Why John Maclean Matters

This year marks a century since John Maclean returned to Glasgow after suffering imprisonment, force feeding and hard labour at Peterhead Prison. One of the great revolutionaries of the Red Clydeside era, Maclean was revered by Lenin and Trotsky and described as the British Military Intelligence as 'the most dangerous man in Britain’. Henry Bell, whose book 'John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside' is out now, writes for Conter about what inspired him to study the iconic figure, and why he believes his message still matters...

When I moved to Glasgow ten years ago, the first Glaswegian I learnt about was John Maclean: the great Scottish Lenin who could have saved Scotland but instead died after years of suffering in the capitalist jail. Later I heard stories that ranged from him promising to shoot the nice landlords first, to standing in as a last-minute bridesmaid in a comrade’s wedding. I saw the plaque outside Glasgow City Halls commemorating his mass-meetings of the unemployed, and walked past his old house in Newlands, and wondered why there was no plaque there. Strangers and friends told me that he was a great nationalist out for an independent Scotland, or a great internationalist, an enemy of Churchill and hero of Trotsky’s. I came across mentions of Maclean in the poems of Edwin Morgan and the writings of Joseph Stalin.

All the stories about Maclean seemed to contradict one other and had the ring of myth, and nothing about him was in print. I scoured bookshops for his daughter Nan Milton’s book John Maclean, and later found Tom Bell’s biography too. But these also seemed to paint portraits of different men. Maclean seemed at once to be Scotland’s most principled anti-imperialist, fighting for Ireland, Scotland and India; and also a deranged ex-socialist who had fallen prey to cynical nationalism after losing his mind in jail.

I decided to try and research my own Maclean, sorting through the boxes of his letters and writings in the National Library and the mountains of Secret Police and court reports on Maclean in the National Records Office. I also read the memoirs of his friends and comrades: Gallacher, Crawfurd, Pankhurst, McShane, Kirkwood and others. The man seemed to be all things to all people, a hero and a villain. What the poet Edwin Muir once said of Burns could equally be applied to Maclean: “To the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious; to the self-made man, self-made.”

The Maclean I found was every bit as heroic and unrelenting as the myth around him suggests, a man who saw the evils of empire, property and racism and sided with the oppressed at every instance. But he was also a man whose tenacity and determination became his greatest flaw, blinding him to the suffering of his family, and the terrible cost to his own health that nearly a decade of state persecution resulted in. Maclean was often described as Christ-like in his sacrifice and endurance, but there was also a picture of a thrawn and stubborn man.

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The great moments of Maclean’s life are still etched into the collective memory of Scotland. He addressed tens of thousands of striking women during the Glasgow Rent Strike and helped to secure a rent-freeze for the whole UK. He opened the Soviet Consulate in the Gorbals in 1917 as Lenin’s representative in Scotland. He led up to 100,000 workers across Glasgow and stood on top of a carriage in Jamaica Street, urging them to cheer for the German, Russian, and British Revolutions. And he stood in the high court in Edinburgh and declared:

“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.”

If you stop any group on Buchanan Street, the chances are that one of them will know these stories. But I hope smaller moments in Maclean’s life are also highlighted in my book about him. I think we need to understand how Calvinism and the empire shaped him, how the work of his mother, his sisters, his wife and his daughters allowed him to have a voice, and how the links he forged between Marxism and Scottish nationalism, anti-imperialism and independence, continue to be the live and fraught issue in the present day that they were in his lifetime.

Maclean’s life and work contain many lessons for us today in a Glasgow and a world that's much changed but still contains the same poverty and exploitation he gave his life to fight. The threats Maclean saw coming from fascism, landlordism, and endless capitalist wars are still here. The millions who Maclean saw ‘living in slums, breathing poisonous and carbon-laden air, wearing shoddy clothes, eating adulterated and life-extinguishing food’ are still waiting for the revolution of property. He wrote that ‘the millennium, if it is to come, must come from an educated working class’ and John Maclean’s life, his writings, and his political lessons should today form part of that education in Scotland. At a recent event someone asked me why Maclean still matters and the answer is simple: he matters because his work is not yet done.

At his famous trial in Edinburgh in 1918 John Maclean said:

“My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.”

Under capitalism in 2018, it's still the world that's at stake.

‘John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside’ by Henry Bell is available to buy at this link. On December 1st at Stereo in Glasgow, James Kelman, Henry Bell and others will appear at a Maclean Centenary event to raise funds for the Living Rent Tenants Union. Facebook information here.

@Henbell