannot very well be refused, and that this permission should apply to business persons as well as to politicians. Labour group may therefore be permitted to proceed: (14)


There were then, no grounds whatsoever, to refuse John MacLean a passport. This is quite clear. And a precedent had already been set as John MacLean was aware. He had noted this in his very first letter of application. Hoare then went on to record a quite curious story;


"When the Socialist Party originally applied to send their deputation, I had an interview with them, and they mentioned MacLaine as one of the men whom they would probably send if permission was granted. I probably looked surprised, at the mention of this name, because a hasty, explanation followed that he was not John MacLean. who is now applying for a passport, but the other one, and that they knew quite well that MacLean of Glasgow was mad, and it would not occur to them to send such a man. As far as 1 remember I told Sir Basil Thomson of this on the telephone, and I am rather puzzled at his suggestion that it would possibly be useful to allow MacLean to go. The dangers of doing so are quite obvious and I think his application should be refused without further discussion [added in mss], as he cannot be called respectable".


We may note a few points from this. In the first place there was no justification to refuse John MacLean a passport. Even the official could only reason that he was not "respectable" as an afterthought. We also see clear evidence of collusion between the Foreign Office and Basil Thomson in making such a decision. We also see Basil Thomson in two minds whether to allow MacLean to travel. Finally there are the members of "the Socialist Party" who were keen to portray MacLean as "mad".


Who were they ??????


The memo was passed on to the next official, who minuted, the same day, "Please discuss the matter with Sir Basil Thomson on the telephone". Hoare himself minuted, "Done. Please draft refusal" This was done on the 24th copied to "the passport office [and] Sir B. Thomson". The reply was dated the 26th and promptly sent to John MacLean. (15) The file was kept current, and notifications were sent to Basil Thomson and the passport office. (16)


The matter was not yet over, for on 6th July John MacLean applied through Thomas Cook's Agency for a passport to "Denmark & Sweden for the purpose of studying the educational systems, the language, social conditions etc". An alarmed official in the passport office asked the Foreign Office; "Will you please confirm this Department whether the applicant is identical with the anarchist of this name". It was minuted within two days "He is identical" and passed to a Mr. Martin "For your Views" (17)

 John MacLean's Passport Photograph

A note was also passed to Basil Thomson asking, " Will you please say whether you recommend the refusal of the passport in this case in view of the fact that the man is an anarchist?" The Director of Intelligence had a minion reply on the 22nd July, apparently washing their hands of the matter. He, helpfully; "Attached the file of John MacLean and also a copy of a Foreign Office letter addressed to him on June 26th by Lord Curzon, who then refused to grant him facilities to visit Russia. 1 imagine that this would apply equally to Denmark and Sweden for which he is now applying. Perhaps you would take the matter up with the Foreign Office direct. (18)


The passport office did so the following day asking; "In view of the letter from the Director of Special Intelligence .. will you please say whether this application of John MacLean should be refused" The Northern Department of the Foreign Office was quite frank in its views, minuting; "l can see no reason for refusing excepting that he is alleged to be a lunatic, that seems adequate. Q's reply that he can still not be given a passport".


Another official named O'Malley was also frank in his opinions; "I can see nothing to be alarmed about in the prospect of a semi-mad British anarchist going to Russia. On general formula no passports should I suppose be granted unless there are strong reasons to the contrary or under the San Remo decision (Mr. Hoare's minute in 204353) still holds good. Permission would clearly be contrary to this". Events had already begun to overtake officials. A week after MacLean's last application the Director of Intelligence notified the Home Office that Arthur McManus, David Ramsay and Sylvia Pankhurst had all applied for passports to Russia. Thomson; "Represents that passports should not be given to these persons and asks for the views of Home Secretary". (19)


A further letter arrived at the Home Office from Thomson on the 19th occasioning a minute that outlined the strategy that would be adopted as justification for a refusal; "If we are in a position to stick to our statement that they are going to Russia to get money. That it is for the purposes mentioned, I think a refusal of the passports would be justified." Troup was not so sure however. He thought "this will have to be justified by the Cabinet", and a memo was drawn up on the 24th and circulated there on the 26th July. It stated, with strict reference to MacManus and Ramsay; "No-one has a legal right to a passport, but the general rule is in time of peace to give passports to all British subjects who apply and refusal must be justified by some strong reason. The two men in question are working for the Third International, and the reasons for refusing passports would be that their visit to Russia may possibly strengthen the connection between the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary element in this country, and also that they will probably get money from the Bolsheviks and on their return be in a better position to do mischief in this country. The refusal could be publicly defended on the ground that there was reason to believe that the object of these men ... was definitely prejudicial to the national interest". (20)


In case there was any doubt about their intentions and record a helpful summary, probably prepared with the help of Thomson, was included for each man. In the meantime Basil Thomson was still in a quandary about John MacLean. He wrote to the Home Secretary on the 27th July outlining his problem;


"Dear Troup,The Foreign Office has had repeated applications from JOHN MACLEAN for a passport to Russia. He has now shifted his ground and says that he would like one for Sweden and Denmark with the same object. The Danes and the Swedes know all about him and are not likely to give a visa, and the Foreign Office is inclined to grant the passport, but would not this hamper the Home Secretary in the matter of MACMANUS and the other man whose cases he has referred to the Cabinet. If a passport is given to MacLean and refused to the others there will be trouble". (21)


John MacLean with wife and daughterThe Home Office now relied on a decision by Cabinet and told Thomson; "The Cabinet have not yet considered the Home Secretary s memorandum ... I will let you know as soon as a decision is given". Thomson still pressed for a decision; "Dear Maxwell, the Foreign Office are again pressing for an answer about John MacLean's passport. As you know, I told them that it depended on the issue of passports to Ramsay and McManus. Ramsey ... appears already to have arrived in Moscow by stowing away". (22)


With some relief a Home Office Official was able to report on the 14th August; "The Cabinet decided ... that whilst Russia continues to detain British officers in prison it was undesirable to present passports to men with records such as MacManus & Ramsay to travel to Russia. This decision will no doubt govern the case of Maclean". (23)


And lost no time writing to Thomson to tell him so; "Dear Thomson, the Cabinet decided [etc] ... I presume that MacLean stands on the same footing, and that the decision will be applicable to him". And on the 16th August an official noted on John MacLean's latest Foreign Office file; "In view of the Cabinet decision last week that passports should not be granted to David Ramsey and Arthur Macmanus, a passport cannot logically be given to Maclean". (24)


So John MacLean when he applied to visit Russia in 1920 was at first stalled, then unjustly refused permission to go. When he made a third application a Cabinet decision, taken in respect of three other applicants was applied to him as well. The Home Office used spurious excuses, not raised at any level before the Cabinet meeting to prevent political dissidents travelling to an ostensibly friendly state, with whom they were already doing deals. The Home Office believed the trips were for the purpose of fundraising which in MacLean's case was clearly not so. But, given what we now know about the security services penetration of the CPGB, perhaps there was a further motive. It is plain that MacLean, Pankhurst, Ramsay and MacManus were all hoping to attend the 1920 Second Congress of the International. Nine delegates attended, including Ramsay and Pankhurst. But they were dominated by the British Socialist Party faction, led by the very people who expressed such horror at John MacLean to Samuel Hoare. But the British state was already playing one of its oldest and best games. It was manipulating affairs so that its own candidates were able to assume leadership positions in the new organisation.


The Home Office had clearly set out to nullify the influence of John MacLean. In 1919 he had written to the Home Office;


"at the urgent request of Russian women residing in Scotland [wishing] to draw your attention to their distress due to the inadequate allowances granted them. They desire either to have the allowances increased or facilities granted for their return to Russia". (25) The official who received this appeal minuted; " We shall take no notice of this letter from the soi disant Russian Consul. The substance of it is coming up in other connections. But it is a question whether anything can be done to stop the man from using his letter paper. It was decided early in 1918 not to recognise the Office and to refuse to deliver letters addressed to him as Consul. I do not know whether it is possible to go any further now". (26)


The matter was once again referred to the Scottish Office. Still, by December of that year was happy to name John MacLean "Bolshevik Consul" in Glasgow on a confidential list of "certain persons carrying on a revolutionary propaganda". It was thought "not desirable to advertise the British Bolsheviks by giving their names" as part of a question asked in Parliament. (27) If the Home Office was reluctant to deliver letters to John MacLean as a Bolshevik Consul, it was only too happy for the Post Office to interfere with his outward bound packages. Whilst the controversy over his passport was at its height "a parcel with copies of [for fliers] were found open at Cardiff P.O. & are being detained pending instructions". (28)


Included were copies of The Irish Tragedy, The Coming War with America, Proposed Irish Massacre, and Labour's Demands. The first two are well known through various reprints and The Rapids Of Revolution. The third, although well known, is otherwise lost. Which would be a great pity for it contains some of John MacLean's' most explicitly nationalist writing to that date, and precedes his call for a Scottish Workers Republic by at least a month. Harry McShane later recalled that "The war in Ireland in 1920 had crystallised John MacLean s nationalism" and this leaflet provides some evidence for this. (29)


It also adds another dimension to the aspects of his national sentiment that are known. He begins by stating that


"Scottish troops are in Ireland and are in readiness to send to Ireland to murder the Irish race. Why?"

and answers quite unequivocally:


"Because Ireland wishes the independence our Scottish ancestors fought for under Wallace and Bruce. Remember Bannockburn and Flodden. Read again Burns's 'Scots Wha Hae'. Remember Knox and Wishart; and the Covenanter who fought the English troops under Claverhouse at Bothwell Brig. What for? Independent religious thinking in Scotland".


Some of this may be questioned in the detail by modern historians with access to original records, but as a historical summary of the knowledge circulating at the time, it is a fair summary. MacLean then turns his attention to Irish history;


"Remember that Henry II... stole Ireland by force, and Ireland has been ruled by force since. Cromwell and other butchers murdered the Irish before the Orange organisation was formed, purely to prevent Irish Independence."


Next comes a plain statement of fact, followed by an appeal for Celtic unity;


"Remember that Irishmen are as entitled to fight for freedom as we Scots, or as the Swiss under William Tell. Remember that Irishmen are Celts like the Highlanders and that the English are Germans".


He then turns to the reasons why the British state was so determined to hang on in Ireland;


"Lloyd George holds Ireland not to protect the Ulstermen, but to prevent America using Ireland in case of war. Lloyd George said we fought Germany to save Belgium. Sir Henry Wilson now says we fought Germany "to save our own skin". America wishes trade and empire. Britain stands in the way. America is getting ready: Britain is getting ready... Both countries are now comparing the relative strength of their navies: both are striving to collar the food and oil of the world- the oil for the navies".


John MacLean Russian stamp issued in 1979

It is remarkable how MacLean's analysis of this has stood the test of time and historical research. It is clear from the contemporary press that the two were beginning to see each other as rivals. The Home Office was clearly worried by them but unsure how to proceed. One official noted, "These leaflets are of course objectionable, but on the whole it is questionable whether they justify stopping. The worst is 'Proposed Irish Massacre'. It is doubtful whether a prosecution would succeed... say to the G.P.O. that the parcels should be forwarded.'" A second official noted, "I should be inclined to stop these- though there is no question of prosecution".


So, once again, it was clear that John MacLean was doing nothing illegal, the matter was referred "To D of I for early obsus"


He had no doubt of the effects; "The worst is 'Proposed Irish Massacre'. I think that all parcels containing these should be stopped. They would do harm in South Wales" He was undoubtedly aware that Wales had national sentiments of her own. As Arthur Horner remembered in his autobiography; "As a small nationality ourselves, we had watched with sympathy the Irish people s fight for independence long before the war broke out... we were told the fighting in France was for the rights of small nations. ...So it was easy to understand how we, who had seen the vi-ciousness of the coal owners, regarded what was happening in Ireland as the real struggle for the rights of small nations in a war-torn world." (30)


Yet another Home Office official concluded; "Ithink in the [circumstances] we are justified in stopping this propaganda".


And stopped it was, remaining in the voluminous files of the Home Office. Whilst the wrangling over passports was going on, so too was the Second Congress. The "sane" Machine was helping the Foreign Office keep tabs on matters by sending telegrams to The Call via Marconi noting his part in proceedings. He seemed especially pleased that at the "Business Congress .... I moved addendum: In those countries where non-Communist organised working class political party is nominating factor in our politics Communist Party may join this Party for purchase of organising and giving expression to growing communist opposition" (31) thus committing the nascent CPGB to chasing a futile policy for entryism for the next few years.


The real John MacLean had already begun to pursue a different direction. He chose the road to a Scottish Socialist Republic. Willie Gallagher, incidentally, was acting as "The representative of the Scottish workers" and was introduced as such by Kalininen. (32)


This article first appeared in the Scottish Workers Republic (SWR) 2004 which is the journal for the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement (SRSM).




l.T. Bell John MacLean: A Fighter For Freedom, Glaschu, 1944, pp. 107-8.

2.J. Broom John MacLean, Midlothian, 1973, p. 128.

3.N. Milton, John MacLean, London, 1973, pp. 234, 241

4.Ripoff & McHack, John MacLean, Manchester, 1989, p. 138

5.James D. Young, John MacLean: Clydeside Socialist, Glaschu, 1992, .pp 229-232

6.FO 371/4055/197172/38. MacLean misread the reference number as /28, an error repeated

by Bell. Gregory's signature was also indecipherable.

7.FO 371/4055/198686.f.235.

8.For an example see R. Porter; Plots and Paranoia, London, 1989, p. 140. More serious use of this material can be
found in C. Andrew, Secret Service, London 198?.

9.Ripoff & McHack, p.126, quoting Walton Newbold.

10.R. Bruce Lockhart, memoirs Of A British Agent, London, 1985ed, p.201. This is discussed by Ripoff & McHack, pp. 126-7 mention this incident but do not seem to know who Leeper was!

11. Young, ibid, PRO, CAB ??/ ??, No, 49 CP. 1039..

12.FO 371/4055/198606.f.234.

13.FO 371/4055/204353/38.f.238.


I5.ibid. f.239-40.

16.FO 371/4055/204353.f.236.

17.FO 371/4055/10720??? f.230-1,223.

18.FO 371/4055/10720??? f.229.

19.HO 144/382950/68.

20.ibid. E.S. 24.7.20.

21.HO 144/382950. Thomson to HO. 27th July 1920.

22.ibid 7th August 1920.

23.ibid. Minute 14/8/[ 1920]

24.FO 371/4055/204353.F.236.

25.HO 45/10823/ 318.095/673. 27th Jan 1919.

26.ibid. 14/2/19. A draft memorandum outlines the Home Office's attitude to the distress suffered by these women; "HO 45/10823/318.095/665. Written by Holderness it states "on the one hand we have a number of undesirable individuals whom it is desired to deport under the Aliens Restriction Order while Sir George Buchanan backed up by Mr. Thomson is urging that we should try to get rid of the greater mass of the Russian population in this country as it contains more physical disease than any other part of the population here, and will not be able to support itself when unemployment increases and is more subject to the phsysical disease of bolshevism."

27.HO 144/ 382950/23. Hansard 16th Dec 1919.

28.HO 144/1579/316160/828. 22nd July 1920.

29.No Mean Fighter, Ed. J Smith, London, 1978, p. 118.

30.A. Horner, Incorrigible Rebel, London, 1960, pp. 25-6.

31.FO 371/4055/210901 ff 241-3.

32.The Second Congress, Vol 2, p.200. Trans R.A. Archer, London 1977ed.