The most feared man in Britain


John MacLean
By Nan Milton
Clydeside Press, Dublin, 2002
£6 (Pb), Available from .


The John MacLean Society and Clydeside Press have done the socialist movement a great service by republishing this excellent and inspirational biography of John MacLean by his daughter, Nan Milton. This reissue also has an appropriate foreword, by the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, Tommy Sheridan.

John MacLean was a Glasgow schoolteacher, who became the leading figure in the wave of political and industrial unrest that gripped Scotland in the first quarter of the 20th century. It is a mark of the respect that MacLean commanded internationally that he was appointed as the first Bolshevik consul to Britain by Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, and that along with Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Karl Leibknecht, and others, he was appointed an honourary president of the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets.

MacLean was jailed five times by the British authorities for his anti-war and anti-capitalist agitation, and on three of those occasions he was released early due to pressure from the public. This book gives detailed accounts of MacLean's political, anti-war and industrial work, and is peppered with generous extracts from MacLean's letters, writings, and speeches.

No short review can even begin to do these justice, but for an indication of MacLean's courage and brilliance, there is the speech that he delivered in his own defence as he stood trial for sedition in 1918. Standing alone in court with the whole power of the British state marshalled against him, MacLean turned the tables on the judge and argued: "I am not here, then, as the accused: I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot."

MacLean was sentenced to three years' hard labour in Peterhead Prison in Aberdeen, one of the toughest and most notorious prisons in the British penal system. Force-feeding, brutality and drugged food could not break MacLean's spirit, however, and public pressure forced his release in December 1918.

MacLean was no sooner out of jail than he threw himself into another bout of revolutionary activity, activity that culminated in Lloyd George's government placing Glasgow under martial law in January 1919, sending English troops and tanks to keep order in the city, while Scottish soldiers were locked in their barracks for fear of them going over to the side of the workers. As you would expect in a biography written by his daughter, in addition to the political portrait, there is also a moving portrait of the "human personality beneath the fiery revolutionary".

For all his fire, MacLean emerges in the book as a deeply caring individual, an individual who, when reduced to unemployment, poverty and semi-starvation by state persecution, could nevertheless give away his only overcoat to a comrade in need. MacLean died a few months later, and Milton recounts how "he had to be lifted from his open-air [campaigning] platform, mortally ill with double pneumonia, and carried home".

Neil Johnson, the Barbadian worker in question, wrote to MacLean's widow after his death "I have had an overcoat for the last six months that was lent to me by your husband. Can you be so kind as to let me retain it as a remembrance of him whom I shall always remember as the truest and best friend I had in Europe?"

At the time of his death, MacLean was engaged in building the Scottish Workers Republican Party, a party devoted both to socialism and to Scottish independence.

For a long time, the official left, in both the Communist and Labour parties, steered well clear of MacLean's demands for Scottish independence, failing to perceive it as an effective means to help break up the British state. MacLean wrote, "Since the British Empire is the greatest obstacle to Communism it is the business of every Communist to break it up at the earliest moment. That is our justification for urging a Communist Republic in Scotland."

The British Empire has long been superseded by the US superpower of today, but there is no doubt that the break up of the United Kingdom would still be an inspirational blow struck on behalf of progressive forces the world over. It is fitting that this biography should be republished at a time when MacLean's vision of an independent Scottish Socialist Republic is at last finding a mass voice in the rise of the Scottish Socialist Party.

From Green Left Weekly, October 27, 2004.
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