Scottish socialist John Maclean is remembered for his passionate opposition to WW1, a stance that was controversial on the left of his day. With war again raging in Europe, Sophie Johnson argues his approach to anti-war politics is needed more than ever.
“Our first business is to hate the British capitalist system that, with ‘business as usual,’ means the continued robbery of the workers.”
This line came from a letter written by John Maclean in 1914 for Justice – the British Socialist Party (BSP) journal – just over a month after Britain had declared war on Germany. Maclean was responding to an article in the same magazine a week earlier, which had denounced Germany as a unique evil, whose defeat must be the priority for socialists. Maclean, a member of the BSP, was appalled at the pro-war line the his party leader and many others had taken in the party. For Maclean, to place aside the crimes of the British ruling class to fight against the working class of another imperial power was “absurd”.
The most effective enemies of the German ruling class, he argued, were German socialists. Therefore, the most urgent and effective “business” of British socialists was to oppose the British ruling class. Maclean was part of an international movement who opposed WW1 on this basis. The principal of this stand would be canonised in the pamphlet produced by German socialist Karl Liebknecht in May 1915 titled “The main enemy is at home”. By the time of Maclean’s article in Forward, however, the Second International of left-wing parties had already collapsed, with most of its major parties signing up to the military policies of their respective nation states. The two opposing articles in Forward therefore reflected a left divided far beyond the confines of the BSP.
In the hundred years since his death, Maclean has been heralded as a hero in many corners of the broad Scottish left. His association with the legacy of the Red Clydeside revolt has assured his staying power as a symbolic figure, but also obscured the true nature of his politics and his contribution to the Scottish workers’ movement.
Red Clydeside has continually re-emerged in Scottish popular consciousness, particularly in times of political turmoil. In some iterations of its story, the syndicalist and national aspects of the movement loom so large they blot-out the distinctive anti-war politics of the period. But Maclean’s anti-imperialism was essential to his entire worldview. In our own time of successive crises and increased class conflict, another inter-imperialist war overarches everything. One year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we should revisit Maclean’s work and legacy, and square ourselves with the primacy of his unwavering anti-war position.
Before the war broke out, the Clyde basin had already emerged as a major site of increased political and industrial radicalism. As elsewhere, the war acted as a brake on political activity. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) having committed to an industrial truce for the duration of the war, the Glasgow rank and file movement faced new obstacles in the form of a general pro-war sentiment, and a union leadership tied in to the state war effort. The Defence of the Realm Act, passed four days after the outbreak of war, had rapidly granted the state unlimited censorship power and legalised a variety of other wide-reaching social control mechanisms. Soon, the state would also tighten its grip on factory workers through the implementation of the 1915 Munitions Act, designed to maximise productive output for the war effort. This act would dramatically restrict workers’ wartime rights.
State propaganda offered no inkling of the inferno that was waiting for large swathes of Glasgow’s working class on the fields of the Western Front. “Plucky little Belgium” was the moral entreaty: surely, a short and righteous war was worth securing the Belgians their right to nationhood?
The war could draw on real popular support. The middle classes whipped themselves into a patriotic fervour. For many working class Glaswegians, the chance to fulfil their patriotic duty also offered a noble adventure and status for a population whose living conditions were amongst the lowest in Europe. Official propaganda deftly manipulated the mood. In 1915, a poster campaign showed a child asking her father: “Daddy, what did YOU do during the great war?”. It and similar messages plastered streets around the country.
By the onset of war, Maclean, a Glasgow primary school teacher and revolutionary socialist, was already well known in the Clydeside area for his involvement in the 1910-1911 strike wave and for his popular Sunday evening Marxist economics classes. When war broke out, unlike many others on the left, his anti-militarism held strong and he was part of a small but significant minority in Glasgow who were vociferous in their opposition to the war from the outset. Five days after Britain declared war on Germany, a peace rally drawing 5000 people to Glasgow Green showed that Glasgow’s burgeoning radicalism had not wholly choked out in the heavy atmosphere of war hysteria. But this anti-war minority was under huge pressure. The anti-war rally was physically attacked by a pro-war mob, and Maclean and other anti-war speakers would be repeatedly assaulted during the war years.
If before the war Glasgow was already emerging as a hotbed of radicalism and working class dissent, the war years would serve to heighten and intensify existing class antagonisms. Arms production had drawn more workers to the industries around the Clyde and, capitalising on the increased need for housing, private landlords hiked rents in the surrounding areas. During the legendary rent strikes of 1915, Maclean worked to sustain momentum, speaking tirelessly in the streets and workplaces to build the movement and demand action on rent. Such was the charged atmosphere of Clydeside that when Glasgow engineers requested a modest pay rise to ease the increasing squeeze on their wages, this was enough to spark a three week wildcat strike. The strike, and opposition to the Munitions act, created the impetus for the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC). Yet even the CWC would not explicitly oppose the war nor make the obvious links between the war, rising rents and restrictions on workers’ rights. To Maclean, the war was the incarnation of capitalism’s destructive properties, and the key link in all the questions of the period.
The Key Link
He threw his energy into anti-war activity, speaking at meeting after meeting to expose the reality of the war and the urgency of opposing the British ruling class as a means to ending it. He continued to support the surrounding community and industrial struggles whilst putting forward a sustained analysis that located them within the framework of the ongoing imperialist war.
As the war raged on, and Maclean’s anti-war speeches drew larger and larger crowds, he also began attracting increasing interest from the state. Plainclothes police began attending and disrupting his rallies. The state promoted pro-war activists and speakers in a bid to offset his influence. But with Maclean’s audience growing, the state decided to shut him up.
In October 1915 Maclean was charged with breaching the Defence of the Realm Act (DRA) for, amongst other seditious statements, proclaiming: “I have been enlisted in the Socialist army for fifteen years, the only army worth fighting for. God damn all other armies!” Having refused to pay the five pound fine, Maclean spent five days in jail. He was also sacked from his job by the Govan school board.
He was arrested again under the DRA in 1916, but released in time to celebrate the Russian February Revolution in 1917. Throughout the war Maclean continued to speak, educate and organise the Glaswegian class struggle and his prominence as the leading revolutionary of Red Clydeside grew such that when he was arrested again in 1918, tens of thousands marched through Glasgow in his support. It was at this trial that Maclean delivered his immortal 75 minute speech from the dock:
“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.”
The state sentenced him to three years hard labour.
After the war, and amid mounting public pressure Maclean was released from jail. His staunch anti-imperialism remained central to his politics. Convinced of the revolutionary potential of the Scottish working class, he argued for a Scottish workers republic. A successful rupture of the Union, he reasoned, would also serve to undermine the strength and power of British imperialism – an entity, he believed, would soon wage an even more catastrophic war. But the extreme conditions of his term in prison had weakened his health. The post-war world revolutionary tide, which Maclean had backed and hoped to bring to the streets of Scotland, was ebbing and the more conciliatory and parliamentary tone of the post-war socialist movement put him in the margins. Yet on his death in 1923, thousands lined the streets of Glasgow to pay tribute to the revolutionary of Red Clydeside. He had been killed for his opposition to war.
War and the Working Class
The parallels between Maclean’s time and ours can easily be drawn. In the past year, we have experienced a deluge of state propaganda. Parliamentary representatives on the left have rushed to back government foreign policy, with voices of dissent in the mainstream parties being swiftly whipped into line. The war in Ukraine shares with 1914 both depravity of mass violence and the ultimate causes in capitalist inter-state competition. Then as now, the self-determination of small nations and the supposed civic virtues attendant on war have been used to generate support for the slaughter. British politicians in a frenzy of militarism, have again clamoured to share in the ‘glory’ of a war which they will not be fighting. And this time, those who have called for peace have been shouted down as Putin apologists, instead of the Kaiser’s spies.
The working class, from Glasgow to Moscow, has been instructed that we must suffer the economic hardships of war as a special moral responsibility. Massive war spending and mutually imposed sanctions between the powers are driving most of the inflation eroding working class living standards. Once again, war is the central link in a variety of class conflicts.
Maclean understood in his own time that war would always eventually result from competition between capitalist states. In 1919 he stated: “We Marxists knew the war with Germany was coming, as both Germany and Britain were conducting a life and death struggle to dominate the world and its markets.” He further understood that workers would carry the burden of any war.
This is as true today as it was at the start of the 20th century. He was at the fore of a burgeoning movement that became embedded in Scottish working class tradition and he sought to explicitly link the contemporary struggles together whilst foregrounding the Great War as the ultimate expression of working class exploitation. Critically, however, where others on the left had deferred to the politics of the state, he argued that working class mobilisation against the British ruling class was the only effective means to oppose the war. The simultaneous emergence of this attitude in Ireland, Russia, Germany and eventually all of the belligerent countries in WW1 ended the war. All those on the left who proposed to end the war by ‘winning it’ for one camp or another only succeeded in prolonging it.
It is impossible therefore, to draw on Maclean’s legacy without addressing his anti-war attitudes. Maclean should be remembered as a hero of the Red Clydeside era, but he should be remembered as a hero who invariably argued that “our first business is to hate the British capitalist system”. One hundred years after his death, amidst another imperial war, the main enemy remains at home.