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John Maclean and the Communist International: Two Views of the Revolutionary Process

Walter Kendall

This essay was published in 1979 in the collection John Maclean: Centenary Essays.

THE WORLD communist movement, with it the communist parties of every land, the British included, was launched with the founding of the Communist International, in the Old Courts of Justice, a building within the Kremlin tall at Moscow, erected in the time of Catherine the Great. The inaugural sessions, held between 2-19 March 1919, took place some sixty years ago.

The Communist International, it is too frequently forgotten, was a unitary organisation, a single world party, its headquarters in Russia, its national sections, the CPGB, the PCF, the PCI, the CPUSA no more than local branches of a single unitary political organisation, conforming to a single world discipline. The Communist Party of Great Britain was as much a part of the Comintern as the Falkirk branch of the Scottish National Party is a constituent section of the SNP, bound by its policy, ruled by its National Executive in much the same way. The British, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Irish, Uruguay, South African, Chinese, national sections were each bound by the Congress decisions of the Comintern, bound too, by their constitution to carry out without question all the decisions of its Executive, meeting in Moscow. The Comintern saw the world as one, envisaged the world proletariat as one also. It followed therefore that the "party of the world proletariat" must be a unified organisation in exactly the same way. The "leading role" in the party of the world proletariat belonged as of right to the Soviet Communist Party which had accomplished "The Glorious October Revolution". In fact therefore, although not in name, the Comintern, despite the intentions of many of its founders, inevitably became little more than an extension abroad, into other lands, of the apparatus of the "leading party" of the Comintern, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

When the Comintern and with it the British party was founded, Lenin was almost fifty years of age. John Maclean, like Trotsky who was born in the same year, was some nine years younger. Maclean and Lenin came from very different backgrounds, their life experience was disparate and highly contrasted, their social, national and above all class origins were poles apart. In such circumstances that their ideas about the nature of the social revolutionary process should widely differ was hardly surprising.

Marxism teaches us, if we understand it properly, that man’s liberation will come about not at all as the result of his blind acceptance of any set of ideological precepts but rather in consequence of a proper perception of the true nature of the class divided society in which we live. The cause of socialism in short does not derive its validity at all from religion, ideology, philosophy, or from pure reason. Socialism, in Marx’s view, springs not from "Idealism" in the philosophical sense, but rather from a true recognition of class interest.

Socialism in Russia, the ideology shared by all factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, of which Lenin, equally with Martovsky, Plekhanov, Stalin, Axelrod, Theodore Dan, even for a while Rosa Luxemburg were members, from the beginning however manifested a highly ideological content, a significantly religious element. As early as 1903, the year of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, Rosa Luxemburg had pointed out that in Western Europe the proletarian class emerged first; Marxism, its ideological expression, manifested itself on the social scene only at a later date.

"In Russia" by contrast, wrote Luxemburg, "there is being attempted the experiment of creating a social democracy [before the establishment] of the political regime of the bourgeoisie.... To the social democracy of Russia has fallen the task to interfere deliberately with a portion of the historical process and to lead the proletariat directly out of political atomisation, which is the basis of the absolute regime, to the highest form of organisation, as an aim-conscious, fighting class. The question of organisation is, therefore, particularly difficult for Russian social democracy, above all because it must, lacking the political material ... create out of empty air, like God himself, out of nothing, that which ordinarily is previously prepared by the bourgeois society."

In the Russian socialist movement, in the nature of things, and this held true in greater or lesser degree of all its manifold competing factions, ten, twenty or more in number, there was always a tendency for the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, to play a disproportion ate role, to substitute themselves for the working class which as yet existed only in embryo; to see the future liberation of the working class as depending on its leadership by an elite possessing the right ideas, rather then the recognition by the class itself of its own true class interest.

The British socialist movement, the English, the Welsh, the Irish, above all the Scots, as exemplified in its most mature form by John Maclean, tended to develop in an entirely different way.

Lenin’s standing as a revolutionary leader is generally accepted. Amongst Scots socialists at least Maclean’s name is equally well known. It is Lenin – rather than the War Office employee Theodore Rothstein; the shop stewards, "Wee Arthur" Macmanus, Tom Bell and Harry Pollitt; the Balliol graduate Ranji Palme-Dutt; the old syndicalist William Gallacher – who is properly to be understood as the ideological and practical mentor of the Communist International, thus the true founder of the CPGB, which was never more in these years than a minor component part of the Comintern as a whole. Maclean was every bit as much a revolutionary as Lenin, Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, the whole Russian party recognised as much when they invited him to attend the First Congress of the Communist International. Yet Maclean never joined the CPGB, was never a member of the Communist Party or the Communist International.

In Maclean’s last years, particularly in the decades that followed his death in 1923, the rumour was widely circulated that Maclean would have joined the Communist Party but for the fact that owing to the rigours of his repeated imprisonments his mind had become unhinged. That these rumours were always quite unsubstantiated is confirmed by all those who knew Maclean in his last years. Further testimony is provided by Maclean’s own personal correspondence available for consultation in the National Library of Scotland. Certain of these letters are reproduced in James Clunie’s Voice of Labour, published in 1958. Others are cited in Nan Milton’s two excellent volumes, her biography of John Maclean, her more recent selection from his writings published under the title of In the Rapids of Revolution.

The essential facts of this matter were conclusively demonstrated in my Revolutionary Movement in Britain published ten years ago in 1969. The rumours of Maclean’s alleged mental unbalance were politically motivated, were put about consciously and deliberately by malicious persons unable and unwilling to meet and confront Maclean’s ideas head on, persons who sought instead by secret slander to destroy both his personal and his political reputation.

In short Lenin, who founded the Communist International, with it the British Communist Party, held one view of the revolutionary process. This view sprang from Lenin’s own experience, experience limited almost entirely to the Russian political scene. Maclean stood aside from Lenin’s analysis, steered quite a different course, did so because he held quite another view of the revolutionary process, one based on British experience, especially that of the working class movement in Scotland, particularly that of the Clyde.

Lenin and Maclean held different views of the revolutionary process not due to abstract reasoning, or due to questions of personality, but because their practical experience of life was different, because as a result the conclusions they drew from that experience were of a different character. Indeed one may go further. Each was anti-capitalist. Each used the same terminology. Yet in a very real sense the revolution which each sought to bring about was of a qualitatively different order.

In what way then did the practical experience of Lenin differ from that of John Maclean? How was it that they came to view the process of social revolution in such a radically different way?

In Britain, the heartland of the industrial revolution, the old craft unions had emerged already at the turn of the 18th century. The Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s shook British society to its foundations and this at a time when three-quarters of the Russian population still endured a form of serfdom banished from Britain several centuries earlier. In Britain the working class in being ante-dated the modern socialist movement by decades, had existed for more than fifty years before either SDF or ILP appeared on the scene. In Britain socialism was linked to the working class movement from its very beginning. In Russia the junction between socialism and the working class was accomplished, and that very incompletely, only at a much later date.

The difference in the overall social context is amply illustrated by the life history of Scotland and Russia’s greatest revolutionaries.

John Maclean was born on 24th August 1879, in Pollokshaws, then a busy industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow, at this time the very heartland of the greatest industrial and imperial power the world had ever seen.

Lenin was born on 22nd April 1870 at Simbirsk, a small town on the Volga, 100 miles from the nearest railway station. Tsarist Russia was at this time by universal consent, the most backward nation in Europe. No visitor to Simbirsk in these years would have failed to note the fact.

John Maclean was the sixth child of poor working class parents, each the victim of the Highland Clearances.

Lenin was the third child of an upwardly mobile, well-to-do Tsarist functionary, the Director of Public Schools for the whole province of Simbirsk.

Maclean was of working class origin. Lenin, who on at least one occasion referred to himself as "in a sense .... a scion of the landed gentry", was the son of an hereditary aristocrat who held a rank equivalent to that of a Major-General in the Army. Lenin’s Tsarist passport denoted this rank. Formal protocol required that properly he be addressed as "Excellency".

Maclean was educated at elementary school, gained an M.A. at Glasgow University in his spare time, then worked as a school teacher, taught working class children for the greater part of his adult life.

Lenin was educated at his parent’s expense at the best school in Simbirsk (Kerensky’s father was headmaster), then went on to the Universities of Kazan and St. Petersburg. There, as a full time student, he took a law degree. Lenin practised law without notable success for two years, then, after a spell in exile, went abroad. Whilst abroad Lenin was supported in part by his mother in law, with whom he and Krupskaya lived; in part by remittances from his own mother in Russia; at times on income received as a party functionary. Between 1900-1917 there seems to be no evidence that Lenin ever worked for his living in any normal sense at all.

Maclean joined the SDF early on, as a propagandist toured all of Scotland speaking to working class audiences, toured large areas of England and Wales, spoke also in Ireland, both North and South.

Lenin by contrast, after a meagre two years active service in the Russian underground, spent almost the whole of the next seventeen years totally preoccupied with the highly sectarian infighting which characterised all the Russian émigré groups. In Geneva during 1904, Valentinov, then a fellow Bolshevik, told Lenin how on one occasion he had spoken in front of 2,500 workers for a quarter of an hour. "You’re lucky", Lenin commented enviously. "When I was at St Petersburg I never had the opportunity to speak before more than fifteen workers. I don’t even know if my voice is strong enough to speak before a crowd."

Lenin’s life in short had been almost totally occupied with conspiracy. Maclean had been occupied almost totally with agitation, propaganda, workers education.

Maclean of course spoke English, had an intimate knowledge of the whole British working class and socialist movement. Lenin had spent only the briefest period of his life in England, spoke little English, as late as the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921 could still pass a note to Tom Bell asking "How many miners are there in Britain? More than 500,00O?", and this at a time when the number was well in excess of one million. That Maclean rather than Lenin was best fitted to plot a course for the British labour movement is surely plain.

Maclean as befitted a socialist from the Clyde, then perhaps the greatest single concentration of industrial working class power in the whole globe, saw socialism as emerging from the ever rising class consciousness, the consequent ever rising militancy, of the working class as a whole. As a result he devoted the greatest single part of his activity to working class education in the widest sense, an activity well exemplified by his Economic Classes during the War, by the launching of the Scottish Labour College. The problem of revolution in Maclean’s eyes was one of CONSCIOUSNESS rather than of leadership. The workers could do the job all right. What they needed was the WILL.

Lenin, as was to be expected of a socialist from one of the most backward nations in the world, a nation in which the working class, numerically weak, was still in the process of coming into being, specifically excluded the possibility that under capitalism the working class might ever become properly conscious of its true historic role. "Social Democratic consciousness among the workers ... could only be brought to them from without" Lenin believed, wrote accordingly in his What is to Be Done?. "The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able only to develop trade union consciousness." Accordingly, "Aside from the influence of Social Democracy", as Lenin termed the party at that time, "there is no conscious activity of the workers".

In Lenin’s view, as against that of Maclean, the workers by themselves could not do the job at all. The problem of working class consciousness, by definition, was insoluble. Only by grafting on to the largely unconscious working class movement a discrete, self-activating, professional leadership, a leadership recruited predominantly from among the intelligentsia, could the revolution be achieved. What was required to make a successful revolution was that the working class should be led by persons possessing the right ideas. Once it conquered political power the party would centralise the means of production, hitherto privately owned, in the hands of the state. Then, relying on the coercive power of the state machine, as in Eastern Europe today, ruling "on behalf of" the working class, but in fact over and above it, if necessary in flat contradiction to its will, the party would re-shape society in the fashion which it saw fit.

Maclean saw the socialist party as representing the most advanced elements of the working class, its essential task that of propagandising the nature of capitalist reality, indicating the best fashion in which the class struggle might be pursued in order that the WORKERS THEMSELVES might conquer the old society, re-fashion it into the new. Agitation, strikes, parliamentary activity, the General Strike, insurrection, were all equally admissible given the end in view.

Lenin by contrast saw the party as a form of Jacobin conspiracy. The party was to be "a stable organisation of leaders", an independent, highly selective, highly disciplined body of professional revolutionaries, chiefly recruited from the educated revolutionary intelligentsia ... [which] at the decisive moment [would] take over the leadership and seize power". The party in short was a discrete element, separate and apart from the class. It was a "leading organ" grafted onto a "mass" of necessity unconscious of the destiny to which all unknowing it was to be marshalled to fulfil.

Maclean saw the party as the embodiment of the consciousness of the most advanced elements of the working class. Lenin saw the party as a substitute for the working class altogether.

Maclean’s party, by definition, like the society he sought to create, was open and democratic. Lenin’s party was of necessity rigidly centralised, authoritarian, one in which all power rested with a self-reproducing oligarchy of salaried professional party functionaries.

Maclean’s view of the post revolutionary society, we know from his support of The Miners’ Next Step, was one in which production would be self-administered by a working class at last grown conscious of its own true interest. Lenin by contrast, in part by intent. in part as a prisoner of Russian circumstances, came to see the post revolutionary society as one in which the means of production, now nationalised, were to be held all in the hands of the state. Political government meanwhile, as the present Soviet Constitution specifically requites, was to be vested in the sole legal political organisation, the Communist Party. Under such a system, the masses being in effect disenfranchised, the party rather than the people becomes the owner of the state, with it all productive property. First the private owners are expropriated, then the masses, leaving the professional full-time party apparatus in sole control. It is as if the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church ruled not the Vatican City alone, but the whole of Italy, or a better comparison, the whole of Latin America.

The Second Revolution of 1917, the revolution by which the Bolsheviks overthrew the regime which had destroyed absolutism, forced the abdication of the Tsar, established political democracy for the first time in Russia, placed at Lenin’s disposal enormous prestige, and the whole vast treasury of the Russian state. As Edgar Whitehead of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Communist Party (British Section of the Third Internation) wrote at this time: "The Comrades who have started the World Revolution have also written the World Theses [of the Communist International].... It is a terrible knock-out blow of an argument, ‘This is how we did the job’." Lenin, with this immense prestige at his disposal, proceeded to fashion the Communist International as a mirror image of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP which in March 1918 had re-christened itself as the Communist Party of Russia.

The attempt to build the Communist International as a single world party, no different in structure and policy in Tashkent than in Tokyo, in Novosibirsk than in New York, in Moscow than in Madrid, in the Caucasus than on Clydeside, was doomed to failure from the first. The attempts to enforce unanimity resulted only in raising bureaucracy to unparalleled heights, heights which made even the most bureaucratic social democratic party appear a free-wheeling anarchist club by comparison. The mistaken endeavour to direct the whole world socialist movement from a single centre led to a series of unparalleled disasters of which the totally unnecessary triumph of Hitler in 1933, the resulting world war, the holocaust, the death of 6,000,000 Jews, is but the most obvious example. With means of communication as undeveloped as they were in the 1920s the Centre always reacted too late; and then usually on the basis of an inadequate or altogether false understanding of the situation at the periphery. It became an obligatory requirement of every party functionary who aspired to a position of national leadership that he cease to think independently, to act on his own initiative; content himself instead with enunciating parrot fashion the current party line, the current political slogans, laid down by the "all wise" Executive Committee of the Communist International meeting in Moscow.

Lenin began to realise that something was badly wrong as early as the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922. "At the Third Congress in 1921", Lenin informed the assembled delegates on this occasion, "we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the method and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions – it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit ... if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out ... we blocked our own road to future success ... the resolution is ... quite unintelligible to foreigners and they cannot be content with hanging it in a corner like an ikon and praying it".

Despite Lenin’s disavowal of the organisational structure of the communist parties, a structure uniformly enforced by the Comintern, a disavowal far firmer in expression than the terms of the famous "Testament" calling for the dismissal of Stalin as General Secretary, this resolution continues to govern the structure and performance of the Communist, Euro-Communist and Trotskyist parties right down to the present day.

To insist that Maclean saw all of this as clearly in 1920 as we do today would be to exaggerate. Yet it does seem reasonable to insist that already at this tire he had made an essentially correct analysis.

In December 1920, in his paper Vanguard, Maclean wrote with commendable prescience, "We stand for the marxian method applied to British conditions. The less the Russians interfere in the internal affairs of other countries at this juncture the better for the cause of revolution in those countries." In an "Open Letter to Lenin" published in The Socialist of 30 January 1921 Maclean was at some pains to warn the Russian leader that he was being badly misinformed about the true situation in Britain, went on to express well justified suspicion of some of the persons then being appointed to important posts in the Communist Party leadership. Maclean’s Election Address during 1922 was yet more forthright. "In spite of my keen desire to help Lenin and the other comrades 1 am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow." "The Communist Party" Maclean continued "has sold itself to Moscow, with disastrous results both to Russia and to the British revolutionary movement." Maclean in short was a Marxist but in no sense a Leninist; he knew full well that these two were in no sense the same, indeed were scarcely capable of reconciliation.

Maclean’s charge that the Communist Party "has sold itself to Moscow" it should be added, was in no sense a picturesque exaggeration. According to a well known member of the Communist Party of these days, a member of the Communist Party’s own Control Commission, a man with open access to all the party’s own secret archives, in the first years of the Communist Party "£85,000 had been sent from Russia" and this at a time when the party’s income from its own subscriptions amounted only to a meagre £7,500. Even these figures in fact grossly underestimate the extent of the Russo-Comintern subsidy. The facts, with the sources are readily available, Are to be found in the chapter on "The Russian Influence" in my volume on The Revolutionary Movement in Britain. In the early years around 90p in every £1.00 of Communist Party income was forthcoming from Russia. Without this income, the party apparatus, the whole party as we came to know it, would simply have disintegrated overnight.

The accuracy of Maclean’s analysis if the Scots situation as against that of Lenin, that of the Communist International, is borne out by the fact that up to around the time of his death his own support in Glasgow appeared to measure up to or exceed that of the CPGB. This was despite the fact that the Communist party in Glasgow, small though it was, was already employing several full time functionaries; by Nan Milton’s account paid its organisers in the local unemployed movement as much as £4.00 a week. This was at a moment when Maclean’s Scottish Workers Republican Party was dependent entirely on popular, subscription. Maclean in fact worked himself to death in the unequal struggle to compete with this externally funded competition. Grossly overworked, badly undernourished, he fell victim, quite without other good reason to pneumonia, died in November 1923.

John Maclean’s fate, that of his Scottish Workers Republican Party, was a foretaste of what the future would hold for others. Not only in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but also in every other country around the world, the strength of each national Communist party, the size of its professional apparatus, the circulation of its publications, bore no relation to its true level of public support, was determined rather by the size of the expense budget it received from the Comintern exchequer.

Neither in Scotland nor elsewhere in Europe did the Communist Party ever become strong enough to produce a revolution. Yet in case after case, in country after country, external funding made otherwise weak communist parties strong enough to stifle or destroy their native left wing rivals, to gain a measure of public credibility that would have been quite impossible by virtue of their own unaided efforts.

On balance, in the light of the historical record, it seems clear that Maclean’s courageous decision to refuse allegiance to the Communist International, his decision not to join the Communist Party of Great Britain was entirely justified. Maclean saw already in 1920 what a whole generation of present day would-be revolutionaries have still to recognise today; that the revolutionary tradition in Britain had nothing in common with Leninism; that Lenin himself knew little or nothing about British conditions; that his advice when given was all too frequently quite wrong; that the endeavour to interpret British reality through Russian experience, to bring about a revolution in Britain by the methods which brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia during 1917 was doomed to failure.

Maclean refused to accept the Comintern-Communist view of the workers party as a closed, conspiratorial, military style, elitist body, chose instead to believe that the party should be an open, democratic organisation. Here too he seems to have been correct.

Viewed in the light of sixty years experience Maclean’s refusal to accent Lenin’s emphasis on leadership as against consciousness seems equally well founded. In Russia the Communist Party has now held the working population under enforced tutelage for more than sixty years. After half a century it is no more willing to set them free than it was in Lenin and Trotsky’s time at the very beginning. If a half century’s rule is not enough time for the party to prepare men to be free, what grounds have we for belief that any period, however long, would ever be long enough?

Much the same holds true in Eastern Europe where the Communist parties have held sway for close on forty years. Here, as the cases of Poland and Czechoslovakia amply demonstrate Communist rule would crumble tomorrow were it not for the presence of the Russian Army.

In Eastern Europe indeed, the Communist parties, like the bourgeoisie in the West, will do anything for the workers except to get off their back.

In Britain, the Communist Party, which Maclean correctly refused to join, is no more than a sterile and impotent sect. In continental Europe the Communist Party in Italy is strong precisely because increasingly, except in forms of internal party organisation, it ceases in any meaningful sense to be "communist" at all. When the Communist Parties of France and Italy, as their do today, declare against the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (that is to say their own one party rule), they are simply saying that the very foundation of the Communist International, of their own parties, was a mistake, that they ought never to have been established, ought now to dissolve.

The line of revolutionary legitimacy in short does not lie through the communist and Trotskyist movements at all. The Leninist model, exemplified by all the parties which grew out of the Communist International has nothing to teach those who wish to emancipate the working class in the West, in any of the modern industrial countries of the world,

The line of revolutionary legitimacy lies instead through all those who through the years, like John Maclean, have placed their confidence in the rank and file as against the apparatus, who have never failed to act upon their belief that the working class has the innate capacity for self liberation, and this without the arbitrary tutelage of any self termed elite whether Leninist, "Marxist-Leninist", Communist, Trotskyist, Maoist, or whatever. The line of revolutionary legitimacy lies through the movement for workers’ control, for workers’ self-management, through the mass upsurge of movements like that against the Industrial Relations Act, through the actions of those brave men in Russia, Poland, Roumania who demand the right to form free trade unions independent of the state, to express, to fight for, the workers’ demands.

Maclean’s personal example, his political thought, does not at all, as some have suggested, point down a dead end, down some unimportant bye way of history. Instead his insistence that revolutionary action in Britain must be based on a Marxist interpretation of British reality, rather than one steeped in specifically Russian, Leninist misconceptions, teaches a lesson we all must learn. Now, in 1979, it is all too clear that the road Maclean rightly rejected, the road would-be revolutionaries for close on six decades have sought to travel, results in no more than uselessly ploughing the sand, leads its advocates nowhere but into a desert of failed hopes, of bitter and quite unnecessary defeats.

Maclean’s decision not to give allegiance to the Communist International, not to join the Communist Party, in no sense rested on a misunderstanding. It bears witness to the fact that there remains another, more genuine, more authentic revolutionary tradition, one which continues to point the way down to the present time. It is fitting that now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth we should remember this, pay him tribute by our deeds, as he would have wished.