This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

John Maclean and the Scottish Workers’ Republic

Bob Pitt

BECAUSE OF the importance which the national question has acquired in Scottish politics in recent years, and given the need for socialists to develop theory and tactics in response to this, it is understandable that some comrades should turn to the example of John Maclean for guidance. Maclean is rightly regarded as a major figure in the history of the socialist movement, not only in Scotland but internationally. It was largely due to his pioneering work in the movement for independent working class education that Marxism first entered the mainstream of the Scottish labour movement. And, unlike many self-proclaimed Marxists of the period, Maclean was notable for his unswerving opposition to British imperialism. From the outset he took a clear stand against the First World War and he maintained this position heroically in the face of brutal state repression, a record which won him an international reputation in the socialist movement. But it is the political positions which Maclean adopted in the final years of his life which have the most bearing on the Scottish national question, and that is what I will concentrate on in this article.

First of all, however, I want to make some elementary points about the Marxist approach to the national question in general, and in Scotland in particular. I would take it as self-evident that Marxists are not nationalists. We don’t start from the supposed interests of the nation but from the interests of the working class, and we conceive of those interests in international terms. Our aim is the solidarity of working people worldwide – our slogan is "Workers of all countries, unite", not "Workers of the world, separate into your respective nation states". At the same time, we don’t condemn all forms of nationalism. We distinguish between the reactionary nationalism of an oppressor nation, and the forms of national consciousness which arise among the people of an oppressed country, in response to their oppression. We understand that the latter form of nationalism has a progressive democratic content, and as Marxists we are the greatest proponents of democracy. As a principle, therefore, we defend the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, up to and including the right to separate from the oppressor nation and form an independent state.

Such ABC points, however, are of limited relevance to the Scottish national question, as Scotland is not an oppressed nation, at least in the conventional sense of the term. During the period that John Maclean was politically active, from the turn of the century until his premature death in November 1923, the British ruling class still possessed a vast empire which included hundreds of millions of colonial slaves. But whatever might be said about the position of the Scottish people within that empire, they clearly were not to be numbered among those colonial slaves. Tommy Sheridan of Scottish Militant Labour may claim that his country’s relationship to the British state over the last 300 years has reduced it to "a colonial outpost",1 but this is an example of nationalist rhetoric not serious Marxist analysis. If Scotland really were a colonial nation, under foreign occupation, the national question would have been a consistent and dominant feature of Scottish labour politics over the years. It is precisely because Scotland isn’t a colony that the national question has not been a constant factor but has rather ebbed and flowed according to broader political and economic developments, in Britain and internationally.

For example, back in the 1950s the issue of national self-determination played an insignificant role in Scottish working class politics. The post-war boom was well underway, unemployment was low and the majority of Scottish workers were experiencing increasing affluence. There was a Tory government in office, but it enjoyed a high level of popularity in Scotland, to the extent that the Tories received half the total vote there in the 1955 general election. Working class opposition to the Tories expressed itself not in a demand for Scottish self-government but in hopes for the election of a Labour government at Westminster.

The fact that the Scottish national question would later assert itself with such force is obviously directly connected to the deindustrialisation and chronic mass unemployment resulting from the collapse of the post-war boom and intensified by the economic policies pursued after 1979 by the Thatcher government. Furthermore, as the government’s support in Scotland rapidly eroded, it began to use the country as a testbed for deeply unpopular policies, most notably the Poll Tax. Meanwhile, with anti-Tory hatred deepening in Scotland, Conservative victories at successive general elections were assured by votes in affluent areas of England. In such circumstances it is scarcely surprising that the demand for self-government grew among working people in Scotland.

This general survey has obvious implications for socialist strategy. In the present situation, anyone but a sectarian can recognise that there is a legitimate democratic content to the demand for a Scottish parliament, and, as I argued in What Next? No.5 ("A Sectarian Approach to Scottish Self-Determination"), it seems obvious to me that Marxists who refused to advocate a double "yes" in the recent Scottish referendum isolated themselves from the working class. Forty years ago, though, to have included self-government as a central plank in a socialist programme for Scotland would have appeared irrelevant if not downright eccentric. For Marxists, therefore, agitation for Scottish self-determination is not some timeless policy in the way that it is for the nationalists. It is a matter of tactics rather than principle, and depends on the emergence of a genuine mass sentiment in favour of self-government. The challenge for Marxists is to establish objectively the exact weight that the national question has in Scottish working class politics at a particular conjuncture and to develop the tactics appropriate to that specific situation. The question is whether John Maclean’s approach provides us with any positive insights into this – and my answer is that it does not.

The period of Maclean’s activity in Scottish politics offered an illustration of the way in which the attitude of the labour movement towards the national question shifted in response to changed circumstances. Before 1914 there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for self-government, and proposals for a Scottish parliament came from the Liberal Party rather than from the labour movement. After the outbreak of war, however, this situation began to change. From 1914 the Scottish TUC, and from 1915 the Scottish Council of the Labour Party, began to pass regular resolutions in favour of home rule. According to H.J. Hanham, the historian of Scottish nationalism, this development reached its peak between 1918 and 1920, and began to decline after 1922.2 It remained an issue up until the defeat of the Home Rule Bill under the first Labour government in 1924, and after that became peripheral to Scottish labour politics before re-emerging as a significant factor in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The factors leading to the strengthening of national sentiment within the Scottish labour movement from 1914 onwards are summarised by David Howell: "Awareness of national distinctiveness as a politically relevant factor had been given a greater edge by wartime developments. Scotland’s heavy industries prospered.... A sanguine appraisal of the Scottish economy heightened Scottish Labour’s confidence about its own political prospects. This optimism seemed threatened by too much dependence on British institutions. Sometimes trade union leaders from the South seemed unsympathetic to Scottish initiatives. Wartime difficulties had exacerbated longstanding impatience with the inadequacy of Whitehall responses to Scottish Labour issues."3

It is necessary to keep this in perspective, however. First of all, the struggle for self-determination was never exactly at the centre of Scottish labour politics at that time, and was almost certainly of less importance than it has been in recent years. Secondly, the slogan of home rule did not imply a demand for complete independence, but only for some form of self-government within a unitary British state. And, thirdly, there was no support for a separate nationally-based working class party in Scotland. A Scottish Workers’ Representation Committee had existed earlier, but it had dissolved into the national Labour Party in 1909, and no one was proposing to resurrect it. The establishment in 1915 of a Scottish Council of the Labour Party was accepted as an adequate concession to national autonomy. Scottish socialists, for their part, were members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the British Socialist Party (BSP) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) – all of which organised across Britain, even if in the case of the ILP and the SLP they had particular strength on Clydeside. No prominent figure within these parties was arguing for the formation of a separate Scottish socialist organisation.

What was Maclean’s view of the national question in this pre-1920 period? Before the war he shared the labour movement’s generally dismissive response to the issue. Writing in the BSP paper Justice in 1912, in answer to Liberal proposals for a Scottish parliament, Maclean’s attitude was hostile. The establishment of a new instrument of capitalist rule would be a "retrograde step and should meet with our opposition and ridicule", he argued. It would be an obstacle on the road to socialism, "a buffer betwixt us and our goal, or a brake to curb our revolutionary fervour". Maclean insisted that Scottish working people had no interests apart from those in the rest of Britain: "What is good or bad for England is good or bad for Scotland." The most he was prepared to concede was that in the event of a Scottish parliament being established, socialists "ought to be ready to make of it a democratic machine, and to use it for all it may produce".4

When support for home rule began to make headway in the Scottish labour movement Maclean for a long time ignored it. As James D. Young points out, he was certainly much slower in taking up the national question than ILPers like James Maxton and Robert Smillie.5 It wasn’t until January 1919 that he came out publicly with a position on Scottish self-determination, and he did so not on his own initiative but in response to a request from the radical nationalist Erskine of Mar that he should sign a petition calling on US President Woodrow Wilson to support Scottish home rule. In a letter to Erskine which was reproduced in the BSP’s paper The Call, Maclean declined to appeal for support for home rule to a leading representative of US imperialism, with its record of crushing smaller nations beneath its heel, although he declared himself in favour of "a Parliament or Soviet of workers, with headquarters in Glasgow". But the main struggle, he argued, was for "the Socialist Republic, in which alone we can have real Home Rule".6

To interpret this to mean that Maclean was calling for a Scottish Workers’ Republic would be entirely wrong. His argument was that self-determination for Scotland was dependent on establishing a socialist republic in Britain. This is borne out by the fact that during 1919 most of Maclean’s relentless work of propaganda and agitation was conducted outside Scotland – and if he was fighting for a Scottish Workers’ Republic, then England and Wales would not seem to be the obvious places to go and do it. Indeed, on one of the most important occasions that year when Maclean addressed a Scottish working class audience, at the huge May Day demonstration in Glasgow, he made no mention at all of a Workers’ Republic in Scotland but instead called explicitly for "a Socialist Republic all over Britain".7 And towards the end of 1919, when Maclean published his pamphlet The Coming War With America, which predicted that the next major inter-imperialist conflict would be between Britain and the USA, the conclusion he drew was not that a separate struggle should be launched in Scotland, but that "labour in America and Britain must move swiftly towards full political control" (emphasis added).8

Far from calling for a separate Scottish revolutionary party, Maclean remained a loyal member of the British Socialist Party, which he was convinced would provide the leadership of the socialist revolution in Britain. "It is entirely due to the BSP that we got a drift to the revolutionary position", he told the party’s annual conference in April 1919, and this despite his complaint that The Call had failed to publish an article he had written entitled "A Soviet for Scotland".9 It is also worth noting that this spiked article was apparently the sole contribution that Maclean made to the discussion of Scottish home rule at that time. I have been unable to find a single reference to the national question in the dozens of articles he wrote for The Call and the Scottish shop stewards’ paper The Worker, or for that matter in the detailed reports of his speeches which were relayed to the government by Special Branch. This was evidently not an issue to which Maclean attached decisive importance.

Later in 1919, Maclean did sign up to Erskine’s National Committee, formed to campaign for home rule, but then so did leading ILPers like Tom Johnston, David Kirkwood, James Maxton, Neil Maclean and Robert Smillie.10 In fact Maclean’s attitude to the Scottish national question in this period had much in common with that generally prevailing in the labour movement. He saw it as a secondary issue, he didn’t raise the demand for an independent state, nor did he propose the formation of a separate political party for Scotland. What distinguished Maclean from the reformist advocates of home rule was his view that it could be achieved only by overthrowing the British capitalist state.

In the latter part of 1920, however, Maclean began to put forward a very different position on the national question. He now began to argue for a Scottish Communist Republic (later amended to Scottish Workers’ Republic), he abandoned the struggle to build a revolutionary movement in Britain as a whole, and he attempted to launch a Scottish-based revolutionary party. What caused this dramatic about-turn?

Was it that there was a great upsurge of sentiment around the national question in Scotland between 1919 and 1920? Were Scottish workers breaking from the old conception of home rule in favour of the demand for complete separation from Britain? Was this spontaneous independence movement perhaps in danger of falling under the influence of bourgeois nationalists, so that it was necessary to develop a class position on Scottish self-determination to win the masses away from these bourgeois misleaders? Well, no – none of these things occurred. What did take place during these crucial months, though, was that Maclean came into sharp conflict with the BSP leadership, leading to his break with the party at its annual conference in April 1920 and to his subsequent exclusion from the founding conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in July-August that year.

So far as there was a rational basis to Maclean’s disagreements with the BSP leadership, this revolved around their differing attitudes to the Hands Off Russia campaign. I would argue that Hands Off Russia was an exemplary initiative by the BSP – a broad-based labour movement campaign around a common concrete objective, namely the defence of the Russian revolution against imperialist military intervention, in the course of which Marxists were able to demonstrate in practice the superiority of their political leadership. It was an anticipation of the united front tactic which the CPGB was to employ so successfully during the early 1920s, and showed how the BSP, under the influence of the Communist International and its British representative Theodore Rothstein, was breaking from the old propagandist, sectarian and ultimatist methods which had characterised the Social Democratic Federation tradition. Maclean, who to the end of his life remained hostile to and uncomprehending of the united front, regarded this sort of basic solidarity work as a diversion, arguing that workers could not be mobilised around such an issue and that the best way to save the Russian Workers’ Republic was to agitate for an immediate revolution in Britain. In my opinion, Maclean’s criticisms of Hands Off Russia were fundamentally mistaken. He both overestimated the revolutionary potential that existed in Britain in 1919 and underestimated the willingness of the British labour movement to take action in defence of Russia.

However, it was not these differences over revolutionary tactics and strategy which provoked the split between Maclean and the BSP/CPGB, but his delusion that the party was being taken over by state agents. The first individual against whom Maclean made this charge was Lieutenant-Colonel L’Estrange Malone, who had been elected as a Liberal MP in 1918 but following a visit to Russia the next year had become a sympathiser of the Bolshevik Revolution. After sharing a Hands Off Russia platform with him at St Andrew’s Hall Glasgow in November 1919, Maclean became convinced that Malone was "an agent of the Government soothing the Socialists whilst the Government was preparing for a Spring offensive against Russia".11 When Maclean was billed to speak alongside Malone at another Hands Off Russia rally, at the Albert Hall in February 1920, he refused to take part. Efforts by the BSP leader Theodore Rothstein to reason with him failed, and Rothstein’s offer of a paid job as a speaker for the Hands Off Russia campaign only served to convince Maclean that Rothstein too was an agent. When he returned to Glasgow, according to a Special Branch report to the Cabinet, Maclean "announced on an open platform that all the leading Communists in the country, mentioning them by name and including that of Theodore Rothstein, were police spies".12

This paranoia, the origins of which lay in Maclean’s sufferings in prison during the war, reached its culmination at the BSP annual conference in April 1920. According to the Special Branch report, Maclean "rose and made charges against the leaders of being police spies.... It was decided to hold a secret meeting of the Executive to investigate the charges. At this meeting Maclean argued temperately and with some superficial logic that the money received by Theodore Rothstein and Albert Inkpin was Government money; he cited incidents that could only be explained on this hypothesis and challenged them to produce evidence of the source of the money. In reply Inkpin assured his hearers that every penny came directly or indirectly from the Soviet Government.... Maclean’s obsession is quite likely to break up the Communist movement, for he has a large following in Glasgow and in season and out of season he gives vent to these denunciations. The Executive Committee has warned Lenin of John Maclean’s mental state, and in future the Soviet Government will not have relations with him".13 When Maclean tried to get himself accepted as a delegate to the CPGB’s founding conference four months later, the conference organisers refused to accept his credentials, no doubt fearing a repetition of Maclean’s outburst in April.

Maclean thus found himself cut off from the revolutionary movement in England, thrown back on his own resources in Scotland, and excluded from the founding conference of the British section of the Communist International – the latter being a particular blow to him, as he was at this stage still an enthusiastic supporter of the Moscow-based world party. As other historians have pointed out, Maclean’s sudden conversion to the idea of a separate Scottish section of the International, which would conduct the struggle for an independent Workers’ Republic in Scotland, can be best understood as a pragmatic response to the adverse situation he found himself in.14 Certainly, the arguments Maclean advanced in defence of his new policy, which were characterised by abrupt reversals of his established positions and by a complete failure to evaluate the political situation objectively, can only be regarded as rationalisations of a political line adopted for entirely other reasons.

As we have seen, at the end of 1919 Maclean’s view that a new imperialist war was imminent between Britain and the USA had led him to argue for the overthrow of capitalism in Britain and in the United States. In an article published in the Socialist Party of America’s journal New Day as late as July 1920, Maclean was still insisting that to prevent a British-US war "labor must get power in both countries".15 By September that year, however, he had abandoned the struggle for power in Britain as a whole and was asserting that the answer to the threat of war was "an independent Scotland [which] would refuse to let her lads fight the battles of the maniac English".16 Not only does this appear to be an argument thought up to provide a justification for Scottish separatism, but it also represented an adaptation to backward aspects of Scottish nationalism. For the implication was that it would be OK for English and American working class youth to die in an inter-imperialist war, so long as Scotland kept "her lads" out of it – a distinct retreat from the principled internationalism which had characterised Maclean’s politics during the First World War.

Another argument put forward by Maclean was that the more advanced political consciousness of the Scottish working class made it feasible to launch an independent bid for power in Scotland. No doubt this is what Gordon Morgan has in mind when he states that "the near-revolutionary events of 1919 with tanks in George Square made credible John Maclean’s demand for the Scottish workers’ republic".17 The reference is to the Forty Hours strike of January-February 1919, in which clashes between state forces and the Glasgow workers did indeed illustrate the particularly sharp character of the class struggle on Clydeside during that period. But it hardly provided an argument in favour of launching a separate struggle for power in Scotland – on the contrary. The Forty Hours struggle was defeated because it was fought without the participation of trade unions in England and Wales, which allowed the Lloyd George government to concentrate on repression in Scotland, placing Glasgow under military occupation and crushing the strike. If this was the outcome of a separate struggle over a basic trade union issue like a reduction in working hours, how was a separate struggle for state power in Scotland likely to fare? Maclean’s belief that the Scottish working class could successfully take on and defeat the might of British imperialism, in advance of and in isolation from workers in the rest of Britain, and on the basis of a struggle which would have been limited, in practice, to Clydeside and the mining areas of Scotland, lacked an elementary sense of political realism.

Maclean’s main theoretical argument in favour of the fight for a Scottish Workers’ Republic was his sudden discovery that Scotland had effectively been a colonial possession of England – "a helpless, dependent patch of her empire", as he put it – ever since the 1707 Act of Union.18 But if this were so, then it is difficult to understand how Maclean, who had been active in Scottish politics for two decades by this point, had somehow failed to notice it any earlier! The obvious explanation is that this "discovery" was made in order to provide an ideological underpinning to his new separatist line. At any rate, the new policy did not arise from a theoretically serious attempt to demonstrate Scotland’s alleged colonial status within the British Empire, or at least there is none to be found in any of Maclean’s writings of the period.

In line with this unsubstantiated assertion that Scotland was a colony of England, Maclean sought to draw a parallel between his call for Scottish independence and the liberation struggles which were developing elsewhere in the British Empire, particularly in Ireland. On this reasoning, Scottish workers were fully entitled to their own revolutionary party: "We in Scotland must not let ourselves play second fiddle to any organisation with headquarters in London, any more than we would ask Dublin to bend to the will of London."19 Here, admittedly, the argument for Scottish separation was presented less in nationalist than in internationalist terms. Maclean argued, quite rightly, that national liberation struggles directed against British imperialism played a progressive role: "I hold that the British empire is the greatest menace to the human race.... The best interests of humanity can therefore be served by the break-up of the British empire." But he continued: "The Irish, the Indians and others are playing their part. Why ought not the Scottish?"20 The answer, of course, was that whatever disadvantage the Scottish people suffered as a result of their country’s inclusion within the British state, this was in no sense comparable to the weight of national oppression suffered by the Irish or Indian victims of British imperialism. Consequently – and this was point to which Maclean remained oblivious – the prospect of a campaign for Scottish independence gaining the mass backing that characterised liberation struggles in Britain’s colonies was negligible.

Initially, it is true, Maclean’s call for a separate section of the Third International did win support among the revolutionaries of the Scottish Workers’ Committees (SWC), in which the remnants of the wartime shop stewards’ movement were organised. Together, Maclean’s group and the SWC set out to launch a new Scottish revolutionary organisation, to be called the Communist Labour Party. But Maclean’s collaborators from the SWC were in reality syndicalists whose objection to the official CPGB had nothing to do with its all-British character but was directed against its decision to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. Far from encouraging an orientation towards Scottish nationalism, the syndicalist outlook of these militants led them to the view that "nationalism plays little or no part in the struggle between Capital and Labour. This struggle being an economic one, the idealism of nationality is simply smothered in the conflict between the Workers and the Capitalists".21 In October 1920, when Willie Gallacher (who had just returned from the Second Congress of the Third International under instructions from Lenin to unite the British Communists in a single party) intervened at the founding conference of the Communist Labour Party and persuaded the SWC that they could successfully argue their anti-Labour line inside the CPGB, their support for a separate Scottish party evaporated. The forces in Scotland who remained committed to Maclean’s national strategy of revolution amounted to no more than a handful of his close supporters.

The essentially pragmatic character of Maclean’s national turn is underlined by the fact that at the end of 1920, after the collapse of his attempt to launch a Scottish revolutionary party, he became a member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which was hostile to any manifestation of nationalism and poured scorn on the idea of "a Communist Party for ’pure’ Scottishmen".22 In January 1921, when Maclean wrote his famous "Open Letter to Lenin", outlining his objections to the CPGB, he made no reference at all to the national question or to his earlier demand for a separate Scottish party, but instead concentrated on denouncing the CPGB leadership as "conscious and unconscious tools of Lloyd George and the propertied class in Britain".23 Maclean’s resignation from the SLP in November 1921 arose, according to the SLP’s own account, from a dispute concerning the party’s constitution, while Maclean himself explained the break on the grounds that the SLP had "neither fire nor fighters".24 Differences between Maclean and the SLP over the national question appear to have played no part in it.

It was only after Maclean’s release from prison in October 1922, when he once again found himself isolated in Scotland, that he resumed his efforts to launch a specifically Scottish revolutionary party. Having stood in the November 1922 general election on a revolutionary republican platform, in February 1923 he founded the Scottish Workers Republican Party (SWRP). Maclean was now hostile to the Communist International, mainly because of his sectarian opposition to the united front tactic, which he accused the CPGB of adopting under the impact of Moscow’s "dictatorship and finance", and the SWRP’s international links were with the "Fourth International" set up by the German KAPD, Sylvia Pankhurst’s group and other ingrained ultra-leftists25 – which gives some indication of the character of the SWRP’s politics. Up until his death in November 1923, Maclean devoted his efforts to building this tiny, sectarian organisation, whose influence – such as it was – was restricted not just to Scotland but almost exclusively to Glasgow.

In his general election campaigns of 1922 and 1923 Maclean announced that he would not take his seat in parliament if elected but would remain in Scotland to fight for a Workers’ Republic. His tactic was of course based on that earlier adopted by Sinn Féin. But, as I have already pointed out, the national question in Ireland was of a qualitatively different order from that in Scotland. When Sinn Féin stood in the 1918 general election on a programme of complete independence from Britain, it received 79 per cent of the vote and elected 73 MPs. This political base enabled the Irish Republicans to boycott the House of Commons and establish an independent Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann, and then to wage a war of national liberation against British imperialism with mass support. Nothing remotely like this occurred in Scotland during these years.

In fact, by this time support for home rule, even of the limited reformist variety that the Scottish labour movement had advocated earlier, was already beginning to wane. The end of the economic boom and the rise of mass unemployment in this instance led workers to look for solutions at an all-British political level, and this found its expression in the Labour Party’s unprecedented successes in Scotland in the 1922 general election. Clydeside workers expected their elected representatives to defend their interests in the Westminster parliament – this, after all, was why they had elected them – and Maclean’s proposal that the Labour MPs should join him in adopting the Sinn Féin tactic, refuse to go to Westminster and form a Scottish parliament instead, was completely at odds with the existing political situation.

In 1922 Maclean was soundly defeated by the official Labour candidate, and his vote would almost certainly have fallen further in 1923 if he had not died on the eve of the election. The 4,000 votes he did receive in 1922 were almost certainly in recognition of his personal record as a class fighter rather than an endorsement of his call for a Scottish Workers’ Republic. The response of the Glasgow working class to Maclean’s Scottish Republican politics, rather than to Maclean the individual, can be gauged by the derisory level of electoral support for SWRP candidates other than Maclean. When they stood in the 1923 local elections in Glasgow the proportion of the total vote these candidates received was on a par with that achieved in more recent years by the Monster Raving Loony Party. This is surely a sufficient comment on the relevance of Maclean’s nationalist line to the concerns of Scottish workers.

Are there any lessons to be learned from Maclean’s approach to the Scottish national question? Well, yes – but they are exclusively negative lessons. As I argued at the beginning of this article, the challenge for Marxists is to identify the exact weight which the national question has in Scottish politics at a particular time, and to develop practical politics which relate to the existing situation. Maclean failed to answer this challenge. His turn to Scottish Republicanism was motivated by hostility to a CPGB which he believed had been taken over by state agents and whose united front politics he rejected on sectarian grounds; it was not the outcome of a serious attempt to grapple with the complexities of the Scottish national question. As a result, the political tactics he adopted bore no relationship to the actual consciousness of the working class in Scotland. The slogan of a Scottish Workers’ Republic evoked no response from the workers in whose name the republic was to be established, and by the end of his life Maclean had been politically marginalised, even in his former stronghold of Glasgow.

In conclusion, I would argue that the case of John Maclean illustrates the futility of reducing historical figures to heroic symbols. Maclean’s immense courage in defying the capitalist state during and after the First World War is of course incontestable, and it remains an inspiration to this day. But he was a real living human being, and he made mistakes, often disastrous ones. If we are to learn something from his example, it is necessary to face up to this fact, if only in order to avoid the repetition of these mistakes today. It does no service to the memory of a man like Maclean to transform him into a revolutionary icon or socialist saint, to cover up his errors and respond to reasoned criticism of his politics by throwing tantrums and denouncing "the chauvinistic arrogance of the Brit left" – which is a reaction I got when I participated in a debate on Maclean’s legacy in Glasgow recently. We should reject attempts by Maclean’s present-day votaries to substitute mythology for Marxism. The task of socialist historians is to say what was, and to draw the relevant lessons from this, not to engage in sterile exercises in hagiography.


1. Scottish Socialist Voice, 20 June 1997.

2. H.J. Hanham, Scottish Nationalism, 1969, p.114.

3. D. Howell, A Lost Left, 1986, pp.208-9.

4. Ibid, pp.166-7.

5. J.D. Young, The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class, 1979, p.195.

6. Howell, p.207.

7. N. Milton, John Maclean, 1973, p.203.

8. J. Maclean, In the Rapids of Revolution, 1978, p.190.

9. Milton, p.202.

10. Young, p.195.

11. Milton, p.227.

12. R. Pitt, John Maclean and the CPGB, 1995, p.13.

13. Ibid, p.14.

14. See in particular J. McHugh and B. Ripley, "John Maclean, the Scottish Workers Republican Party and Scottish Nationalism", Scottish Labour History Society Journal, 1983. This forms the basis of Chapter 7 of B. Ripley and J. McHugh, John Maclean, 1989.

15. J.D. Young, John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist, 1992, p.21.

16. Howell, p.216.

17. Weekly Worker, 28 August 1997.

18. Maclean, p.218.

19. Ibid, p.224.

20. Ibid, p.220.

21. Pitt, pp.35-6.

22. The Socialist, 5 October 1920.

23. Pitt, p.42.

24. Ibid, p.23; Ripley and McHugh, p.167.

25. Young, John Maclean, p.239.