John Maclean, the second youngest of seven children, was born in Pollockshaws, Glasgow in 1879. John did well at school and although his widowed mother was extremely poor, she was determined that he would have a good education. In 1896 he became a pupil-teacher and later entered the Free Church Teacher Training College.
After graduating in 1900, Maclean became a teacher in Glasgow. He also studied part time for an MA at Glasgow University where he met James Maxton. The two men were both committed socialists and over the next few years worked together on numerous campaigns.
Maclean joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Glasgow Teacher's Socialist Society and was active in the trade union and co-operative movements. He eventually fell out with H. M. Hyndman, the leader of SDF, who he felt was growing increasingly dictatorial. Later he became one of the leaders of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), an organization that had been inspired by the writings of Daniel De Leon, the man who helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Other leaders of the SLP included John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Willie Paul, James Connally and Tom Bell.
Maclean was totally against Britain's involvement in the First World War. He wrote an article in Justice where he argued: "It is our business as Socialists to develop a 'class patriotism,' refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism. The absurdity of the present situation is surely apparent when we see British Socialists going out to murder German Socialists with the object of crushing Kaiserism and Prussian militarism. The only real enemy to Kaiserism and Prussian militarism, I assert against the world, was and is German Social-Democracy. Let the propertied class go out, old and young alike, and defend their blessed property. When they have been disposed of, we of the working class will have something to defend, and we shall do it."
In 1915 a group of Scottish socialists, including Maclean, Willie Gallacher, John Muir, David Kirkwood, and John MacLean, formed the Clyde Workers' Committee, an independent organisation of the rank and file. The CWC attempted to confront Government demands over dilution and conscription.
Maclean produced a journal called The Vanguard where he campaigned against the First World War. Maclean and James Maxton were both arrested and charged with sedition under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. Found guilty, the men served over a year in prison. The Govan School Board sacked Maclean from his teaching post at Lorne Street School.
Maclean was released from prison in 1916 and returned to work with the Clyde Workers' Committee. Senior members of the CWC, including Willie Gallacher, David Kirkwood and Arthur McManus helped organize production in Beardmore's Mile End Shell Factory. Kirkwood later remarked: "What a team! We organized a bonus system in which everyone benefited by high production... The factory, built for a 12,000 output, produced 24,000. In six weeks, we held the record for output in Great Britain, and we never lost our premier position." Maclean was opposed to this strategy. He wrote: "Lloyd George's purpose is to coax you to relax your Trade Union rules about non-union workers. The dangers... are the weakening of your unions and the lowering of your wages."
McManus had been impressed with the achievements of the Bolshevik Government following the Russian Revolution and in January 1918 Maclean was elected to the chair of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The following month he was appointed Bolshevik consul in Scotland.
On 15th April 1918, Maclean was arrested for sedition. He was refused bail and his trial fixed for 9th May in Edinburgh. He conducted his own defence. He argued that in his lectures he had "pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised 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.... 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."
Maclean was found guilty and sentenced to five years. While in Peterhead Prison Maclean started a hunger strike. His wife wrote to a fellow member of the Socialist Labour Party: "John has been on hunger strike since July. He resisted the forcible feeding for a good while, but submitted to the inevitable. Now he is being fed by a stomach tube twice daily. He has aged very much and has the look of a man who is going through torture... Seemingly anything is law in regard to John. I hope you will make the atrocity public. We must get him out of their clutches. It is nothing but slow murder..."
Following the armistice he was released from prison on 3rd December 1918. Maclean formed the Tramp Trust Unlimited in 1919, an organisation that campaigned for a minimum wage, a six-hour day and full wages for the unemployed.
Former comrades in the Socialist Labour Party such as Arthur McManus, Willie Gallacher, Tom Bell and Willie Paul, formed the Communist Party of Great Britain. Maclean refused to join as he believed that workers in Scotland could develop into a revolutionary force before those in England and Wales. Maclean instead formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party (SWRP) which combined communism with a belief in Scottish independence.
In the municipal elections held in November 1923, none of the twelve SWRP candidates came anywhere near victory. Even Maclean only polled 623 votes out of a total of 8,190. Weakened by poor health and his spells in prison, John Maclean died on 30th November 1923.
(1) John Maclean, Education in Scotland (23rd May 1908)
So apathetic have the middle-class in Scotland become so far as social progress is concerned—and that, of course, can be accounted for by the fact that they are the dominant class and have all their interests well attended to—that even the vaunted superiority of Scotland in educational affairs is probably a thing of the past. Incited by the desire to rise supreme in commerce and industry other countries have directed themselves with marvellous energy to the perfecting of the education of their young whilst all the time we in Scotland have been resting on the achievements of our fathers.
However, our Liberal leaders have awakened from their lethargy, and through Mr. Sinclair have produced an Education Bill. Last year the Bill was mysteriously dropped, this year it has been surprisingly resurrected. No mention was made of it in the King’s Speech, and no educational organisation knows why it has been so suddenly revived. After innumerable attempts this Bill will certainly be passed, through the dauntless courage and assiduity of our Scottish Liberals. And there shall be a revolution in Auld Scotia’s education. For does not Mr. Sinclair’s Bill tell us that accommodation, apparatus, equipment, and service for the preparation and supply of meals to pupils attending schools within their district be provided; that crippled or defective children shall be conveyed to school; that school boards may provide books, etc., to pupils, where they deem it necessary; that medical men may examine the children to find out whether their parents are neglecting them and ought to be imprisoned, so as to take from the said parents their independence to neglect them; that school boards may frame bye-laws compelling young lads and lasses after work hours to attend continuation classes till they reach the age of 17; that school boards may dismiss teachers in an arbitrary manner, and may give others microscopic pensions, if these, naturally, have not been revolutionary Socialists; and that voters after this shall have only one vote. These, with certain petty financial details, are the vast issues that have taken our professors, educational experts and politicians so many years to screw up their courage to the sticking point to face. Their sleepless nights, their multitudinous cares for the welfare of the children of the poor are almost past - the Bill is going to become an Act. Maybe!
(2) John Maclean, The Labour Party Muddle (1910)
Shortly after the return of the Labour men in 1906, Hardie and other so-called “democrats” repudiated payment of members and election expenses, as their claim on trade unions gave them financial advantage over the Social Democratic Party. Their very attitude on this radical, chartist and real working-class economic reform certainly gave the clue that has led up to the Osborne decision. The capitalists’ early dodges to kill the Labour Party completely failed, and in the end they had to resort to the risky expedient put into operation by Osborne. For, as we Social Democrats know full well, Osborne certainly did not initiate the action he took on his own account, but on the plunderers. Hardie’s advantage has gone, and he, with his invertebrate colleagues, are frantic…
The practical question for us, however, is not merely the exposure of political incapacity of the Labour Party, but the carrying on of the class war under the circumstances, and thus giving the lead the workers really want. It is our business, as our executive is trying to do, to rally the support of the trade unions at present attacked by the masters, and to show the meaning of the simultaneous attack by lock-outs and Osborne decisions. Ours is also to point out the insincerity of the capitalists in their offer of payment of members and election expenses, but at the same time accept the offer by pressing for its realisation during the coming autumn session… To this we must add the cry for a reversal of the Osborne decision, for such a hampering of the trade unions obviously tends to cripple them. The Taff Vale decision enabled the capitalists to steal, to confiscate the funds of the union did they dare to strike. This judge-made law was the final argument that forced politics on the unions. Obviously, then, to clear them out of political activity is the first step towards their ultimate annihilation. This is too much an insult to our class in this twentieth century of Christian civilisation under the benign regime of a paternal Liberal government…
(3) John Maclean, The Foundation of the British Socialist Party (9th December 1911)
I believe I express the sentiments (admitting that we canny “NB-ers” have sentiments) of all north of Berwick and many of our dominant race south thereof when I say that we are proud of the latest “combine”, the combine of socialist forces. This amalgamation is not perfect yet—in fact, cannot be so long as avowed socialists remain apart from the British Socialist Party. The men of the ILP still hold that union with non-socialists is more advantageous to the cause of socialism than union with fellow socialists. That I cannot see.
A composite body can never attain socialism; that alone can be accomplished by determined and openly avowed socialists. Neither is socialist opinion more rapidly advanced by such an alliance if socialists are themselves apart from one another. Socialists who are more anxious to join with non-socialists and sometimes anti-socialists than with fellows of kindred opinions have a strangely distorted point of view. I should imagine that a completely united body of socialists would be better able to carry the working class with it than a disrupted one. The socialist movement, composed as it is largely of trade unionists, can just as effectively convert the membership of the unions whilst retaining its separate identity as when definitely allied. There is nothing that the ILP can do today inside the unions that the BSP cannot achieve.
Where socialists maintain separate organisations they naturally clash with one another, and frequently attempt to undermine one another. For example, at the beginning of this summer an organiser of the ILP in Scotland declared his intention of starting branches in every town where the SDP ruled supreme. Had the ILP had domination over all other parts of the country I could have understood this move. But we know that the ILP was languishing for lack of speakers in very many parts. Hence we were forced to the conclusion that sinister motives actuated that organiser, and that his specific object was more to weaken the SDP than to advance socialist principles. Unable to accomplish his ends openly and directly, this individual has for months been trying to do so through the old trade unions, through new ones, or through new branches of old ones.
What does all this prove? Surely that the policy of separateness leads to antagonism and active opposition and that means a brutal waste of socialist energy. This difficulty must be got over in Scotland once the British Socialist Party gets on to its feet. At least an effort must be made to get ILP branches to fall in line with us.
(4) John Maclean, The War and its Outcome (17th September 1914)
So far as I can see, it will be impossible to tell whether Russia or Germany is immediately responsible for the war. Some attribute the death of the Austrian Archduke to the usual underground, dirty work of the minions of the Tsar playing upon Servians embittered by the Austrian attempt to seize land right down to Salonica during the Balkan Butchery. This Austrian attempt at grab somewhat upset the Russian purpose of adding to its territory in the Balkans at the same time. We can well imagine, then, that the Russians would foster Servian hatred of Austria and do all in their power to paralyse the imperial desires of Austria.
I think the assassination over-reached itself by giving Austria its chance to crush and steal Servia. In the circumstances Russia had to intervene or its Balkan aspirations would for ever be thwarted. Then Germany had to back up Austria against its dread enemy, Russia. Germany plunged into war, undoubtedly, because it thought the Allies were weak owing to the Caillaux-Calmette murder drama in France, and the sham Irish situation in the British Isles, as well as the unfolding revolution in Russia.
Even supposing Germany is to blame, the motive force is not the ambitions of the Kaiser, nor the brute philosophy of the Prussian mili-tarists, but the profit of the plundering class of Germany. Colonial expansion was denied the Germans because the British, the Russians, and the French had picked up most of the available parts of the world. What could the Germans do but build up an army and a navy that would hold its own against all comers? This it has done steadily for the last generation. It is mere cant to talk of German militarism when Britain has led the world in the navy business. It is merely “the struggle for an existence” on a capitalist national scale. The inspiration of Ger-man militarism comes as much from Darwin and Huxley, and applied by British economists and sociologists against us Socialists, as from Bern-hardi or any other German apologist of organised murder. Capitalism has neither conscience nor morality when it is brought to bay.
Every interested person knew that Germany’s easiest road of entry into France was by Belgium. Sir Edward Grey had only to wait till Belgium’s neutrality had been broken to seize a “moral” excuse for Britain taking up arms. The real reason was, and is, that he and his class knew that war between British and Ger-man capitalism had to come sooner or later. Now was the day, and Britain struck, Plunderers versus plunderers, with the workers as pawns doing the murdering with right goodwill. The working class at home is beginning to be starved, and is being buoyed up with the assertion that this is the last great war.
Unless a social revolution bursts forth in Europe at the close of this present murder campaign, Russia will make a bold bid for Turkey, Asia Minor, Poland, and a bit of the Persian Gulf area, with Sweden added shortly after that. If its allies try to intervene, we may have another war.
Even should this not happen, we all know that .the commercial rivalry of Japan and the United States - similar to that between Britain and Germany - must lead to a war in the Pacific basin. Canada and Australia will side with the States, so that Britain will be dragged in or lose those Colonies. What part China will play in world murder I cannot very clearly see as yet, but we all must admit she is going through a thorough apprenticeship at home.
In view of eventualities like those indicated, it is our business as Socialists to develop a “class patriotism,” refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism. The absurdity of the present situation is surely apparent when we see British Socialists going out to murder German Socialists with the object of crushing Kaiserism and Prussian militarism. The only real enemy to Kaiserism and Prussian militarism, I assert against the world, was and is German Social-Democracy. Let the propertied class go out, old and young alike, and defend their blessed property. When they have been disposed of, we of the working class will have something to defend, and we shall do it.