John MacLean – Part VI: The Communist International

World Imperialism shall fall when the revolutionary onslaught of the exploited and oppressed workers in each country, overcoming resistance from petty-bourgeois elements and the influence of the small upper crust of labour aristocrats, merges with the revolutionary onslaught of hundreds of millions of people who have hitherto stood beyond the pale of history and have been regarded merely as the object of history.

The Third International, the Communist International

In March 1919 the Bolshevik leadership of the Soviet Union called for the formation of a new

International.  A world wide organisation was to be formed to unite the revolutionary forces, parties, groups and individuals in every country in the battle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. There were never any doubts about Maclean`s support for this call, his daughter relates that:

As early as 1915, both he and Peter Petroff had issued clarion calls through the columns of Vanguard for a new International to replace the now discredited Second.[1]

Lenin explained why it was necessary to form a new organisation based exclusively on communist politics. No pretence of unity could be made with organisations calling themselves socialist that had supported their respective ruling class in waging an imperialist war in which the working class had been slaughtered by the millions and the world and its peoples divided up between the exploiters. The Second International, to which the British Labour Party was affiliated, had been socialist in words and imperialist in deeds:

…we have broken unreservedly with the Second International because we became convinced that it was hopeless, incorrigible, played the part of a servant to imperialism, of a vehicle of bourgeois influence, bourgeois lies and bourgeois corruption in the labour movement.[2] (Lenin)

This was no mere difference of opinion among socialists, but a life and death matter for the working class and those who fought for its interests. The “socialism” of the Second International, what was to become known as Social Democracy, finally “rendered hangman`s service to the bourgeoisie” as Lenin described it in July 1919.[3] He was referring to the active collaboration of leaders of the German Social Democratic Party in the brutal murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Leibknecht and hundreds of revolutionary workers by monarchist army officers only months previously. Ramsay Macdonald, who was to become Prime Minister of the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929 expressed his civilised

understanding of the role of the Second International:

… the whole Second International is anti-Bolshevik. It is indeed the only real bulwark against Bolshevism short of military executions.[4]

The founding conference of the Third, Communist, International invited delegates from five British bodies; the SLP; the IWW of England; The Industrial Workers of Great Britain; The Shop Stewards Movement and, of the BSP, `the tendency represented by Maclean`.[5] He was the only individual requested to attend by name. Significantly none of these groups played a major part in the forthcoming formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, particularly Maclean who became openly hostile to the individuals involved in that process. Maclean did not attend the Congress of 1919 but between then and the Second Congress of July 1920 his political conduct was entirely aligned with the positions of the International as we shall show.

Hands Off Russia and the British Socialist Party

In what was described as the most hectic year of a hectic life, Maclean was active throughout England, Scotland and Wales as well as visiting Ireland. The annual conference of his party, the British Socialist Party, was held in April 1919 and Maclean in moving the call for Hands off Russia insisted that keeping the “capitalist class busy at home” could best defend the revolution.[6] Although he was a prominent speaker at many large rallies of the Hands Off Russia campaign that year he was not at all convinced that this form of action was of itself sufficient. Doubts about the direction of the campaign, as plotted by the BSP executive, were to arise in this period and are worthy of note in understanding Maclean`s later attitude to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Theodore Rothstein of the BSP executive approached Maclean to become a paid organiser of the Hands Off Russia campaign on the condition that he give up his other political and industrial agitation. He was also asked to work with an individual, introduced to the campaign by Rothstein, whose political record was extremely dubious.

Dedicated and disciplined communist that Maclean was, he was incredulous when asked ask  to cooperate with Lieutenant-Colonel L`Estrange Malone, an ex Coalition Liberal MP who had a year previously published a pamphlet called “Bolshevist Plot To Seize Power in Britain”! By 1921 this clown, who had been elected to the executive of the BSP and later the executive of the Communist Party, was down at Scotland Yard offering “to exercise a restraining influence on the Communists” in return for charges of sedition being dropped.[7] Maclean`s mental stability and political judgement were attacked for his mistrust of individuals prominent in the relationship between the emerging CPGB and the Soviet Union. He angrily and publicly defended his views. Maclean`s judgement was sound:

To ask me to work with Malone for revolution is a joke. A man like that ought not to be allowed in a revolutionary Marxian party…To allow a Malone to lead a revolutionary party after a record such as his is high treason to communism.[8]

(The Vanguard. December 1920)

Malone`s sponsor, Theodore Rothstein, had an unconvincing political record of his own. An early member of the BSP until resigning at the beginning of the war, he had been castigated by Lenin for refusing to oppose that war and spent the duration  working comfortably as a translator in the British government`s War Office.

Politically, Maclean began to argue that the BSP was using the Hands Off Russia campaign as a substitute for organising a serious fight against capitalism in Britain. According to Harry McShane:

…he…objected to their lack of an industrial and political perspective for Britain: “Hands Off Russia” was the only policy they had.[9]

By Easter 1920, Maclean had been effectively expelled from the BSP, having refused at their annual conference to share any further platforms with Malone who had been elected to their Executive. The BSP, which in effect was to become the Communist Party of Great Britain later that year, would not accept Maclean`s warnings about being infiltrated and manipulated by government agents and it is it is from this period that comments and observations about Maclean`s political and mental stability began to circulate in the socialist movement and secret government reports. With some satisfaction a Special Branch report of early 1920 stated:

The British Communists have at last become convinced that John Maclean is insane.[10]

Once again, as in Maclean`s allegations of his prison food being drugged, his concerns and suspicions about agents and government spies were scoffed at and dismissed as groundless exaggerations and evidence of mania. Yet an issue of the Daily Herald of the 17th May 1919 spoke of there existing in Britain:

…a vast system of espionage paralleled only by the spying at the time of the Chartist troubles.[11]

Further, the liberals and “revolutionaries” who rejected and maligned Maclean`s arguments had, as ever, blinded themselves to the actual, verifiable circumstances existing only a few miles away in Britains oldest colony- Ireland. In Dublin, the Castle was the sinister centre for a network of British government agents and torturers who were to direct the unfolding terror against a people prepared to fight for their independence.

Hands Off Ireland and the Second Congress of the Communist International

Maclean and his small group of comrades went on in this period to carry out the most consistent and principled work in support of the Irish struggle against British Imperialism. The comrades carried out the Communist International policy in spirit and deed, this cannot be said of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As ever the real test of any party or individual commitment to revolutionary politics is on the issue of Ireland - from Marx down to the present day. The record shows that when Maclean broke from the British Socialist Party in Easter1920 and refounded “The Vanguard” as a revolutionary newspaper “Hands Off Ireland” was to be the battle cry. Every issue from May 1920 onwards carried major articles exposing Britain`s war against the Irish people and arguing for the working classes support for Ireland`s struggle. 20,000 copies of a pamphlet written by Maclean in June were sold and it was no tame, liberal plea for Britain to respect Ireland`s clearly expressed wish for independence. It described British rule in Ireland as a “dictatorship of terrorists” a phrase which echoed Churchill`s hypocritical description of the Soviet Union. Entitled “The Irish Tragedy. Scotland`s Disgrace”, it contained full details of the repression and violence of British forces against the Irish people. Evidence, which the British press, did not cover as it slavered on about Sinn Fein “murder gangs”

Here is a typical 1920 weeks` work by Dublin Castle, ending April 17: Raids, 1,135; arrests, 260; sentences, 2; proclamations, 2; courts-martial,2; armed assaults, 16; deportations, 92; murders, 4. This information is carefully suppressed by the Government so that ordinary people are forced to come to the entirely wrong conclusions as to the real situation in Ireland.[12]

The British had opened their jails and loosed the notorious Black and Tans against the Irish people. Bayonetting of civilians, looting and burning of towns, torture of prisoners, shootings of old people and  children by the British Army fuelled the struggle against imperialism. The vile employees of the Castle, the forgers and spies, were dealt with accordingly. The government agent, the notorious Alan Bell, met his doom:

He is the scoundrel dragged in broad daylight from a Dublin car and shot. What self-respecting man or woman can blame the Irish for ridding the earth of such a foul skunk?[13]

When the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwinney, died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison,  hundreds of thousands of  “ Hands Off Ireland”  leaflets were put out by Maclean`s group and  the call was made for a General Strike for the withdrawal of British troops at the hundreds of street meetings organised throughout Scotland. The most prominent socialist of his day, was campaigning with a tiny band of supporters, amongst the mining towns, the foundry towns and mill towns  where  he had fought for 15 years. Just as he had courageously  opposed the First World War out in the streets, Maclean stood up to say:

This is more important than protesting against higher rents or the high cost of living. It is acquiescing and participating in the murder of a race rightly protesting its own right to rule itself.[14]

The inactivity of the “communists” soon to be organised in the CPGB did not go unnoticed by the Third International. The Bolshevik, Radek, roasted them at the Second Congress in July 1920:

The International will not judge the British comrades by the articles that they write in “The Call” and “The Workers Dreadnought” but by the number of comrades that are thrown into jail for agitating in the colonial countries…It is very easy at the moment to speak out against intervention in Russia since even the bourgeois left is against it. It is harder for the British comrades to take up the cause of Irish independence.[15]

When Quelch of the British Socialist Party explained these difficulties by stating that British workers would regard it as treachery if he were to help to the Irish rebellion, an Irish delegate to the Congress replied:

In relation to the claim, made in the Commission, that English workers would regard support for the revolutionary struggle of the colonies against British imperialism as treason, it must be said that the faster English workers learn to commit such treason against the bourgeois state the better it will be for the revolutionary movement.[16]

Without a doubt Maclean should have participated in the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. His request for a passport was turned down by the government who surely had serious grounds to fear the authentic communism of Maclean rather than the representatives of what he later derisively called the “safe and sane communism” of the CPGB. He was concerned that those representatives had misinformed Lenin and the Comintern (Communist International) as to the situation in Britain. Maclean`s old adversary, William Gallagher, had clearly impressed the Bolshevik leader with his account of how:

…he and his comrades have organised, and done so splendidly, the revolutionary movement in Glasgow…and used this to organise a mass movement against the war.[17] (Lenin)

Yet it was Gallagher who had, as Chair of the Clyde Workers Cttee, sabotaged strike action against arrests in 1915 and who was able to make “socialist” speeches without mentioning the war. Aside from correcting these inaccuracies, Maclean would have contributed enormously to the debates taking place and, as he had in Ireland, been able to learn also. While Harry McShane said that Maclean was the first person he had ever heard describing himself as a “Leninist” it is evident that this was an expression of his loyalty and commitment to the example of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in overthrowing capitalism and challenging imperialism.[18] The discussions at the Congress frequently made reference to the material connections between imperialism and opportunism, to the reactionary role of the labour aristocracy and its various political expressions in misleading the masses and to the tactics necessary to combat this. A reading of Maclean`s writings, which were mostly agitational, confirms that his understanding of these betrayals remained at the level of a critique of ideas, of seeing reformism as simply wrong ideas. In explaining his subsequent break with the British Socialist Party, he stated that it was:

…dominated by the idea of the reform of capitalism, rather than a determination to destroy capitalism and inaugurate the workers republic[19]

The advice and direction of Lenin and the Comintern would not have been wasted on Maclean, who had always grounded his political work firmly amongst the masses, almost instinctively. It would have grounded that work also in the real practical and theoretical insights of Leninism, developing the tactics of socialism in the imperialist epoch:

It is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialist, to go down lower and deeper to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism. By exposing the fact that the opportunists and social chauvinists are in reality betraying and selling the interests of the masses, that they are defending the temporary privileges of a minority of workers, that they are the vehicles of bourgeois ideas and influences, that they are really allies and agents of the bourgeoisie, we teach the masses to appreciate their true political interests, to fight for socialism and for the revolution through all the long and painful vicissitudes of imperialist wars and imperialist armistices.[20]

In January 1921 Maclean published an “Open Letter to Lenin” in which he was concerned to correct an optimistic description of the situation on the Clyde:

Gallagher… has led you to believe that there is a workshop movement in Scotland. That is a black lie. I have been at work gates all summer and autumn up and down the Clyde valley…Unemployment today has struck terror into the hearts of those at work.[21]

Maclean was not offering an excuse for doing nothing, he had many years experience in working amongst the unemployed. He went out and organised. The final two years of his life were spent pushing that organisation forward and earned him another two terms in jail. We shall examine this period in the next and concluding part.

Michael MacGregor


[1] Nan Milton, John MacLean (London: Pluto Press, 1973), p.198

[2] Lenin, ´The Tasks of the Third International,´ Lenin Collected Works: volume 29 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), p.501

[3] Ibid., p.509

[4] Ramsay MacDonald, The Labour Leader, 14 August 1919. Quoted in RCG Manifesto, The Revolutionary Road to Communism in Britain (London: Larkin Publications, 1984), p.149

[5] See ´Invitation to the first congress of the Communist International, January 1919, ´ in Jane Degras (ed.), The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents. In Three Volumes. (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), volume one, p.5

[6] John MacLean quoted in Milton, John MacLean, p.219

[7] See Robert Pitt, John MacLean and the CPGB (published by the author, 1995). In reference no. 54, p.10 the author cites Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 13 January 1921, CAB24/118/CP2452

[8] ´John MacLean, article in The Vanguard, December 1920 cited in Milton, MacLean, p.219

[9] Harry McShane and Joan Smith, No Mean Fighter (London: Pluto Press, 1978), p.112 cited in B J Ripley and J McHugh, John MacLean (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), p.124

[10] Pitt, MacLean and CPGB, p.11. See reference no. 64, p.28, Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, 19 March 1920, CAB24/101/CP902

[11] The Daily Herald, 17 May 1919

[12] John MacLean, The Irish Tragedy: Scotland´s Disgrace… (pamphlet first published May 1920). Available at URL: wweb/macleanindexfiles/1920-tit.htm

[13] Ibid.

[14] John MacLean, ´Scotsmen, stand by Ireland!´, The Vanguard, July 1920

[15] Karl Radek, Fourth session, 25 July 1920, in Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the proceedings. In two volumes. (London: New Park publications, 1977), volume one, pp.127-8

[16] MacAlpine, ibid., p.147

[17] Lenin, Thirteenth session, 6 August 1920, ibid., volume two, p.184

[18] Cited in Nan Milton (ed.), John MacLean: In the Rapids of Revolution (Allison & Busby, 1978), p.73

[19] John MacLean, ´The Vanguard resurrected,´ The Vanguard, May 1920, ibid., p.216

[20] Lenin, ´Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,´ December 1916,  Lenin Collected Works: volume 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), p.120

[21] John MacLean, ´An open letter to Lenin,´ The Socialist, 30 January 1921. Available at URL: index.php/john-maclean.html