US and World Politics

The Centenary of the Death of John Maclean

November 30, 1923

By John Blackburn

The 30th of November 2023 will mark the centenary of the death of the Scottish revolutionary socialist John Maclean, whose name is synonymous with the “Red Clydeside” uprising of the Scottish working-class in 1919. Maclean’s political influence still resonates within the Scottish Labour and Nationalist parties, trades unions and socialist movement to the present day.

John Maclean who became a working-class leader and teacher was born into a Gaelic speaking Calvinist family in Pollockshaws, a district in the south of Glasgow. He was brought up by his working-class parents in the Calvinist, Free Church of Scotland which encouraged education and self-improvement. With its support Maclean qualified as a schoolteacher and later obtained a Master of Arts degree, through part-time study from the University of Glasgow, in 1907.

In the late 19th century Glasgow was one of the richest cities in Britain— “the second city of the empire,” yet was accompanied by some of the worst poverty and living conditions for the producers of that wealth. While the majority of the working-class were living in Glasgow’s infamous dark, unsanitary tenements close to their work, the rich were building palatial residences in the countryside overlooking the Clyde estuary. Witnessing the poverty amidst Glasgow’s industrial and mercantile wealth at a young age, Maclean became a political activist, then soon after, a Marxist and an atheist.

In the late 19th century, there was a massive growth in the trades union movement in Glasgow and central Scotland. (The British Labour Party originates with Keir Hardy from nearby Holytown in Lanarkshire.) From 1906 onwards the Labour Party, as it was to become, was the parliamentary vehicle for the British working-class. In that year John Maclean joined the Social Democratic Federation, whose members included the Irish revolutionary, James Connolly,1 William Morris, and Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor. Maclean began giving classes in Marxist economics and philosophy to working-class audiences in Glasgow. The clarity and quality of his teaching became legendary and soon hundreds would turn up to his lectures.

In the early 20th century, the Socialist movement in Britain, while growing in size and influence in the working-class, also had a number of schisms and factions which came to a head with the First World War. The Marxists, including John Maclean, unconditionally condemned the unnecessary war which induced the working-class of different countries to slaughter each other in the interest of their national capitalist classes. Maclean campaigned from the beginning against the war that he described as imperialist and anti-working-class. This led to him being sacked from his teaching job in 1915 and later that year to be arrested under the “Defense of the Realm Act.” He was jailed in 1916 but was released in 1917 following mass protests.

At this time Scotland was in turmoil. There were strikes in factories, mines, and shipyards while waves of rent strikes swept through the squalid tenements. In 1917 Maclean welcomed the Soviet revolution in Russia and said that was the route that the Scottish working-class should follow. Scotland should become an independent socialist republic. He was appointed as Soviet Consul by Lenin but of course the British establishment would not recognize it at the time. The working-class in central Scotland was entering a period of revolt that would earn it the title “Red Clydeside.” Maclean was at the heart of this movement. A leader, a teacher and an orator who inspired thousands.

John Maclean was arrested again, charged with sedition, then sentenced to five years in Peterhead Prison in the cold North East of Scotland, as far away from his family and supporters as the authorities could send him. While there he went on hunger strike and was force fed.

John Maclean’s speech from the dock at his trial in Edinburgh is still essential reading for every Scottish socialist:

“It has been said that they cannot fathom my motive. For the full period of my active life, I have been a teacher of economics to the working-classes, and my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill,” and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilized countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody, and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention…I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

That is as relevant today as it was in 1918.

All the while there was a mass campaign in the Scottish labor movement until his release in November 1918 and when he returned to Glasgow tens-of-thousands came on to the streets to welcome him home. Prison had weakened him physically and he died at the early age of 44 when again tens-of-thousands lined the streets but this time to see his funeral and say farewell.

A whole generation of working-class socialists in Scotland were influenced by Marxism thanks to John Maclean, a legacy still with us, reflected in the strength of the labor movement, the trades union movement, in the heightened political consciousness and the Scottish republican tradition which has persisted to the present day.

John Maclean was a Scottish, working-class revolutionary who dedicated his life to the cause of a Scottish socialist republic, an idea that still motivates many. Whenever “Red Clydeside” is mentioned, John MacLean’s name comes to most Scottish peoples’ minds. MacLean is remembered in many songs, in plays and novels making him one of the most significant persons in Scottish 20th century politics and culture.

St Andrew’s Day, the 30th of November, has significance for all Scots, but this year it has a special poignancy for socialists as it is the 100th anniversary of the death of the remarkable John Maclean.

1 The Irish revolutionary James Connolly was born in Edinburgh to Irish parents. He travelled to the USA where became a follower of the Marxist, Daniel DeLeon.