John MacLean, Scotland’s favourite Socialist ‘Saint’, died, aged 44, on St. Andrew’s Day November 30 1923, broken in health but not in spirit. He died of pneumonia after suffering hard labour in Peterhead Prison, force feeding and poverty through loss of his teaching job. It was typical of the man that he gave his only overcoat to a black Jamaican comrade in his final winter years.
Born on August 24 1879, in Pollokshaws, then a busy industrial town in Renfrewshire near Glasgow, he was the sixth child of working class parents who were themselves victims of the Highland Clearances. His father, Daniel was born in Mull and his mother, Anne MacPhee, in Corpach, a small village in the shadow of Ben Nevis. His daughter and biographer, Nan Milton, who died in 1996, told how ‘Wee Johnnie’ was told from his mother’s knee of the depredations of the Highland Clearances, forcing crofters off the Land to the Industrial Lowlands or to be scattered round the globe.
His background coupled with his zeal for social justice led him to study Marx and struggle for world revolution. Marx’s harrowing description of the Highland Clearances may have been ignored by the very English left, then and now, but was not lost on MacLean and his followers. "But what the ‘clearing of estates’ really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German Principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held. The Highland Celts were organised in clans, each of which was the owner of the land on which it was settled. The representative of the clan, its chief or ‘great man’, was only the titular owner of this property."
Karl Marx, ‘Capital’ Chapter XXV11 ‘Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land’. His disillusionment with the London based, and orientated English left, led to his clash with the leadership namely the Social Democratic Federation led by the aristocratic HM Hyndman. Hyndman supported a larger navy and armed forces leading to the First World War. MacLean argued that this would lead to the break up of International workers solidarity as German, Russian etc, socialists were opposed to workers taking part in the Imperialist war between the German Kaiser and his cousin the English King.
He told workers at his mass socialist, anti- war rallies that if they wanted to fight a Hun to go and fight the English King. He also commented to Ulster Unionists that England went to war to defend Catholic Belgium against Protestant Germany and sent the Ulster Volunteer force to their deaths by using them as canon fodder, as they did with Scots troops.He supported his friend, Edinburgh born James Connolly, in his struggle for an Irish Workers Republic. English/British socialists then, as now, did not understand Connolly’s stand in the 1916 Irish Rebellion. Labour MPs cheered in the House at the news of the wounded James Connolly’s execution while he was strapped to a chair. Lenin described James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army as the "first Red Army in Europe".
In recognition of his principled stand against the mass slaughter of ordinary people in the First World War the Bolsheviks elected MacLean an Honorary President of the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, along with Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Adler, and Spiridonova, which was ecstatically received on his beloved Clyde. Early in January, Maxim Litvinov, Russian Ambassador in Britain, sent these instructions to MacLean: ‘ I am writing to their Russian Consul in Glasgow informing him of your appointment and ordering him to hand over to you the Consulate. He may refuse to do so, in which case you will open up a new Consulate and make it public through the press. Your position may be difficult somehow, but you will have my support ... It is most important to keep me informed ( and through me the Russian Soviets) of the Labour Movement in North Britain’. MacLean opened the new Consulate at 12 South Portland Street, Gorbals, Glasgow, which, of course was not recognised by the British Government. The Post Office refused to deliver mail to that address or title. He was refused a visa to visit Russia under this auspice. He could have travelled illegally, but made a principled stand. Willie Gallagher a syndicalist shop steward took the opportunity to meet Lenin, a mistake for MacLean.
Gallagher was instrumental in setting up the Communist Party of Great Britain with Moscow Gold, a move opposed by MacLean on several counts. He knew Lenin did not understand Scotland, calling him "MacLean of England" and objected to many of the characters calling themselves "communists" on the new Central Committee. Newly released records show that at least two were British Intelligence agents and one a double Soviet agent for Britain.
MacLean stood for a separate Scottish Communist Party, earning him the everlasting vilification of the British Nationalist left. All the British biographies, articles and pamphlets on him acknowledge his internationalism but from this point on declare him "insane". Their reasoning is not hard to understand. To this day they will declare that any Scot who does not wish to be ruled from London must be insane, fascist, racist etc. Any slander will do. For evidence of MacLean’s "paranoia" they cite the word of prison warders and intelligence agents paid to watch him round the clock. Also the word of two prison doctors are good enough for these revolutionaries to prove his "insanity". Prison doctors today, let alone in these heady days, are not noted for their liberalism or ineffectiveness.
MacLean’s wife and other visitors believed he was drugged and were shocked by his physical condition. He had refused to take prison food in that belief and was forcefully fed. There is nothing new in using drugs to control prisoners, patients etc and even experimenting with mind drugs, here and abroad. According to recently released records the head of military intelligence, Basil Thompson, knew MacLean was not insane, but believed him to be the most dangerous man in Britain and said two years earlier that he would smear him, and Sylvia Pankhurst, by spreading rumours about their sanity. Sylvia Pankhurst supported MacLean in his Gorbals election campaign when he stood as a Scottish Workers Republican candidate. They both kicked the doors of the Glasgow City Chambers.
Later Stalin was to declare countless political "deviants" insane for disagreeing with his party line. Today Great British Stalinists and English Trot Nats unite in persisting with this rumour in defence of their United Kingdom. Today MacLean is proven correct in that the CPGB collapsed without their Moscow gold. The Labour Party first founded in Scotland on a ‘Home Rule All Round Programme’ reneged upon winning each election. Ramsay MacDonald was London Treasurer of the ‘Scottish Home Rule Association", founded in 1888. Atlee supported Scottish home rule till his election, then declared it impracticable, as did Churchill and many others. Labour voted down their own Scottish Devolution Bill in 1979, led by Brian Wilson, now a Scottish Office Minister, whose ‘Scotland is British Campaign’ had the support of the CBI, Chamber of Commerce, Economic League, Aims of Industry, Adam Smith Institute and Billy Connolly, the Royalist comedian. The Labour Party in Scotland changed its name to the Scottish Labour Party, though it does not own any property and still must take its orders from the British Labour Party in London.
Donald Dewar, First Minister of the devolved Scottish Parliament, introduced a Scottish Parliament Bill that has gone further than many expected, though not as far as many would have liked. The founding Labour policy, of Scottish Home Rule, at the beginning of this century may come full circle at the end of this century with demands within the Labour Party for complete autonomy from the London party.