Review of The Red and the Green – Portrait of John Maclean by Gerard Cairns

Gerard Cairns has recently published his informative and challenging new book, The Red and the Green – A Portrait of John Maclean. I have known Gerry since the early 1990s and I would find it hard to call him Gerard, so I will use Gerry for the rest of this review.

The book’s title reveals the two main aspects of Gerry’s assessment of John Maclean. The Red and the Green highlights Gerry’s research into ‘Red’ John and his relationship with the ‘Green’ or Irish community on Clydeside .[1] A Portrait of John Maclean examines Maclean the political activist and family man. It raises questions about how Socialists organise and relate to others, especially their partners and families. When assessing  Maclean, Gerry brings his own personal experience to bear. “This has been a very personal portrait of a man I have researched, studied, lectured on, debated for a long time.” [2] Thus Gerry’s book is viewed through the prism of his own life of political activism.

a) Another personal approach to John Maclean and the issue of Scottish self-determination

Therefore, in writing this review and entering the spirit of Gerry’s “very personal portrait”, I think it is necessary first to outline my own history of political activity. Such an approach, although not needed in assessing Gerry’s new historical research in The Red and the Green, can help us understand how political activists relate to and interpret history. Today we face a political situation, where the issues of Irish and Scottish self-determination are once more linked to the very future of the UK state and British imperialism. Thus outlining my own experience provides just one example of the various political paths followed by socialists who have come to understand the need to complete the thwarted democratic revolution, which was mobilised around IndyRef1.  Although Gerry does not openly state it, this also seems to be a key motivation behind the publication of his book.

Despite the dangers of stereotyping, I think labelling is helpful. I would describe myself as a communist, republican, Scottish internationalist, freethinker and secularist. It took a number of years before I adopted all of these views. I don’t characterise myself as a Marxist or Marxian (as Maclean would describe himself). I think that such personalised ‘isms’ represent a continuation of theological thinking, as reflected in for example Lutheranism or Calvinism. It was not for nothing that Karl Kautsky became known as the ‘Pope of Marxism’. Furthermore, many official and dissident Marxist Communists have elevated their leaders, e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao, to saintly status. Their writings have become ‘holy texts’.

Both Gerry’s and my own active political lives precede our initial meeting – for another quarter of a century in my case. I took up Socialist politics in 1968. I was very much a ‘child of 68’, imbued with its strong Socialist internationalism. I was an enthusiastic participant in the cultural ferment of the times.  It was also the start of a new period when the issue of greater Scottish self-determination was being raised. [3] At the publicly visible level, this was marked by Winnie Ewing’s spectacular by-election victory for the SNP in Motherwell in the previous year. However, there were deeper political and cultural roots to this new interest in the Scottish Question.

From 1967-1972 I attended  at Aberdeen University and Teacher Training College. I was particularly enthused by the teach-in on Scottish history and culture organised by Ray Burnett. [4] Amongst several other works I read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song and Hugh MacDiarmid’s, A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. Later, the ground breaking 7:84 theatre company’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil became another inspiration. I found out whatever I could about John Maclean and James Connolly.

I also tried to learn Gaelic.[5]  Why was somebody who was an unwitting Left unionist at the time, born in English-speaking Edinburgh, with a Geordie father, considering learning Gaelic in the first place? I had early on rejected the idea that the world would be better place if the number of languages were reduced. I upheld what could be considered a social version of the need for bio-diversity, as it later became known. I was also a hill walker who regularly visited the Highlands and Islands. Before this, I had walked in the Borders and I loved the local highly descriptive words used to name the physical features there.  However, I felt there was a barrier between myself and the physical and human features of the Highlands and Islands. The human landscape with its crofting communities highlighted the survival of a different form of society. Both these physical and human features had Gaelic names, which I could not understand, yet was fascinated by.

In this period, the CPGB in Scotland was the first organisation on the Left to devote serious attention to Scottish history and culture. They published the Scottish Marxist, which I read avidly. An increasing range of new writing took Scotland seriously and unearthed new historical and cultural material. [6] The Red Book on Scotland, edited by Gordon Brown (remember him!) had a wide range of contributors. It also made a considerable impact, signalling the new forces pushing for political devolution in Scotland.

Many Socialist writers and performers were very proud of the Scottish Left’s contribution to progressive politics in the UK and the wider world. In this, usually without realising it, they were part of the Radical, later Left unionist tradition, that emerged in the early nineteenth century. The Victorian, Radical Liberal notion of Britain as the beacon of progress in the world was to be transformed by the Left into the ‘British road to socialism’.  In 1972, the UCS Work-In was making its impact felt and for some it was claimed as the revival of the Red Clydeside of John Maclean’s time, which placed it at the forefront of the British Labour and Socialist movement. In Glasgow, the Communist Party ran the Star Club, where Scottish folk songs were performed, along with those from Ireland, England and the USA. I never got to visit this club, but was a regular attender at the Waverley Bar in Edinburgh, where, a great range of folk songs, traditional and modern, was also being performed.[7] This could be considered a precursor in the cultural realm of the politics that I later termed ‘internationalism from below’.

After I returned to Edinburgh in 1972, [8] I joined the International Socialists, which later became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). By 1974, the main public face of the SNP in my city was their only city councillor, the right wing, super-royalist, Norman Irons. He represented middle class Corstorphine, in what Billy Connolly called Edinburgh’s “spam and nae knickers” belt! [9] I was also was aware that Hamish Watt, the new SNP MP for Banffshire, had been an ex-Conservative (whose politics, apart from the change from union jack to saltire, did not seem to change that much); and that Douglas Henderson, another new SNP MP in East Aberdeenshire, had been a member of the South African Nationalist Party. [10] This contributed to my own disconnect between a strong interest in Scottish historical and cultural affairs and a politics sympathetic to Scottish independence. In 1976, in the run-up to the discussions that were taking place about Scottish devolution, I wrote the SWP’s last-ditch defence of the constitutional status quo, Nationalism or Socialism – The SNP and SLP [11] exposed[12]

However, the continued decline of British imperialism and the growing economic crisis faced by British capitalism in the late 1970s, led to sections of big and small business giving their support to a reactionary unionist political clampdown, and their opposition to any liberal constitutional reform (does this sound familiar!)  Thatcher was in the ascendancy amongst the Tories. Her connections with the military and security forces were important to her rise. I began to question the SWP’s political slogan, ‘Revolution Not Devolution’.  Along with Steve Freeman and Brian Higgins, I became a member of the Republican Faction (RF) (a dangerous thing to do in the SWP! [13]). In the 1979 Devolution referendum, the SWP played its own small part (along with Labour conservative unionists and some small Socialist sects) and Devolution was defeated. But instead of Revolution we got Thatcher! [14]

I remained a dissident member of the SWP until 1982, when Tony Cliff’s ‘Downturn Theory’, the organisation’s inadequate response to the Irish Hunger Strikers, and its lack of anything to say about the situation in Scotland, led to my resignation. Brian Higgins, a  blacklisted Glasgow building worker, living in Northampton, Steve Freeman, myself, and others formed the Revolutionary Democratic Group (RDG).  However, I still remained a Left Scottish-British unionist without realising it. The RF and RDG had adopted the idea of a Federal Republic of England, Scotland and Wales.  It wasn’t until the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign, during which I became the chair of the Edinburgh and Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Union, that I could see that working class unity, far from being facilitated by the existence of a British state, was obstructed by it. The Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation (APTF) practised what was, in effect, ‘internationalism from below’. We took the campaign into England and Wales. [15] The campaign defied both the Tory and Labour parties, which were administering the hated tax.  Furthermore, by 1990 the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign had won a significant victory, one of the very few following Thatcher’s defeat of the miners in 1985.

It was in this context that I began to look anew at John Maclean. I had already read the biographies by John Broom and Nan Milton. I had also read No Mean Fighter, the biography of Harry MacShane, in which he wrote of his days with Maclean in the Tramps Trust Unlimited. I began to appreciate the significance of Connolly and Maclean’s socialist republican ‘break of the UK and British Empire’ strategy.  I joined the John Maclean Society. This is where I met Gerry. Before long I was debating, alongside Gerry, against Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan, then Left British unionists, prominent in Scottish Militant Labour (SML). [16]

Gerry, a member of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement (SRSM), also became involved in the Scottish Republican Forum (SRF), which included the small Republican Workers Tendency (RWT) of which I was a member .[17] The SRF represented an attempt to get Socialists in Scotland (and elsewhere) to appreciate the significance of the Scottish (and Irish) Question. As well as conducting educational work, participating in historical commemorations, and holding socials, the SRF published two pamphlets. These presented the debates over the political differences between the SRSM and the RWT. One was entitled Jacobites and Covenanters – Which Tradition? The other was entitled White Settlers or Jockbrits – Who is to Blame? Gerry’s non-sectarian approach to such debates increased the respect I already had for him.

I was one of the early members of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which had been set up by SML, in the process of abandoning their Left British unionism – in Scotland at least! The SRSM, always very wary of the Brit Left, took longer to join. Eventually the SRSM and the Republican Communist Network (RCN) (which the RWT became part of in Scotland), constituted two platforms in what became the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). The Left in Scotland was now seriously addressing the Scottish Question. Many from an earlier Left British unionist background were now eager to learn more about the history of Scotland. So I returned to the historical debate over the Jacobites and Covenanters in Beyond Broadsword and Bayonets.[18] Gerry responded in his non-sectarian way, with Caught Between the Covenant and the Clans. And then came Tommygate! This led to the SRSM and RCN being in the two opposing camps, although I believe that Gerry found it difficult to support Sheridan, and turned his back on both feuding groups.

In the process of writing this review, Gerry and myself were brought together again to give two different talks at The Life and Times of James Connolly event, organised by the 1916 Rising Centenary Committee – Scotland on 16th June in the STUC buildings in Glasgow. Gerry’s presentation, based on his book, was a bravura performance. It was great to hear the results of Gerry’s years of research, focussing on the life of John Maclean. Gerry’s book is open about his political influences, naming Donald Anderson and Jim Clayson of the SRSM, and the late Jim Young, Scottish Socialist and historian at Stirling University. However, there is no attempt to impose a ‘party line’ in Gerry’s book. He more often raises questions. This is one of the strengths of his book.


b) The politics of the personal

One of the key issues Gerry addresses are the stresses and strains that flow from a life of political activism. John Maclean, of course, provides a key example.  In particular, Gerry looks at Maclean’s relationship with his wife, Agnes (nee Wood) and their two daughters, Jean and Nan. Agnes first met John at a Social Democratic Federation (SDF)  meeting in her home town of Hawick. But once they married, “Mrs Agnes Maclean would subsume her own socialist politics into the duty, as it was perceived then, of being Mother and raising the girls. This was the inherent chauvinism in politics and political activism.” [19] Gerry returns to this, covering the periods of Maclean’s jail sentences. Following these, he threw himself back into more political activism in the frenetic days of the 1916-21/3 International Revolutionary Wave. “Agnes left him in the autumn of 1919.  She probably couldn’t take any more of the ‘all for the cause line.'” [20] In late 1922, “there was some form of personal reconciliation going on between himself and Agnes.” [21] But this depended on Maclean being able to get a teaching job once more. However, Maclean was clearly blacklisted, and after failing to find employment, he returned full-time to the struggle. This meant that he remained physically separated from Agnes and his two daughters, although he clearly still loved them in his own (inadequate) way, as shown in his letters to Agnes and to Jean and Nan .[22].

There is an obvious comparison to be made with James Connolly, [23] who took his wife Lillie and family through equally hard days, in Scotland. Ireland and the USA. These times included the death of his young daughter, Mona in a fire in Dublin, whilst he was away in the US. Over the many difficult years James and Lillie shared, they did not separate. But we have never heard Lillie’s response to her husband’s comment to her in his death cell in 1916 – “Hasn’t it been a full life. And isn’t this a good end.” [24]

Gerry makes the good point that “politics was {Maclean’s} addiction. It was more than passion and carried a destructive element as all addictions do, wrecking his life at every level. As the political morphine streamed through his blood he either couldn’t see the price his family were paying or, if he did, he could not do anything about it.” Gerry then sounds a striking and contemporary note – “Not without a political re-hab programme! ” [25] It has taken the more recent autonomous organisation of women to address the issue of how we best practice politics and develop relations with others. As I was re-reading Gerry’s book for this review, bella caledonia posted an interview with the socialist feminist, Silvia Federici. [26] I think Silvia’s article could form part of Gerry’s suggested political re-hab programme for activists today.


c) John Maclean, religion and secularism

When addressing another aspect of Maclean’s politics, his relationship to religion, Gerry uses his own Catholic background in making an assessment. As long as I have known Gerry, he has worn his Catholicism very lightly in political circles. As well as being politically non-sectarian, Gerry provides a very good example of the non-sectarian approach to religion that the best Socialists have tried to encourage in Scotland.  In contrast to Gerry, John Maclean came from a Free Church of Scotland background. There has been no love lost between these two varieties of Christianity  – to put it mildly! Gerry, though, is able to see across that religious divide and appreciate a certain commonality in their ethical approaches.

Gerry addresses the neglected religious background to Maclean’s life and politics. He emphasises the long-term impact of Maclean’s upbringing and training in the Free Church of Scotland. I think Gerry is right in saying that this legacy never left him. Maclean considered Jesus to be one of his heroes (the others were Socrates and John Ball [27]). In effect, Gerry is arguing that it was the ethical moralism, which Maclean had found in the Free Church, that was transformed in his own conversion to the Marxian tradition. [28] Maclean wrote articles covering three successive Free Church general assemblies. [29] He continued to criticise the Free Church, highlighting its inability to live up to its promises. [30] This he claimed led to hypocrisy amongst its spokesmen – and they were always men! I think Maclean believed that some still practicing Christians might still be won over to Socialism, just as he had been.

One problem that Maclean and other Socialists faced was that the Socialist sects, they worked with, had not understood Marx’s own critique of religion. They could relate to Marx’s famous depiction of “religion as the opium of the people”. But from there, many Socialists in the UK and USA tended to fall into the radical Atheist tradition, which condemned religion as the source of all evils.  They did not look to Marx’s further development of his views on religion. “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” [31]

However, Gerry goes further, suggesting that Maclean was a “convinced agnostic”. [32] This seems a bit of an oxymoron to me! Perhaps the main textual source for Gerry’s claim is Maclean’s reply to “saturated {i.e. hypocritical} Christians.” “I do not blame Christ remember, as he was neither Socialist nor Anti-Socialist. It is quite possible for… Christians to harden their hearts against us, not because our principles are false or capitalism moral, but solely because we are called atheists.” [33] There is a double implication here. First, because Christ was neither Socialist nor Anti-Socialist, perhaps he was agnostic over the issue! More seriously, Maclean’s use of “we are called”, rather than “we are atheists” suggests to Gerry that Maclean could be called an agnostic. But Gerry does not leave it there. He returns to this theme towards the end of Maclean’s life. He points to the participation of the Reverend Richard Lee in Maclean’s funeral. [34] Gerry does not over-egg this, pointing to the secular nature of the service and Lee’s involvement in Socialist politics. [35].

My own view on this is that when Maclean called himself a Marxian, he upheld what he understood to be Marx’s view on religion. Gerry is right though to point out that the only aspect of Marx’s thinking that Maclean was really familiar with was his economics. I think Maclean could be best described as being, as well as a Marxist/Marxian, a consistent secularist. He believed in the separation of Church and State. He saw the need for a united Socialist organisation of Freethinkers, Atheists, Agnostics, Christians of all denominations and Jews. Gerry mentions Maclean’s support for the Catalan Anarchist, Francesc Ferrer, [36] who was murdered in 1909 by the Spanish state at the behest of the Catholic Church. He refers to Maclean’s attacks on Dalzeil School Board for dismissing a teacher, Mrs Marshall, who had converted to Roman Catholicism. [37] Maclean addressed meetings of the Catholic Socialist Society in Glasgow organised by John Wheatley. [38] Gerry also highlights Maclean’s own support for secular education in his article in the SDF’s Justice in 1908. [39] All this is consistent with a non-sectarian and secularist approach to politics.

I think Gerry’s comparison with James Connolly is instructive. Gerry argues that although Connolly wrote many “musings on the intertwining of Catholicism and Socialism and national identity, John Maclean seemed a lot more comfortable.” [40] Nevertheless, I think that Socialists can learn a lot from Connolly’s pamphlet, Labour, Nationality and Religion. [41] I also think that Connolly was able to get right to the roots of the roles of Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland in his Catholicism, Protestantism & Politics, [42] whereas Maclean’s own articles addressing this issue in Glasgow and Belfast are less penetrating. [43] This can be partly explained by the fact that Maclean lived in Glasgow, and Glasgow isn’t Belfast. Maclean, like Connolly, was also prepared to recommend the arguments of particular ministers or priests to buttress their case for Socialism. [44]

I remember once being told by an Anarchist that Connolly had failed to back a motion highlighting the role of the Catholic Church in the killing of Anarchist, Francesc Ferrer (presumably whilst Connolly was active in the Irish Socialist Federation in the USA). I haven’t been able to verify this. However, if it is true, then Maclean’s own non-aligned attitude to religion did indeed make him “a lot more comfortable” than Connolly’s Catholicism, whether genuine or feigned to win over Catholic workers. [45]


d) John Maclean and the linking of the Irish and Scottish Questions

Gerry also addresses the controversial question of Maclean’s attitude to Scottish nationalism.  From my own political point of view, I think Gerry’s new evidence shows Maclean was attempting, very tentatively in 1917, but more definitely after 1920 to grapple with the Scottish Question.  I think that rather than switching from Left British nationalism to Left Scottish nationalism, Maclean looked at the Scottish Question first through social democratic spectacles, but then he changed to socialist republican and communist spectacles. He was increasingly trying to link the exercise of Scottish self-determination with revolutionary economic and social change, in the context of the new International Revolutionary Wave.

This is where Gerry’s chapter 6, John Maclean  – Green Clydesider, provides a lot of new evidence. I think, though,  that Gerry’s tentative decision to view this through the lens of psychology takes us away from a better understanding of the change in Maclean’s politics. Gerry writes, “I am certainly no expert and definitely no psychologist but I find it fascinating.” [46] He explains Maclean’s conversion to support for Scottish republicanism in terms of a mid-life crisis. “It is my contention that a middle-aged man who had been through the wars, was thinking about who he was.” [47] Gerry suggests that Maclean was beginning to think more in terms of what today is termed “identity”. He concedes this “can be a dark art in politics.”  [48]

Gerry, though, has already provided a lot of evidence to show that Maclean did not really think of his own welfare very much, something that proved to be fatal. Although he died at the early age of 44, I doubt that up until his last few days, he had any inkling that this would be his fate. So there was little consciousness of being a middle-aged man. Unwittingly, Gerry also provides evidence to show that adopting a psychological approach to understanding Maclean’s politics has its dangers. He quotes the Scottish Secretary’s of State, Robert Munro’s use of prison doctor’ papers to denigrate Maclean’s mental health, [49] and Willie Gallacher’s attempt to dismiss Maclean as suffering from “hallucinations”. [50] Gerry clearly understands the purpose behind such accusations. Their resort to attributing psychological motives was designed to divert attention from Maclean’s own political motivations – exposing the horrors of the First World War,  [51] and the opportunism involved in the attempts to set up the Communist Party of Great Britain. [52]

I would argue that Maclean’s changing attitude to the Scottish Question is best explained in political terms. This is not to say that psychological motivations are unimportant. Gerry has already convincingly argued for the relevance of the personal in Maclean’s politics. But for Maclean politics dominated. I also think that Maclean’s more considered understanding of the Scottish Question did not precede, but followed his growing interest in Ireland. So, from my own political position, I think the material in Gerry’s two chapters before John Maclean  – Green Clydesider,  titled All Hail the Scottish Workers Republic, and a Middle Aged Man looks at the Thistle, could better be understood after reading about Maclean’s engagement with politics in Ireland. This isn’t an attempt to get Gerry to re-edit his book for the second edition, because the existing ordering is consistent with Gerry’s own politics. I would term a key aspect of these as being Left Scottish nationalism (and I don’t think Gerry would take offence at this), compared to my own Scottish internationalism, whilst clearly recognising our shared socialist republicanism.


e)   The impact of the Russian Revolution and Maclean’s commitment to organising revolutionary struggle in these islands

I would argue that the five-year shift in Maclean’s political thinking, between 1917 and 1922, is best explained by the impact of the October Revolution in Russia and the struggle for Irish independence.  The Russian Revolution came first. In recognition of his heroic anti-war work, and holding up the flag of internationalism, which so many social democrats had abandoned during the First World War, Maclean was made the Soviet Consul in Glasgow at the end of 1917.  Maclean appreciated that there was an International Revolutionary Wave, with Russia at its epicentre. He believed now that a revolutionary situation had arrived, and that it was the job of Socialists to fight first for revolution in their own countries. [53] Until the revolutionary situation had fully ripened, this meant organising independent workers’ committees, pushing for independent working class education, and creating the maximum disruption to upset a belligerent, and decidedly anti-Bolshevik British ruling class.

This became a major factor in Maclean’s eventual break with the BSP.  By 1916, the party’s anti-war members had already defeated the right wing of the BSP led by Henry Hyndman. Yet there was still a marked difference between the way Maclean and his Ukrainian-Russian ally in Scotland, Peter Petroff, had conducted their anti-war campaigning, compared to others, particularly in London. Both Maclean and Petroff paid a heavy personal price for their efforts and the greater political impact they had made on Clydeside. They both become subjected to a state persecution. In contrast, Theodore Rothstein, another Russian emigre, who was prominent in the BSP in London, spent the war translating and interpreting in the British War Office. [54] Maclean became  more drawn to Sylvia Pankhurst (as Connolly had been),  a leading member of the Workers’ Socialist Federation based in working class East London.

After the war, when Maclean was the Russian Consul, the divisions that had already arisen in the BSP, between a relatively passive and a militant opposition to the First World War, appeared in a new guise. Some wanted to concentrate more on making propaganda in support of the new Soviet Russia. Maclean and others thought that the opportunity should be taken to promote struggles that actively challenged the British state. Maclean’s approach had considerable bearing on his approach to Ireland.


f)   The growing impact of the struggle for an Irish Republic on Maclean’s politics

In Maclean’s speech during his trial 1916 (before the Easter Rising), he “underscored the difference between himself and Connolly by asserting that while physical-force methods ‘might be good enough for men in Dublin’, they were inappropriate for the Clyde workers’ movement.” [55] Maclean was in prison at the time of the Easter Rising, and this comment has sometimes been interpreted as Maclean rejecting the rising. Maclean’s earlier personal history, with regard to Ireland, could reinforce such a view. [56]  However, Maclean’s statement is more ambiguous than an anticipated repudiation of the 1916 Rising. It could also be interpreted as Maclean saying that Irish workers do things their way, whilst Scottish workers do things our way. This is not necessarily a rejection of the Irish way.

Gerry’s book provides us with a lot of new information, which can help us to explain the further change in Maclean’s thinking. Gerry outlines the growing links between Maclean and the Irish community, particularly those involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish Volunteers and Sinn Fein. [57] When standing for the Glasgow Gorbals constituency, in the December 1918 UK general election, [58] Gerry highlights Maclean’s eve-of-poll speech. He demands not only the release of Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood in the USA, but also of Barney Friel and Joe Robinson, two Irish republican prisoners he had met in Peterhead Jail. [59]

Maclean’s growing support for Sinn Fein’s challenge to the British authorities formed part of his revolutionary strategy of creating the maximum mayhem for the British government. Yet, at this time, his support for the republican struggle in Ireland, and his own activities, primarily amongst trade unionists in Great Britain, formed parallel and not yet politically united activities. Maclean was pushing, particularly on Clydeside, to unite the most organised sections of the working class, especially the miners. Thus, he thought that the actions of the engineers in launching the 40 Hour Strike in Glasgow on 27th January 1919 were premature, and that they should have waited and organised joint action with the miners, to make a more decisive impact.  [60] Maclean was campaigning amongst the miners of west Cumberland at the time of the 40 Hours Strike. [61]

The organisers of the Glasgow 40 Hours Strike were not prepared for the government’s use of troops. They backed down on February 10th, although concessions were granted. The miners then threatened to strike in March. A concerned British government made wage concessions and set up the Sankey Commission, [62] hinting that the coal industry would be nationalised. This was enough to derail the action. Maclean made his own political assessment in the light of the needs of a revolutionary movement across the UK. He did not give up and campaigned amongst the textile workers of the Colne Valley in Lancashire, and the railway workers in Huddersfield in June. [63] In every place he visited, he continued to argue for the development of independent workers’ committees ready to defy trade union officials, and for the setting up of educational classes to raise consciousness.

However, affairs in Ireland impinged on Maclean’s thinking once again. In 1919 “Constance Markiewicz, Maclean and Wheatley[ 64] spoke at the massive May Day rally in Glasgow attended by over 100,000 people including demobbed Russian solders and many from the Irish community. Red flags and Irish tricolours were flying side by side – Red and Green.” [65] Markiewicz was a recently elected Sinn Fein MP (she took her seat, not at Westminster, but in the Irish Republic’s Dail Eireann in Dublin). She talked with Maclean about the possibilities of joint Scottish and Irish action.  Maclean was invited to speak in Dublin. [66] He made his visit in July. His direct encounter with the political situation in Ireland did much to make him further change his thinking. When he was in Dublin, he was challenged both for his remaining unthinking British unionist views (calling Great Britain “the mainland”) and his political naivity, when he suggested that Irish workers shouldn’t antagonise the soldiers of the occupation. These criticisms prompted Maclean into some deeper thinking. Only the first hints of this can be seen in his own report following the meeting. [67]

One thing that must have been on his mind, in making a comparison between Great Britain and Ireland though, had been the ability of the British government to cow the leaders of the 40 Hours Strike in Glasgow, through the use of troops in January and February that year. Yet from 15th-27th April, the Limerick Trades and Labour Council had organised a successful general strike in defiance of British Army, which declared the city a Special Military Area. They used troops, armoured vehicles and the RIC attempted to control people’s movement. In reply, the Limerick strike committee or soviet, as it was dubbed at the time, controlled food prices, printed its own money and newspaper. [68]

The motivating factor behind this was the Irish workers’ challenge to the UK state’s attempt to increasingly militarise Irish society. This followed Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the UK general election of December 1918. This had been achieved under far more repressive conditions than existed in Great Britain. Despite the easier conditions here for Labour and Socialist candidates, the War Coalition candidates triumphed. For Maclean this was underscored by his defeat, as the official Labour Party (and BSP) candidate by a  Coalition Labour candidate, George Barnes.

In 1919, Ireland was still under military occupation and 34 of Sinn Fein’s candidates were in jail. The First Republic was declared and Dail Eireann set up in January, once again in defiance of the UK authorities. This coincided with the first armed attacks by the Irish Volunteers since Easter Rising in 1916. Maclean began to appreciate that, political and democratic concerns, which addressed the nature of the state, could provide a deeper motivation for revolutionary action than the economic issues, which he had seen as the main engine of revolutionary change up to this point. [69]


 g) Maclean’s break with the BSP and a British road to socialism

Nevertheless, Maclean remained a member of the BSP throughout 1919.  In his articles in its paper, The Call, he still praised the post-split BSP, and talks of “British Labour”, and “the growing solidarity of English speaking people.” [70] The next step in the transition in his thinking occurs at the time of the attempts to form a new Communist party. In August 1919, Maclean still saw the BSP as playing a central role in this and welcomed unity with the Socialist Labour Party, the Workers’ Socialist Federation and the South Wales Socialist Society. [71]

However, by the time the founding conference of the Communist Party took place in London on July 31st 1920, Maclean had been edged out of the BSP. Gerry provides a lot of information about these events. [72] At the heart of his disagreement was the issue of how workers should organise in the context of the International Revolutionary Wave. Another issue was Maclean’s questioning of the leading role given in the new party to people with relatively little experience, or who had even shown earlier hostility to socialism. Not surprisingly, in the context of all the forces arraigned against the infant Soviet Union, the Bolshevik leaders welcomed support from whatever quarter. Maclean became worried as Russian state financial and behind-the-scenes political backing was given to some unsavoury characters. He noted, in particular, the leadership role given to Lieutenant Colonel Cecil L’Estrange Malone MP. [73] He had recently been elected as a Coalition Liberal MP, and been a prominent member of the anti-communist Restoration Society. His was a very recent conversion to the cause. He was never going to make any decisions based on experience of working class struggle. This also ensured that he was never likely to challenge any instructions from Russia. Maclean also noticed the prominent position given to Theodore Rothstein and his political machinations. [74] Maclean was probably thinking of the contrast with his wartime comrade, Peter Petroff. He had been released from prison and was now banned from the UK, just as the British authorities banned Maclean from visiting Russia, despite being the Soviet Consul.

Maclean, realising that he was being marginalised, by the UK state and the new  forces, which were being given official Bolshevik backing, resurrected The Vanguard[75] He had spent 1919 pushing for the formation of workers’ committees, which were meant to form the forces necessary to make the social revolution he was struggling for.  However, after the defeat of the 40 Hours Strike and the government’s conciliation of the miners and rail workers, this prospect had receded. Trade union actions, which had been planned in 1919 to lower working hours, in order to create more jobs and prevent a rise in unemployment, had failed. Maclean turned his attention to organising the unemployed, including ex-soldiers. But, he now  fully appreciated that the front line of struggle against the UK state lay in Ireland. The first issue of The Vanguard opened with the lines, “Irishmen say that Ireland is unbeatable; we say that The Vanguard is irrepressible.” [76]

Maclean formed the Tramp Trust Unlimited, along with Harry McShane and James McDougall, [77] two close comrades from the BSP, in  the old Vanguard days. They produced the pamphlet, The Irish Tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace. [78]  They toured Scotland, held meetings, and sold tens of thousands of copies. This pamphlet is the first piece of writing, which Maclean had written, in which he very explicitly linked the political position of Ireland and Scotland within the same oppressive state.  “My plea is that Britain has no right to dominate Ireland with constabulary armed with bombs, and with an army and navy considered foreign by the Irish. We Scots have been taught to revere the names of Sir William Wallace and Robert Bruce because these doughty men of old are recorded as championing the cause of freedom when Edward I and Edward II tried to absorb Scotland as part of English territory. All Scots must therefore appreciate the plight of Ireland, which for over seven centuries has chafed under the same English yoke.” [79]

In this powerful and very well informed pamphlet, Maclean shows how closely he was reading the regular bulletins issued by the First Irish Republic. However, the pamphlet also shows his difficulty in moving to a more consistent socialist republican, ‘internationalism from below’ strategy. My comments are not designed to be a ‘smart Alec’, after the event, put-down, so loved by many Socialist sects, when describing historical and political events. Rather they are designed to help illuminate the changes that were taking place under specific political conditions. It is only in the light of subsequent events, which give us the privilege of new knowledge, that we can begin to understand how very real people, not Socialist ‘saints’, struggle to come to terms with profound changes.

Maclean’s “English yoke” in the first issue of The Vanguard characterisation does not help us understand what was really going on in the two periods he addressed. During the days of  “Edward I and Edward II”, the Kingdom of England lay within the Angevin Empire. It was led not by an English, but by a French speaking ruling class. It would take another century before the English language became the language of state in England. [80] Furthermore, in Maclean’s times, the Scottish members of the British ruling class had been sharing in the exploitation of the UK and British Empire for more than two centuries, following the 1707 Act of Union. Such brutal events as the Enclosures, and the breaking of artisans’ power in the textile areas of England, showed that the English ‘lower orders’ had also been subject to the ‘English yoke”. [81] The Marquess of Stafford had enclosed his lands in England, whilst his wife, the Duchess of Sutherland, was clearing her Highland estates. Those who had been occupying the land in both areas were victims of a British ruling class . Within their UK state, the English-British and Scottish-British components of this class made sure that their shared class interests prevailed, just as they did elsewhere in the UK and British Empire. Consequently, the “English yoke” could be better described as the “British yoke”. But the transitional nature of Maclean’s thinking in this pamphlet is shown in the first line, which does name ‘Britain’ as the oppressor power.


 h) Maclean’s changing approach to the Scottish Question explained in the light of his switch from Left social democracy to socialist  republicanism and his commitment to support the Bolsheviks

Gerry introduces us to Maclean’s involvement with the Scottish Question as early as 1917. [82] Political pressure had been building up over this issue towards the end of the First World War. There was a political background to this. Many in the ILP, in particular, were committed to the Scottish pole of their Scottish-British identities. Strong support for Scottish Home Rule had been shown in the Glasgow-based paper, Forward, edited by Tom Johnston and Roland Muirhead. Maclean had written Scottish Notes in the BSP paper, Justice, under the pseudonym ‘Gael’, and had supported a Scottish national council for the BSP. He regularly used his column to support crofters’ struggles. However, because of Maclean’s economistic approach, at that time, he was less interested in the constitution of the UK state, and hence was lukewarm towards the idea of Scottish Home Rule. I haven’t been able to find any mention of Maclean writing about the 1913 Scottish Home Rule Bill, which passed through Westminster House of Commons. Further progress for this bill was blocked by the onset of the First World War. [83] Nevertheless, with the exception of Socialist Labour Party, Home Rule for Scotland was supported throughout the Scottish Left.

As the First World War was coming to an end, the Labour Party, in preparation for the forthcoming general election, officially removed itself from the Wartime Coalition. Trade union leaders, who had assisted the government’s clampdown on workers’ rights, pay and conditions, began to consider improvements, once the war ended. Gerry shows that there was a renewed interest in the issue of Scottish Home Rule. This was addressed by trade unions, the STUC, the ILP and the Highland Land League. [84] In the autumn of 1917, the STUC sent a deputation to the Prime Minister calling for separate Scottish representation at the post-war Peace Conference.

This is the context, in which Gerry lets us know that Maclean was approached “to sign a petition for Scottish representation at the Peace Conference. He sympathised but didn’t sign saying that the Bolsheviks were the true friends of Scottish Home Rule not Woodrow Wilson.” [85] Then Gerry suggests that, “Maclean changed his tune.” [86] I agree with Gerry that Maclean was beginning to develop his position on Scotland. However, it would take until August 1920 before Maclean first issued the leaflet titled, All Hail, the Scottish Workers Republic[87] and until November 1922, before Maclean formed an organisation, the Scottish Workers Republican Party, to campaign on the basis of socialist republican politics.

The reason for Maclean’s refusal to sign the petition was due to a combination of two things. In 1917, Maclean still adhered to a politics, where workers’ economic struggles were given primacy. The Scottish Home Rule, which he supported on paper, was not a priority. But Maclean’s polite refusal to sign was more linked to his view of the role of any forthcoming peace conference organised by the imperial victors. In the run-up to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, US President Wilson had used his  ‘Fourteen Points’ to declare his support for the right of national self-determination. However, this had been done to counter the Bolsheviks’ earlier declaration of support for national self-determination. When it came to the Peace Conference, it was only the representatives of nations within the defeated states that were listened to. Those representing the nations within the victor states, including people within the American and British empires, were studiously ignored. Maclean’s comment that “the Bolsheviks were the true friends of Scottish Home Rule” [88] highlights his understanding of this.

A similar division occurred amongst those fighting for an Irish Republic. Maclean’s friend, James Larkin, then living in the USA, remained scornful of those tail-ending Wilson. It took until the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923 before the USA recognised Ireland. The Bolsheviks made several attempts to link up with the First Irish Republic. Furthermore, those Scottish Labour and trade union organisations, which opted for the imperial victors’ ‘Peace Conference road to Scottish Home Rule’, were quick to retreat when Labour got its place under the Westminster sun in the 1922 general election. This would better explain why people like “(David} Kirkwood and {Tom} Johnston would abandon {their earlier} thoughts of national committee in Scotland {raised at the time of the proposed Peace Conference} whilst Maclean remained true to his Republic.” [89] They had become integrated into official British Labour politics, with its acceptance of the UK state. Maclean’s opposition to the Peace Conference, was followed later by his conversion from being a Left social democrat, to becoming a republican socialist, and a supporter of a Scottish Workers’ Republic – hence his ability to remain “true to his Republic”.


i) The missing Labour in Scottish History and the need for a socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’ politics today

Nevertheless, I think that Gerry is right to point to the impact of certain Scottish nationalists, particularly Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, upon Maclean’s thinking from 1919. Gerry points to a major weakness of Maclean’s Scottish Labour College, set up in 1916. [90] This was recognised by a small group of Left Scottish nationalists. One of their journals, the Scottish Review, “criticised… a missed opportunity to raise questions of Scottish history and culture in the curriculum.” [91]  This was largely due to Maclean’s own economistic approach to Marxism at the time.

Gerry’s personal “thoughts are strengthened by the fact that Maclean”, unlike Connolly in Ireland,  “did not develop any new theories or write extensively on Scottish history.” [92] For me this is a decided weakness. Maclean (like Connolly) had been a contributor to Forward. He would have read the historical articles written by Thomas Johnston of the ILP and Roland Muirhead of the Liberal Party affiliated Young Scots. Many of Johnston’s articles were eventually published in 1920 as the History of the Working Classes in Scotland. These were written from a Left Scottish-British unionist point of view.

Maclean wrote a review of this book in The Vanguard[93]. The really striking feature, missing from Maclean’s review of Johnston’s History of the Working Classes in Scotland, is that it does not deal with Johnston’s inadequate approach to the struggles of the ‘lower orders’. Johnston terms these people “the working classes”, making no real distinction between peasants, artisans or wage slaves. He mainly sees them as long suffering victims of the Scottish nobles and then capitalists. In contrast, Connolly’s Labour in Irish History is organised around the struggles between the ‘lower orders’ and the ruling class against the imposition of feudalism and capitalism. Johnston wanted potential Labour voters to sympathise with the victims of Scottish history, the better to get their support for an elected Labour government. Connolly wanted Socialists to understand  the struggles of those  clans, peasants, artisans and workers, who had organised for their own class ends throughout Irish history. Labour in Irish History.  Its more activist-related follow-up, The Reconquest of Ireland, was designed to help the Irish working class maintain its class independence, and to actively challenge  the liberal unionists , Irish nationalists, and their right Labour camp followers, in order to create a new society.

A result of this was that, in contrast to Maclean, Connolly had a much clearer understanding of the need to challenge nationalist historical myth-making. He fiercely criticised the role of the Jacobites in The Jacobites and the Irish people, and the Irish nationalist icon, Daniel O’Connell, in A chapter of horrors: Daniel O’Connell and the working class. Maclean never got round to writing a Labour in Scottish History to challenge Left Scottish British unionists or the Scottish nationalists.

A socialist republican Labour in Scottish History would have subjected Scottish nationalist icons to withering criticism. Thus Robert the Bruce might not be seen so much as the guarantor of the continued existence of a Scottish state, but as the leader of those Scottish lords, who wanted to bring the more popular struggle, which had been started by William Wallace, under their firm control. They wanted feudal normality restored in Scotland. [94]  The Jacobite leaders of 1689, 1715 and 1745 would not be seen as the champions of the clans (a bit problematic given the history of the Stewart/Stuart dynasty in the suppression of clan society!) but as one set of dynastic claimants trying to reclaim the Crown of the Three Kingdoms – England included.

Instead, as Gerry demonstrates, Maclean picked up elements of the Left Scottish nationalist historical thinking and used them to buttress his own political arguments. [95] It is to Gerry’s credit though, that tempting though it must have been from a Left nationalist point of view, he acknowledges that John Maclean never became a Scottish nationalist. [96] His Westminster election address of November 1922 proudly opened with, “I stand in the Gorbals and before the world as a Bolshevik, alias a Communist, alias a Revolutionist.” [97] By this time, Maclean had arrived at his most fully developed socialist republican, ‘internationalism from below’, ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to communism’ politics.

The tragedy was Maclean’s new understanding occurred as the International Revolutionary Wave was ending. In the infant Soviet Union, official CPSU one party rule had ended any effective workers’ control of  society. A new unionist state emerged – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It quickly attracted the support of many Left British unionists, living in the Union of Great Britain and (by now) Northern Ireland  [98]. Their attitude to Scottish self-determination was coloured by the arguments used to defend the top-down imposed unity of the USSR. The USSR constitution provided a ‘guarantee’ for national self-determination. The problem was that within the CPSU, the only legal party, it increasingly became effectively a crime, punishable by internal exile, incarceration in a mental institution, or a Siberian gulag, to raise the issue of the exercise of national self-determination. Today we can clearly see the parallels in  an older  unionist state – the UK. This state, which ‘guarantees’ each participant nation’s self-determination through its devolved institutions, can over-ride these powers at any time, under the Crown Powers and the sovereignty of Westminster.  In Scotland, during IndyRef1 we were  told of the ‘parity of esteem’ between the member nations of the UK. ‘Governor General’ David Mundell, though, has reminded us of the reality. “Scotland is not a partner in the UK, but part of the UK.”  (99) There were times when the USSR celebrated the various cultures within its official multi-nation federal set-up. This was provided there was no challenge to the continued unity of the state. The UK state has taken a similar attitude to the cultures of the nations within its boundaries.

Furthermore, Maclean’s death in 1923 coincided with the demise of the First Irish Republic, following the brutal UK-imposed Civil War. This led to Partition and Connolly’s prophecy of a “carnival of reaction”[100] north and south. And in Scotland, 1923 saw the publication of the Church of Scotland’s notorious Church and Nation report, On the menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality. This heralded a period when reactionary unionism and loyalism increased its support, culminating in the Scottish Protestant League winning 23% of the vote and 3 seats on Glasgow council in 1932, and Protestant Action winning 31% of the vote and 9 seats on Edinburgh city council in 1936. Throughout this period  (and much longer), the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party continued to be linked to the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order.

Gerry’s concluding chapter introduces us to lot of fascinating material. It shows how Maclean’s memory was preserved, particularly in the cultural field. [101] This chapter is entitled The Politics of Failure or the Failure of Politics. I think that Gerry is successful in showing that far from representing the politics of failure, Maclean’s politics anticipated those required today.  Gerry has made a significant contribution to placing John Maclean once more in the political realm. This is at a time when more and more people are seeing the need to re-boot the democratic revolution, which began during IndyRef1. This now needs to be taken on to a conscious Scottish republican path and extended on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis. Under today’s political conditions, with a reactionary unionist Tory-DUP governmental alliance, this can not be achieved without challenging the UK state’s Crown Powers.

As Hamish Henderson, the author the John Maclean March boldly said – Freedom Come All Ye!


Footnotes and References

[1]       I think Gerry would be amongst the first to acknowledge the pioneering  work in this regard of Stevie Coyle of the 1916 Rising Centenary  Committee – Scotland. The source for much of Gerry’s new research is  to be found in the recently recovered papers of Seamus Reader, who was a member of the Fianna Eireann in Glasgow. Stevie provided much  encouragement. In the lead-up to the Easter Rising, Reader smuggled munitions to the Irish Volunteers in Belfast and Dublin. Reader’s papers came into the possession of the well-known Scottish singer, Eddi Reader. Seamus was her great uncle.  She hopes to get these papers published. (

[2]       Gerard Cairns, The Red and the Green – A Portrait of John Maclean (TRatG), p. 2 (self published,  September 2017, Glasgow)

[3]       The three earlier periods, when this the issue came to the fore, were during the land and labour, ‘internationalism from below’ alliance formed at the time of Land Leagues struggles from 1879; immediately after the First World War, during the 1916-21/23 International Revolutionary Wave; and towards the end of, and immediately after, the Second World War. I have written about the first in my book from Davitt to Connolly, with the second in my forthcoming book, From Pre-Brit  to Ex-Brit, and with the third in Britishness, the UK State, Unionism, Scotland and the ‘National   Outsider’ (

[4]       Ray also was instrumental in inviting a young Bernadette Devlin (later McAliskey) to speak at Aberdeen  University. Ray was one of the earliest people on the Left to outline the political significance of the Scotland-Ireland connection. He later went on to publish the excellent but short-lived magazine Calgacus. Its demise partly came about due to the pressure of some not wanting the connection between Ireland and  Scotland to be made. Ray was also a contributor to the Red Paper on Scotland and to the research for The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. He has continued to write on the connections between Scottish and Irish history, particularly in our shared city of birth, Edinburgh. Ray contributes to bella caledonia.

[5]       I started a Gaelic course when I was at Aberdeen University, but soon dropped out because lectures started at 9.00 am. No other lectures I attended started until 11.00 am! I tried again at a night class in Edinburgh’s Boroughmuir High School, once I started teaching. After two weeks it was disrupted by a janitors’ strike! Well yes, my commitment was pretty pathetic.

In the end, I became a supporter of the Gaelic language instead. When the Skye and Lochalsh branch of the EIS put forward a motion to the national AGM arguing for union support for Gaelic language provision,   I came in as a speaker from the Central Belt to support them. The motion faced considerable opposition. It was passed and I went on to write an introduction to a pamphlet written by Gaelic speaker and teacher, Gwen Mulholland, entitled The Struggle for a Language.  Scottish Rank & File Teachers published it. We received a grant for printing from the Scottish Highland and Islands Board, certainly the  only state support we got for any of our activities!

[6]       With the exception of James Hunter, also at Aberdeen University whilst  I was there, I can think of no SNP member from that period, whose historical work made much impact on the Left. And Hunter’s influence came  later when he wrote the path-breaking and highly influential The Making of the Crofting Community. Significantly, he could not get a job in a Scottish university history department, then very much dominated by a North British outlook. Gerry acknowledges Hunter’s work on p.109.

[7]       At this time I hardly ever went into the far more famous Sandy Bells. The repertoire seemed more limited. It wasn’t until the later 1970s that I became more aware of Hamish Henderson’s wider cultural and political significance, and his own devotion to a cultural and political ‘internationalism from below’ approach to his   work. (

[8]       This coincided with the 1972 Miners’ Strike. My friend, the late Andrew McGeever, came from a Fife mining family and had miner contacts in Dunfermline. By the time of the 1974 strike, another miner, George Duff, who worked at ‘Nitton’ (Newtongrange), had become involved in the IS. Both Andrew and George (who has become a talented performer of traditional music) also encouraged my interest in different aspects of Scottish and  Irish culture.

[9]       It wasn’t until the general election of 2015 that such a political irony was duplicated in Edinburgh, when Labour’s right wing Ian Murray, supporter of ‘Project Fear’, ended up representing the party’s last Scottish Westminster seat in ‘Red Morningside’!

[10]       The jibe ‘Tartan Tory’ was common enough at the time, buttressed by the politics of such prominent SNP members. However, it would be more accurate to describe the SNP at the time as a populist party with   Left (e.g. Margo MacDonald) and Right elements. This often reflected the existing political nature of the areas where these people campaigned. It took a conscious political effort by Alex Salmond, Jim Sillars and others from the 79 Group to convert the SNP into a social democratic style party that could appeal to many more workers in the Central Belt.

[11]       The SLP was Jim Sillars’ breakaway Scottish Labour Party, which formed in 1976 and was dissolved in 1981. Sillars went on to join the SNP as part of its social democratic, Central Belt-orientated 79 Group.

[12]       Duncan Hallas, a key IS and SWP theoretician, at the time, provided guidance. He undertook this task, because my political approach to the National Question would then have followed Rosa Luxemburg. Hallas ensured that my piece was reworked so that it followed what the SWP would have considered orthodox Leninism. He was not dogmatic in his approach to me, but did this in a subtle and persuasive manner.

Maybe I should later have spent some time visiting all the bookshops where this pamphlet was stocked to remove them all, just as Labour’s Tom Johnston allegedly did with his Our Noble Families, when he joined the British government! However, I think the existence of this pamphlet still serves a useful purpose. It shows that a Left Scottish-British unionist supporter can abandon such politics. Indeed, many other Scottish Socialists have such skeletons in their cupboard. Some day they should be collected together in a Museum of Britishness!

[13]       Ironically Tony Cliff possibly saved us. He supported Scottish Devolution. This was certainly not on anti-state or republican  grounds, but on anti-Tory grounds, as Thatcher’s star was rising. Cliff brought in Harry MacShane to try and help him at a Scottish SWP aggregate meeting held in Glasgow. However, two of the SWP’s well-regarded Glasgow shop stewards, Peter Bain and Jimmy MacCallum, triumphed. They were both adamantly opposed to Devolution, mainly on the grounds that Britain united the working class. This aggregate was not well attended, because it was held on the same day as the England-Scotland football championship match. I think that only  ‘revolutionary discipline’ had persuaded Peter and Jimmy to attend, and I seem to remember they were near to tears when Scotland lost!

[14]       Recently, the SWP, back in its British Left mode, campaigned for Lexit not Remain. Now, more marginalised on the Left than they were in 1979, the SWP in its own small way contributed to the defeat of Remain. But instead of Lexit they have got May and the DUP!

[15]       For example, I spoke at a poll tax registration form burning protest in Blaenau Ffestiniog’s main street. This was at the request of Marc Jones, a Welsh socialist republican. I have been in contact with Marc ever since. On September 13th, 2014, Marc was with the Welsh contingent at the Radical Independence Campaign’s multi-national pre-referendum rally on The Meadows. Characteristically the Welsh contingent burst out into song!

[16]        The arguments I made were later published in the magazine, Next Step. They can be seen at:-

[17]       The Republican Workers Tendency replaced the RDG and promoted the socialist republican, ‘internationalism from below,’ ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire strategy’ first developed by Connolly and Maclean. George Mackin and Dave Hewitt and some supporters of the journal, Liberation, were also involved in the Scottish Republican Forum. They argued for Scottish and Irish republican politics within the SNP.

[18]       I was first drawn to an interest in the Covenanters because of their close resemblance to the Left in terms of their politics (their theocratic republicanism prefigured bureaucratic socialism), their organisation (their ministers, awarded a leading role in all their activities, resembled Communist commissars). They gained their wider influence during their heroic struggles against Charles II and James VI/II in the Killing Time.   They attained their maximum influence in 1689, in the first phase of the Glorious Revolution, when they formed a regiment of Cameronians (prefiguring the Red Guards). When they had been marginalised, they  became fragmented. Trotskyist sects followed their subsequent splits almost to the point of parody.  (Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets, Chapter 6.iii) and footnote 128  ( The legacy of the Covenanters had a significant  impact on the Radical wing of the Friends of the People and the infant  working class movement in Scotland

[19]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p.24

[20]       ibid. p. 158

[21]       ibid. p. 162

[22]       ibid. pp. 183 and 163

[23]       Yet there was still a political difference between Maclean and Connolly over their attitude towards women’s struggles. In 1913 Maclean was dismissing women suffragists, including ILP member Helen Crawfurd, (Scottish Notes in Justice, 21.6.13). She was later to play a leading role in the Glasgow Rent Strikes. Compared to the sectarian BSP and SLP,  the ILP’s leader, Keir Hardie, allowed women members some freedom of action. Connolly, however, as a socialist republican, went much further and made the connection between the militant Women’s and the Syndicalist Movements in the UK. In The Reconquest of Ireland Connolly clearly stated that, “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”. This advanced understanding of oppression enabled Connolly to see the “spreading wave of martyrdom of the militant women of Great Britain and Ireland, and the spread amongst active spirits of the Labour movement of an  appreciation of the genuineness of the women’s longings for freedom.”  He championed the autonomous organisation of women within the IT&GWU under the banner of the Irish Women’s Workers Union formed by Delia Larkin in 1911, and the Belfast based Irish Women’s Textile Union Women led by Winifred Carney.

[24]       Donal Levin, James Connolly – A Full Life (JC-AFL) p. 667 (Gill & Macmillan, 2005, Dublin)

[25]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 184

[26] My good friend Bob Goupillot brought this to my attention.

[27]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p.16

[28]       ibid, pp. 33-4

[29]       ibid, p. 196

[30]       Following the logic of this transition in Maclean’s thought, and seeing him as the real continuation of the ethical moralism of the Free Church of Scotland, Gerry, slightly tongue-in-cheek, dubs him “the Moderator of   the Free Kirk General Assembly” (p. 196). Taking on board Maclean’s continued resort to biblical language, but also recognising his own conscious departure from the Free Kirk, I would suggest an alteration of  Gerry’s characterisation – John Maclean – ‘the Moderator of the Scottish Marxians’!

[31]       Karl Marx, A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (

[32]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p.30

[33]       ibid. p. 38

[34]       ibid. p.179

[35]       ibid. p. 180

[36]       ibid, p. 21

[37]       ibid. p. 123


[39]       ibid. p. 36

[40]       ibid. p. 32


[42]       “I believe that it is true to say that, politically speaking, the Protestantism of the North of Ireland has no parallel outside this country, and that the Catholicism of the Irish Catholics is, likewise,  peculiar in its political trend.

To explain – I mean that, whereas, Protestantism has in general made for political freedom and political Radicalism, it has been opposed to slavish worship of kings and aristocrats. Here, in Ireland, the word Protestant is almost a convertible term with Toryism, lickspittle loyalty, servile worship of aristocracy and hatred of all that savours of genuine political independence on the part of the “lower classes”.

And in the same manner, Catholicism which in most parts of Europe is  synonymous with Toryism, lickspittle loyalty, servile worship of aristocracy and hatred of all that savours of genuine political independence on the part of the lower classes, in Ireland is almost synonymous with rebellious tendencies, zeal for democracy, and intense feelings of solidarity with all strivings upward of those who toil.”

This is then developed more fully in

[43]        Justice,Scottish Notes, 12.6.1913, Ulster and Trade Unionism,  25.10.13, Clerical Influence Waning,12.3.1914, all on

[44]       Rev. Richard Lee – John Maclean, Lenin v. Lloyd George – British Materialism and British Idealism, The Call, 26.2.1919,  ( and Father Lawrence – James Connolly, The Programme of Labour, The Workers’ Republic,  19.1.1916 (

[45]       There has been a long debate over whether Connolly was really a Catholic. Those people who argue that Connolly’s Catholicism was feigned can use his reply to long-term political friend and Scottish SLP   member, John Carstairs Matheson. In this he wrote that, “I habitually posed as a Catholic. I have not done my duty for 15 years and have not the slightest faith left.” (Donal Nevin, James Connolly –  ‘A Full Life’, p. 679.) In contrast, Jack Carney, a Belfast colleague of Connolly, wrote that, “Connolly was a practising Catholic. Few people knew this” (p.678).  Certainly, Connolly was attended by Catholic priests on his deathbed and at his final execution. He also asked his wife, Lillie (brought up as a Protestant, but effectively lapsed) to become a member of the Catholic Church. However, those of Connolly’s children who also became Socialists, even though baptised, did not show many Catholic convictions. So it is unlikely that Connolly pushed Catholicism at home. Connolly would have followed Catholic social practices through his family’s engagement with the wider world. Non-religious provision for births, marriages and deaths was not very widespread, or socially accepted, particularly in Ireland, or Irish migrant communities. The Catholic Church provided the main form of welfare in a society where poverty and social degradation was rife. Connolly was also organising an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic working class, which showed its militancy, particularly  during the 1913-4 Dublin Lock-Out. Thus there is evidence consistent with Connolly being either a Catholic believer or a social Catholic. To me, it is more important that Connolly was secular and non-sectarian in his approach to politics.

[46]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 104

[47]       ibid. p. 104

[48]       ibid. p. 103

[49]       ibid. p. 63

[50]       ibid. p.157

[51]       “I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of   capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot” (

[52]       A Scottish Communist Party ( and Open Letter to Lenin (

[53]       John Maclean, Now’s the Day and Now’s the HourThe Call. 23.1.1919  (


[55]       Gavin Foster, ‘Scotsmen Stand by Ireland’: John Maclean and the Irish Revolution (SSbI) History Ireland, issue 1, Jan/Feb, 2008

[56]       Maclean first engaged with politics in Ireland, when he was asked to speak to the Belfast Socialist Society in August 1907. Maclean, then an SDF member, sent in a report to Justice. His political conclusion was that, “The strikers and thousands of workers knew that they must cease  quarrelling about Catholicism and Protestantism, because thus they would be playing the game of the capitalists. I believe religious riots are a thing of the past, consequent upon the eyes of the people having been opened to the scurrility of the party press and to the treachery of the party politicians, both Nationalists and Unionists alike.”      (

Ah, if only it was that easy! Clearly Maclean’s very economistic understanding of Marxism had led him to believe that militant trade union struggles were enough to overcome sectarian divisions. There was no understanding of the nature of the UK state, and how it operated in Ireland, particularly north-east Ulster.

In 1913, Maclean reported on the large Glasgow meeting organised by the ILP, and chaired by Tom Johnston. It was part of the Fiery Cross campaign organised by Jim Larkin, James Connolly and others to win active solidarity for the workers in the Dublin Lock Out.  Maclean had been writing about many of the disputes in Scotland, which formed part of the Syndicalist inspired Great Unrest. Most active workers        realised that the Dublin Lock-Out was the most significant struggle yet to come out of this unrest. Yet, all that Maclean reports is a BSP intervention at the meeting announcing the death of one of their leading members, Harry Quelch!   (We Feel Harry’s Loss, Scottish NotesJustice, 27.9.1913  ( )

[57]       In chapter 7, Gerry also shows the significant links between Glasgow based Irish republicans, trade unionists and Socialists in the run-up to the Easter Rising. In 2015, SIPTU, the successor union to the Irish Transport & General Workers Union of Larkin, Connolly and Fearon (the three James), published all the issues of The Workers Republic from the run-up to the Easter Rising. Several articles cover Glasgow trade union and republican activities. Furthermore, The Workers Republic was sold in the Glasgow offices of the Syndicalist and Socialist, Herald  League. However, at this time, it was Dublin and Belfast looking to Glasgow, not Maclean looking to Ireland. That came later. The evidence in Gerry’s book suggests 1918.

[58]       The BSP was affiliated to the Labour Party. Maclean, still in prison, was put forward as a candidate for the Gorbals constituency against George Barnes. This was partly a tactic to get Maclean out of prison. Sinn Fein had successfully used this in the South Longford by-election in May. Barnes had served in the Wartime Coalition, but was still refusing to break with it despite the war having ceased a month earlier. He stood  as a Labour Coalition candidate in defiance of official Labour Party. The government was so concerned by Maclean’s candidature, that it released him soon before the election to prevent him getting voted in as a jailed martyr.

[59]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 119.



Nevertheless, the 40 Hours Strike did initially make a major impact, not only in Scotland, but also in Newcastle and Sheffield and Belfast. This was a product of the International Revolutionary Wave. January 1919 marked the highpoint of that particular wave in the UK, with the declaration of the first Irish Republic, and the 40 Hours Strike in Glasgow. Unfortunately, Connolly was dead, Larkin was in  the USA, and Maclean had yet to develop a socialist republican  ‘internationalism from below’ politics. Neither the formation of the CPGB in 1920, nor the Third International, provided the political basis for a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to communism’. Maclean was still at an early stage in the development of his own socialist republicanism.

[62] and

[63]       Maclean in the Colne Valley, The Call. 5.6.1919 ( works/1919-colne.htm

[64]       John Wheatley had organised the Catholic Socialist Society, which Maclean had addressed. He was a member of the ILP and later became  Minister of Health in the first Labour (minority) government in 1924. He is best remembered for his Housing Act.

[65]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 127

[66]       ibid. p. 119

[67]       ibid. p. 119


[69]       However, after the defeat of the 40 Hours Strike, the government’s conciliation of the miners and NUR general secretary’s ability to block  action by his rail worker members, this immediate prospect ended. Maclean later acknowledged this in his Open Letter to Leninin January 1921 (

[70]       On with the Revolution. The Call, 6.9.1919 (

[71]       Socialist Unity, The Call, 21.8.1919, (

[72]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. pp.147-51


[74]       ibid.

[75] The earlier version of The Vanguard had acted as the voice of BSP members on Clydeside. It then became the voice of opposition to the BSP’s right wing leadership under Henry Hyndman. The government closed it down in December 1915 because of its campaign against conscription.

[76]       ibid.



[79]       ibid.

[80]       In Scotland, the Norman-French military adventurers invited in by the Gaelic Kings of Alba had very successfully merged into the Scottish ruling class. At the time of what became later known as the Scottish Wars of Independence, the main contenders for the Scottish throne were the Balliols (de Baileul), the Comyns (de Commine) and the Bruces (de Brus). The Stewarts (Fitzallan) followed the Bruces to the throne in 1371. All of these Norman-French families originally held land in Norman England, and in some cases in France too.

[81]       The Luddite resistance to this attack on their livelihoods led to the stationing of more troops, in the affected areas, than were being fielded by Wellington in the Peninsular War against Napoleon at the same time.

[82]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 38


[84]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 38

[85]       ibid, p. 108

[86]       ibid. p.108


[88]       The fact that Maclean refers to Scottish Home Rule, rather than Scottish self-determination, shows that he has not yet given the Scottish Question much thought. He falls back on the old Scottish-British Liberal, Radical and Left understanding of the Home Rule. This was most associated with the thinking behind the Liberals’ 1913 Scottish Home Rule Bill.

[89]       ibid. p.114


[91]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p. 42

[92]       ibid. p. 114


[94]       For what it is worth, my own, Oor Willie – William Wallace and Socialist Today, could form a chapter for a future Labour in Scottish History. It can found at

[95]       However, Socialists need to look at the material written by Left Scottish  Nationalists, since without doing this, a full understanding of the politics of the period cannot be achieved. It is amazing that even today, with the SNP, in office for eleven years, there has been no anthology of articles from the Young Scots or the early Scottish nationalist magazines, Scottish Review and Guth na Bliadhna. It is to Gerry’s credit that he has examined this material, and even more that he has learned Gaelic. Gaelic is needed to fully understand this and other periods of Scottish history.

[96]       Gerard Cairns, TRatG, op. cit. p.191


[98]       A divide opened up though between those in the CPGB and some of their Left Labour supporters, and other more mainstream Labour supporters. The first group was prepared to concede that the holder of the  ‘baton of progress’ in the world had passed to the USSR. The other British roaders still awarded ‘Britain’ that role.



[101]       My interest in this cultural field, particularly folk song, was something else that led to my early consideration of John Maclean’s legacy. I had known Morris Blythman by way of Left politics amongst socialist teachers. Much better known in the folk world as Thurso Berwick, he had helped put together the fine collection of songs, A Homage to John Maclean, co-edited by T. S. Law, and published by the John Maclean  Society. who_was_the_driving_force_behind_Scotland_s_folk_music_revival/)



also see