John MacLean – Appendix: The Classroom of Class War

‘The millennium, if it is to come, must come from an educated working class. Today, you can be swayed by speeches and pamphlets. But the person who has studied Marx and has applied him to literature, to life in all its phases, can see things as they are.’[1]

John MacLean, 1913

That John MacLean is remembered by many primarily as a teacher of Marxian economics should in no way imply that this was the most important aspect of his activity within the working class movement, but it is testament to the fact that, in this role, MacLean was the most energetic, dedicated and innovative revolutionary of his generation and no one in Britain has, to date, achieved anything on a similar scale.

MacLean’s earliest economics classes were part and parcel of the Marxist tradition of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) which he joined prior to 1904. By the winter of 1906 he was taking a Saturday evening class on economic and industrial history in Greenock and a Sunday afternoon session in advanced economics in central Glasgow alongside comrades teaching English, elementary economics and public-speaking.

In 1908, following pressure from the SDF, Eastwood School Board in Glasgow granted continuation classes in economics with John MacLean as tutor, assisted by fellow schoolteacher James Maxton. The set text for the class was Marx’s Capital and it was discussed with such authority that Forward, the Scottish ILP newspaper, claimed, ‘Even more will be gained in one session at this class than in a lifetime at Ruskin College...’.

That winter saw the economics classes spread throughout the industrial Clyde valley. Classes under MacLean or his ‘graduates’ were established in Greenock, Paisley, Govan, Pollockshaws, Falkirk and the mining areas of Lanarkshire and, as well as teaching political economy, he now introduced the working class to dialectical materialism. By 1910, classes had also spread as far as the mining and industrial towns of West Fife. It is notable that the mining areas of Lanarkshire and West Fife were later to become electoral strongholds of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), returning both Scotland’s first Communist MP, Walter Newbold, and Britain’s longest-serving CPGB MP, Willie Gallagher, himself an early student of MacLean.

The formation, in 1909, of the Central Labour College in London led MacLean to set his sights on a Scottish Labour College, something he regarded as vital for the independence of working-class education. At this time he also became active in the Workers’ Education Association (WEA) which, although advancing the general educational standards of the working class, fell far short of the essentially political role MacLean envisaged for the Labour College. He would make this point a few years later by stating:

‘[The WEA] has for its object the creation of intelligent workers. Personally, I wish to see all opportunities for self-development opened up to the working class. But I am specially interested in such education as will make revolutionists...’[2]

This last point is critical as it demonstrates a consciousness which, although developed independently, finds its parallel in Lenin’s What is to be done?, written in 1902, when he stated that:

‘[Attention must] be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries...We can and must educate workers...so that we may be able to discuss these questions with them.’[3]

It would have been easy for MacLean to have conducted his Marxist classes on a purely cerebral level, as an intellectual gymnasium for the workers. To MacLean, however, political education was another weapon in the revolutionary struggle and one which had to be used in conjunction with continual agitation and organisation. But it was later obvious to MacLean that his arrests and imprisonment were due more to the threat he posed as a distributor of critical Marxist thought than the delivery of any individual speech, however inflammatory the subject:

‘The greatest “crime” I have committed in the eyes of the British Government and the Scottish capitalist class has been the teaching of Marxian economics to Scottish workers. That was evident at my “trial”; that dictated Lord Strathclyde’s sentence of three years.’[4]

It is necessary to remember that MacLean, although certainly not acting in isolation, was very much the motivating force behind others during this period. At his suggestion, the 1912 Renfrewshire Conference of Co-operative Education Committees resolved to begin their own classes in ‘Marxian Economics’ if School Boards could not be persuaded to do so. In 1914, comrades from the British Socialist Party were elected to School Boards in Aberdeen, Larbert, Newton Mearns and in Falkirk where free text books and classes in industrial history and economics were introduced.

The outbreak of the first imperialist war in 1914, and its attendant assault on the working class through either military or industrial conscription, accelerated the rate at which workers were turning to Marxism and, by October 1915, MacLean could tell Hugh Hinshelwood in Greenock that their class had signed up 227 new students on its first day! The Central Economics and Industrial History Class in Glasgow now had 400 eager worker-students and the Sunday afternoon class could boast numbers of 481 before the year’s end.

MacLean’s critics often allege that he was somehow distant from the workers because he lacked direct links with the trade unions. This does not bear up to the scrutiny of actual events. When, at the height of the 1915 Rent Strike, he was sacked by Govan School Board following his arrest for declaiming against conscription, a procession of striking shipyard workers carried MacLean shoulder-high from his classroom. They marched to Glasgow Sheriff Court where, on a platform constructed from boards placed across their shoulders, MacLean addressed a crowd of 10,000. The working class of Glasgow had chosen its leader!

A Scottish Labour College Committee was eventually formed from MacLean’s Central Economics Class and an Inaugural Conference was called for mid-February 1916. In a pamphlet, written partly by his chief assistant, James D. McDougall, during MacLean’s imprisonment, he stressed the importance of an independent Labour College ‘in which workers must be trained for the industrial and political struggle which will become keener and sharper as time proceeds’.

Nan Milton described the Central Class – by 1917 numbering 500 – as ‘like a large stone thrown into the centre of a pond. The ripples and eddies of its ideas reached out far and wide. It had an influence far disproportionate to its size’. This influence was the direct result of the quality of training received by each ‘graduate’ of MacLean’s class; their firm foundation in Marxism as it related to the everyday class struggle. John MacLean clearly grasped – as had Lenin – that the success of a revolutionary working class movement had to be measured in quality and not just by the quantity of its revolutionaries.

The first publication of the Scottish Labour College was MacLean’s pamphlet The War After the War, written over the period 1917-18, a digest of the Marxian economics taught at his Central class, demonstrating the contradictions of capitalism and the inevitability of imperialist war. It was an excellent introduction to Marx’s theory of value and price in a style readily understood by the workers and illustrated with real examples. In the introduction to the pamphlet, MacLean outlined its purpose:

‘...we make no apology for coming into the arena on the side of Marxism, in the hope that this brief sketch of the fundamentals of Marxian economics may get into the hands of hundreds of thousands of workers, and induce them to dig deeper...The fact that the capitalists and their government are deeply distressed over the growth of working-class students of Marx ought of itself to induce all workers to begin this fascinating study.’[5]

Eighty years after the publication of his pamphlet, MacLean’s words continue to ring loud and true!

Rory Beaton


[1] MacLean, lecture ‘Marx and his Message’ (1913) cited in John Broom, John MacLean (MacDonald: 1973), p.43

[2] MacLean, article in The Call, 20 September 1917

[3] Lenin, What is to be done? (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), p.161

[4] MacLean, article in The Call, 20 September 1917

[5] MacLean, ‘The War after the War’, Glasgow Economic Class pamphlet no. 1, 1918

From Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No. 146 December 1998/January 1999

 

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