George Gun has written this article first posted on
bella caledonia. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of John Maclean’s death on November 30th 1923. It argues against Maclean’s death being viewed mainly as a historical commemoration for academic historians, but that his politics in the last year’s of his life are highly relevant to the international situation we face today and the political organisation we need.
SILENT SINGING AND JOHN MACLEAN
Thursday 30th November 2023 marks the centenary of the death of John Maclean. He was a towering figure on the radical revolutionary left before, during and after World War One, on Clydeside and throughout Scotland. Maclean was a teacher, campaigner, activist, republican socialist and a champion of the working class, advocating for their freedoms and rights and constantly educating them in the class realities of their economic position and how to rise above it. John Maclean was a constant thorn in the side of the British State and they destroyed him because of it.
He was first arrested on October 27th 1915 on charges under the Defence of The Realm Act. Maclean had been telling huge crowds at this Sunday night meetings in Bath Street in Glasgow that in no way shape or form should any of them join the British Army and that it was “the very nature of capitalism to engender war”, that the men the State wanted them so shoot were their brothers, that they had the same difficulties in housing and wages that all of the working class experience and that the real enemy was their employers and the ruling class of the British Empire. The Govan School Board promptly sacked him as a teacher and he was sentenced to three years penal servitude.
Maclean was subsequently released in 1917 after demonstrations following the February Revolution in Russia. The British government were terrified of revolution breaking out at home. They had good reason. In January 1918 John Maclean, the son of Gaelic speaking parents from Mull and born in Pollockshaws, was elected to the chair of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets and a month later appointed Bolshevik consul in Scotland. He established a Consulate at 12 South Portland Street in Glasgow but was refused recognition by the British Government, which was hardly surprising.
Maclean was arrested again in 15 April 1918. This time for sedition, which was very serious and many in the establishment wanted him hung. He was refused bail and his trial fixed for the 9th of May in Edinburgh. Maclean famously conducted his own defence and in a defiant manner, refusing to plead and when asked if he objected to any of the jurors replying, “I object to the whole lot of them.” The prosecution case was based on the testimony of witnesses who had attended his meetings, who quoted extracts from his speeches using notes they had written up from memory after the meeting. What John Maclean objected to was that his words were being taken out of context, saying. “The main parts of my speech, in which my themes are developed are omitted. I want to expose the trickery of the British government and their police and their lawyers.”
He did this in an extraordinary seventy five minute speech from the dock which is widely regarded as one of the greatest in Scottish political history. Most people, if they are acquainted the speech at all, know the passage “I am not here, then, as the accused, I am here as the accuser…”. In the light of what is happening to free speech in the UK now, one hundred years after his premature death, it will be helpful to us all to know more of what one of our great, lost leaders had to say on that famous day in Edinburgh in 1918.
Knowing that he was going to be found guilty no matter what he said John Maclean began is speech with this ringing attack on his class enemy,
“It has been said that they cannot fathom my motive. For the full period of my active life I have been a teacher of economics to the working classes, and my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was ‘Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill’, and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention.”
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s vicious carnage in Gaza also prove his contention. Undaunted he continued,
“I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”
Maclean knew full well that silencing him, and all like him, was the exact intention of the British State. The sad fact is that it is still their intention. His speech concluded,
“I have taken up unconstitutional action at this time because of the abnormal circumstances and because precedent has been given by the British government. I am a socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place. I act square and clean for my principles. …. No matter what your accusations against me may be, no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.”
You can access the whole speech here.
This time he was sentenced to five years penal servitude in Peterhead jail – at the time one of the cruellest places on Earth. Maclean went on hunger strike and the authorities force fed him through a tube. His always delicate health was ruined. In Peterhead jail the British State killed John Maclean. Not immediately, but eventually. When, following the armistice on November 11th 1918, he was released on December 3rd, after having gone through hell in prison. Maclean’s wife Agnes wrote to Edwin C. Fairchild, a leading member of the British Socialist Party,
“Well, John has been on hunger strike since July. He resisted the forcible feeding for a good while, but submitted to the inevitable. Now he is being fed by a stomach tube twice daily. He has aged very much and has the look of a man who is going through torture… Seemingly anything is law in regard to John. I hope you will make the atrocity public. We must get him out of their clutches. It is nothing but slow murder.”
John Maclean returned to Glasgow to a tumultuous welcome and to a very active political life, but he was a broken man physically. He died on November 30th 1923 aged 44. The British State had done its work. It continues to do it today, in other ways, to anyone who speaks up for the oppressed or cries out for justice. They have done it to Willie McRae and to David Kelly and to countless others of the awkward squad of truth tellers down the years. In “Stony Limits and Other Poems”, Hugh MacDiarmid declared that “of all Maclean’s foes not one was his peer”.
In this anniversary year, the same year when Jackie Baillie can be declared “Scottish Politician of the Year” and Alister Jack as “Best Scot at Westminster” by the Herald newspaper, you realise that we are wallowing in the mire of political pygmies: this is a prison where satire and humility have succumbed to their beatings. What, I wonder, would Maclean make of the current sorry state of Scottish governance?
John Maclean bravely declared from the dock “my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them…” Oh, that the SNP would do the same instead of ignoring them. The middle class do not care about Scottish independence nor do they care for socialism. Their short-term self-centredness and petty greed shackles them to a permanent now. They are the consumer prisoners of mediocrity and indifference. Do they care that last year Scotland sent £9 billion in North Sea oil and gas to the UK Treasury? Are they not outraged that we got zilch back to invest in infrastructure for the future? Of course not. Does it matter to Mondeo Man or Sportswagon Woman that the Grangemouth oil refinery is to close? It should. As should the fact the Scotland got not a baw-bee from Westminster for the ACORN carbon capture project at, ironically, Peterhead. The de-industrialisation and the political emasculation of Scotland goes on with nothing but kind words on this and that from the First Minister now and again and silent singing from the Tories and Labour. But much noise and choral shouting about an £11k i-Pad bill.
Scotland produces vast amounts of oil and gas a year but very soon, if INEOS CEO Jim Ratcliffe has his way, we will not be able to refine a drop. As long as the gold flows into the Westminster coffers what does the UK government care about Scotland’s economic or industrial infrastructure? Answer – nothing. The tragedy is that the skills lost at Grangemouth when the plant closes will be gone from Scotland and we will all be poorer as a result of that. If there is to be a “just transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy then where is the “just transition” for the Grangemouth workforce? INEOS has proven over the years that it has nothing but contempt for its workers by scuppering every agreement ever made with the trade unions at the refinery. Now comes the ultimate betrayal. The workers are disposable pawns in the larger game of international oil. Where is the Scottish government in all of this? On the periphery of the situation rather than at the centre, sadly. Who actually believes INEOS when they say they are planning to turn Grangemouth into a bio-fuels business? No-one. Where is the action plan to save Scotland’s refining capacity and the precious jobs that go along with it? Where are the serious plans for the security of the workers? Nowhere.
One industry in Scotland that is flourishing is the arms trade. In 2021 an investigation by The Ferret reported that Scottish Enterprise had given £10 million in grants to arms companies. For example the laser targeting system for the F-35 fighter jet used by the Israeli Air Force is made in Edinburgh. Also, according to the Glasgow University Arms Divestment Coalition, the University of Glasgow has invested in around £6.8 million in arms companies including ones that provide weapons to Israel. On all of this our politicians engage in silent singing. Not a word is heard. War is good.
There is no silence at all in Hamish Henderson’s seminal and rumbustious song of celebration, “The John Maclean March”, where the poet has all the ten thousand people who attended John Maclean’s funeral, as it wound its way through Glasgow to the Eastwood cemetery, singing every word out loud. The first verse of the song fairly bursts into existence,
“Hey, mac, did ye see him as he cam doun by Gorgie
Awa ower the Lammerlaw an north o the Tay?
Yon man is comin an the hail toun is turnin oot:
We’re aa shair he’ll win back to Glesgie the day.
The jiners an hauders-on are marching fae Clydebank;
Come on nou an hear him – he’ll be ower thrang tae bide.
Turn oot, Jock an Jimmie: leave yer crans and your muckle gantries.
Great John Maclean’s comin back tae the Clyde.
Great John Maclean’s comin back tae the Clyde.”
By the end of the fourth verse and chorus you can feel the whole of Scotland singing. Henderson wrote the song for a memorial meeting commemorating John Maclean in the St. Andres Hall on 9th November 1948, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. It was sung by William Noble to end the event, following poems by Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Sorley MacLean, and was warmly received, “passing in one singing into the musical consciousness of the nation” as Tim Neat noted in his biography of Henderson. Morris Blythman (Thurso Berwick), the event organiser, described Noble’s performance as “the first swallow of the folk revival”.
It is quite astonishing that in 1923, despite his poor health and in the year of his death, that John Maclean dredged up the energy to found the Scottish Workers Republican Party, which combined communist ideologies with Scottish independence. Maclean’s call for a Communist Republic of Scotland was based on the belief that traditional Scottish Gaelic society was structured along the lines of “community”. He argued that “the communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis” and raised the slogan “back to community and forward to communism”. As another song asks, “when will we see their likes again?”
One hundred years after the death of John Maclean and almost ten years after the 2014 referendum I wonder where “the first swallow” of the Scottish independence revival will come from? The British state is determined to reduce us all to silent singing and they will if we let them.
The great socialist writer and academic, Raymond Williams, said that “to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. On St Andrews Day let us turn that into a song and sing it loud.