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John Maclean, the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party and Scottish Nationalism

J. McHugh and B.J. Ripley

JAMES CLUNIE, one of the closest associates of John Maclean’s later years, has stated: "his party, the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, was created out of extremity, more as an instrument with which he could attack his enemy than as a movement to bear fruit."1 With some modification, we believe that such a notion can be usefully applied to Maclean’s whole involvement with Scottish nationalism. This particular aspect of Maclean’s later career has loomed large because, unlike the slur that he was mentally unbalanced, it can be shared by friends and detractors alike. On the one hand, a kind of Scottish New Left has been able to appropriate him to its own brand of neo-nationalism while some orthodox Marxists have found it a simple explanation for his apparently aberrant refusal to join the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).2

A wholly different posture has been adopted by, for example, I.S. Maclean3 who argues that Maclean’s nationalism is hardly worthy of discussion, simply because it was "pragmatic", not orthodox, and always subordinate to his Marxism. Those do not seem grounds for dismissing a view, on one particular question, that was serious and considered: it was reiterated too often and too clearly to be other. Lenin’s advice on national questions in general is well known, as is his view that Irish nationalism was to be supported. The question – about which Lenin knew nothing – of whether Scotland was an exploited nation and, above all, whether a genuine nationalist sentiment existed was not a simple judgement. Neither conclusion is absurd from a Marxist point of view as long as, like Maclean’s, it is contingent on concrete circumstances.

We would argue, however, that it was not the cause of his estrangement from the CPGB and that it was not of primary political importance either to Maclean or to the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party (SWRP). His quarrel with the embryo Communist Party was well under way before he espoused the notion for the first time.4 Previously he had been content to remain in an all-British, British Socialist Party (BSP). Nan Milton herself quotes an earlier expression of Maclean’s in Justice (27.7.12), "... those curious cranks whimsically styled ‘The Scottish Patriots’", though, of course, she claims that the disdain was reserved for a moderate brand of "home rulers".5

In fact Maclean’s position in regard to the Communist Party, about to be launched in 1920, placed him in something of a dilemma. Though hostile to British developments, he remained wholly loyal to the Bolshevik Revolution and its leaders. This included the principle, laid down in the seventeenth point of the Theses and Statutes of the Third International, that there could be only one Communist Party in each country. Since Maclean wanted a different one to the CPGB, the discovery that Scotland was a separate country provided one way of squaring the circle.

This solution was the more attractive because of several other circumstances pushing in the same direction. Probably the most important of these were events in Ireland. The Rebellion of 1916, the execution of James Connolly, and the activities of the Black and Tans were traumatic for all British revolutionaries but especially for those in Glasgow. Connolly’s personal connections with the city and with Maclean, as well as the high level of activity by the numerous local Sinn Féin branches, cried loudly for an act of solidarity. The balance of attention in Maclean’s public writings showed how deeply the Irish situation affected him.6 Moreover. Maclean was convinced that a war between Britain and America, the world’s leading imperialist powers, was imminent. Since the Scottish coast was crucial to British contingency plans, the principle of revolutionary defeatism, applied in advance, would encompass a nationalist strategy.

These considerations were real enough, as was the conviction that the cause of revolution was further advanced in Scotland than in England. This does not mean that nationalism occupied the central place in his philosophy. We have mentioned the tendency to appropriate Maclean to a more fundamentally nationalist posture and consequently to divert attention from the depth of his disagreement with the policies of the CPGB. A small illustration of this is offered in the pamphlet John Maclean and Scottish Independence, where Nan Milton writes that the more advanced revolutionary feeling in Scotland "... was naturally reflected in the outlook of the majority of the EC [of the BSP] members who were, of course, English. Policies which suited English conditions rather than Scottish ones were adopted in a perfectly democratic manner".7

The argument is one which Maclean never used. It is certain that he did not regard those policies as suited to England any more than to Scotland; he repeatedly made clear that the manner in which they were taken was deeply suspect rather than "perfectly democratic".

After twice trying and failing to establish a Scottish Communist Party, Maclean became a member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), a party which firmly rejected the notion of "a Communist Party for pure Scotsmen". Neither Maclean nor the SLP abandoned their respective positions and the former occasionally argued his case in the columns of The Socialist. The issue was simply not of sufficient importance to inhibit their co-operation for nearly two years, from January 1921 to October 1922.

At this latter date Maclean was released from his latest spell in prison and parted from the SLP which, he claimed, had neither "fire nor fighters". Although the SWRP appears to have been founded largely with defectors from that party, his relations with it remained quite amicable. James Clunie, who remained with the SLP, was a close correspondent for the rest of Maclean’s life and some of his letters to Clunie indicate that attitude. "Your men, if in Glasgow, must come right up and identify themselves with us at meetings, and we’ll here be only too pleased to put them up on the ‘stool’".8

In these same letters there is a remarkable absence of reference to any national perspectives during 1923. The major political conflict is described throughout as that between the "Reds" and the "Pinks" and his quarrel with the CPGB continues to be, not that it is English, but that it is unprincipled and that it is "playing it very dirty". Typical extracts are:

"The CP have thus smashed the unemployed movement all over Glasgow and are, in consequence of the UF with the ‘Pinks’, smashing their now discredited party."9

"It’s a scream by the way, for the CPGB here doing dirty work against us in the name of the ‘United Front’, when the CP is compelled to start a rival union in Fife".10

"All the stewards were CP men [at a Trades Council demonstration]. So there you have it, the CP acting as scavengers for the ‘Pinks’. We have ours on Friday and yesterday I had a wire from Sylvia Pankhurst that she’s coming on Friday.... The nominations of our twelve candidates are in and the Glasgow Herald gave a good boost to the ‘Red Menace’."

Further evidence, which has largely been ignored, is offered by the conduct of the SWRP and its paper after Maclean’s death. I.S. Maclean has observed that the "‘Scottish Workers’ Republican Party’, which he founded, fought no elections and did not long outlive him".12 The SWRP actually fought several elections, both before and after Maclean’s death. Apart from his own two parliamentary campaigns in the Gorbals in 1922 and 1923, the Party fought twelve seats in the Municipal Election of 1923.13 It was still fighting elections in at least four wards in 193114 and had certainly fought one in 1928.15 There may well have been more.

Apart from their electoral activities the "claymore communists", as the CPGB dubbed them, were involved in the free speech agitation on Glasgow Green in 1924.16 The following year saw the issue of an SWRP manifesto and in 1927 the party began the publication of a monthly paper. At least forty-six issues of the Scottish Workers’ Republic were produced up to August 1932 and perhaps later, since that month’s issue was boasting of membership increases and announcing its plans for the republication of Maclean’s writings in pamphlet form.

The repeated invocation of Maclean’s name, references to "the founder", observance of anniversaries and so on, is not its only claim to continuity. Prominent activists such as Edward Rennie, Peter M’Intyre, and John Ball were founder members with Maclean and the columns of the paper must provide some reflection of the original line on the national independence issue. On the one hand both the 1925 manifesto and the party constitution propound a somewhat defensive statement of a nationalist posture, arguing that it is "no more inconsistent with internationalism than is the demand for a Workers’ Republic for India, Egypt or Ireland".17 On the other hand the dozen or so monthly issues of the paper which we have been able to read contain no references to the national question apart from a single disparaging article on the inadequacies of "home rulers". The central themes are attacks on the "parliamentary road", gradualism and the united front. "Our advice to the CP is get off your knees and stop crawling to the Labour Party and concentrate upon getting your organisation into a clean and healthy revolutionary position".18 A recurrent theme, reminiscent of the SLP, is that trade disputes or other "fights against the effects of capitalism" are not to be mistaken for gains in themselves, but are to be utilised as the gaining of experience for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

One item in particular is extremely revealing of how the Scottish independence issue is scarcely relevant to the SWRP. In 1928 a long editorial posed the question, "The General Election – Shall We Vote?" The anti-parliamentarians, it observed, would be advising the boycott of the ballot whilst the CPGB would recommend voting Labour in one place and Communist in another. Maclean’s principle was then examined: ".... the founder of the SWRP, Comrade John Maclean MA, gave the answer to that question in his 1922 Parliamentary Address to the Gorbals. He said, ‘If you cannot vote for me then vote for the Labour Candidate’. As well as opposing the Labour politicians because they could not do other than mislead the people for the sake of £400 a year, he had no objection to allowing them to prove his words with a majority in Parliament.... But someone might say, ‘this is just what the CP of GB think. Maclean therefore had no right to organise another Party’."19

One might expect that advocates of Scottish independence would produce the obvious national reason for organising a specifically Scottish Communist Party, but not one word emerges to this effect. Instead there follows a denunciatory review of Communist Party history from Left-Wing Communism onward, itemising its crawling for affiliation to the Labour Party, its support for Henderson, the murderer of Connolly, etc., etc. These, it claimed, were the antics which had disgusted Maclean. The argument is not very subtle and neither is the version of Maclean’s differences with the CPGB, but it does reflect accurately enough the place of the independence issue in the priorities of the SWRP and its founder.

The whole balance of the paper presents a sharp contrast to that of the Scots Socialist of the 1930s and ’40s where the proportion of Marxism to nationalism is inverse. This paper, like the much later Scottish Vanguard, has attempted to claim Maclean for a nationalist perspective which there is no evidence that either he or his immediate followers shared. He was never "committed to a romantic Celtic Communism"20 and James D. Young is right in saying that only one article in the legion that he wrote can be so interpreted.21 Erskine of Marr rated less space in The Vanguard22 than he did in The Socialist, that inveterate foe of Scots nationalist causes.

The last word in getting Maclean totally wrong can be left to Hugh McDiarmid because it is not a very new New Left which struggles to harness Maclean to neo-nationalism: "... Maclean was on sound and profound Leninist lines and was quite untainted by the Trotskyist exaltation of world revolution instead of getting on with the work immediately to hand".23

The distinction is not one Maclean would even have understood. His most often repeated justification for his position on Scottish independence was that it would be a blow at the heart of British Imperialism which he, together with the Third International, regarded as the main obstacle to that very world revolution.


1. James Clunie, The Voice of Labour, 1955.

2. For a full discussion of this issue, see W. Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21, 1969; also R. Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977. It is clearly arguable that Maclean was excluded by the CPGB rather than that he refused to join.

3. I.S. Maclean, The Labour Movement in Clydeside Politics, 1914-22, Ph.D. thesis, Oxford, 1971.

4. The first public declaration appears to have been in The Vanguard, September 1920.

5. In John Maclean and Scottish Independence. Pamphlet published by the John Maclean Society.

6. The Vanguard, May 1920-December 1920.

7. Op. cit.

8. Letter from Maclean to Clunie, 23.7.23. In Clunie, op. cit., p.96.

9. Letter from Maclean to Clunie, 4.6.23. Ibid., p.92.

10. Letter from Maclean to Clunie, 13.6.23. Ibid., p.93.

11. Letter from Maclean to Clunie, 28.10.23. Ibid., p.101.

12. I.S. Maclean, op. cit., p.234.

13. The candidates were as follows:

Kinning Park – J. MacleanGovan Central – Peter Marshall
Kingston – C. MacleanHutchiesontown – John Ball
Townhead – Edward RennieMaryhill – Peter M’Intyre
Woodside – Allan HannahAnderston – Alexander Shane
Mile End – Thomas M’GregorCowcaddens – Frank Sheylin
Gorbals – Normal M’NeilCalton – Thomas Hitman

14. The 1931 candidates were:

Govan – Edward RennieFairfield – Joseph P. Vincent
Cowcaddens – B. Evans Paisley (3rd Ward) – R. Carlton

R. Carlton came 3rd of 5, with more than 240 votes.

15. Hutchiesontown – P. M’Intyre.

16. The bye-law forbidding public meetings on the Green had been passed in 1916 but not applied after the War until 1924. The SWRP defied the ban alongside, but independently of, Guy Aldred’s Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation. W. Gallacher in The Worker called the opposition "a stunt pure and simple". J.T. Caldwell, ‘Guy Aldred, Anti-Parliamentarian, 1886-1963: A Memoir’, in Essays in Scottish Labour History, ed. I. MacDougall.

17. Manifesto of the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, 1925.

18. The Scottish Workers’ Republic, No.5, January 1928.

19. Ibid., No.6, February 1928.

20. James Hinton, note on In the Rapids of Revolution, Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin No.38, Spring 1979.

21. James D. Young, ‘John Maclean’s Place in Scottish History’, Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin No.39, Autumn 1979.

22. Maclean’s paper, May 1920 to December 1920. A resurrection of his previous The Vanguard (5 issues in 1915).

23. Hugh McDiarmid, The Company I’ve Kept, (1966).

Published in the Scottish Labour History Society Journal, No.18, 1983.