MacLean, John

(1879–1923)
   A popular agitator and an inspirational orator, MacLean sought to bring about an independent Scottish workers’ republic as part of a socialist international, chiefly through a Marxist reeducation of the working class and the use of mass organized action. He is regarded by present-day Scottish socialists as the founding father of republican socialism in Scotland, and one of the first to call for a parliament independent of Westminster. MacLean had the value of education instilled in him from an early age, and to this end attended the Free Church Training School in order to become a teacher. While here he became a strong advocate of Marxian socialism, studied political economy at Glasgow University, and graduated with an M.A. in 1903 transfixed with the idea of raising the educational levels of those within the labor movement. The Scot began his political life as a member of the Progressive Union, and in 1903 joined the Social Democratic Federation, but split from the group in 1911 as a response to its pro-war position and joined the British Socialist Party (BSP).
   MacLean was also the driving force behind a number of other workers’ groups. These included the revolutionary Clyde Workers Committee, arguably the earliest ever shop stewards’ combine, and the Scottish Labor College and Labor College Committee, establishments that aimed to educate workers in Marxist principles as a foundation for revolution. MacLean was also instrumental in the formation of the Tramp Trust Unlimited, a band of Marxist agitators spreading the gospel of Scottish revolutionary politics at outdoor gatherings across the land. He was recognized by illustrious Marxists from abroad including Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who appointed MacLean honorary president of the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and Bolshevik Consul for Scotland.
   MacLean was forced out of the BSP in 1920, and disillusioned with that group and others on the left he founded the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party (SWRP) two years later. The party aimed to bring about a “Scottish Workers Republic,” on the basis that Scottish workers (as opposed to their English counterparts, tainted by the trappings of Empire) made the most vehement Marxists. MacLean believed a communist organization based in Scotland would stand the greatest chance of attaining a workers’ revolution, and subsequently assisting its spread through Great Britain. For MacLean, the de-construction of the British state and its supplanting with a Scottish workers’ republic represented the swiftest route to world revolution. With national independence would come social independence, a seminal part of MacLean’s democratic socialism.
   Throughout this time MacLean was a pivotal figure in strike action and agitation. His teachings and influence were central in the 1911 Clydebank Singer Strike, and in the subsequent miners strike MacLean helped set up the South Wales Miners Reform Committee. In 1915 MacLean addressed a rally of 10,000 people calling for a general strike should rent increases threatened by landlords be implemented. This action formed part of wider rent strikes across Glasgow, and together with ferment elsewhere, forced the government into passing the Rent Restriction Act, a victory for MacLean and the labor movement. MacLean was a central character in the emergence of “Red Clydeside,” a hugely militant pocket of Glasgow so often on the brink of revolutionary change. MacLean was imprisoned five times between 1914 and 1923 on various sedition charges, chiefly under the Defence of the Realm Act.
   In conjunction with his unstinting political campaign work, MacLean remained committed to educating workers and the unemployed in Marxian economics and industrial history, and did so in hugely popular night schools. MacLean was a fierce advocate of the Russian Revolution and Irish independence, and a stern opponent of World War I. He gained notoriety for traveling through Great Britain giving rousing anti-war and anti-militarism sermons on street corners and at factory gates. MacLean was dismayed to find that left-wing parties throughout Europe (including the BSP) had backed their governments in the decision to enter the conflict, and argued that the war would benefit only the ruling imperialists at the cost of working class lives.
   More an activist than a theorist, MacLean’s main contributions to the cause of Marxism were practical ones, as his ethos of “educate, agitate and organize” infused Clydeside and beyond. MacLean endeavored to explain complex Marxian concepts in a manner the uneducated working class could follow, and inspired it into political action. In terms of adding to Marxist theory, affected by Marx’s acknowledgement of the Highland Clearances, he propounded that as “Celtic communism” had been the organizational structure in Scottish clans, the emergence of an independent Scotland would be a return to this natural state, and coined the phrase “back to communism and forward to communism.” MacLean died in 1923 of double pneumonia after collapsing while addressing a rally. Tens of thousands lined the streets at his funeral, marking his popularity and the effect he had in bringing Marxism to the workers of Glasgow.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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