08/09/2014 by socialistfight
There is much useful material here in this work by Bob Pitt, particularly the direction that Lenin and the Comintern gave to the young CPGB leading up to its formation and in its early years. Particularly important is the advice to apply to join the Labour party if possible and the method of the united front in the nature of the 1920 Councils of Action:
“These moves coincided with the political crisis that arose over the threat of military intervention by Britain and France in reaction to the Red Army’s advance into Poland. This threat provoked such opposition in the ranks of the British workers’ movement that the Labour Party and TUC were compelled to organise a national Council of Action which agreed to call a political strike in the event of war. The newly-formed CPGB not only played an important role in initiating this campaign, but also intervened energetically in the more than 350 local Councils of Action which were formed across Britain. As Lenin explained to the Russian Communist Party congress in September 1920: ‘the progress of the working class movement requires that we split with the Mensheviks [i.e. the British reformists] ideologically, and yet at the same time act together with them in the Council of Action’ 103”
Mclean, on the other hand, wanted to build only Communist Councils of Action and confused totally the ideological break with Menshevism/Reformism and the need to operate the United Front with them to set the bases against the membership to mobilise the masses.
The work is furthered marred by Pitt’s obsession to prove that McLean was mentally unstable and this explained his refusal to join in the formation of the CPGB, as directed by Lenin and his subsequent adoption of a programme for Scottish independence and a separate Scottish Communist party. This trivialised the issues and denigrated Mclean to the point that the political difficult issues, that are now re-emerging in the Scottish Referendum, are secondary issues that can be easily dismissed – “he was only a madman”. Mentally unhinged or not the political basis of his actions are what we need to examine and there is ample evidence that the advanced, skilled ‘aristocracy of labour’ workers’ adherence to the booty of Empire to suggest that it was to this layer he capitulated when he sought special privileges for Scottish workers against their class brothers and sisters south of the Border.
Gerry Downing 8-9-14
John Maclean delivering his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ in 1918.
JOHN MACLEAN AND THE CPGB
By Bob Pitt July 1995
John Maclean and the CPGB by Robert Pitt
Appendix 1: The Communist Labour Party
Appendix 2: The Maclean-Gallacher Dispute
Appendix 3: John Maclean’s ‘Open Letter to Lenin’
Appendix 4: The CPGB, the SWRP and the United Front
Appendix 5: The CPGB and the Death of John Maclean
This pamphlet makes no claim to present an overall evaluation of John Maclean’s political career. It has a narrow focus: on Maclean’s response to the process which led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and his relations with the CPGB in the remaining few years before his death. The conclusion I reach is in line with the account Willie Gallacher gave in his memoirs: that Maclean became mentally unbalanced as a result of his sufferings in prison and that his hostile response to the emergence of the CPGB is in the main to be explained by his paranoid suspicions about state penetration of the revolutionary movement in Britain. Maclean’s subsequent hostility to the CPGB, I argue, was connected with an intensifying sectarianism which resulted from his failure to grasp the lessons the British Communists were able to learn from their participation in the work of the Third International.
This negative judgement on the final phase of Maclean’s career should not be taken as an attempt to deny his importance in the history of the workers’ movement. A complete portrait of Maclean would necessarily pay tribute to other more positive facets of his life, notably his role in the movement for independent working class education and his heroic conduct as a revolutionary internationalist during the First World War. For a fuller account of Maclean’s political work, especially in the pre-1918 period, readers are referred to biographies by Tom Bell, Nan Milton, John Broom, and Brian Ripley and John McHugh.
The appendices to this study contain contemporary material which sheds light on the relations between Maclean and the CPGB. This includes the full text of Maclean’s famous ‘Open Letter to Lenin’, as the version which appears in the collection In the Rapids of Revolution is in fact heavily edited, with important passages omitted. I have also reproduced several tributes to Maclean published by the CPGB following his premature death in November 1923. These help to balance the necessarily one-sided picture of Maclean presented here, and they also demolish the claim by James D. Young in his book John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist that ‘the communists did not publish a single obituary or account of Maclean’s death’.
In researching and publishing this study I have received assistance from several comrades who would not necessarily agree with its political conclusions. I would like to thank Robert Laurie, Simon Fletcher, Brian Dempsey and Mike Hart.
Robert Pitt, July 1995
Rejecting his own and the Bolshevik revolutionary heritage; Willy Gallacher speaking at the Communist Party congress that endorsed the British Road to Socialism in 1951.
PREFACE TO SECOND EDITION
For this second edition I have added to Appendix 5 an obituary of Maclean by Willie Gallacher published in the journal Communist International. I am grateful to Audrey Canning, librarian at the Scottish TUC’s Gallacher Memorial Library, for bringing this article to my attention.
by Robert Pitt
THE GLASGOW socialist John Maclean (1879-1923) devoted most of his adult life to the overthrow of capitalism. He joined the avowedly Marxist Social Democratic Federation around 1902-3, and remained a member of the SDF and its successor organisations, the Social Democratic Party and the British Socialist Party, up until 1920, the year in which the BSP provided the basis for the launch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In contrast not only to the jingoism of H.M. Hyndman and other BSP leaders but also to the equivocal response of the centre grouping around E.C. Fairchild, Maclean immediately took an uncompromising stand against the First World War, and suffered three terms of imprisonment as a result of his anti-war agitation. Having emerged as the leading figure on the revolutionary wing of the internationalist opposition which ousted the Hyndman clique from the BSP leadership in 1916, Maclean then played a major role in rallying the party to unconditional support for the Bolshevik revolution. At the BSP annual conference in 1919, when Fairchild argued that the soviet model of revolution was inapplicable to Britain, and advocated a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism, Maclean denounced him for having ‘gone over to the enemy’.1
Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for their part, hailed Maclean as a revolutionary opponent of the war on a par with Karl Liebknecht and the Bolshevik Party itself.2 He was elected an honorary chairman of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets immediately after the October Revolution and appointed Russian consul in Glasgow in January 1918. When Trotsky wrote the letter of invitation to the Communist International’s First Congress, his appeal to the BSP was addressed ‘in particular’ to ‘the group represented by Maclean’.3 There is no doubt that the Bolsheviks saw Maclean as the central figure around whom the revolutionary party in Britain would be built. Yet, as is well known, Maclean did not participate in the foundation of the Third International’s British section. He broke with the BSP on the eve of its transformation into the CPGB and did not join the new party. Why was this?
One explanation, which features prominently in the autobiographical writings of Maclean’s former comrade William Gallacher, is that Maclean was mentally disturbed as a result of his wartime experiences in prison. According to Gallacher, Maclean began ‘seeing spies everywhere, suspecting everybody and anything’ and was ‘suffering from hallucinations’.4 Another Scottish contemporary of Maclean, Tom Bell, agrees that he was ‘a man who had suffered much, and who was no longer seeing things in their proper perspective, due to the warping of his better judgement’.5 This version of events, which depicts Maclean’s refusal to join the CPGB as the action of a sick man, afflicted by delusions, has since been subjected to severe criticism by some historians, who point out that as loyal Communist Party members Gallacher and Bell had a vested interest in discrediting Maclean. According to this view, allegations of psychological disorder were merely a convenient way of evading the real and rational arguments which Maclean brought forward to justify his opposition to the formation of the CPGB.
An early and influential example of the latter thesis appeared in Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-21, published in 1969, which devoted an entire chapter to the question of Maclean and the CPGB. Kendall’s book had the merit of rescuing Maclean from the obscurity into which he had fallen – the last serious study had been Tom Bell’s biography published over a quarter of a century earlier – but it did so with the aim of holstering Kendall’s own anti-communist analysis. Quoting liberally from Maclean’s writings in order to illustrate the depth of his differences with the Communist Party, Kendall emphasised Maclean’s political hostility to the CP leaders and his insistence on a separate Scottish Communist Party as part of the struggle for an independent workers’ republic in Scotland. Kendall was particularly keen to recruit Maclean as a supporter of his own view that the transformation of the BSP into the Communist Party was the disastrous outcome of meddling by the Bolshevik regime backed up by the corrupt use of Russian money. ‘The Communist Party has sold itself to Moscow’, read one quotation from Maclean which Kendall used, ‘with disastrous results both to Russia and to the British revolutionary movement.’6 Kendall claimed that his book had ‘conclusively demonstrated’ that ‘the rumours of Maclean’s alleged mental unbalance were politically motivated, were put about consciously and deliberately by malicious persons unable and unwilling to meet and confront Maclean’s ideas head on, persons who sought instead by secret slander to destroy both his personal and his political reputation’.7
A notable weakness of Kendall’s argument was that almost all the quotations from Maclean that he came up with were written after the foundation of the CPGB at the Communist Unity Convention of July-August 1920. And the one about the CP selling itself to Moscow was taken (although Kendall does not mention this in the text) from an election leaflet issued by Maclean in November 1922 – two and a half years after his split from the BSP and well over two years after the CPGB’s founding conference.8 For the crucial period preceding the Communist Unity Convention, Kendall was unable to find much in the way of evidence for Maclean’s thinking, so he just passed off the later material as indicative of Maclean’s position throughout. As for his assertion that those who questioned Maclean’s mental balance were liars, the only proof Kendall offered was a single quotation to that effect from the memoirs of Scottish Labour MP James Clunie,9 who had been close to Maclean in the early 1920s but was, for reasons outlined in this essay, a far from reliable witness. Faced with other evidence which tended to support the view that Maclean was indeed obsessed by spies, agents and state conspiracies, and that this had a decisive impact on his response to the formation of the Communist Party, Kendall found a simple solution – he ignored it. As an explanation of Maclean’s refusal to join the CPGB Kendall’s account was, to say the least, seriously flawed.
The issue of Maclean’s psychological state, both during and after his imprisonment, is clearly central to an evaluation of his political development. Since Kendall’s book was written, additional source material has become available and a quite extensive literature on the subject now exists. Yet different writers have drawn entirely conflicting conclusions from the evidence. Brian Ripley and John McHugh argue that, although Maclean’s mind may have been temporarily affected by his sufferings in prison, ‘once beyond the immediate post-war period, and certainly from early 1919 onwards, further examples of obvious mental instability on Maclean’s part are not forthcoming’.10 Other writers take an even more intransigent line in defence of Maclean. William Knox denounces ‘the scurrilous stories spread by Gallacher and other CPGBers concerning Maclean’s state of mind’ and asserts that there is ‘no evidence that he was mentally unstable’,11 while James D. Young dismisses all contemporary reports of psychological disorder as the product of a state-sponsored disinformation campaign in which police spies combined with Maclean’s Leninist opponents in an attempt to undermine his position in the labour movement.12 Iain McLean, by complete contrast, states that ‘there can be no doubt that Maclean’s views and behaviour in his last years were distorted by a thoroughly developed persecution mania’.13
What initially gave rise to doubts about Maclean’s mental balance was his insistence that drugs were being added to his and other prisoners’ food.14 It was during his second term of imprisonment in 1916-17 that Maclean first made such allegations – described by Dr James Devon of the Scottish Prison Commission as ‘insane delusions of persecution’15 – and he repeated the charge publicly at his trial in May 1918, where he announced his intention to refuse prison food if sentenced.16 On arrival at Perth prison following his conviction, Maclean persisted in his belief that the food was drugged and demanded that his meals be brought in from outside. He was interviewed by the prison medical officer, Dr Watson, who wrote that he doubted Maclean’s sanity ‘owing to his ideas of poison being put into prison food’. Dr Devon denounced Maclean’s court statement about drugging as ‘simply the ravings of a lunatic’ and informed the Scottish Office that ‘we are dealing with a man who is insane, but not certified’. This was an omission which Devon and Watson set out to rectify. With the approval of the Secretary for Scotland, they sought to have Maclean certified insane and removed either to an asylum or to the prison’s Criminal Lunatic Department. But the plan fell through when Dr Garrey, the medical officer at Peterhead prison, to which Maclean had been transferred in the meantime, refused to cooperate.17
The attempt by Devon and Watson to certify Maclean, solely on the basis of his suspicions about the prison food, seems inexcusable. It is possible that their diagnosis was based as much on political as on medical grounds, for they were hostile to Maclean as a revolutionary Marxist and may well have started from the assumption that anyone with his commitment to the destruction of the capitalist system was by definition verging on madness. Furthermore, both Devon and Watson had been responsible for Maclean’s medical supervision during his imprisonment in 1916-17 and if his food really had been drugged they would obviously have been implicated, so having their accuser officially categorised as a criminal lunatic was a means of discrediting the allegations against them. The refusal of Dr Garrey to go along with this is to his credit.
But Garrey, who consistently rejected suggestions that Maclean was insane, was not exactly a disinterested observer himself. When Maclean went on hunger strike after arrangements to bring food into the prison for him broke down, Garrey was responsible for organising his forcible feeding, and he was anxious to deny that Maclean suffered any ill effects from this treatment. Certainly Garrey’s repeated assurances about his patient’s continued physical and mental well-being during this ordeal are hardly credible.18 When Maclean’s wife Agnes was eventually allowed to visit him in October 1918, she wrote to the Secretary for Scotland protesting at Maclean’s condition and complained that Garrey had misled her as to the state of her husband’s health.19
The evidence contained in the doctors’ reports regarding Maclean’s third period of imprisonment is thus inconclusive. Medical opinion was divided between the view that Maclean was already mad when he entered prison in 1918 and the view that he emerged from the experience mentally unscathed, neither of which is very convincing. What the reports do is to underscore the specific delusion he suffered from concerning the adulteration of prisoners’ food. And there is no question that it was a delusion. Maclean himself never offered any evidence for these claims of drugging, except his own ill health. Gallacher recalls that Maclean accused the prison authorities of having ‘doped his food to make his bowels run and then, after two or three days used other dope to cause constipation’.20 Such symptoms, however, would more easily be explained as a product of the appalling diet to which prisoners were subjected. No historian, even among Maclean’s most vigorous defenders, has attempted to argue seriously that his charge of drugging was actually true.21
Maclean’s courageous stand at his May 1918 trial – ‘I come here not as the accused, but as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot’ – firmly established him as a revolutionary socialist of international standing. The savage five-year sentence he received and the force-feeding he underwent in prison provoked outrage throughout the labour movement. The resulting campaign to free Maclean, during which he was selected to stand as Labour candidate for the Gorbals in the 1918 general election (a decision which the local party insisted on in the face of strong opposition from the National Executive Committee), secured his release on 3 December 1918. The dramatic scenes that evening, when Maclean arrived at Glasgow’s Buchanan Street station, have been recorded in a number of accounts. He was greeted by a crowd of thousands, who unhitched the horses from his carriage and pulled it through the city centre, while Maclean, who was so weakened by his hunger strike that he had difficulty remaining upright, stood on the seat of the carriage defiantly waving a huge red banner.22 This remains one of the most powerful and heroic images from the history of the class struggle in Britain.
But there are strong indications that Maclean’s experiences in prison had damaged him not only physically but also psychologically. Dora Montefiore, a BSP executive member who was one of the comrades to accompany him on his triumphal journey home, recounts that when they arrived at his house in Newlands ‘I and others recognised that this was quite another John Maclean from the man, the ex-school teacher, whom the authorities some months before had cast into jail, because, as he said at his trial, “He had squared his actions with his conscience”. His thoughts were now disconnected, his speech was irresponsible, his mind, from solitary confinement, was absolutely self-centred. In a word, prison life had done its work on a delicately-balanced psychology, and our unfortunate comrade was now a mental wreck’.23
Maclean was too ill to actively participate in the general election campaign, which was already under way when he was released, and William Gallacher deputised for him. But he did speak at an eve-of-poll rally in St Mungo Halls, where the crowd was so large that meetings had to be held in three separate rooms. Introducing Maclean, the chairman explained that the speaker ‘suffered from the effects of a nervous breakdown’.24 and the various accounts of Maclean’s performance that evening would seem to confirm this. Even Harry McShane, who in his later years was inclined to discount allegations concerning Maclean’s mental balance, remembers that ‘he was very erratic, and it was obvious that he wasn’t yet well’.25 Gallacher recounts that while Maclean gave ‘a great speech, full of very good socialist electioneering’, it was nevertheless ‘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. To me it was very painful, though I am sure many of those in the hall accepted the “doping” story as true’.26 Tom Bell’s judgement on Maclean is even harsher: ‘Persecution obsessions and questions irrelevant to the Election made up the subject-matter of his speeches….27 The wild enthusiasm with which he was received at each of his meetings evaporated in murmurs of sympathetic concern, many people leaving the meeting while he was speaking, obviously disturbed by the state of their friend and comrade’s mind.’28 In the outcome Maclean received 7,436 votes but finished well behind the successful Coalition candidate, the sitting Labour MP George Barnes, who polled 14,347. A local Labour Party member would later complain that ‘we had Barnes defeated … only for John Maclean’s wild outburst the night before the poll’.29
Though it seems indisputable, given the evidence, that Maclean had suffered a mental breakdown in prison, the question remains as to how far it affected his future political development. Maclean appears to have recovered well enough from the physical effects of his ordeal to make a swift return to political activity, and he spent 1919 in a relentless campaign of revolutionary propaganda and agitation throughout Britain. But psychologically he remained very much on edge. Bell recalls that Maclean’s imprisonment had taken ‘an enormous toll from his nervous system…. He was irritable, highly strung, and extremely suspicious of those around him, even his closest and most loyal friends’.30 And Maclean’s inclination to explain events in terms of state conspiracies, first revealed in the doping allegations, did not cease after his release from prison but rather seems to have become generalised. Before he launched on his punishing schedule of meetings, he and Agnes had a short holiday in Rothesay with William Gallacher and his wife, during which Maclean became convinced that two students who had rented the flat above their own were police spies.31
Judging by intelligence reports compiled for the Cabinet by Basil Thomson, the head of Special Branch, conspiracy theories featured prominently in Maclean’s propaganda of the period. A report from January 1919, which characterised Maclean as ‘mentally unstable’ but stated that there was ‘sufficient method in his speeches to attract large audiences’, summarised the contents of a typical speech:
‘He relates his sufferings in prison, and states that his food was drugged and poisoned, and that he would have died if he had eaten it; that conscientious objectors, Sinn Féiners, and even convicts undergo such treatment that many die, others become insane or commit suicide, and that the strongest have their constitutions undermined; that those of the conscientious objectors who died of pneumonia had a particular bacillus injected into them by the prison staff. He goes on to say that in order to keep the War spirit up, the Government was in the habit of sending information to the Germans, which would enable them to sink merchant ships, and that the Lusitania was one of those sunk in this way. He then goes on to introduce the subject of Revolution.’32
Another report the following month, which gave details of Maclean’s speaking tour of North West England, confirmed that he was able to attract large crowds to his meetings, but observed that in response to any hostile question from the audience ‘he accuses the questioner of being a police spy’.33
As in the case of Maclean’s Scottish Office file, the Cabinet intelligence reports have to be treated with some caution. Thomson and his informants regarded Maclean with intense hostility and, like some of the prison doctors, were predisposed to view a man with such political beliefs as mentally disturbed. One account of a meeting in Yorkshire in June 1919 described Maclean as ‘raving like a madman’, offering as an example of this raving his call to ‘Seize the land; down with the capitalists; unite for Revolution; seize the workshops from the robbers; on with the Revolution!’34 Even a rare attempt at humour by Maclean was used against him.
At a meeting in Paisley in April 1919, he told his audience that ‘Lenin and Trotsky had appointed him first President of the Soviet Republic of England, and he was engaged in forming his first Soviet Government. He had already appointed William Gallacher as the first Chief Justice of the New Republic’!35 This, too, was offered as evidence of Maclean’s insanity. Another of Thomson’s informants on Maclean sneered that ‘the letters “MA” after his name should read “mentally afflicted”’.36
At the same time, it must be remembered that these reports were not propaganda designed to destroy Maclean’s public reputation; they were for internal use within the state apparatus, and their function was to assist the Lloyd George government in suppressing the revolutionary movement in Britain. A specific purpose of the material compiled about Maclean was to evaluate the response of the working class to his revolutionary message and thus judge the extent of the threat he posed to the ruling class. Reports of adverse reactions by Maclean’s audiences – for example, that ‘his gospel was too extreme for Englishmen’ and that ‘he ought to be in prison or in a lunatic asylum’37 – were taken as evidence that he represented no immediate danger to the established order. In May 1919, after Maclean had completed a speaking tour of South Wales, Thomson reported to the Cabinet that notes of one of Maclean’s speeches had been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. ‘Something may shortly have to be done about this man’, he added, ‘though it seems to be recognised by sober working men that he is insane, and that his speeches are quite irresponsible.’38 If the reports of Thomson and his spies were affected by their own hatred of socialism in general and of Maclean personally, they were hardly motivated to feed the government false information about Maclean’s mental condition, especially when this led to the conclusion that urgent action against him was unnecessary. And it is notable that of all the British revolutionaries whose activities Special Branch kept a watch on – these included Sylvia Pankhurst, Tom Mann, Robert Williams and many lesser figures – Maclean was the only one whose sanity was repeatedly called into question in this way. Used critically, and taken in association with evidence from other sources, the Cabinet intelligence reports do help us to form a general estimation of Maclean’s psychological condition.
In this connection, the breakdown of Maclean’s marriage later in 1919 should also be considered. The common explanation for Agnes Maclean’s estrangement from her husband is that she was ‘unable to stand the pressures and insecurity of living with a man who lived only for the revolution’39 and ‘the years of poverty had been too much for her’.40 In reality, a major contributory factor seems to have been Maclean’s mental problems. When Agnes tried to persuade him to cut back on his revolutionary activities in the interests of his health, Maclean became suspicious that she had been ‘got at’.41 She also had to contend with his irrational fear, which continued even after his release from prison, that his food was being tampered with. Bob Stewart, the CPGB’s first Scottish organiser, records that Maclean ‘became obsessed with the idea that he would be poisoned. He refused to eat in anyone’s house and on occasions refused food even from his wife’.42 And after Agnes left him and took their two young daughters to live with relatives, Maclean claimed that the government was behind the break-up of his family.43 If it would be an exaggeration to describe Maclean as actually insane, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his mental state was seriously impairing his judgement.
The rupture between Maclean and the BSP cannot be explained exclusively by his psychological problems; there was also a political background to the deterioration of his relations with the party leadership. Yet, whatever might be made of Maclean’s disagreements with the BSP’s policies during 1919 and the first part of 1920, it seems clear that they involved the sort of differences which inevitably arise in any revolutionary organisation and which should have been resolved through political discussion. Instead, Maclean’s conflicts with the BSP leaders degenerated into paranoia and wild accusations on Maclean’s part, leading to his break with the party at its Easter 1920 conference. In this sense, Maclean’s mental state was undeniably the main cause of the split.
During 1919-20 the BSP’s public activities were concentrated on the Hands Off Russia campaign, which sought to counter the effect of anti-Bolshevik propaganda in the capitalist press and rally labour movement opposition to military intervention against the new workers’ state. Although Maclean was one of the main speakers for Hands Off Russia, the campaign became the source of mounting friction between Maclean and the party leadership. At the time of the campaign’s national launch, in January 1919, he raised a dissenting voice against the call for industrial action to force the withdrawal of British troops from Russia, arguing that the majority of the working class, who did not recognise that their own interests were bound up with the survival of the Bolshevik government, could not be persuaded to strike over this issue. He therefore advocated ‘another line, and that is to save Russia by developing the Revolution in Britain no later than this year’.44 Maclean’s view was that escalating the class struggle at home was the best way of defending Russia. ‘My own desire for an immediate onslaught of Labour’, he explained in April 1919, ‘was induced by a desire to so engage British Capitalism that it would be unable to vigorously pursue the policy of attempting to crush the working class republic in Russia.’45 In November that year at a Hands Off Russia meeting in Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall celebrating the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution the chairman, Pat Dollan of the ILP, announced that the Trades Council had been considering organising a 24-hour general strike against military intervention in Russia. Despite the proposal being received enthusiastically by the audience, Maclean stuck to his line that ‘revolution here would help Russia most’.46 Eventually he seems to have concluded that Hands Off Russia had become a substitute for organising a serious fight against capitalism in Britain. Harry McShane, one of a group of Glasgow BSPers who left the party early in 1920, states that like them Maclean objected to the BSP executive’s ‘lack of an industrial and political perspective for Britain: “hands off Russia” was the only policy they had’.47
If Maclean’s prediction that it would be difficult to mobilise the working class in defence of Russia proved correct in the short term – it wasn’t until the Russo-Polish war in 1920 that the campaign managed to organise industrial action or gained any large-scale support – his own alternative perspective of immediate revolutionary conflict proved even more at variance with the actual outcome of the class struggle in Britain.48 Maclean’s conviction that the seizure of power was directly on the agenda seems to have led him to underestimate the potential of basic solidarity work, both in defending the Russian workers’ republic and in winning British workers to communism. In the aftermath of the November 1919 meeting at St Andrew’s Hall, Maclean did back the proposal for a 24-hour strike, but he argued that it should also adopt the slogan ‘Hands Off Ireland, Egypt and India’ and that mass meetings should be held during the strike to advocate a full revolutionary industrial and political programme.49 On the face of it, he would appear to have fallen into the classic leftist error of demanding agreement on programme and ultimate political aims as the precondition for a joint campaign on a concrete issue. The idea of revolutionaries fighting to win a majority of the class through common action with reformists around specific practical objectives was evidently lost on Maclean. As we shall see, this was to prove a fatal flaw in Maclean’s political method, with the result that his approach to Russian solidarity work, and to political activity in general, eventually collapsed into complete sectarianism.
It should be clear from what has been said that Hands Off Russia was essentially an exercise in what would later be called united front work. Although the organisation drew initial support from a broad range of liberal opinion, there is little substance to Ripley and McHugh’s allegation that the campaign as it actually developed represented ‘a popular front-type movement’.50 Even a cursory examination of reports in the BSP’s paper The Call demonstrates that this was a campaign firmly based on and oriented towards the labour movement. At Hands Off Russia meetings the question of industrial action against military intervention was a constant theme, and these events usually ended with the singing of the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’. The very fact that Maclean himself, scarcely a man to moderate his message in the interests of winning over the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie, was a regular speaker on Hands Off Russia platforms underlines the class character of the campaign.
It is true that Hands Off Russia rallies were also addressed by certain individuals who were sympathetic to the labour movement and willing to speak out against military intervention. In some cases they had visited the Russian workers’ republic and could give accurate accounts of what they had seen there. But there was nothing unprincipled about seeking support from such people. Professor W.T. Goode, a Manchester Guardian correspondent whose newspaper articles and book, Bolshevism at Work, answered ruling class slanders against the revolution, was one of those who was prepared to take a public stand on these issues. Another such figure was Lieutenant-Colonel L’Estrange Malone, MP, and it was his presence alongside Maclean and George Lansbury on the platform of the November 1919 Hands Off Russia meeting in Glasgow, referred to above, which unleashed the sequence of events that led to the split between Maclean and the BSP.
Malone was a man with a checkered past, to put it mildly. Not only had he been elected to parliament in 1918 as a Coalition Liberal, but he was also a former member of the Reconstruction Society, a right-wing body specialising in anti-communist propaganda. Its 1918 pamphlet Bolshevist Plot to Seize Power in Britain, which listed Malone as a member of the society’s executive, had in fact attacked Maclean by name, describing him as ‘a wild-looking schoolmaster’. However, in the course of 1919-20 Malone’s political views changed radically. In September 1919 he visited Russia, where he had talks with leading Bolsheviks and even joined Trotsky in a review of Red Army troops.51 On the basis of these experiences, Malone became a sympathiser of the Bolshevik government. After returning to Britain at the end of October he continued to move to the left. He joined the BSP in July 1920, and when the party transformed itself into the CPGB Malone became the first Communist MP.
Malone’s personal commitment to the movement during this period was incontestable. In November 1920 he received a six-month sentence after making a speech in which he argued that during a revolution, in order to defend the workers against counter-revolutionary violence by the ruling class, it was legitimate to execute leading members of the bourgeoisie. ‘What, my friends’, he asked his audience, ‘are a few Churchills or a few Curzons on lampposts compared to the massacre of thousands of human beings?’52 Given the suddenness of his conversion, though, the depth of Malone’s intellectual understanding of Communism was certainly questionable. James Klugmann, in his official history of the CPGB, states that Malone had joined the party ‘on an emotional rather than a reasoning basis; he was never a Marxist, and had little or no contact with the working class movement’.53 The prospect of imprisonment apparently caused Malone to have second thoughts about his involvement with revolutionary politics.54 After his release he left the CP to become a member of the ILP, subsequently moved over to the right of the Labour Party and eventually drifted out of the labour movement.55
Maclean, however, did not merely question Malone’s credentials as a Communist but accused him of being an active counter-revolutionary who had been sent into the workers’ movement to disrupt it. ‘Since I spoke with him in St Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow’, Maclean wrote, ‘I have denounced him as an agent of the Government soothing the Socialists whilst the Government was preparing for a Spring offensive against Russia.’56 Maclean never published anything to substantiate this accusation, other than references to Malone’s past political record, and it is quite clear that the state itself took an unequivocally hostile attitude towards Malone. Basil Thomson’s report to the Cabinet on the November 1919 meeting at St Andrew’s Hall, where Maclean became convinced that Malone was a spy, expresses forthright condemnation of a man ‘who is apparently so enamoured of Bolshevism that he is not ashamed as an ex-officer and a Member of Parliament to share a platform with a declared revolutionary’.57
Maclean’s accusations against Malone did not immediately lead to a break with the BSP. When he addressed a meeting of the Glasgow BSP in December 1919, a week after the St Andrew’s Hall meeting, Maclean still spoke as a party loyalist. Even the decision by the London leadership to send a full-time organiser, Ernest Cant, to Glasgow – with its implicit criticism of Maclean’s own organising abilities – had failed to shake his allegiance. In his speech, Maclean readily conceded that ‘during the war he and others had worked on BSP lines, but had not stressed the matter of Party’, with the result that it was the ILP rather than the BSP which had recruited from the wartime radicalisation of the Glasgow working class. He therefore ‘urged all to keep to the Party, to work hard for it, and to make its numerical strength commensurate with its undoubted influence’.58 All the same, it seems that Maclean’s obsession with state agents was already having a disruptive effect on his political work. By January 1920 Basil Thomson was reporting to the Cabinet that Maclean’s relations with other members of the labour movement were under serious strain because of ‘his constant references to “spies” being present at public and private meetings’.59
Maclean’s differences with the BSP leadership came to a head early in 1920 at a meeting with Theodore Rothstein, who had emerged as the dominant figure in the BSP after Fairchild resigned in opposition to the party’s growing Bolshevisation. Rothstein by this time had substantial funds from Russia at his disposal, and he offered Maclean a paid job as a speaker for the Hands Off Russia campaign.60 Maclean rejected this attempt to ‘buy’ him, as he later described it,61 partly because he would have been required to abandon his Marxist education classes in Scotland, but also no doubt because it would have meant working with Malone, who was one of the campaign’s star speakers. When Maclean was billed along with Malone to address a big Hands Off Russia rally at London’s Albert Hall in February 1920, he refused to share a platform with this ‘agent’.62 The discussions with Rothstein only served to convince Maclean that he, too, was in the pay of the state. According to Gallacher’s account, Rothstein revealed to Maclean that he was the Bolsheviks’ official representative in Britain and emphasised that the comrades in Moscow were relying on Maclean to play a leading role in the formation of the Communist Party. On his return to Glasgow, Maclean ‘openly told of this meeting and said that the cunning agent Rothstein had tried to fool him with a lot of talk about representing the Bolsheviks when he, Maclean, knew full well that he was working for the British government’.63
Far from being a smear against Maclean, thought up years after the event in order to discredit a political opponent of the Communist Party, Gallacher’s account is borne out by a Special Branch report of March 1920. ‘The British Communists have at last become convinced that John Maclean is insane …’, the report states. ‘A few days ago 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. He refused to be silenced and a deputation came from Glasgow to consult the Party in London, with the result that they were sent back to try every means for keeping Maclean from making speeches in public. It will take them all their time, for Maclean will regard this as a fresh conspiracy.’64
As was the case with Malone, there was nothing to justify Maclean’s accusation against Theodore Rothstein. Rothstein did enjoy a relatively comfortable existence working as a journalist for papers like the Manchester Guardian, which obviously contrasted sharply with the persecution Maclean himself had endured, and he had even spent two years working as a translator for the War Office, until being sacked in May 1919 after H.M. Hyndman had denounced him as a German spy.65 The debate between historians over the political role of Theodore Rothstein has generated quite a substantial literature of its own. Kendall and, in particular, Raymond Challinor present Rothstein in a poor light, Ripley and McHugh offer a more balanced but nonetheless critical view, while John Saville mounts a vigorous defence of Rothstein. All of these writers agree, however, that there is no truth to Maclean’s allegation that Rothstein was a spy.66 Indeed, it is quite clear from Special Branch reports that the British state regarded Rothstein quite straightforwardly as an agent of the Bolshevik government.
The widening breach between Maclean and the BSP became an unbridgeable gulf at the party’s Easter conference of 4-5 April 1920. Maclean’s name does not appear in the report of the conference published by the BSP in The Call, and this seems to have convinced some historians that he didn’t attend.67 But Maclean was present at the conference, and he took the opportunity to repeat his slanderous accusations against Rothstein and other leading members of the party. Details of Maclean’s intervention can be found in a Cabinet intelligence report, evidently based on information supplied by a genuine spy on the BSP executive. Given the obscurity which has surrounded Maclean’s break with the BSP – Nan Milton describes it as ‘the only mysterious part of John Maclean’s life’68 – it is worth quoting the report at length:
‘There was a curious incident during the Conference. John Maclean rose and made charges against the leaders of being police spies; he further cited the money spent on young Andrew Rothstein’s education at Balliol and hinted that he was an agent provocateur of the Government. It was decided to hold a secret meeting of the Executive to investigate the charges. At this meeting Maclean argued quite temperately and with some superficial logic that the money received by Theodore Rothstein and Albert Inkpin was Government money; he cited incidents that could only be explained on this hypothesis, and he challenged them to produce evidence of the source of the money. In reply, lnkpin assured his hearers that every penny came directly or indirectly from the Soviet Government; that it came by secret couriers to him and that he handed it on to Theodore Rothstein.
‘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. 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. The Executive of the British Socialist Party has warned Lenin of John Maclean’s mental state and in future the Soviet Government will not have relations with him, though he is still their official representative in Glasgow. He is of that temper which will become more uncompromising if any attempt is made to silence him.’69
At least some of the historians who fiercely defend Maclean against charges of mental instability cannot claim ignorance of this report. Both Kendall and Challinor cite this particular Cabinet paper in connection with other evidence it contains about the role of Theodore Rothstein,70 yet they omit to mention its description of Maclean’s bizarre behaviour. James Young even quotes from the account of Maclean’s intervention at the conference, but ends up effectively endorsing Maclean’s deranged accusations against Rothstein and other BSP leaders.71 As for those writers who have overlooked Maclean’s presence at the conference, they are simply guilty of not doing their homework. Not only does Maclean’s name appear in the official report of the conference,72 but he himself, in his well-known ‘Open Letter to Lenin’, explicitly refers to his clash with the BSP executive, condemning in particular the role of Will McLaine, who had worked alongside Maclean in the Scottish Labour College and was to attend the Communist International’s Second Congress as a BSP delegate. ‘At the BSP conference in Bethnal Green Town Hall, last Easter, behind closed doors’, Maclean informs Lenin, ‘he [McLaine], with others, made an unscrupulous attack on me, and was therefore selected to appear with Gallacher before you to assure you that I was suffering from “hallucinations”.’73
An account of this confrontation between Maclean and the BSP leadership appeared at the time in the Whitehall Gazette, a right-wing journal published by the notorious con-man Maundy Gregory, who was a personal friend of Basil Thomson of Special Branch. The Gazette’s pseudonymous correspondent (probably Thomson himself)74 commented that Britain’s revolutionaries ‘have never loved one another very much, but when it comes to Mr John Maclean, the Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow, standing up in open conference and denouncing his colleagues as police spies, “peace and goodwill towards men” would not be an accurate figure in which to describe their state of mind’.75 It was no doubt for this reason that most labour movement newspapers failed to report Maclean’s outburst. Only the Hyndmanites’ publication Justice took up the story. In an article based on the Whitehall Gazette revelations, Thomas Kennedy argued that while the BSP’s additional funds undoubtedly came from either Germany or Russia, it was ‘highly probable’ that state agents were also involved. After all, ‘sinister influences were at work’ during the expulsion of the Hyndmanites in 1916 after ‘the more or less sudden conversion of a number of individuals … to the cult of pacifism and pro-Germanism’. Kennedy declared himself in favour of a public inquiry to establish the truth or otherwise of Maclean’s accusations.76
It is at this point, not surprisingly, that references to and contributions by Maclean in The Call come to an abrupt end. The Hands Off Russia campaign organised a series of public meetings around Scotland over the weeks following the BSP Easter conference, featuring speakers such as William Gallacher and Lieutenant-Colonel Malone, but Maclean’s name was glaringly absent. Although the BSP did not publicly announce that he had been expelled, Maclean later stated that ‘Rothstein’s … approaches to me created a situation that compelled the BSP to gently slip me out’ and referred to his ‘secret expulsion’ from the party.77 At the May Day demonstration in Glasgow, Harry McShane was astonished to meet Maclean selling not The Call but a new issue of The Vanguard, the title of a paper earlier published by the anti-Hyndmanite Glasgow district council of the BSP and suppressed by the state in 1916.78 It contained an article by Maclean explaining that ‘the Government … has paralysed the BSP’ and that this was why it had been necessary to resume publication of the paper. ‘Bribe and destroy whom it may within the ranks of Labour’, Maclean wrote, the British government could not prevent the revolution.79 The split between Maclean and the party he had been a member of for some seventeen years seemed to be complete.
It is odd, therefore, that Maclean apparently got himself delegated to the July-August 1920 Communist Unity Convention from the BSP’s Tradeston branch, to which he claimed he had transferred after the collapse of his own branch.80 An official Tradeston branch of the BSP was in existence at the time, and it is possible that they accepted Maclean as a member and delegated him to the Unity Convention. Not only was the BSP quite a loose organisation, but Maclean had neither resigned nor been formally expelled from the party. On the other hand, Harry McShane recounts that the Glasgow South Side BSP was in a state of disintegration in 1920 and that he and Maclean took over the party’s premises at Morrison Street, in the Tradeston constituency, as a base for their political work.81 So it may be as a member of this unofficial branch that Maclean was delegated to the Unity Convention. Either way, his credentials were not accepted by the conference organisers. According to Maclean, he was ‘automatically excluded from this London show by the trickery of the Cockney, Cant, who refused to recognise the Tradeston branch’.82 Whatever the formal justification for Maclean’s exclusion from the founding conference of the CPGB, the real explanation is surely clear. Given that he could have no interest in joining a party whose leadership was, according to him, in the pay of and directly controlled by the capitalist state, it was no doubt anticipated that he would attack the proceedings on the same basis as he had done at the BSP conference a few months earlier. It is not difficult to imagine the scandal that would have resulted if the former Russian consul in Glasgow, the man described in the capitalist press as the ‘Scottish Lenin’, had turned up at the inaugural conference of the Communist International’s British section and denounced its leaders as spies and state agents!
Contrary to repeated claims by various authors, there is no indication that the rupture between Maclean and the BSP was in any way motivated by his objections to Russian interference in the revolutionary movement in Britain.83 Opposition to the Bolsheviks’ role in engineering communist unity was not lacking during the period of Maclean’s conflict with the BSP. Ironically, in view of what was to happen later, one of the most vigorous proponents of this view was none other than Willie Gallacher, who in early 1920 charged the International’s representatives with ‘a very grave misunderstanding regarding the movement here’. Claiming that ‘outside interference’ was ‘seriously hindering the chances of unity’, Gallacher urged that ‘outside comrades should leave the movement here alone’.84 But no evidence exists that Maclean ever associated himself with such views at that time. Still less is there any evidence that he ‘did not want to make himself dependent on Russian money – and did not like the situation developing in the BSP, which was becoming more and more dependent on Russian subsidies’, as Nan Milton argues.85 Although Maclean did condemn the BSP as ‘a party that has been corrupted by money, no one clearly cares to say whence its origin’,86 as we have seen he himself was convinced that the source of the money was the British government.
Nor is there anything in the period preceding the Communist Unity Convention to back up Harry McShane’s claim that Maclean was opposed to the foundation of the CPGB ‘because he wanted a separate Scottish party’.87 The demand for a distinct Scottish party, organisationally independent of a revolutionary party in the rest of Britain, certainly played no part in Maclean’s mounting differences with the BSP during 1919-20. The very fact that he was a member of the British Socialist Party indicates that he favoured the political organisation of the struggle against capitalism on an all-British basis. Indeed, as Ripley and McHugh have pointed out, most of Maclean’s furious agitational and propaganda work in 1919 was carried out in England rather than Scotland.88 The idea of a separate Scottish organisation never seems to have entered Maclean’s mind at this time.
This is not to deny that Maclean was developing an interest in the Scottish national question during this earlier period. In January 1919, when he turned down a request by the Scottish nationalist Erskine of Mar to sign an appeal soliciting support from US president Woodrow Wilson for Scottish Home Rule, Maclean stated that he favoured ‘a Parliament or Soviet of workers for Scotland, with headquarters in Glasgow’ to be achieved through ‘the establishment of the Socialist Republic, in which alone we can have real Home Rule’.89 In other words, Scottish self-determination was dependent on the success of the British revolution. Maclean wrote an article entitled ‘A Soviet for Scotland’ in which he presumably expounded his views on this matter, but it was refused publication in The Call.90 At the end of the year MacLean joined Erskine’s National Committee, as did a number of other prominent figures in the Scottish labour movement.91
However, the importance which he attached to the national question may be gauged by the fact that the non-publication of his article on a Scottish soviet provoked no more than a passing complaint from Maclean at the BSP’s Easter 1919 confeerence, and it did not prevent him from proudly proclaiming in the course of the same conference that it was ‘entirely due to the BSP that we have got a drift towards the revolutionary position’.92 In not one of the many other articles he published in The Call or the Scottish shop stewards’ paper The Worker during 1919-20 did the issue even rate a mention. And while there are indications that during his campaign across Britain in 1919 Maclean was critical of workers in England for failing to match the militancy of those in Scotland,93 no evidence exists to back up Nan Milton’s opinion that ‘it was this experience which finally forced him towards the idea of Scottish independence’.94
It was only after his break with the BSP/CPGB that the demand for national independence – in advance, that is, of the socialist revolution in the rest of Britain – and the associated demand for a separate Scottish party made an appearance in Maclean’s political perspectives. In August 1920 he devoted a leaflet entitled ‘All Hail, the Scottish Communist Republic!’ to the call for an independent soviet republic in Scotland,95 and in the September issue of The Vanguard Maclean for the first time declared himself in favour of ‘a clear and clean Scottish Communist Party’. Similarly, it was only in the latter part of 1920 that he began to argue that the higher level of class struggle and political consciousness justified an independent bid for power in Scotland. He now proposed to ‘make Glasgow a Petrograd, a Revolutionary storm centre second to none’ – which ignored the fact that, at the time of the July Days, Lenin had argued against an attempt to seize power in Petrograd before the rest of Russia was ready. In any case, the Forty Hours strike of January 1919, which was restricted to Scotland and went down to defeat after Glasgow was placed under military occupation, should have indicated to Maclean the futility of a Scottish insurrection in isolation from the rest of Britain.
Maclean put forward a number of other justifications for his new separatist line. The prospect of armed conflict between Britain and the USA, which in his 1919 pamphlet The Coming War with America had led him to urge the establishment of workers’ power in Britain as a whole, was now employed to argue for an independent Scotland which would ‘would refuse to let her lads fight the battles of the maniac English’. The war preparations, which Maclean believed were already under way, necessitated ‘the policy of complete political separation from England. Hence a Scottish Communist Party’. Maclean also justified the fight for national independence by drawing a parallel with the Irish liberation struggle, to which he had given principled support. Yet, in urging Scottish revolutionaries to follow the example of the Irish nationalists, Maclean made no serious attempt to argue that Scotland was an oppressed nation like Ireland, but simply asserted that the break-up of the British Empire along national lines would assist in the defeat of the ruling class.
Maclean’s further argument that revolutionaries in an area of such advanced militancy ‘must not allow ourselves to play second fiddle to any organisation with headquarters in London’ was not even a distinctly nationalist argument. It would have been supported by many of the South Wales syndicalists, who were generally hostile to nationalism.96 Opposition to domination by a London-based leadership of course carried particular weight with Maclean. ‘If England is to be led by Malone’, he wrote, ‘then let us Marxians in Scotland forge ahead on entirely independent lines.’97 All the indications are that it was this latter factor – his hostility to the BSP/CPGB leaders – rather than any consistent position on the national question which was decisive in the development of Maclean’s new line.
David Howell may be correct that Maclean’s nationalism is not reducible to ‘a series of pragmatic responses precipitated by ideological and organisational developments inside the Revolutionary Left’.98 But the sudden appearance of such a variety of arguments in support of Scottish separatism, none of which had been aired until Maclean’s split with the BSP/CPGB, does tend to reinforce the view, cogently argued by Ripley and McHugh, that his attempt to fuse Marxism with an incoherent version Scottish nationalism had a predominantly pragmatic element to it.99 McShane’s statement that Maclean refused to join the CPGB because he wanted an independent Communist Party for Scotland, therefore, doesn’t really hold water. If anything the situation was exactly the reverse: essentially, Maclean favoured a separate Scottish Communist Party because he was opposed to joining the CPGB. And he was opposed to joining the CPGB because he had deluded himself that it was headed by state agents.
It was not Maclean in fact who initiated the campaign for a Scottish revolutionary party. The author of this proposal was Alec Geddes of the Scottish Workers Committee, which represented the remnants of the wartime shop stewards’ movement. As a delegate to the Communist Unity Convention, Geddes had voted against the decision to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party, and an editorial in the SWC’s organ The Worker condemned the decision as ‘an unpardonable mistake’ which would finish the CPGB in Scotland, where communists were ‘nine-tenths anti-Labour Party’.100 In a subsequent article Geddes proposed the formation of a Scottish Communist Party, not on nationalist grounds but on the basis of this ultra-left rejection of Labour affiliation.101 At a meeting in the Worker offices later in August it was decided to issue a manifesto calling for a conference to establish a Scottish Communist Party adhering to the following principles: the dictatorship of the proletariat, the soviet system, the Third International and non-affiliation to the Labour Party.102
These moves coincided with the political crisis that arose over the threat of military intervention by Britain and France in reaction to the Red Army’s advance into Poland. This threat provoked such opposition in the ranks of the British workers’ movement that the Labour Party and TUC were compelled to organise a national Council of Action which agreed to call a political strike in the event of war. The newly-formed CPGB not only played an important role in initiating this campaign, but also intervened energetically in the more than 350 local Councils of Action which were formed across Britain. As Lenin explained to the Russian Communist Party congress in September 1920: ‘the progress of the working class movement requires that we split with the Mensheviks [i.e. the British reformists] ideologically, and yet at the same time act together with them in the Council of Action.’103
Maclean’s response, by contrast, was simply to boycott the official movement. ‘The Labour Councils of Action will not fill the bill’, he wrote. ‘There are plenty of honest men acting as leaders of Labour, but proved traitors are at the helm – the Hendersons, the Thomases and the Clynes. We Communists are the only ones that can lead society to Communism. Therefore we must form a Communist Council of Action to assume the real power when the proper moment arrives.’104 Maclean held a meeting of his Communist Council of Action in Glasgow on 28 August, which attracted 75 people, among them representatives of the Scottish Workers Committee, the Socialist Labour Party, the Lanarkshire Miners’ Communist Group and the International Union of Ex-Servicemen.105 But the reformist ILP, which was the largest and most influential political tendency in the Glasgow labour movement, was necessarily excluded from this select gathering of revolutionaries. Maclean failed to understand the role of a Council of Action as a broad-based working class organisation in which communists had to fight to win the majority to their programme. Instead he sought to leap over the task of building a relationship between the vanguard and the class by setting up a narrow sectarian body whose purpose was evidently to serve as a substitute for a revolutionary party.
By then Maclean had formed his own group, comprising a handful of travelling propagandists – Maclean himself, James MacDougall, Peter Marshall, Sandy Ross and Harry McShane – whom Maclean had dubbed the Tramp Trust Unlimited.106 They responded positively to the Worker group’s proposal for a Scottish Communist Party, and a committee elected at Maclean’s Communist Council of Action meeting was empowered to enter into discussions with the signatories to the Worker group’s manifesto.107 As a result of these negotiations, in September MacDougall of the Tramp Trust and one John McLean of Bridgeton, a leading member of the Scottish Workers Committee, co-signed as acting joint secretaries an appeal to revolutionaries to attend a preliminary conference to launch a Communist Party for Scotland.108 This conference took place on 11 September 1920 and was attended by about 100 people, including delegates representing 21 organisations. The title Scottish Communist Party was rejected in favour of Communist Labour Party, on the proposal of James MacDougall, and the inaugural conference of the new revolutionary organisation was set for 2 October.109
This plan came unstuck as the result of Gallacher’s return on 27 September from Moscow, where he had participated in the Second Congress of the Communist International. After discussions with Lenin, Gallacher had been convinced of the need for all revolutionary forces in Britain to unify in the CPGB. Although he arrived home too late to be delegated to the October conference, which attracted some 400 people, Gallacher attended as a visitor and prevailed on the chair to allow him to address the meeting. He emphasised the crucial importance that the Comintern attached to the unity of all British communists in a single party, and argued that those who opposed parliamentary action or Labour Party affiliation should enter the unified Communist Party and fight for their positions inside it. Though Maclean was not present at the conference, the Tramp Trust was represented by MacDougall, who argued vigorously against Gallacher, even voting against allowing him speaking rights. Gallacher’s intervention proved decisive, however. While he could not prevent the actual formation of the Communist Labour Party, Gallacher persuaded the conference that the new organisation should remain a ‘provisional body’ whose purpose was to bring together the various Communist groups in Scotland with a view to negotiating a merger with the CPGB.110
Gallacher thus succeeded in breaking the Maclean-Worker alliance and hijacked the enterprise of a building a separate party in Scotland, transforming it instead into a bridge to take Scottish revolutionaries into the CPGB. The forces with which Maclean had hoped to build his Scottish Communist Party had been snatched away from him. Apart from his own tiny group, the only significant force that remained outside the communist unity movement in Scotland was the De Leonite Socialist Labour Party. When Maclean wrote an article summoning Scottish revolutionaries to a conference in December 1920 ‘to form a Scottish Communist Party to represent the Marxian communism in Scotland’, he was reduced to offering participants the alternative choice of joining the SLP, ‘which fortunately has its headquarters in Glasgow’.111
Understandably, Maclean was extremely resentful of the way he had been outmanoeuvred over the CLP. He condemned this ‘party’, which though maintaining a formal existence as an independent organisation was in reality a recruiting arm of the CPGB, as ‘a shameful bewilderment’ of Scottish socialists. He also objected to the election of John McLean of Bridgeton as CLP secretary, denouncing this as an attempt to deceive the workers’ movement that he himself was involved with the CLP.112 Although this has gone down in Macleanite mythology as an example of the Communists’ double-dealing, the accusation was really just another example of Maclean’s paranoia destroying his capacity for political reasoning. As a member of the Scottish Workers Committee, the Bridgeton McLean had in fact been prominently involved with the CLP project from the beginning – as we have seen, he and James MacDougall of the Tramp Trust had co-signed the original appeal to set up a Scottish Communist Party. McLean also wrote to The Worker in November 1920 emphasising that his famous namesake had nothing to do with the CLP and stating that some potential recruits had been put off joining the organisation in the mistaken belief that it supported The Vanguard’s line on Scottish independence.113
Maclean’s relations with the CLP were further embittered by his conflict with Gallacher’s protégé J.R. Campbell over the organisation of the unemployed.114 At the end of October, Basil Thomson reported to the Cabinet that ‘in Glasgow there are rival unemployment committees, and John Maclean, who was first in the field, has accordingly poured his customary torrent of invective over his opponents Messer, Gallacher and Campbell. These men, whose language is scarcely less ruddy than Maclean’s, have retaliated and it has been left to “Sandy” Ross to deplore the lack of unity’. An attempt to overcome this division was made with a joint meeting on Glasgow Green addressed by Ross and Campbell and attended by 1200 people. But it ended disastrously when Ross launched into a defence of Maclean’s obsession with state agents and repeated the accusation that Theodore Rothstein was a spy, drawing the reply from Campbell that ‘he had Gallacher’s word for the fact that Lenin placed absolute trust in Rothstein’.115 After a subsequent clash at an unemployed meeting, Maclean became convinced that ‘Campbell and his abettors were working for the Government’.116
It was in November 1920 that Maclean for the first time criticised Moscow’s intervention in the revolutionary movement in Britain. Given the fact that Gallacher and the Bolsheviks were in agreement on the disputed issues of a single British Communist Party and the political honesty of the CPGB leadership, Maclean could do little else. ‘I for one’, he wrote, ‘will not follow a policy dictated by Lenin until Lenin knows the situation more clearly than he can know it from an enemy to Marxian Economic Classes as Gallacher privately declared himself to me to be.’117 Maclean went on to denounce Gallacher for ‘ridiculing the idea of a “Scottish” Communist Party because he has been to Russia and poses as the gramophone of Lenin’.118 And he asserted: ‘The less Russians interfere in the internal affairs of other countries at this juncture the better for the cause of Revolution in those countries.’119 Even at this point, though, there is no basis for Graham Bain’s assertion that Maclean ‘saw only disaster in foreign interference’.120 The key phrase was ‘at this juncture’. Maclean’s view was that, due to the isolation of the Russian workers’ republic, the Moscow-based Comintern leaders’ attempts to direct the British revolutionary movement were undermined by their lack of accurate information concerning the actual political situation in Britain. He was far from opposing in principle the right of the International to intervene in political developments in other countries.
Indeed, the pamphlet Moscow’s Reply to the ILP, with its heavy emphasis on the importance of a centralised revolutionary International, had been acclaimed by Maclean as a work which would have an even greater political impact than the Communist Manifesto.121 And his call for a Scottish Communist Party was addressed to those revolutionaries who supported the Comintern’s 21 conditions for membership, adopted at the Second Congress, which were equally uncompromising in insisting on a centralised international leadership. In fact Maclean justified the formation of a separate organisation for Scotland by specifically referring to point 17 of the 21 conditions, which stated that each of the International’s sections must change its name to the ‘Communist Party of this or that country’.122 Nothing in this precluded the formation of a Communist Party of Scotland, Maclean pointed out, ‘as Scotland is a definite country’.123 In the aftermath of the Second International’s capitulation in August 1914, when the overwhelming majority of its constituent sections refused to implement the agreed anti-war policy and rallied to the support of their own bourgeoisies, it is hardly surprising that Maclean should support the Bolshevik conception of international organisation. The idea that his writings provide any support for Kendall’s view that ‘the attempt to build the Communist International as a single world party … was doomed to failure from the start’124 is frankly ludicrous.
Maclean might have been expected to jump at the chance to put his case for a Scottish section of the Comintern to the International’s leadership in Moscow. He had failed to attend the Second Congress in July, after making it an issue of principle to demand that the Home Office grant him a passport – a demand that was not unexpectedly refused. On returning from Russia, to which he himself had travelled illegally, Gallacher tried to convince Maclean that he should go and discuss with the Comintern leaders. Gallacher states that he had told Lenin ‘about the difficulty with John Maclean, of John’s obsession with spies and his utter lack of faith in all who had participated in the unity negotiations, and in particular his “exposure” of Theodore Rothstein as a representative of the Bolsheviks in London under the belief that he was an agent of the British Government. This was unfortunate, said Lenin, but I must persuade Maclean to visit Moscow. “We have quite a number of comrades who, through the stress of revolutionary activity, suffered in the same way. We have been able to bring them back to their normal condition”, he said, adding that he was sure they could do the same for Maclean’. Maclean was at first quite agreeable to visiting Moscow, but then changed his mind and responded angrily to Gallacher’s attempts at persuasion, accusing Gallacher of trying to remove him from the political scene in Glasgow. Gallacher blamed James Clunie, at that time a leading member of the SLP, for encouraging Maclean’s paranoia, and wrote a letter to the SLP executive complaining about Clunie’s behaviour, in the course of which he told them that Maclean was suffering from ‘hallucinations’. Gallacher proposed that both he and Maclean should meet with the SLP leadership to try and resolve the matter. Instead his letter was passed on by Clunie to Maclean himself, with predictable consequences for the already fraught relationship between Maclean and Gallacher.125
All this took place in the run-up to Maclean’s conference to launch a Scottish Communist Party, which was held at the SLP’s headquarters in Renfrew Street, Glasgow, on 25 December 1920. The events that occurred there are well documented, both in Gallacher’s and McShane’s memoirs and in detailed contemporary reports published by the Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail, who evidently had a reporter planted in the audience. Maclean denounced Gallacher as ‘no better than a government agent’ and at one point the confrontation between the two men looked as if it might end in blows.126 But the real reason Maclean’s plan for a separate Scottish party came to nothing was the SLP’s refusal to accept it. In fact, even before the conference was held, Maclean had effectively been forced to abandon his plan for an independent Scottish organisation and announce that the purpose of the meeting was to secure a merger with the SLP.127 The conference closed with Maclean appealing to the audience to join the SLP. The fact that Maclean should become a member of this party, which explicitly condemned the idea of ‘a Scottish Communist Party for “pure” Scotsmen’ and had publicly stated at the conference that ‘Comrade Maclean’s idea for a Scottish Communist Party could not be entertained by the SLP’,128 itself puts into perspective the role which Maclean’s new-found nationalism played in his opposition to the CPGB. ‘Neither Maclean nor the SLP rejected their respective positions’, Ripley and McHugh point out, ‘and the former occasionally argued his case in the columns of The Socialist. It was simply not of sufficient importance to inhibit their cooperation for nearly two years.’129
If the SLP rejected Maclean’s position on the Scottish national question they were, as Gallacher had alleged in the disputed letter, apparently happy to encourage him in his delusions about his political opponents. Immediately after the December conference, an article in the SLP’s paper The Socialist commented that if Gallacher was not ashamed of his actions there he was ‘only worthy of being what some believe him to be’.130 This slur, Gallacher replied angrily in The Worker, was ‘simply a reference to the fact that the latest recruit to the ranks of the SLP has publicly accused me of being a Government Agent’. If they really believed Maclean’s accusation against him, Gallacher told the SLP, then they should come right out and say so. ‘Only remember this’, he advised, ‘if you accept the statement of the “latest recruit” you’ve got to accuse every active man in the movement of being in the same position. When you make up your mind that I’m a traitor to the cause, I’ll supply you with the names of two or three dozens of others against whom you’ll have to accept the same charge or else repudiate the man who makes them. Let us get this matter settled. We can’t have a man going around trading on his past and accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being a Government Agent. That sort of thing can’t go on.’131 But it could. In the very next issue of The Socialist, Maclean repeated his charge against Gallacher. ‘I have insisted in public’, he wrote, ‘that you never hit the governing class but they hit you back in reply. Gallacher obviously was their instrument this time. His letter to the SLP proves that.’132
Terry Brotherstone’s assertion that ‘for a revolutionary socialist who had been Bolshevik consul in Glasgow to be alert to state surveillance at this period is, of itself, evidence of nothing else but political realism’133 begins to look a little foolish. That there were state agents operating throughout the organised working class goes without saying. During the immediate post-war years, with the Bolsheviks taking power in Russia and with Britain itself in a state of industrial and political unrest, the ruling class perceived the threat of revolution as a real one, and Basil Thomson had an extensive apparatus of spies in and around the labour movement. The very detailed information about Maclean himself contained in Thomson’s reports to the Cabinet bears witness to this fact. But it is ridiculous to argue that this somehow legitimises Maclean’s quite specific accusations against individual members of the movement with whom he had come into political conflict.134 The vast majority of them, we have no reason to doubt, were entirely innocent of involvement with the state, and Maclean never offered the slightest proof that they were anything else. While we can find excuses for Maclean’s behaviour, it is less easy to be charitable about supposedly serious historians who retrospectively associate themselves with Maclean’s campaign of denigration against honest socialists.
It was in the SLP’s paper that Maclean also published his ‘Open Letter to Lenin’. This was written in response to the second unity convention, held in Leeds on 29-30 January 1921, which brought the CLP and Sylvia Pankhurst’s self-styled Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) into the CPGB. Although the Left Wing of the Independent Labour Party did not formally join the CP until a couple of months later, this second conference effectively concluded the long period of unity negotiations. The Open Letter can therefore he taken as a definitive statement of Maclean’s motives in refusing to join the Comintern’s British section, and is worth examining in detail.
The first and most obvious point is that Maclean makes no appeal to Lenin to support the formation of a separate Scottish section of the Communist International, nor does he raise the question of an independent workers’ republic in Scotland. He does mention the issue of Russian gold, in the context of a denunciation of Francis Meynell, the editor of the CPGB weekly The Communist, who had earlier been exposed for smuggling Russian diamonds into Britain to subsidise the Daily Herald. But Maclean does not take the opportunity to challenge Lenin on the Bolshevik government’s right to subsidise the Comintern’s sections. Far from questioning the legitimacy of the International, the whole purpose of the Open Letter is to convince Lenin that Maclean and his comrades were the true revolutionaries from whom a section of the Comintern should be built.135
The Open Letter is mainly notable for an explicit statement of Maclean’s thesis, which he had been developing since the meeting with Lieutenant-Colonel Malone in November 1919, that the establishment of the CPGB was the result of a state conspiracy and that the party itself was led by government agents. In the course of the letter, Maclean returns to this point again and again. First of all, he asserts that some of the delegates to the Comintern’s Second Congress (he obviously has Gallacher in mind) travelled to Russia ‘”secretly” whilst the authorities were winking the other eye’, and he later makes the direct accusation that such individuals were ‘conscious … agents of Lloyd George and the property-owning class’. Maclean cites what he claims were distorted accounts by these delegates concerning the political situation in Britain, and he explains to Lenin that the reason for this misinformation was that ‘it is the business of the British government to deceive you and get you to make false calculations’. He goes on to argue that a Labour government will be brought to office, behind which the bourgeoisie will continue to rule. ‘This expedient of itself would not deceive you’, Maclean tells Lenin, ‘since you and your comrades have the exact measure of the leaders of Labour and of the ILP, and that Lloyd George well knows. He must, therefore, make way for a Communist Party whose “leaders” are controlled by him.’ The unity conference in Leeds, Maclean concludes, is ‘a Lloyd George caricature of the great Leeds Convention of 1917’.136
It can be seen that from late 1919 up to the second Communist unity conference of January 1921, Maclean’s attitude to the formation of a united British section of the Third International underwent several shifts. But the central and consistent theme to his objections is quite clear. And this was not that the move towards Communist unity which resulted in the formation of the CPGB was the product of Russian interference and Moscow gold, but rather that it was being engineered by the Lloyd George government through spies and agents in the leadership of the revolutionary movement and that the whole operation was funded by the British state!138 Here two possible explanations suggest themselves. Either Maclean knew that these accusations were nonsense and simply employed them in order to discredit his political opponents, or the evidence of Gallacher and others is accurate and Maclean was psychologically disturbed. The first explanation is untenable; whatever failings John Maclean had, he was a man of unshakeable political integrity who would never have used such methods against his opponents in the labour movement. So we are left with the second alternative: that Maclean’s hostile response to the formation of the CPGB was indeed in large part the product of an unbalanced mind.
Maclean was sentenced to two further terms of imprisonment in 1921, and was not released until October 1922. While in prison he had resigned from the SLP, apparently because of a dispute over the party’s constitution,138 and he now began to organise his own political group. This was formally launched in February 1923 as the Scottish Workers Republican Party. While some of its members were won from the SLP, most of its recruits seem to have been politically raw individuals drawn into the organisation through Maclean’s work with the unemployed. Harry McShane, who broke from Maclean to join the CPGB, recalls that the SWRP ‘had some queer people that I didn’t like – they had never been to John’s economics classes, they knew nothing about socialism or revolutionary work. Even if I had not joined the Communist Party I could never have joined with that crowd’.139 The final period of Maclean’s life was dedicated to building his new organisation, whose activities were restricted not merely to Scotland but almost entirely to Glasgow.
These closing years of Maclean’s political career coincided with the CPGB’s own efforts to establish itself as a force in the British labour movement. In this the CP met with some success. During the early 1920s the party to a large extent overcame its own rather chaotic origins and developed a degree of political intelligence, tactical flexibility and agitational sharpness which marked a considerable advance over the earlier practices of its various component groupings. As a consequence, the CPGB was able to exercise an influence in the labour movement, and especially in the trade unions, quite out of proportion to its small size. The formation of a British section of the Comintern, able to participate in the crucial debates on tactics, strategy and programme which took place in the International during this period, represented a qualitative leap in the politics of the revolutionary movement in Britain.
As Brotherstone points out, Maclean’s rejection of the CPGB shut him off from these important international developments,140 and this was an error which had disastrous consequences for Maclean’s political evolution. Despite his tireless work organising the unemployed, Maclean remained trapped in the old propagandist conception of Marxism of the pre-October period, albeit with an admixture of Scottish nationalism. Indeed, during this last phase of his career Maclean’s politics underwent a distinct degeneration, lapsing into a sectarianism which makes nonsense of Ripley and McHugh’s statement that ‘Maclean needed no lessons from Lenin on ultra-leftism or infantile disorders’.141
For example, in November 1922, when Maclean again stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Gorbals (receiving 4,027 votes as against 16,479 for the successful Labour candidate), his campaign literature was almost entirely devoid of agitational demands. His election address, which consisted of a summary of his political career, a general analysis of economic and political developments and propaganda for world socialism, concluded with the assurance that ‘no detailed programme is necessary’.142 In a letter to James Clunie, Maclean presented it as a virtue that he had ‘refused to talk on rents, taxes or capital levy. I kept to the question of trade and the world political and economic complications. I urged a “Scottish Workers’ Republic”’. He also boasted that he had ‘staggered the people by saying that I wouldn’t go to the London House of Commons, but would remain in Scotland’,143 in imitation of the policy earlier implemented by the Irish nationalists. But Maclean’s position as the sole Scottish republican candidate bore no resemblance to that of Sinn Féin, which had won 73 seats in the 1918 general election and then established its own national assembly, the Dáil Éireann, in opposition to the British parliament. Maclean’s announcement that he would refuse to take his seat in the Commons if elected amounted in practice to a form of antiparliamentarism which allied him with the ultra-left. Significantly, it was the Glasgow anarchist Guy Aldred who had first urged Maclean to adopt the Sinn Féin tactic.144
A major challenge for Clydeside revolutionaries during this period was that the Labour Party, headed by the ILP, was establishing a mass electoral base in the Glasgow working class. Though hampered by its initial blunder in provoking its own exclusion from the Labour Party, the CPGB was able to avoid isolation from this process through its use of the united front tactic, adopted by the Communist International in recognition of the reality that reformist organisations and leaderships still held the political allegiance of millions of workers. Maclean’s solution, by contrast, was to denounce the betrayals of the Labour leaders and appeal to workers to break from the Labour Party (‘the Pinks’, in his terminology) and rally to a minuscule revolutionary sect. Maclean’s letters of the period are filled with ultra-left attacks on the united front. It is in this context that we must evaluate his denunciation of the Communist Party for having sold itself to Moscow and his call for ‘a real fighting party independent of outside dictation and finance’.145
In a vain attempt to establish itself as such a party, the SWRP engaged in electoral interventions which the CPGB rightly condemned as sectarian and divisive. In June 1923 Maclean stood for the SWRP in a council by-election against a Labour candidate who was supported by the ILP, the Communist Party, Glasgow Trades Council, the Co-operative Party and the local Unemployed Committee, with the result that the working class vote was split and victory was handed to the bourgeois candidate.146 The SWRP played a similarly destructive role in the Glasgow municipal elections of November 1923 when they stood 12 candidates, all in wards contested by Labour. Their action was condemned by the CPGB as showing ‘a complete ignorance of working class political tactics. This deplorable exhibition of vanity is taking place at a time when the baby-starvers are contemplating the reduction of the parish dole. Every vote they take away from the Labour candidates is strengthening the Moderates. Every Labour defeat they cause will hearten the baby-starvers’.147 The local Tories, for their part, welcomed this assistance from Maclean. According to the ILP, at an election meeting in the Maryhill ward the Moderate candidate ‘advised those of his audience who could not vote Capitalist to vote “Communist” [i.e. SWRP]. But on no account to vote for the Labour candidate’.148 The electors of Maryhill paid little attention to this advice, and Peter M’Intyre of the SWRP received only 57 votes, compared with Labour’s 3300. In Woodside, however, where the Labour candidate polled 5048, 155 less than the successful bourgeois candidate, the 228 votes won by Alan Hannah of the SWRP were sufficient to ensure Labour’s defeat.
More generally, in circumstances where only a tiny minority of the working class was ready to back a revolutionary alternative, the SWRP’s vitriolic attacks on the Labour Party had the effect of simply dissuading potential Labour supporters from voting. Maclean recognised this, and regarded it as a positive achievement. In July 1923, when the SWRP contested a by-election in the Townhead ward, the Labour vote fell drastically as a result of large-scale abstentions, and Maclean convinced himself that this display of political passivity represented a shift to the left. ‘Many people were staggered by our work into not voting at all’, he told James Clunie. ‘Next time they’ll come down right on our side for ever after.’149 The absurdity of this prediction was demonstrated in November, when the SWRP again succeeded in persuading many workers that there was no point in voting Labour,150 but received only a derisory number of votes for its own candidates. Even Maclean himself, who had polled over 4000 in Kinning Park a year earlier, was now reduced to a humiliating 623 votes in the same ward, where the Labour candidate received 3440.
Maclean’s industrial policy was another example of his failure to engage with developments in the labour movement. In the early 1920s trade union membership and militancy were in decline as a result of mass unemployment and the demoralisation which had followed the miners’ betrayal on Black Friday, 1921, and the AEU’s defeat in the engineering lockout the following year. Under the slogans ‘Stop the Retreat’ and ‘Back to the Unions’, the CPGB fought to revitalise the trade unions and by 1923 was laying the foundations of the Minority Movement, in which CPers joined forces with non-party militants to build a rank-and-file opposition to both the employers and the union bureaucracy. Maclean’s own response was to set up an Industrial Unity Committee which propagated a version of industrial unionism that marked no advance over the sort of thing that could be found in a work like James Connolly’s Socialism Made Easy a decade and a half earlier. For May Day 1923 Maclean wrote a manifesto for the committee entitled ‘Workers, Now For Industrial Unity!’, which set out the well-worn De Leonite plan for the abolition of capitalism:
‘Every worker in a workshop should be in the same union, no matter what his or her job, and no matter the amount of training and skill required. Every worker in the same industry should be in ONE INDUSTRIAL UNION. Every Industrial Union ought to be joined up into ONE BIG INDUSTRIAL ORGANISATION EMBRACING THE WHOLE WORKING CLASS…. Thus organized, the workers would be in a position to destroy the power of the capitalists over the agencies of wealth production, and to take over and work these agencies for the benefit of the workers. In other words, the industrial unity of the workers is the fundamental preparation for the establishment of the WORLD WORKERS’ INDUSTRIAL REPUBLIC.’151
The reconstruction of the trade unions along industrial unionist lines was a policy supported by the Communist Party. In the meantime, however, the CP fought to overcome sectional divisions by building workplace committees. And while the party was committed to the transformation of the unions into instruments of revolution, it saw this as a long-term objective to he achieved through patient and systematic work inside the existing movement. For Maclean, revolutionary industrial unionism was an ideal schema, to which trade unionists were to he won by propaganda appeals from outside. His Industrial Unity Committee proved stillborn. Apart from the SWRP and the now virtually moribund SLP, the only body to back Maclean’s initiative was T.L. Smith’s Workers International Industrial Union, which had been expelled from the deeply sectarian SLP during the war for, of all things, the crime of sectarianism. Under the impact of the wartime struggles, leading industrial militants in the SLP had come round to the view that revolutionary work in the factories could best be carried out through shop stewards’ committees, but the WIIU held to the old policy of calling on workers to abandon their reformist-led organisations and join a pure revolutionary union.152 Although Smith’s group was unenthusiastic about Maclean’s committee and broke from it almost immediately,153 this sterile conception of industrial unionism seems to have had some support within the SWRP itself. When Willie Gallacher asked one of Maclean’s lieutenants, Robert Carlton, to describe the SWRP’s programme, he was told that the party’s aim was ‘political independence from England, and to achieve that the workers of Scotland would have to leave their unions and form up One Big Union for Scotland’.154
Maclean’s work with the unemployed, which was his main sphere of activity during his final years, was vitiated by his now characteristic refusal to engage in common action with the principal political tendencies in the labour movement.155 Harry McShane recalls that Maclean ‘didn’t want to link up with the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement that was being developed in London and elsewhere by Communist Party members like Wal Hannington’.156 When Hannington spoke at a public meeting on unemployment in October 1923, organised by the ILP-dominated Glasgow Trades Council, and tried to answer the SWRP’s accusation that the Poplar Board of Guardians had called in the police against unemployed demonstrators, Maclean’s supporters shouted Hannington down and the meeting had to be abandoned.157 Even the CP’s provision of stewards for this event was condemned by Maclean as ‘acting as the scavengers for the “Pinks”’.158 In an earlier exchange of letters with the NUWCM, who had protested at his public declarations of hostility towards their organisation, Maclean insisted that only the SWRP could organise the unemployed. ‘If we intend to give a “Red” lead to our class’, he wrote, ‘then the Unemployed must accept that “Red” lead, or stand in the way of the Revolution…. Now that the SWRP has been formed, I mean to devote all my time to it…. It is the job of the class conscious unemployed people to join us.’159 Maclean’s ‘unemployed committee’ was thus reduced to nothing more than an SWRP front.160 He remained immune to the idea that a revolutionary tendency should demonstrate the superiority of its political leadership in the course of joint work with reformists and other political opponents in the movement.
None of this, it should be emphasised, is intended to detract from Maclean’s heroic stature in the history of the labour movement in Scotland, in Britain and internationally. His resistance to imperialist war remains an inspiration, and the responsibility for his later psychological problems lies squarely with the capitalist state which persecuted him for his internationalist stand. But Maclean’s self-isolation from the political process which led to the creation of the CPGB was quite clearly rooted in what can only be regarded as paranoid delusions, and the fact that this explanation was put forward by Willie Gallacher and Tom Bell, who played prominent roles in the CPGB’s formation and later became hardened Stalinists, does not make it any less true.161 His subsequent politics not only remained affected by the familiar spy mania162 but degenerated into a combination of nationalism and sectarian ultra-leftism which represented no coherent alternative to the CPGB. Though he was always able to draw large crowds to his meetings, by the time of his death in November 1923 Maclean had been marginalised, even in terms of local politics.
It is necessary to set the record straight on these matters, particularly in a situation where the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other ‘socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe has led to a spate of bourgeois propaganda to the effect that the Bolshevik Revolution and all its consequences were rotten from the start. This is a view which finds an echo in the labour movement, even among those who would claim to be Marxists, and John Maclean’s antagonism towards the early CPGB can serve as a hook on which to hang such anti-Bolshevism. There can be no doubt how Maclean himself would have treated attempts to use his political record as the basis for an ideological assault on the October Revolution. He would have rejected them with anger and contempt.
1. The Call, 24 April 1919.
2. ‘A revolutionary internationalist trend has arisen in all countries during the war’, Lenin wrote in September 1917, ‘despite the gagging and ruthless persecution by the bourgeoisie. This trend has remained loyal to socialism. It has not yielded to chauvinism, has not allowed chauvinism to be covered up by lying phrases about defence of the fatherland. It has exposed the utterly fraudulent nature of these phrases and the absolutely criminal nature of the war, which the bourgeoisie of both coalitions pursue for the purposes of plunder. This trend includes, for example, Maclean in Britain, who has been sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour for opposing the predatory British bourgeoisie, and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, who has been sentenced to penal servitude by the German imperialist robbers for the “crime” of calling for a revolution in Germany and exposing the predatory character of the war waged by Germany. The Bolsheviks in Russia also belong to this trend and are persecuted by the agents of Russian republican-democratic imperialism for a “crime” similar to the one for which Maclean and Karl Liebknecht are being persecuted’ (Collected Works, Vol.25, p.266).
3. L.D. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.1, 1973, p.40.
4. W. Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, 1978, p.214.
5. T. Bell, John Maclean: A Fighter for Freedom, 1944, p.124.
6. W. Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-21, 1969, chapter 17.
7. W. Kendall, ‘John Maclean and the Communist International’, in John Maclean: Centenary Essays, 1979, p.9. This article attempts to portray Maclean as an opponent of Leninism in general and the Communist International in particular – just like Walter Kendall! For some reason, Maclean is a popular choice for those who want to project their own politics onto a historical figure, with the result that much of what is written about him owes more to subjective fantasy than to objective analysis.
8. The leaflet is reprinted in the collection of Maclean’s writings edited by his daughter Nan Milton, In the Rapids of Revolution, 1978, pp.240-2.
9. Kendall, Revolutionary Movement, p.427. According to Clunie, ‘the impression set abroad by people, many of whom were indebted to him that John Maclean was latterly mentally ill, was completely untrue’ (J. Clunie, The Voice of Labour, 1958, p.80). Clunie offers as evidence the letters Maclean wrote to him during 1921-3. While it is true that this correspondence shows little sign of mental disturbance, it tells us nothing about Maclean’s state of mind during the period of the formation of the CPGB.
10. B.J. Ripley and J. McHugh, John Maclean, 1989, pp.111-12.
11. W. Knox, ed., Scottish Labour Leaders, 1918-39, 1984, p.189.
12. J.D. Young, John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist, 1992, pp.20, 230-1.
13. I. McLean, The Legend of Red Clydeside, 1983, p.144.
14. An extensive file of material on Maclean during his imprisonment was compiled by the Scottish Office and can be consulted in the Scottish Record Office (HH16/122-137). This evidence and its bearing on Maclean’s mental state are discussed by G. Rubin, ‘A note on the Scottish Office reaction to John Maclean’s drugging allegations’, Scottish Labour History Society Journal, No.14, 1980; Ripley and McHugh, pp.99-103; and Young, pp.205, 214.
15. HHI6/126/26385/20; Ripley and McHugh, p.100.
16. For Maclean’s speech from the dock at his May 1918 trial, see T. Brotherstone, ed., Accuser of Capitalism, 1986, and In the Rapids of Revolution, pp.100-114.
18. See for example Garrey’s letter of 30 September 1918 (HH16/125/26385/51).
20. J. Broom, John Maclean, 1973, p.115. This allegation was made by Maclean immediately after his commitment to prison in May 1918. See his letter to the Scottish Prison Commissioners, 13 May 1918, and also a memorandum of 15 May by Dr Devon (HH16/125/26385/47).
21. Maclean’s apologists usually restrict themselves to implying that he may have been drugged, although they are unable to produce any real evidence that Maclean’s allegations were based on anything more substantial than his own paranoia. See Broom, p.172; Young, p.211; T. Brotherstone, ‘John Maclean and the Russian Revolution: a discussion article’, Scottish Labour History Society Journal, No.23, 1988, p.22.
22. Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, pp.212-3; Bell, pp.76-7; N. Milton, John Maclean, 1973, pp.180-1.
23. D. Montefiore, From a Victorian to a Modern, 1927, p.201.
24. Glasgow Herald, December 1918.
25. H. McShane and J. Smith, No Mean Fighter, 1978, p.100.
26. W. Gallacher, Last Memoirs, 1966, pp.117-8.
27. This is borne out by an article Maclean wrote for a special general election issue of the Scottish shop stewards’ paper The Worker. It completely ignored the political issues of the election and was mainly devoted to an anecdote about how a neighbour of Maclean’s, who was on the staff of the Glasgow Herald, had come to interview him on behalf of the Daily Express. Maclean attributed this to a plot by ‘the Scotland Yard political department’ to undermine his election campaign (The Worker, Election Number, December 1918).
28. Bell, p.79.
29. D. Howell, A Lost Left, 1986, p.192.
30. Bell, p.81.
31. Gallacher, Last Memoirs, pp.118-9. In a letter to the Under-Secretary for Scotland, written while he was in Rothesay, Maclean accused the state of ‘trying to pester my wife and myself through your detestable spies’ (HH16/134/26385/75; Bell, p.80).
32. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 28 January 1919, CAB24/74/GT6713, Public Record Office.
33. Ibid., 10 February 1919, CAB24/75/GT6816.
34. Ibid., 10 June 1919, CAB24/81/GT7463.
35. Ibid., 30 April 1919, CAB24/78/GT7195.
36. Ibid., 26 June 1919, CAB24/82/GT7566.
37. Ibid., 10 February 1919, CAB24/75/GT6816.
38. Ibid., 7 May 1919, CAB24/79/GT7218.
39. Knox, p.190.
40. McShane and Smith, p.151.
41. Milton, p.197. Shortly before his death in 1923 Maclean tried to mend his marriage, and asked Agnes to return to their Glasgow home. In what would appear to be a reference to her husband’s earlier suspicions of her, Agnes replied: ‘I take it that you would not have asked me unless your trust in me is firm once more. I have been through hell these last four years because you lost faith in me’ (ibid., p.293).
42. R. Stewart, Breaking the Fetters, 1967, p.106. This is confirmed by a Special Branch report on Maclean which states: ‘For some time he has been under the delusion that his food is poisoned, and his wife, who had to suffer a great deal from his delusions, has now left him’ (Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 19 March 1920, CAB24/101/CP902).
43. In the Rapids of Revolution, p.235.
44. The Call, 23 January 1919.
45. The Worker, 12 April 1919.
46. The Call, 4 December 1919.
47. McShane and Smith, p.112.
48. The failure of a revolutionary situation to develop in Britain in 1919 is discussed in R. Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977, chapter 9.
49. The Worker, 13 December 1919.
50. Ripley and McHugh, p.129.
51. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 6 November 1920, CAB24/92/CP70; C.J. L’Estrange Malone, The Russian Republic, 1920.
52. The Communist, 18 November 1920.
53. J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Vol.1, 1969, p.182.
54. In January 1921 Malone’s solicitor contacted Scotland Yard to say that his client was ‘thoroughly disillusioned with Communism’ and that, although he ‘could not yet break with the Party nor allow to be published any recantation on his part’, Malone was prepared to ‘give a verbal undertaking to exercise a restraining influence on the Communists’ if his sentence was quashed on appeal. The offer was rejected. (Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 13 January 1921, CAB24/118/CP2452.)
55. For details of Malone’s career, see the entry by David Martin and John Saville in J. Bellamy and J. Saville, eds., Dictionary of Labour Biography, Vol.7, 1984, pp.159-65.
56. The Vanguard, June 1920.
57. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 4 December 1919, CAB24/94/CP256.
58. The Call, 11 December 1919. Ripley and McHugh assert (p.125) that Cant was dispatched to Glasgow to reorganise the BSP there after Maclean came out in opposition to the party leadership. But Cant arrived in Glasgow in November 1919, before the onset of any serious strife between Maclean and the BSP. He reported that on his arrival ‘John Maclean and other comrades welcomed me’ (The Call, 13 November 1919). Nor is there any evidence to support the authors’ further claim that the Pollokshaws branch, of which Maclean was the leading member, was ‘reorganised out of existence’ by Cant.
59. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 29 January 1920, CAB24/97/CP523.
60. McShane and Smith. p.112.
61. The Socialist, 3 February 1921.
62. Milton, p.228. In organising the Albert Hall meeting, according to an intelligence report, Rothstein paid out £500 in speakers’ fees and for the hire of the hail: ‘The money passed through the British Socialist Party and the go-between was Rothstein’s son’ (Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 4 March 1920, CAB24/99/CP791). This may have formed the basis for Maclean’s later accusations against Andrew Rothstein.
63. Gallacher, Last Memoirs, p.141.
64. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 19 March 1920, CAB24/101/CP902.
65. See Keith Nield’s entry on Rothstein in Dictionary of Labour Biography, Vol.7, p.206.
66. Kendall, Revolutionary Movement, chapter 13 passim; Challinor, pp.225-8; Ripley and McHugh, pp.125-66; J. Saville, introduction to T. Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism, 1983, pp.xii-xvii.
67. Challinor (p.246) states that Maclean was absent from the Easter 1920 conference. So do Howell (p.200) and Ripley and McHugh (p.124).
68. Milton, p.227.
69. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 8 April 1920, CAB24/103/CP1039.
70. Kendall, Revolutionary Movement, p.407, note 71; Challinor, p.255, note 20.
71. Young, pp.230-I.
72. British Socialist Party, Report of Ninth Annual Conference, 1920, p.15.
73. The Socialist, 3 February 1921. Maclean also referred to his confrontation with the BSP leadership in The Vanguard of November 1920, where he wrote that ‘my objections to Inkpin and Co were stated publicly and privately at the 1920 Easter Conference of the BSP’.
74. ‘Gellius’, the pseudonym under which the article appeared, has been identified as one used by Basil Thomson for his contributions to the Whitehall Gazette. See T. Cullen, Maundy Gregory: Purveyor of Honours, 1974, p.100.
75. Whitehall Gazette, April 1920. The biblical quotation was a sarcastic reference to Lieutenant-Colonel Malone’s book, The Russian Republic, which opens with the motto ‘Peace on earth, goodwill towards men’!
76. Justice, 27 May 1920. Young (p.231) believes that this article somehow vindicates Maclean’s accusations against the BSP leadership, informing us that ‘it is salutary to remember that the Hyndmanites took the charges very seriously’.
77. The Vanguard, December 1920; The Socialist, 3 February 1921.
78. McShane and Smith, p.113.
79. The Vanguard, May 1920.
80. Maclean refers to ‘the death of the Pollokshaws branch’, of which he was a member (The Vanguard, November 1920), but gives no details. According to the official report of the BSP Easter 1920 conference, not only was the Pollokshaws branch not represented, but Maclean himself was neither a delegate from nor even a member of any particular branch (BSP, Report of Ninth Annual Conference, pp.15, 47). This would suggest that by then the Pollokshaws branch had already collapsed, though the circumstances remain obscure.
81. McShane and Smith, p.115.
82. The Vanguard, November 1920. Challinor (p.246) mistakenly takes this to be a reference to the Easter 1920 BSP conference.
83. James Young states firmly that ‘John Maclean’s opposition to the Russian influence in the British Socialist Party began in 1919’ (p.226). He offers no evidence for this assertion.
84. Workers Dreadnought, 21 February 1920; The Call, 4 March 1920.
85. Milton, p.219. William Knox (p.187) similarly claims that Maclean was ‘resentful of receiving money from Russian sources as it was bound to destroy the independence of the party’.
86. The Vanguard, August 1920.
87. McShane and Smith, p.118. For a more detailed analysis of Maclean’s attitude to the Scottish national question, see my article ‘John Maclean and the Scottish Workers’ Republic’, What Next? No.6, 1997.
88. Ripley and McHugh, p.115.
89. The Call, 9 January 1919.
90. Milton, p.202; Glasgow Herald, 21 April 1919.
91. Milton, pp.216-7; H.J. Hanham, Scottish Nationalism, 1969, p.139.
92. Milton, p.202; Glasgow Herald, 22 April 1919.
93. Addressing a meeting at Sheffield in March 1919, Maclean reportedly stated ‘that Bolshevism must come, but England was backward and that delegates were being sent from Scotland to bring England into line’ (Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 7 April 1919, CAB24/77/GT7091).
94. N. Milton, ‘John Maclean and Scottish independence’, in John Maclean and Scottish Independence, n.d., p.12.
95. Reprinted in In the Rapids of Revolution, pp.217-8.
96. One of Maclean’s arguments for setting up a separate Communist Party in Scotland was that ‘Wales is likely to follow suit’ (The Vanguard, December 1920). Presumably he had in mind the formation in September 1920 of the Communist Party of South Wales and the West of England. In November this organisation held a conference at Cardiff which declared that communist unity could be achieved only on the basis of ‘local autonomy in a given local area’ (Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 9 December 1920, CAB24/116/CP2273). But this did not denote any commitment to national independence as such. One of the party’s leading figures was A.J. Cook, a vigorous opponent of Welsh nationalism.
97. Quotes from various issues of The Vanguard, September-December 1920.
98. Howell, p.216.
99. For Ripley and McHugh’s assessment of Maclean’s nationalism see chapter 12 of their biography.
100. The Worker, 7 August 1920.
101. Ibid., 14 August 1920. See appendix 1, below.
102. Ibid., 4 September 1920.
103. A. Richardson, ed., In Defence of the Russian Revolution, 1995, p.146.
104. Milton, p.244.
105. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 2 September 1920, CAB24/111/CP1830.
106. The Tramp Trust advertised its public meetings in the Glasgow ILP paper Forward in the name of the Scottish Socialist League, later changed to Scottish Communist League.
107. The Worker, 4 September 1920.
108. Ibid., 11 September 1920. See appendix 1, below.
109. Daily Record, 13 September 1920; The Worker, 18 September 1920. The name of the new organisation was probably chosen in deference to Lenin, who had argued that British revolutionaries should form ‘a strong Communist Labour Party’ (The Call, 12 February 1920).
110. W. Gallacher, The Rolling of the Thunder, 1947, pp.24-25; Gallacher, Last Memoirs, pp.161-2; Challinor, pp.248-50; J. McKay, ‘Communist unity and division 1920: Gallacher, Maclean and the “unholy Scotch current”’, Scottish Labour History Society Journal, 1994, pp.87-8; The Worker, 4 December 1920.
111. The Vanguard, December 1920.
112. Ibid., November 1920; The Socialist, 3 February 1921.
113. Ibid., 20 November 1920. See appendix 1, below.
114. For Harry McShane’s account of this dispute, see McShane and Smith, pp.122-3.
115. Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 28 October 1920, CAB24/114/CP2027. By this point Rothstein had returned to Russia and the British government had given instructions that as a dangerous revolutionary he should not be allowed hack into Britain. Lenin’s own high regard for Rothstein had been expressed in a letter of July 1920, in which he had declared himself in two minds about Rothstein’s return to Russia. ‘You are so very important to the work in London’, Lenin wrote. ‘… I think that your guiding participation (it is possible by the pen and secretly) in the Anglo-Saxon movement is especially valuable’ (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.44, p.403).
116. The Socialist, 13 January 1921. According to the CPGB, several years later Maclean and his supporters were still insisting that ‘Campbell is a spy and tried to steal Maclean’s unemployed’ (The Worker, 3 November 1923; see appendix 4, below).
117. The Vanguard, November 1920.
118. Ibid., December 1920.
119. Ibid., November 1920. Young (p.231) mistakenly cites the May issue of The Vanguard as the source of this quotation.
120. G. Bain, John Maclean: His Life and Work, 1919-1923, n.d., p.6.
121. Milton, p.242.
122. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, 1980, p.96.
123. The Vanguard, December 1920.
124. Kendall, ‘John Maclean and the Communist International’, p.12.
125. Gallacher, Last Memoirs, pp.153, 163-4. In his letter to the SLP, Gallacher claimed that ‘Clunie was taking a mean and despicable advantage of Maclean’s weakness, a weakness that is notorious throughout the whole movement, for the sordid purpose of getting Maclean to push his book (a book that has fallen hopelessly flat) through the Scottish Labour College’ (The Worker, 8 January 1921; see appendix 2, below). It seems more likely that Clunie was simply unwilling to face up to the fact that this famous Marxist who had befriended him, and even written a glowing foreword to his book (entitled First Principles of Working Class Education), was psychologically disturbed. At the same time the SLP, which was evidently keen to recruit Maclean, had an obvious motive for going along with his paranoid accusations against their common political opponents.
126. Daily Record, 27 December 1920. See appendix 2, below.
127. The Socialist, 16 December 1920. An advertisement which appeared over Maclean’s name declared that the aim of the conference was ‘the welding together of the Marxian Communists and Groups, with the definite object of amalgamating with the most definitely Marxian organisation in Scotland – the Socialist Labour Party’.
128. Ibid., 7 October 1920; Daily Record, 27 December 1920. Although Harry McShane (McShane and Smith, p.124) insists that Maclean did not become a member of the SLP, this flies in the face of all contemporary evidence. Maclean stated explicitly that he had decided ‘to fuse with the SLP rather than form a new party for Communism in Scotland’ (The Socialist, 13 January 1921), and the SLP itself declared that ‘Comrade John Maclean is a fighting member of the SLP’ (ibid., 24 February 1921). Whether the Tramp Trust became fully integrated into the De Leonites’ organisation is another matter. McShane may be correct in remembering that the Maclean group carried on its own activity independently of the SLP.
129. Ripley and McHugh, p.167.
130. The Socialist, 30 December 1920.
131. The Worker, 8 January 1921. See appendix 2, below.
132. The Socialist, 13 January 1921.
133. Brotherstone, ‘John Maclean and the Russian Revolution’, p.24.
134. See also R. Challinor, letter in History Workshop Journal, No.22, 1986; and Young, pp.230-2.
135. Maclean’s decision to join the SLP did not mean that he had rejected the Communist International. At its conference in March 1921 the SLP voted to apply for affiliation to the International and sent James Clunie as its representative to the Third Congress later that year (L.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party, 1966, p.68). Clunie states that he took with him a letter from Maclean to Lenin – presumably the Open Letter itself (Clunie, p.43).
136. The Socialist, 3 February 1921. See appendix 3, below.
137. This should have been obvious to anyone who had read the Open Letter to Lenin, but most historians chose to close their eyes to the evidence. One exception was James Hinton, who pointed out: ‘It was not as agents of Moscow but as agents of the British Government … that Maclean pilloried the leaders of the CPGB’ (Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, No.38, 1979).
138. The Socialist, January 1924. The date of Maclean’s resignation is given as November 1920, but this would seem to be a misprint for 1921.
139. McShane and Smith, pp.150-1.
140. Brotherstone, ‘John Maclean and the Russian Revolution’, p.17.
141. Ripley and McHugh, p.131. These authors argue that it was only in the last months of his life that ‘the sureness of touch and realism which characterised Maclean were beginning to fail’ (p.149).
142. In the Rapids of Revolution, p.238.
143. Clunie, p.88.
144. M. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism, 1988, p.7.
145. Clunie, p.88.
146. Ibid., p.92.
147. The Worker, 6 October 1923. See appendix 4, below.
148. Forward, 3 November 1923.
149. Clunie, p.97.
150. The ILP observed that the SWRP’s intervention in the November elections ‘had the effect of making many voters, who would have voted Labour, abstain from voting’ (Forward, 17 November 1923).
151. Industrial Unity Committee leaflet, May 1923.
152. For the WIIU, see J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards Movement, 1973, p.248, and Gallacher, Last Memoirs, pp.94-6.
153. The Worker, 6 October 1923.
154. Ibid., 15 September 1923.
155. Commenting on Maclean’s campaign against unemployment before the war, Ripley and McHugh (p.43) observe that ‘he was always willing to support and work alongside other socialists’. During Maclean’s final years, however, this had plainly ceased to be the case.
156. McShane and Smith, p.130.
157. Glasgow Herald, 25 October 1923. See appendix 4, below.
158. Clunie, p.101. See appendix 4, below.
159. The Worker, 1 September 1923.
160. The CP accused Maclean of political deceit. The unemployed committee which held meetings at the Ardgowan Picture House was ‘not an Unemployed Committee but a SWRP meeting run by Maclean…. If it is a propaganda meeting under SWRP auspices, why advertise it as unemployed meetings?’ (ibid., 6 October 1923).
161. Terry Brotherstone rejects Gallacher and Bell’s reports of Maclean’s mental instability on the grounds that their accounts ‘owed a great deal to the efforts of those trained in what Trotsky called “the Stalin school of falsification” to avoid an objective analysis of why Maclean never joined the Communist Party’ (Accuser of Capitalism, p.25). According to this line of reasoning, if someone has been a member of an organisation which slanders its political opponents and consciously distorts the historical record, we are entitled to dismiss everything they say as lies. Given Brotherstone’s own long-time membership of the Workers Revolutionary Party, this would appear to be a rather double-edged argument! In any case, as the present study makes clear, Gallacher was pointing out Maclean’s mental instability in 1920-21, long before the emergence of Stalinism.
162. Right up to the eve of his death Maclean remained convinced that ‘the Communist Party is a pack of spies’, according to an article in The Worker lampooning the SWRP. ‘There’s no an individual o’ prominence in the movement in Glasgow’, it went on, ‘… that hisnae been designated a spy. In fact tae be ca’d a spy by this circus is a sort o’ Socialist Order o’ Merit. According to them there are two classes in society – workers’ republicans and police spies’ (The Worker, 3 November 1923; see appendix 4, below).
Rejecting his own and the Bolshevik revolutionary heritage; Willy Gallacher speaking at the Communist Party congress that endorsed the British Road to Socialism in 1951.
From The Worker, 4 September 1920
About a fortnight ago a number of rebels met in the Worker office, and decided to issue a manifesto calling together a conference of Scots Communists, who agreed on the following points: the Proletarian Dictatorship; the Soviet System; the Third International; Non-Affiliation to the Labour Party. It was stated at that meeting that there was a profound feeling of dissatisfaction over the decision of the recent Communist Conference to affiliate with the Labour Party. Very few Communist groups were prepared to link up with a party taking up this position, and they had therefore to he left in isolation or he linked up together in a Scots Communist Party. It was decided that the latter course be adopted.
About the same time John Maclean, MA, issued a call for a Scottish Communist Council of Action. A number of meetings have been held around this project, the most successful being held on Saturday last. The meeting on Saturday decided to appoint a committee of twelve, with discretionary powers to meet the signatories to the manifesto, and seek if possible a line of agreement. All the signs point to an agreement being arrived at, and a strong Communist Party being formed. There will he old antagonisms to he overcome, of course. There will be many debatable points to he settled. But if the desire for an agreement is there, and we are positive that it is, then there will he no difficulty in hammering out a policy. If the rebels can win a victory over themselves, they can look forward with confidence to a victory over Capitalism. The first-mentioned group arranged their conference for Saturday 11 September, and have booked a hail for that date. If the other group agrees a joint call may be issued for a joint conference to take place on that day.
From The Worker, 11 September 1920
A provisional Delegate Conference will be held on Saturday first in the Shop Assistants’ Hall, 297 Argyle Street, at 3pm, for the purpose of discussing the formation of a Communist Party based on the Third International, and accepting (1) the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, (2) Soviet system, (3) non-affiliation to the Labour Party. Other points such as political and industrial organisation are to be discussed by the delegates at the Conference. The Conference will be non-binding. Basis of representation, 1 delegate to every 25 members or part thereof. Branches of organisations favourable to above are requested to bring credential cards signed by their organisation’s secretary. Visitors will be allowed into the Conference.
John McLean (Bridgeton), I.D. MacDougall, Acting Joint Secretaries
From The Worker, 20 November 1920
Will you allow me space in your columns in order to draw attention throughout the movement generally to a misunderstanding that has arisen as to who the John McLean is that occupies the position of National Secretary of the newly formed Communist Labour Party? It has been brought to my notice that many people are under the belief that it is John Maclean, MA, the present editor of Vanguard, who is the National Secretary of the CLP. How this impression should arise I don’t know, as we of the CLP have endeavoured to make it clear to everybody either by word of mouth or any advertisements we may have put in the press that it was John McLean (Bridgeton) who was National Secretary. There is surely a distinct difference?
In any case, this misunderstanding has proven in its way costly to us in so far as obtaining members for the CLP is concerned. The reason being that many comrades in the movement were acquainted with the activities of John Maclean, MA, in the direction of trying to form a ‘Scottish Communist Party’, having in its Platform a clause demanding Scottish Independence or something of that sort. Naturally those comrades who have been of the opinion – when the CLP was formed – that it was John Maclean, MA, who was acting National Secretary, have come to the conclusion that this was the Scottish Communist Party that Comrade Maclean, MA, had been trying to form with its ‘national independence’ clause, etc. And those amongst them who are opposed to dilution of a Communist Platform with clauses for ‘national independence’, etc., have refused to have anything to do with the CLP. I want, therefore, to point out to those comrades: (1) The CLP has no ‘national clause’ in its constitution; (2) that John Maclean, MA, is not in any way connected with the CLP; (3) the CLP takes its stand on the Platform of the Third International, advocating the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the Soviet system, and non-affiliation to the Labour Party.
We recognise that the struggle between the Proletariat and Capitalism is international in its character, and that with the development of International Capitalism, nationalism tends to play little or no part in the struggle between Capital and Labour. This struggle being an economic one, the idealism of nationality is simply smothered in the conflict between the Workers and the Capitalists.
Having made this matter clear with regard to the National Secretary of the CLP, I would urge those comrades who have hesitated joining up with us because of the above-mentioned misunderstanding, to waste no time but to come inside and help us in the work of welding together the woefully scattered Communist groups throughout Scotland. We shall then be in a position to present a united front at the coming National Conference that is to be held early in 1921, where it is hoped that a United Communist Party for Britain will be formed that can apply for affiliation to the Third International, with the object of being recognised as the British Section of the Third International.
The creation of a sound Communist Party with strict discipline as one of its first rules, and the sinking of personalities for the good of the Party as a second rule, is what we are after. So-called ‘great men’ in the movement will have to take their place side by side with the rank-and-filers, and submit to the dictates of the Party just as any others in the movement. If they are unable to accept this, their place is outside; they cannot be allowed to stand in the way and hinder us in our work of furthering the World Revolution.
Hoping this letter will have the desired affect of clearing the air regarding Maclean misunderstanding.
Yours for International Communism,
John McLean (Bridgeton)
National Secretary, CLP
From the Daily Record, 27 December 1920
SOCIALIST HATRED. LEADERS KILL FUSION. ANGRY SCENES. MACLEAN-GALLACHER DUEL
Fusion of Socialist forces for the hastening of the ‘revolution’ was not helped by a conference at Glasgow on Saturday. Many who attended with an open mind, if not, indeed, sympathetic to the proposal, were effectually chilled by a succession of scenes which developed chiefly between Mr John Maclean and Mr William Gallacher. Immediately before the proceedings broke up Mr Maclean, in confessing failure, alleged that the intervention of Mr Gallacher had ‘queered’ the conference.
Some difficulty was experienced in securing a chairman. Two members of the audience declined the honour before ‘Comrade’ MacDougall agreed to act. His task was no light one. Several times during the proceedings the proposal was advanced that he should retire.
After an explanation that the audience included Executive members of the Socialist Labour Party, and unattached Socialists, the chairman asked Mr John Maclean, who was largely responsible for the conference being held, to deliver a brief address. Familiar ground was covered in this. In passing, the speaker made allusion to the progress of ‘advanced’ ideas on the Clyde, and to the fact that Glasgow was receiving a steady addition to her population from Ireland, that large numbers of these Irishmen were naturally hostile to Britain by reason of their national history, and that they might he expected to play an important part in forwarding the plans many of those present had at heart. Other factors in their favour were the increase of unemployment and suffering among the workless. These would irresistibly drive the victims of capitalism over to the Left. As Communists, it was their business to break up John Bull’s power.
The fat got in the fire shortly afterwards, when the question of a letter which appeared in the Socialist press was introduced. Mr William Gallacher, whose appearance was resented by a section, said he stated that Mr Maclean was suffering from hallucinations, and he was there to offer proof. (Uproar.) There was no one in the meeting who had stood more by John Maclean than he had done, but there were men and women who were leading Maclean on to his ruin. (Renewed uproar, and – ‘You are suffering from hallucinations, Wullie.’) He had been told that Maclean was poisoned in prison. Mr Maclean (excitedly) – ‘How the — do you know?’ Mr Gallacher offered to go into the whole circumstances of their differences, if his friends would name a date for public discussion. With considerable heat, Mr Maclean remarked – ‘I don’t meet with a man who writes dirty letters about me.’ A man who did that, he alleged, was no better than a Government agent.
Interposing, Mr MacDougall affirmed that when Mr Gallacher was in jail he received favoured treatment. He was proposing to elaborate the contention, when Mr Gallacher again called for a date on which the situation could be discussed publicly. Various members of the audience at this stage ventilated their opinion. Some said the exhibition of personalities was humiliating to those who had the welfare of the cause at heart, and a large body obviously favoured a continuation of the scene in order ‘that the rank and file might get at the truth’.
Leaving the table, and advancing some steps across the floor, Mr Maclean heatedly inquired the motive behind Mr Gallacher’s appearance at the conference. Mr Gallacher, who had also stepped some distance towards the centre of the floor, assured the audience that he attended in the best spirit, as he desired to hear the arguments for and against the subject under review. For a few moments it appeared as if anything was possible between the two men. Pointing at Mr Gallacher, Mr Maclean cried – ‘He has come to burst up this organisation!’
The chairman grimly remarked that it had not come to physical force yet, and he was understood to hint that such an ending was perhaps not remote. Resentment against Mr MacDougall grew in volume, and a vote for his expulsion from the chair insisted on. By 40 to 24, however, the meeting authorised retention. After intimating the result, the chairman, with firmness, said – ‘I rule that Gallacher leave the meeting.’ Mr Gallacher asked permission to repeat that he came without intention to take part in the proceedings. He resumed his seat near the door, and declared that he intended to remain. ‘Then’, said the chairman, ‘there will not be any physical force.’
One of the Executive members of the Socialist Labour Party said they had come to the conclusion that Comrade Maclean’s idea for a Scottish Communist Party could not be entertained by the SLP.
Near the close, Mr Gallacher wished to say ‘a few words before I go’. In the course of several sentences, which provoked another scene, he said it was a mean, dirty lie to suggest that he attended for the purpose of causing disruption of any kind. He came up to see how the thing went. Chairman – ‘This is the man who was ordered out of our company! He turns up and monopolises the meeting.’ Mr Gallacher – ‘You said you would use physical force, and I waited for it.’ Chairman – ‘Wait then, damn you!’ Mr Gallacher – ‘Is there no one prepared to meet me say next week, and discuss our attitude towards Russia and the other questions (‘Red Guards’). I said nothing about the Clyde workers being connected with the Red Guards.’
Speaking with much warmth, Mr Maclean, in a reference to the challenge, stated that a man who went behind his back, and wrote letters was a reptile, and he would not meet him on any platform. From several parts of the hall it was then suggested that the conference should he adjourned, as no good was likely to result if the proceedings were continued in the existing temper. Defiantly the Chairman declared – ‘The business of the meeting will be done in spite of Gallacher.’ ‘Well, I may tell you’, said one man, ‘the majority of those left are disgusted with the meeting.’
With no one anxious for the distinction, Mr Maclean was reluctantly compelled to move a resolution in person. It proved to be a very watery one, and merely pledged unattached Socialists present to join the Socialist Labour Party.
From The Worker, 8 January 1921
‘The Letter’, by William Gallacher
On 25th December, the day of ‘peace and goodwill’, there was quite a lively breeze up at Renfrew Street, which was given all prominence in the Sunday Mail and Daily Record. There are some people have got the impression that there was something serious happened, but as a matter of fact it’s the sort of thing that is quite common, and need occasion no concern to those who understand the various elements that exist within the movement in Glasgow.
The matter wouldn’t have been worth referring to, but an SLP pundit has issued a statement concerning the ‘alleged’ conference at which the scene took place, and as he very kindly offers me a piece of good advice (he’s so concerned for my welfare) I feel that I cannot be so selfish as to think of myself and accept it. No, sir, we’ll discuss the whole matter freely and frankly. Here is what the SLPer served up: ‘These reports (the Sunday Mail and Daily Record) show Gallacher in a very bad light; and if he does not feel ashamed of himself, then he is only worthy of being what some believe him to be.’
A cryptic remark, and it surely wants elucidation. What does it mean? It is simply a reference to the fact that the latest recruit to the ranks of the SLP has publicly accused me of being a Government Agent. There’s what the dear comrade in Renfrew Street is trading on. But think of the mentality of the so-called revolutionary who says I ought to feel ashamed of myself because I come out bad in a Daily Record report. Comrade, I can’t raise a blush; I’m hopelessly unrepentant. If that satisfies you that I am a Government Agent, come out openly and say it; don’t hide behind the other fellow. Only remember this, if you accept the statement of the ‘latest recruit’, you’ve got to accuse every active man in the movement of being in the same position. When you make up your mind that I’m a traitor to the cause, I’ll supply you with the names of two or three dozens of others, against whom you’ll have to accept the same charge or else repudiate the man who makes them. Let us get this matter settled. We can’t have a man going around trading on his past, and accusing every one who disagrees with him of being a Government Agent. That sort of thing can’t go on, and the writer of the report is wrong when he says: ‘The matters that were raised would be better left untouched by Gallacher.’ The matters that were raised have got to be ‘touched’ and touched in earnest. The most important matter is that of the letter referred to in the Daily Record report.
The letter hasn’t been published in any paper; the sooner it is the better it will be. If the SLP have nothing to fear from its publication neither have I. The letter was written and sent in all good faith to the SLP Executive, raising a question of the utmost importance to the revolutionary movement in Glasgow. Instead of giving it the serious consideration it deserved, this group seems to have looked on it merely as an opportunity for scoring against an opponent. Gallacher had trusted them and they would unhesitatingly betray the trust. Understand I wrote as a comrade dealing with comrades, and for my pains they thought they saw an opportunity of getting Maclean raging wild on my track.
What a pitiful crowd they are to be sure. No respect for themselves, no respect for Maclean, or surely they would never have handed him over such a letter. The contents of the letter were concerned with statements I have made dozens of times to Maclean himself, but I have always endeavoured to keep the discussion inside the movement. I asked the EC of the SLP to keep it within the party, but they took the step that made it inevitable that the matter should become public.
Now, what was it all about? The letter stated, among other things, that Clunie was taking a mean and despicable advantage of Maclean’s weakness, a weakness that is notorious throughout the whole movement, for the sordid purpose of getting Maclean to push his book (a book that has fallen hopelessly flat) through the Labour College. This charge may be taken exception to, but I offered in the letter to attend a meeting of the SLP Executive with Maclean in attendance and discuss the whole matter. Was there anything mean and underhand in that? Why did the SLP fail to accept the challenge? Why did they make the matter public when they knew that by doing so they were bound to do harm to the general movement?
These are questions the members might get the EC to answer. For myself, I acted in the best interest of the movement, and if I made a mistake it was believing the SLP would do the same.
From The Socialist, 3 February 1921
A conference is being held today (Sunday, January 30, at Leeds) to form a united Communist Party as the British section of the Third International. I believe you have too good a grasp of affairs to be very far deceived by the situation in Britain, and by the pretensions of most of the prominent ones who will be present. A various assortment of personages visited Russia last year, openly, secretly, and ‘secretly’, whilst the authorities were winking the other eye. From printed reports of statements issued by them in the name of people who did not delegate them we learn that you are asked to believe that large numbers of workers are organised on a workshop basis ready for the signal for revolution, and that a well-organised and disciplined party will be got ready to head the way through the revolution.
You will recognise that it is the business of the British Government to deceive you and get you to make false calculations, as it made the Kaiser form wrong estimates and lay plans for the defeat of Germany. You must therefore recognise that anybody or anything coming from Britain must be treated with the utmost caution and scepticism, after Russia’s treatment by Britain during the last two years and more. British Capitalism is not out to recognise or trade with Russian Communism, whatever temporary expedients it may resort to. It realises more clearly than any other section of Capitalism that a struggle for supremacy has now commenced between Capital and Labour, and it is determined to crush Labour by crushing the Russian Republic, and to restore reaction as it is in the process of restoring reaction in the defeated countries, still called the Central ‘Powers’.
Only once in four hundred years has England been decisively checked – in the war that gave birth to the United States in the years 1775-86. Today England is gathering her forces together to smash American ambitions just as she smashed German ambitions. That explains the brutal, bloody and remorseless attempt to crush the spirit of the pluckiest race that has ever stood up to ‘John Bull, Gentleman’, the Irish race; for, if Ireland should side with America in the event of another world war (and it is approaching very near), England might he bottled up on the West.
If that war can be staved off till a German Kaiser and a Russian Czar are re-established, then Britain will have contact with the whole of Asia and Africa by way of Germany and the other central nations, as well as by Russia and Siberia. If America presses hard this year whilst British trade is paralysed, and whilst the workers are in no spirit to respond to the patriotic appeals and pressures so skilfully used in the last war, then Britain will sweetly put Earl Curzon aside and meekly send Lloyd George to clasp you to his bosom as some long-lost brother.
A sham Labour Government, with our beloved friends MacDonald and Snowden (and ethereal Ethel, too) in it, will be formed, although the real work will be done by the ‘Old Gang’ under the guise of the Privy Council. This expedient of itself would not deceive you, since you and your comrades have the exact measure of the leaders of Labour and of the ILP, and that Lloyd George well knows. He must, therefore, make way for a Communist Party whose ‘leaders’ are controlled by him. Those who are coming together are a heterogeneous mixture of anarchists, sentimentalists, syndicalists, with a sprinkling of Marxists. Unity in such a camp is likely to be impossible; but should unity lead to any menace, then the ‘leaders’ will conduct surplus energy through ‘safe’ channels – safe to Lloyd George.
The Parliamentary leader will be, as recently he has been, Lieutenant-Colonel Malone, MP. This gentleman was on the executive committee of the Reconstruction Society, formerly the Anti-Socialist Society, a society that issued millions of leaflets during and after the General Election of 1918 poisoning the minds of people against Bolshevism, yourself, Trotsky, and other Russian comrades. After his visit to Russia, Malone addressed meetings about the conditions of Russia, and last year joined the British Socialist Party, after Rothstein’s attempt to buy Fairchild and myself brought on Fairchild’s retiral from the party and my secret expulsion.
Now The Communist, the successor to The Call when the BSP was transformed into the Communist Party of Great Britain, has passed into the control and editorship of Mr Meynell, who retired from the directorship of the Daily Herald when Lloyd George charged him with bringing jewels to England from Russia to subsidise the Daily Herald. If Lansbury and he thought it good tactics to dissociate the Daily Herald from Meynell, why is it that Meynell now assumes editorship of what is recognised as the official organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain? Who is Meynell and what is Meynell? is a very appropriate question. To my knowledge, he never was in the SDF or the BSP. He has as much standing in revolutionary circles in Britain as Malone.
It is only in a country such as Britain, ruled by the most unscrupulous and cunning capitalist class that has ever disgraced this earth, that totally unknown, untried, and experienced men could be thrust to the front.
One of the ablest men of the old BSP, and now of the Communist Party, is William McLaine, of Manchester. He visited Russia along with Tom Quelch. He taught in the Scottish Labour College with me, and was thus in close contact with me. At the BSP Conference in Bethnal Green Town Hall, last Easter, behind closed doors, he, with others made an unscrupulous attack on me, and was therefore selected to appear with Gallacher before you to assure you that I was suffering from ‘hallucinations’. That may have succeeded in Russia, but not in Glasgow; for I applied to Earl Curzon for a passport to Russia, and was refused one, and then through Cook’s Agency I tried to get a passport to Denmark and Sweden, and again was blocked. The British Government was not anxious that you should know the truth. Perhaps Helen Crawfurd, of Glasgow, added further proof, for since her return from Russia she has allowed herself to be put up as an ILP aspirant for the Gorbals division of Glasgow (although not selected), the division I contested, and shall contest; and at an unemployed meeting in the City Hall, Glasgow, on Thursday January 27, she opposed both armed effort and my suggestion of the general strike to settle the present predicament of the working class. On his return William McLaine severed his connection with the Labour College, when he realised that the conscious Glasgow workers knew the situation, as I am telling it to you and the world in general.
On Gallacher’s return he preached unity and the sinking of personalities, but he participated in a conference in Glasgow of Scottish groups to form the Communist Labour Party. The object of this was to ‘dish’ the Socialist Labour Party from which, in fact, branches passed over to the CLP, and to have a good show at the Leeds Conference – a Lloyd George caricature of the great Leeds Convention of 1917 after the first Russian revolution. To confuse people, the secretary of the group who formed, and who now compose, the CLP was selected to deceive the unwitting. His name is John McLean, and he hails from Glasgow as well as myself.
Not content with preaching unity and helping to form a new party in October, Gallacher insisted on sacrificing personality for the sake of the movement. However, what has Gallacher been doing in secret? He has been going round the country and warning Socialists that Maclean is suffering from ‘hallucinations’. He wrote to that effect to the SLP when I was arranging a conference to bring my supporters into line with the SLP, and he squirmed when I read his letter in public. He came to the conference uninvited, and there made similar statements in public in presence of a secret reporter to the Harmondsworth papers in Glasgow. Before he went to Russia he, with his colleagues of The Worker, burst up a Marxian class I held in Shotts. He is doing his best to burst up Comrade Clunie’s classes in Fife, where our comrade conducts a number of classes on the principles of Marxism. The man in Britain who is against Marxism is against Bolshevism in Russia too. Obscurantism and reaction have ever gone hand in hand.
Gallacher, of course, is going to do the industrial camouflage. He has led you to believe that there is a workshop movement in Scotland. That is a black lie. I have been at the gates all summer and autumn up and down the Clyde valley, and I am positive when I say that victimisation after the premature forty hours strike crushed the workshop movement. Unemployment today has struck terror into the hearts of those at work, as starvation is meant to tame the workless. No industrial movement is possible at present outside the ranks of the miners, and that movement has been revived and is being carried on by SLPers. I am of the belief that the workshop movement in England is as dead as it is in Scotland.
Do not place reliance, then, on the United Communist Party that will be formed today, and do not rely on the workshop movement either. In Russia, take your advice from Quelch nor Fineberg. Take it from Peter Petroff. Petroff is the only Russian who knows the working class movement intimately in London and Glasgow. Until his imprisonment in 1916 Petroff stayed with me, and worked with MacDougall and me to build up the mass movement that is now beginning to manifest itself in Scotland. Petroff is the only Marxist in Russia, then, that has any real comprehension of the situation here, and can fully explain this letter to you. Remember that it was left to me to start the movement in 1917 for the release of Petroff and Tchitcherine, and that it was on Petroff’s advice you in Russia made me Consul for Scotland. It was my fidelity to you and the cause of Revolution that got me the five years’ sentence in 1918.
I am still carrying on, although betrayed, not by the workers, but by so-called ‘comrades’. It is by no accident that Dr Shadwell, after a recent tour over Britain, wrote in a series of articles to the London Times that the Clyde was the most revolutionary centre in Britain. Dr Shadwell is perfectly correct. Ask Petroff the reason why. The unemployed are better organised in Glasgow than elsewhere in Britain. The Gallacher gang thrice tried to seize control out of my hands, and failed absolutely. Three thousand five hundred unemployed meet twice a week in the City Hall, so that we may discuss principles and tactics applied to the present situation from a Marxian point of view.
As more and more are thrown idle and begin to starve – for the Government means them to starve – you can realise that, sooner or later, a mass movement, vaster and bolder than ever before, is bound to show itself. The situation becomes all the more serious, since many wage-slaves here are Irishmen, whose country is being more and more cunningly and cruelly tortured. The rightful racial and class hatred of these men is going to make for an avalanche of opinion and feeling that are bound, sooner or later, to break through the bonds of English Capitalism.
This I let you know, so that you may not despair altogether of Britain, although you had better 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 class of Britain.
Yours for World Communism,
From The Worker, 6 October 1923
We understand that Labour candidates in various districts are going to be opposed by SWRP candidates, a pack of political ragamuffins whose only qualifications appear to be a brass face and a complete ignorance of working class political tactics. This deplorable exhibition of vanity is taking place at a time when the baby-starvers are contemplating the reduction of the parish dole. Every vote they take away from the Labour candidates is strengthening the Moderates. Every Labour defeat they cause will hearten the baby-starvers. If Labour does not increase its representation this November then the Parish Council reactionaries will take courage. The SWRP are exposing every working class home to increasing poverty. They are increasing the burdens of every working class woman. They are lessening the chances of every working class child.
From the Glasgow Herald, 25 October 1923
Scenes of disorder marked a Labour demonstration which was held in the City Hall, Glasgow, last night, and resulted in the proceedings coming to an abrupt termination. The meeting was one of a series organised under the auspices of the National Joint Council of the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party, and Glasgow Trades and Labour Council ‘to protest against the Government for their failure to deal adequately with the problems of unemployment’. It occasioned a great deal of interest, the hall being full to overflowing.
A most attentive hearing was given to Mr Robert Smillie, who was one of the principal speakers, but on Mr John Robertson MP rising to address the gathering there was some interruption at the back of the hall. When the speaker observed that there was a movement in Glasgow to divide the workers, the disturbing element grew more noisy. The interrupters refused to desist, and numerous calls were heard, amid the din, for Mr John Maclean. A short interval of silence followed, during which Mr Robertson was allowed to proceed, but on his declaring that ‘if the working classes of the country were true to themselves instead of having racial and religious prejudices they would dominate every institution in the country’, the disturbances broke out afresh. The speaker resumed his seat, and Mr Smillie then endeavoured to restore order. ‘I feel sure’, he declared, ‘that those who are interrupting are not against the unemployed, and surely there is no difference of opinion on the resolution submitted. Mr Hannington, of the unemployed, is going to be the next speaker.’
The latter was also accorded a mixed reception, and had only spoken a few sentences, in the course of which he made reference to Poplar, when a large section of the audience in the rear and middle portions of the hall rose in their seats shouting and gesticulating. One individual advanced to the front of the platform in an effort to address the chairman, but he was immediately seized by half a dozen stewards and forcibly ejected. This action was apparently strongly resented by the main body of interrupters, and just as matters looked like developing into an uproar. Mr Smillie rose again. ‘It has been decided’, he said, ‘to put this resolution to the meeting. All in favour show hands.’ On this request being responded to by a considerable number, he declared the resolution carried unanimously, immediately proposed a vote of thanks to the chairman, and declared the meeting at an end. Mr Smillie’s action probably prevented the meeting from being broken up.
From a letter by John Maclean to James Clunie, 28 October 1923
On Wednesday night the Trades Council had a demonstration in the City Hall on Unemployment with Lansbury and Smillie as principal speakers. The Workers Dreadnought, by good luck, gave a full description of the ‘Poplar Battle’, so the SWRP decided to issue a leaflet…. These we gave out at the Trades Council demonstration. The police, present outside in large numbers, prevented our announced counter-demonstration, so I asked our folks to go inside. Smillie got a hearing. Trouble began when John Robertson MP rose to speak, but when Hannington (CP, and Secretary, Unemployed Committee Movement) rose to take Lansbury’s place (absent) and to explain away the Poplar incident, the row got so hot that the meeting had to be abandoned. Our comrade, Ball, who made for the platform, was hustled out by the stewards. All the stewards were CP men. So there you have it – the CP acting as the scavengers for the ‘Pinks’. We are having ours on Friday and yesterday I had a wire from Sylvie Pankhurst that she’s coming on Friday. Whatever happens we’ll score in the long run. The nominations of our twelve candidates are in and the Glasgow Herald gave a good boost to the ‘Red Menace’.
From The Worker, 3 November 1923
‘Wis ye et the City Hall last night, Mac?’ asked the Lemonade Man. ‘Ah wis that’, said Mac. ‘It wid hiv been a fine meetin’ only there wur some people there who thocht it wis Hallowe’en, and when their goloshins sterted, it spiled everything.’ ‘Whit wis they fellas in the Swarps efter onywey?’ asked Auld Wulson.
‘Ah don’t know whit they wur efter, bit oh know whit they got. They got several thousand extra votes – fur the Labour Party. Still, it wis a great scene while it lasted. Ah saw wan o’ the Anti-Parliamentary, Scottish Workers’ Republican, Municipal Socialist candidates makin’ a noise like a stuck pig. It wis is intelligent a noise is ony that crowd could make, onywey. Their brain power is in inverse proportion to their lung power.’ ‘Was John Maclean shouting?’ asked the Lemonade Man. ‘Naw, naw’, said Mac. ‘The General aye directs operations fae the rear or, tae vary the metaphor, “whit’s the use o’ keepin’ a dug and barkin’ yersel?”.’
‘Aw, hit be fair, Mac’, said the Lemonade Man, ‘whit ahoot the muck the Labour Party wur thrown ahoot Auld John being in the pey o’ the Moderates?’
‘Nae doot, muck wis thrown. Nae doot – but whit aboot the muck thet this same gang of poIitical guttersnipes hiv thrown? “The Communist Party is a pack of spies; Wullie Gallacher is a clown and gets £10 a week; wee Campbell is a spy an’ tried tae steal Maclean’s unemployed; somebody else wis a spy an’ tried tae steal Nelson’s column so thet Maclean couldna get haudin’ meetings up against it.” And they’re noo uttering threats, thit if Ned M’Inally’s body is found in the Clyde some dark night, it’ll be his ain fault. There’s no an individual o’ prominence in the movement in Glasgow, wi’ the possible exception o’ mysel’ – (here Mac drew himself up majestically) – that hisnae been designated a spy. In fact tae be ca’d a spy by this circus is a sort o’ Socialist Order o’ Merit. According tae them there are two classes in society – workers’ republicans and police spies. This muck his been thrown aw summer; then when some Labour man suggests that they’re in the pay o’ the Moderates – which wid be the only credible explanation o’ their conduct if they were hauf sensible – which they are not – they go balmy! Haud up the election tae this monstrous charge is investigated; stop the class war till they’ve cleared their characters; appoint a Royal Commission aboot it, etc, etc, etc. Naebody his a character tae blacken, ov coorse, bit a Workers’ Republican.’
‘They hivnae did themselves ony guid by it as faur as ah can hear’, said Auld Wilson.
‘Damn the bit o’ it. The workers in this city want a united front against the baby stervers. This bunch is oot against the United Front o’ Labour. They want Revolution. But it disnae matter a damn whit they want; it’s whit the effect o’ their actions is in given circumstances and the effect o’ their actions is tae create a united front wi’ the Moderates. They don’t want a united front o’ Labour, but the effect o’ their actions is tae create a united front wi’ the bosses.’
‘Ye canna get awa fae the fac’ thet there’s some damt bad yins in the Labour Party’, said the youth in the chair.
‘Am no trying tae get away fae it, ma fine young fella’, said Mac. ‘We know they’re some queer fish in the Labour Party. We aw know thet it’s policy needs improvin’. Bit hoo cr ye gaun tae get it. Gawn oot an opposing them et elections disnae help tae get rid o’ them, it consolidates their position. Ma poseesion is a Communist is tae help them tae power, force them tae show their metal. Get the workers tae unnerstaun that you are fur a class fight aw the time. Et the same time, git forward a more advanced policy; fight for its acceptance in the Labour movement and push yer am boys forward tae poseesions o’ leadership. That’s the policy thet’s worrying a few people in the West of Scotland who, when they die, the words “United Front” will be found written on their hearts … The fellas ah refer tae are John Maclean and Ben Shaw.’
‘Is that the fella Shaw thet wrote the play aboot “Back to Methusaleh” thet took a week tae perform in Birmingham’?’ asked the Lemonade Man.
‘Naw, naw. This is a funnier wee fella still. He’s an official o’ the Scottish Labour Perty and he spends his time rinnin’ aroon trying tae stop the Communists frae runnin’ is Labour candidates and tae expel the unemployed frae the Trades Councils. Auld John thinks thet the United Front means the Communists belly-crawling before Moderate Labour; and Ben Shaw thinks thet it’s the end of all things in the Labour movement. They baith kick the Communists, bit we’re no worrying. Oor influence is growing. The respect o’ the workers fur us is growing, and the reactionaries are hivin a hell of a time inside the Labour movement. The United Front means two things; it means a united struggle against Capitalism, and it means war on reaction in the Labour movement. It means hittin’ the boss and hittin’ the Labour traitor wi’ the same club; and nane o’ them like it.’
‘There’s something in that’, said Auld Wilson. ‘Clear oot the rotters, bit don’t break the front.’
‘Wha’s this Sylvia Pankhurst wha’se comin’ tae speak fur Maclean?’ asked the Lemonade Man.
‘Clare tae goad, ye’ll be askin’ next – who is Steve Donoghue. She’s a clever wumman is Sylvia Pankhurst, bit she’s jist a female John Maclean.’ ‘Pair lassie’, said Auld Wilson sympathetically. ‘Ah didna think she wis es bad es that.’
From Workers Weekly, 7 December 1923
It is with the deepest regret that we learn of the death of John Maclean. The whole working class movement has lost in him one of its most fearless and undaunted champions. Always on the alert and ready to hurl defiance in the very teeth of Capitalism, yet none was more warmhearted and sympathetic to the struggles of the workers. We wish to place on record our appreciation of his work for the movement, and extend our heart-felt sympathy to those who directly and personally feel this bereavement.
Executive Committee, Communist Party of Great Britain
The last occasion on which I met John Maclean was at the trial of Gallacher and the others, after the ‘forty hours strike’ on the Clyde, at Edinburgh. Maclean, Mrs Gallacher and myself were in the gallery of the court. And well do I remember him turning to me in the middle of the trial, and with his whole body shaking with indignation saying aloud, ‘It’s all a hollow sham and a mockery, and Gallacher is going to have to pay the price’.
And that sums up John Maclean! The cant and hypocrisy of Capitalism had eaten its way into his very soul; and to John Maclean all political trials were nothing more or less than expedients, with the sentences determined callously according to the capitalist political expediency of the moment. And whatever else may be said or thought about Maclean, in this at least he was deadly correct. Our whole daily international experience renders ample proof.
Certainly no one in the movement in this country had more experience of capitalist ‘justice’ than John Maclean. The savage and callous cynicism of the legal fraternity, from the judge downwards, on the various occasions when Maclean was in the dock before them, and the brutal and barbaric sentences passed upon him – to say nothing of his foul treatment at their hands when he was actually in prison – constitute in themselves sufficient evidence that Maclean’s bitterness was well founded. And his fortitude and courage upon these innumerable occasions will be handed down through the working class movement as examples worthy of the highest emulation, long after the names of the foul swine who took payment from Capitalism for their nefarious work have passed into oblivion.
The unique place of esteem and honour in the revolutionary working class movement of this country attained by John Maclean is the result of a long martyrdom. The medical certificates, I understand, record ‘Death from double pneumonia’. Bah! He was the victim of a calculated political murder. Maybe the perpetrators will sleep a little more soundly now that their vile work has reached its consummation? We who knew and respected him, aye, and fully understood him, are stricken with the tragedy of it all. A chill of desolation envelops us. We pay our more or less impotent tribute to his memory, and turn once again to our task at least a little more strengthened in our efforts to erect the only fitting tombstone to one such as he – A Liberated World Working Class.
From The Worker, 8 December 1923
The news of John Maclean’s death has been received with sorrow and regret by every section of the working class movement. All have paid their tributes to the wonderful work accomplished by our late comrade. He has passed away, leaving behind a life’s work rich in achievements on behalf of the working class. The hundreds of young comrades who have passed through his classes are left to carry on the work so finely begun by Comrade Maclean. Imprisonment and torture had wrecked his physique, but his ideals were never dimmed or his work for the movement ever retarded. It was but fitting that at his funeral representatives from every working class organisation in Scotland should be present to pay the respects and tributes of a movement that mourns the loss of one of its greatest and valiant fighters.
The scene at Caird Hall, Dundee, last Sunday was unforgettable. The huge hall was packed by over 4000 people. The platform was crowded, and in the middle was grouped the young children’s choir. The meeting was held in support of Comrade Gallacher’s election campaign. The speakers were Tom Mann, Helen Crawfurd and W. Gallacher. The chairman, Comrade John Crawford, opened the meeting with a touching reference to the death of John Maclean, and then called upon Comrade Gallacher to speak.
Gallacher’s long and close association with John Maclean fitted him for this sorrowful task. He spoke of their fights together, their struggles and their dreams of the future. Maclean’s fights against militarism were dwelt upon, and the huge audience now saw in a clearer light the real fight that had been put up for them by John Maclean, and now realised that the great master Death had taken his toll of one of our best comrades. Gallacher’s voice throbbed with emotion as he spoke of Maclean’s intense hatred of capitalism and all that it stood for. Then in his closing words he exhorted the audience not to let Comrade Maclean’s sacrifice to be in vain. It must act as a great inspiration to us all, and when death comes may we all face it as calm and serene as John did, and know that our lives have been spent in that great cause which binds us all.
From Communist International, No.30, 1924
In the midst of an election campaign, I read the announcement in the press, ‘Death of John Maclean’. I could scarcely credit the evidence of my eyesight. Surely it couldn’t be true! Just a week or so before, I had left Glasgow for Dundee, and at that time Maclean was holding meetings all over Glasgow. But then, that was the real make of the man. His body may be broken, his physical strength might fail, but the revolutionary spirit that inspired him kept him going no matter how great the obstacles were that opposed him.
During the past two years, his rigid revolutionary integrity brought him into bitter opposition with the official labour movement, and as a result many smug, self-satisfied successful parliamentary representatives are inclined to refer to him with a sneer, more or less hidden in their voice, but I, who was through all the fighting on the Clyde, fighting that has made it possible for many of these men to score their electoral victories, know that no man played a bigger part in making Glasgow and its surroundings Red than John Maclean. It is so easy for small men to step into the limelight and make fervent protestations of abiding devotion to the workers’ cause, when the workers’ cause is popular and offers splendid opportunities for political advancement: it is so easy to fulminate against the evils of capitalism to the accompaniment of enthusiastic plaudits from assemblies of workers, but it is also easy, and oh! so convenient, to forget that the chains that bound these workers to the policy of their masters had to be smashed, and that the smashing wasn’t easy. It was not a popular task: it was a task that meant calumny, abuse and imprisonment, and all these Maclean faced, with a dauntless courage and a never failing belief in the workers to whom he carried his message of revolutionary deliverance.
I came into contact with Maclean when I entered the socialist movement 18 years ago. I joined up in the Paisley branch of the Social Democratic Federation. Maclean was at that time a dominating figure in the heart of Scotland and very early I came under his influence. As a Marxian teacher he was second to none, and all the young men of the movement eagerly accepted his tuition. Very early he recognised the fact that H.M. Hyndman was an English bourgeois gentleman masquerading as an internationalist, and that his influence in the workers’ movement was all towards bringing it in behind British imperialism. Throughout the movement he kept up a very energetic criticism of Hyndman, and assuredly succeeded in saving the movement in Scotland from being dragged into the maelstrom of 1914.
In the years prior to the war, he was an indefatigable worker in the socialist movement. There never was his like in any section of the workers’ movement in Britain. Every night in the week he was at it and from early morning till late at night on Sunday. Economic and industrial history classes, demonstrations, meetings of all kinds: he never had to be asked twice to give assistance if he had an hour or half-an-hour to spare. A demonstration of five thousand or a small group of five, it made no difference to him, there was a chance to sow the seed, and he sowed it well; alas, that those who now gather the harvest give it so little thought to the labourer who went before. But if his activities were surprising before the war, what can one say of him when war broke out in 1914?
Surely in no country in Europe was such a tornado of energy let loose. Never for a moment was he in doubt about the war or what it meant. With the first blast of the trumpets, he was on the streets. ‘To hell with the war! If the capitalists of Europe want to fight, let them do their own fighting. While they fight, the workers must seize the opportunity to get power into their own hands and expropriate the expropriators.’ Night after night he was at it. Accompanied by a small group of loyal comrades he carried on a terrific anti-militarist, anti-capitalist campaign.
The first attempt of the authorities to get after him was on a mere technical question for which he was tried and sentenced to five days’ imprisonment. Next he was dismissed from his position as a schoolteacher. But this, so far from damping his ardour, gave him greater opportunities to express it. Now, not only was he out at night, but during the day he was around the great shipbuilding area of the Clyde, addressing meal-hour meetings, vigorously exposing the capitalist interests behind the war and calling to the workers to rise in revolt against those who had so long exploited them.
The great strike which broke out on the Clyde in February 1915 was the determining factor which sent Glasgow Red, despite the frenzied efforts of the ‘patriots’ in the labour movement to keep it loyal, and the propaganda carried on by Maclean did much to create the spirit that made such a strike possible. A few months later, the ‘rent strike’ broke out and its rapid development forced the government to pass a Bill prohibiting house-owners from raising the rents of the houses. The demonstrations held during this time were wonderful. Only in Petrograd could the working class men and women turn out in the streets as they did during these days in Glasgow. Again, the outstanding figure was Maclean inspiring all who came into contact with him with his intense revolutionary fervour.
At the beginning of 1916 the Government was preparing a Conscription Act. Before they could feel safe operating it there had to be a round-up on the Clyde. A number of us were arrested and deported. Maclean was the first to he attacked. Always he held the position of being the first man the authorities arrested when they feared trouble. At his trial, in April 1916, he defended himself and the speech he made from the dock was published in pamphlet form and widely distributed throughout the country. ‘I am not the accused’, he said, ‘but the accuser. I accuse capitalism. Capitalism, dripping with the blood of millions of workers.’ [Maclean’s famous speech was in fact made at his 1918 trial – ed.] The mockery of a trial was carried through and Maclean was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. The next day several more of us were sentenced to 12 months and that ended our interest in outside affairs for a time at least. When we got out there was a strong agitation for the release of Maclean going on throughout Scotland, with the result that he was liberated when he had served 15 months of his three years’ sentence.
In 1918, when things looked pretty bad for the Allies, the British Government pushed through a Manpower Bill, which enabled them to call up all kinds and conditions of people from 18 years of age and upwards. They had great difficulty operating this, especially on the Clyde, and again they got after Maclean. Once again, he had to go through the sham of a trial after which he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude. During this period he was appointed Bolshevik Consul for Glasgow, an honour which he considered greater than any other that could have been conferred on him. Again an agitation for his release was set going and we succeeded in getting him released when he had served only seven months of his five years’ sentence. At the election in December 1918 he stood as a candidate against the Labour traitor, Geo. N. Barnes, and polled over seven thousand votes. Barnes, of course, had the backing of the Tories, Liberals, Moderate Labourites and patriots of all schools.
During all this activity his classes weren’t neglected. He started them in all parts of the country. In Glasgow he had a class of 400 that met every Saturday to study and discuss the application of Marxist theory to the passing events of the time. Only when he was in prison could he be separated from his class work, and then other faithful workers were there to carry on the work. On of these, Comrade C. Dougal, could best write on this side of his work, and show how after much labour he overcame obstacles that would have daunted most men, and securely laid the foundation of the Scottish Labour College.
In 1921 he was once more in the hands of the police and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. All this imprisonment and the conditions under which he had to serve it played havoc with his constitution. He needed a long rest, but the call of the revolutionary movement was always there. His spirit was too strong for his body, so we find him a few days before his death out on the streets in cold winter weather carrying the message of hope to the unemployed workers of Glasgow.
With his death there passes one of the greatest fighters the movement in this country has known. But he left the movement a heritage that is worthy of the devotion he gave to the cause. Hundreds of young men, scattered throughout the country, in the colonies and America, heard the message from Maclean, were inspired by Maclean and now continue the work that death and death alone could force him to lay aside.