John MacLean – Part III: From imperialist war to socialist revolution / FRFI 148 Apr/May 1999

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From Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No. 148 April/May 1999

In 1916, John MacLean in Scotland and Karl Leibknecht in Germany were imprisoned for their opposition to imperialist war. That year Lenin identified these fighters as representing ‘a trend of revolutionary internationalism...To this trend belong the Bolsheviks of Russia’.[1]

War and revolution

Within a year this revolutionary internationalist trend had become an unstoppable current in Russia. The Bolsheviks were to lead the working class to power in a torrent of revolution which altered the course of world history. From the cities and glens of Ireland to the steppes of Russia, oppressed nations and the working class served final notice on imperialism and capitalism. War had inevitably sharpened the economic, social and political contradictions within the system to breaking point. Such a general observation was incontestable amongst revolutionaries. However Lenin’s genius lay in recognising the particular significance of actual material developments in the imperialist heartlands and the oppressed nations.

The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland

Ten days after MacLean’s imprisonment for his anti-war activities, James Connolly led the Easter Rising against British imperialism. MacLean was to describe Connolly as ‘the brain centre of the Irish working class’.[2] He had regularly read Connolly’s newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, which had covered events on the Clyde in 1915 and early 1916. An earlier version of the paper, edited by James Larkin, had actually been printed in Glasgow and smuggled into Ireland, until Connolly moved the whole operation into Liberty Hall, Dublin. MacLean declared in 1922: ‘When Jim Connolly saw how things were going on the Clyde, he determined on the Easter Rising.’[3]

Scotsman Seamus Reader, who became involved in the Rising and subsequent revolutionary struggle through the Scottish Brigade of the IRA, was to endorse this view many years later in a letter to MacLean’s daughter:

‘Your father was right in his remarks about James Connolly, because anti-conscription and the intended revolt on the Clyde did influence Countess Markievicz, James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmid. They were determined that at least the Liffey should assert itself.’[4]

Lenin saw the Easter Rising as the first great blow against the might of the British Empire:

‘The struggle of the oppressed nations of Europe...will sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe more than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony. A blow delivered against the British imperialist bourgeois rule by a rebellion in Ireland is of a hundred times greater political significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or Africa.’[5]

From this point until his death, MacLean was to share with Lenin this critical recognition of the relationship between the struggle against imperialism and that of the working class. James Connolly, in word and deed, exemplified this unity and paid for it with his life. He was executed by the British War Cabinet. The Labour MP Arthur Henderson was a member and led other Labour MPs in applause when the news of Connolly’s murder reached the House of Commons in May 1916.

John MacLean – convict 2562

MacLean’s conviction and three-year sentence to penal servitude did not undermine his exemplary socialist conduct and principles. But the Clyde workers did not rise to his defence. The question of his imprisonment became something of a problem for the labour movement, which supported the war and, as we have shown, argued for a socialisation of the war effort not socialist action against it. Glasgow District Council, with a large contingent of Labour councillors, apparently discovered that any petition for release would have to be based on an appeal for leniency from MacLean! Within Parliament it was a Liberal MP who took up the issue. The Labour Party were not interested. MacLean’s wife, Agnes, had the sad task of conveying news of this situation to him through the few letters and visits he was permitted. He completely rejected any campaign based on an appeal for mercy and called for a campaign for political rights for political prisoners. Even in Czarist Russia, political prisoners were recognised and were allowed books and writing materials, their own clothes and food, but in bourgeois Scotland there were none of these rights. MacLean was to later describe prison as death and stated: ‘I would rather be immediately put to death than condemned to a life sentence in Peterhead.’[6]

The regimes in Scottish prisons were designed to break and destroy. Silence was rigidly enforced, convicts were isolated in individual cells with minimal exercise and an abominable diet. Hard labour in Peterhead aggravated health problems that had arisen through years of activity on the streets. Agnes MacLean continued struggling for her husband’s release, trying to lift his spirits, naturally, but revealing the truth about the cynical, exhausting and ultimately demoralising runaround which the British labour movement passes off as a ‘campaign’ – then and now. Manipulation of the sincere concerns of relatives and friends, false promises, lies, blatant evasions and sly conspiracies were employed by the ruling class and its agents in the labour movement. His wife told MacLean that: ‘The Trades Council and others are urging the Labour Party to get something done for political prisoners.’[7]

George Lansbury, editor of The Herald, conceded after MacLean’s release: ‘I tried to influence some MPs for John but did not achieve much...I think the Russians secured it.’[8]

Nothing was done for MacLean or the other political prisoners. He remained in Peterhead until his health broke down in February 1917, when he was transferred to Perth Prison Infirmary.

March 1917: the first Russian revolution

In 1916, just after beginning his sentence, MacLean had been elected to the national executive of the British Socialist Party. The pro-war followers of Hyndman had been defeated and the BSP now advanced, at least in words, an open position against the war. Their newspaper, The Call, on hearing the news of the Russian revolution which overthrew the Czar and declared political liberty, commented that had MacLean been in prison under the autocracy he would have been restored to his wife and children.

It was the Russian revolution which restored the hopes of John MacLean and socialists throughout the world. He had been in prison for a year, his health undermined but his revolutionary spirit unbroken. In the coming months the working class of Europe and the world were inspired and encouraged by the March revolution. The ruling classes trembled and conspired as the masses began to determine the future.

Lenin returns: April 1917

Lenin’s return to Russia marked the beginning of the decisive entry of the working class into the battle against war and imperialism. Arriving at the Finland Station in early April 1917, his words were heard by Raskolnikov, a leader of the Red sailors :

‘“Germany in ferment. In Britain the Government holds John MacLean in prison”...We heard only the conclusion of his speech, which Ilyich [Lenin] ended on a cheerful note, speaking of the Russian Revolution as the beginning of an international rising of workers which drew nearer by the day.’[9]

In Lenin’s powerful analysis of the developing revolution, The April Theses, he again upheld John MacLean as a representative of working class internationalism:

‘the Scottish schoolteacher MacLean, who was sentenced to hard labour by the bourgeois government of Britain for his revolutionary fight against war and hundreds of British socialists who are in gaol for the same offence. They, and they alone, are internationalists in deed.’[10]

This document laid out in precise fashion the argument that the war and the misery and ruin which it had brought on humanity could only be ended by revolution. The April Theses concludes:

‘The war has brought mankind to the brink of a precipice, to the brink of the destruction of civilisation, of the brutalisation and destruction of millions, countless millions of human beings. The only way out is through a proletarian revolution...But we are out to rebuild the world.

‘We are out to put an end to the imperialist war into which hundreds of millions of people have been drawn and in which the interests of billions and billions of capital are involved, a war which cannot end in a truly democratic peace without the greatest proletarian revolution in the history of mankind.’[11]

The release of MacLean

The May Day march in Glasgow in 1917 reflected this rising hope and optimism. 70,000 marched to express solidarity with the Russian Revolution where only a few years before the loyal labour movement had led off the workers with ‘God save the King’. At the end of May a huge demonstration again took place which was joined by 200 Russian sailors from a warship anchored on the Clyde; there was no timid and slavish concern expressed for the King’s cousin – now an ex-Czar – and the sailors proposed a resolution protesting against the imprisonment of John MacLean.

The significance of the formation that same month of a John MacLean Release Committee with Harry Hopkins of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers as its Secretary must be assessed. The Clyde workers had not risen to defend MacLean – indeed, the Clyde Workers Committee had collapsed at the first threat from the state and refused to organise. However, under the influence of revolutionary developments in Russia and the effects of the war, the working class began to move again. Despite MacLean’s international stature, the revolutionary movement in Britain was very weak but the conditions of continuing imperialist war opened up new possibilities for the working class. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Russia, where the influence of revolutionary communist politics, of Bolshevik politics, was strengthening every day.

In Britain the ruling class was becoming discredited as the corpses piled higher. Its allies in the working class movement had to place themselves at the head of any new or potential developments in order to destroy them. By design and instinct these opportunists – ‘better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeoisie themselves’ as Lenin called them[12] – led campaigns and struggles into safe, respectable channels where they posed no threat to the ruling class having turned their backs on MacLean while he rotted in prison they set up the Release Committee to maintain control over the rising, spontaneous demands for his release increasingly heard on the Clyde, in Britain and Russia.

In June, the All-Russian Congress of Workers and Soldiers Deputies sent their fraternal greetings to John MacLean: ‘the brave fighter for the International, Comrade MacLean, and express their hopes that the new rise of international solidarity will bring him liberty’.[13]

MacLean could not be bribed and his political reasoning began to make sense to thousands of people witnessing and experiencing the carnage of war. That is why he was incarcerated in the hellholes of Scottish prisons.

On 30 June 1917 John MacLean was released, having refused to retreat from or repudiate his revolutionary politics. Within 100 days the working class had taken power in Russia. Socialist revolution had become a reality.

Michael MacGregor


[1] Lenin, ‘On the Stockholm Conference’ in British Labour and British Imperialism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1969), p.162

[2] John MacLean quoted in Nan Milton, John MacLean (Pluto Press, 1973), p.128

[3] MacLean quoted ibid., p.129

[4] Seamus Reader, letter to Nan Milton, Dublin 1968, quoted ibid., p.129

[5] Lenin, ‘The Discussion on Self Determination Summed Up,’ quoted ibid. p.130

[6] John MacLean, ‘Speech from the Dock, 1918’ in Nan Milton (ed.), John MacLean: In the Rapids of Revolution (Alison & Busby, 1978), p.107

[7] Agnes MacLean, letter to John MacLean, 14 November 1916, quoted in Milton, MacLean, p.134

[8] George Lansbury, letter 3 July 1917, quoted in John Broom, John MacLean (MacDonald, 1973), p92

[9] F.F. Raskolnikov quoted in James D. Young, John MacLean: Clydeside Socialist (Glasgow: Clydeside Press, 1992), p.172

[10] Lenin, ‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution,’ Collected Works: volume 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), p.79

[11] Ibid., pp.86-88

[12] Lenin, ‘The Second Congress of the Communist International,’ Collected Works: volume 31, p.231

[13] Quoted in Dave Sherry, John MacLean (Socialist Workers Party pamphlet, 1998), p.41