Remembering a Fighter

Against the Current, No. 203, November/December 2019

Joe Stapleton

John Maclean:
Hero of Red Clydeside
By Henry Bell
Pluto Press, 2018, 256 pages, $21 paperback.

THE CITY OF Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century was among the places in the industrial West where capitalism’s contradictions were in plain view. It was a cosmopolitan port city, where “Italian, Irish, Gaelic, Yiddish, Lithuanian, Chinese, and Russian could be heard;” it was also made up of vast worker slums, where half of the population “lived in one- or two-bedroom flats.” (John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside, 10-11).

It was out of this hotbox of international converse and capitalist exploitation that John Maclean emerged. Henry Bell’s well-written biography is a serious achievement in Left historiography.

There have been earlier works on the subject of John Maclean, either taking him as their primary subject or addressing him as an important leader in the history of the socialist movement in Scotland. Some notable books dedicated to Maclean tended to be propaganda from the former Communist Party of Great Britain attempting to claim his legacy for their own.

Harry McShane’s No Mean Fighter and Tom Bell’s John Maclean: A Fighter for Freedom are some early examples. Other books, such as John Maclean by Nan Milton (his daughter) and work published by the Scottish poets who adored him, were hagiographical.

Bell’s book does the important work of placing the existing Maclean literature in perspective — also giving us significant insights into the relevance of Maclean’s life and work in today’s struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

Born in 1879 on the outskirts of Glasgow, Maclean’s formative years as a political activist began with working in the Social Democratic Federation, agitating for constitutional reform by parliamentary means. But as World War I approached, Maclean was already moving toward a revolutionary Marxist position that emphasized the education of workers, their self-organization based on solidarity, and internationalism.

These positions led him to the left wing of the newly formed British Socialist Party (BSP). At the onset of the war, Maclean tirelessly supported peace and constantly agitated workers through fiery speeches and through his Marxist economics classes, which he taught for most of his life.

Maclean’s antiwar stance and public adherence to Marxist and socialist principles brought the attention of the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, with Lenin referring to Maclean by name as one of the most important revolutionary organizers in Western Europe.

The factory-dense area along the Clyde river in Glasgow, which produced supplies for the British troops at the front, became one of the “hottest” areas in all of Europe from around 1915-1919, thanks in no small part to Maclean’s indefatigable organizing. He spent a significant chunk of that time in prison for violating the “Defense of the Realm Act,” a wartime measure to dissuade peace advocates.

While Maclean’s fame as a socialist and internationalist grew during his incarceration, his health deteriorated as he was subjected to force-feeding and other forms of torture. It was shortly after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, in June 1917, that Maclean was finally released from prison, and soon afterward, in 1919, that Glasgow experienced the workers’ upsurge known as “Red Clydeside.”

Sadly, the movement dissipated. A combination of deep-seated reformism in the Scottish working class, brutal repression and relentless propaganda from the Scottish state, and the distance of the revolutionaries in the CPGB from the Scottish masses doomed the “Red Clydeside” movement to a slow death.

After this culmination of worker militancy that had been building for much of the preceding decade, Maclean’s personal life was in shambles and his health was consistently in question. Despite all this, he continued to organize at the pace he had always maintained, until his premature death at the age of 44.

A Complex Political Life

A great strength of this book is Bell’s judiciousness in choosing which aspects of Maclean’s life require serious investigation. There are three that I believe are particularly useful.

One aspect is biographical: Maclean’s mental fitness after his multiple stints in prison. A second is theoretical: Maclean’s evolving internationalism and how it interacted with his flashes of Scottish nationalism. A third is social: the struggle of Maclean’s wife Agnes, without whom Maclean would not have been able to be the organizer he was, and from whom he was separated from 1919 until just before his death in 1923.

After 1919, the BSP morphed into the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), under the leadership of Theodore Rothstein, who had close ties with Lenin. Maclean ardently protested against this move, both because he felt it ridiculous to have Scottish workers in a party headquartered in London and because he harbored suspicions about the leadership of the new party. (161)

Maclean went so far as to pen an open letter to Lenin detailing his concerns, believing the latter had made a grave error in endorsing the formation of the party. Both at the time and since, CPGB leaders claimed that Maclean’s opposition was due to his deteriorating mental health and creeping paranoia.

This all too convenient division between the mentally stable Maclean, beloved fighter for the working class, and the paranoid, disoriented Maclean critical of the CPGB, allowed the party to dismiss Maclean’s critique of its leadership while claiming one of the most popular Marxists in Great Britain, after his death, for their own tradition.

Bell is not dogmatic in his careful examination of this strategy, but provides valuable perspective on what ended up becoming one of those leaders Maclean accused of being spies for the British government — two of the three, it turns out, actually were! (164)

Nationalism and Marxism

Bell’s retrieval of Maclean’s post-CPGB reputation allows him a fuller understanding of the complex relationship between Maclean’s internationalism and his Scottish identity; the latter had previously been written off by CPGB biographers as symptoms of his ill health, and by others as a sign of latent nationalism.

In Maclean’s open letter to Lenin, he wrote of the Scots’ “rightful racial and class hatred” as fueling their push to “break the bonds of English capitalism.” (166) This reference to “English” capitalism and Scottish “racial” hatred, combined with Maclean’s founding of the Scottish Workers Republican Party in February 1923 (prior to his death that November), has led some to dismiss Maclean’s later work as betraying his internationalism.

The way his legacy was put to use by the Scottish nationalist movement in the following decades didn’t clarify the issue. It seems that Bell sees Maclean as an internationalist through and through, but does not deny the significance of his shift to Celtic republicanism later in life.

Bell characterizes a speech by Maclean as late as 1920 this way: “Nationalism is for Maclean still a matter of pragmatism rather than an end in itself and, whilst his language was increasingly romantic, and his focus increasingly Celtic, these themes are always subordinate to Marxism.” (159).

Later, Bell includes “internationalist” in his description of a speech that was “quin­tessentially Maclean” (180), and speculates that frequent trips to Ireland in 1923, where Maclean saw the disappointing results of the achievement of the Irish Free State, dashed his hopes for the usefulness of nationalism for forwarding communist revolution. (186).

There is clearly a shift in Maclean’s language after these trips away from references to the “Celtic race” and “English capitalism.” Bell concedes that this shift could be more pragmatic than ideological — the natural assumption being there is no reason to assume Maclean’s earlier shift toward Scottish nationalism wasn’t for similar reasons.

Love and Martyrdom

Ultimately, Maclean’s life is a tragedy ending in martyrdom. But he was martyred as much by the British state, through intermittent and brutal imprisonment, as he was by his refusal to take his wife Agnes’ concerns about his health seriously.

In 1919, Agnes was so concerned about her husband’s deteriorating physical health, paired with his always-frenetic pace of work, that she gave him an ultimatum: either he would take a rest from organizing work to recover his health, or she would leave him, taking his beloved daughters with her. Maclean chose to continue organizing over his family, and even accused Agnes of being a government agent for her concerns.

Bell’s odd phrasing (“Agnes’s action proved to be disastrous for their marriage …”) serves — at least grammatically — to place the onus of their separation on Agnes, and the list of possible reasons for the breakup he provides through a survey of previous writing on the topic fails to note one rather obvious one: she was trying to save her husband’s life. (142)

Maclean’s conflation of a rest from organizing with “abandonment of his principles” is a cautionary tale for contemporary organizers who might (subliminally) mistake unsustainable and unhealthy organizing habits for “doing the work.”

Maclean and Agnes ultimately reunited near the end of Maclean’s life. Bell’s treatment of their reconciliation, with letters they exchanged during the process, allows us to see the deep love they shared. (190)

Marxism and Biography

In his review of Isaac Deutscher’s three-part biography of Leon Trotsky, the Scottish Marxist Neil Davidson described the dilemma of writing biography in the Marxist tradition:

“Focus too narrowly on [the subjects’] lives, and run the risk of treating the social context in which they played their role as a mere historic backdrop. Place too much emphasis on their times, and stand in danger of reducing them to the sum of the social forces that shaped their personalities.”(1)

It strikes me that this dilemma could apply equally to any biographer and not only those writing in the Marxist tradition. In any case, Davidson is right to point out the poles between which good biography must navigate.

Happily, Bell charts a steady course through this channel. The author allows his incredibly rich subject matter to speak for itself — a more difficult task than it sounds. At the same time, readers will pick up on truly great writing that almost seems to hide itself in the momentous events of the narrative of Maclean’s life; Bell’s compact but evocative exposition of the close of WWI at the beginning of chapter 11 is just one example.

There is also a deep textual analysis of Maclean’s famous “speech from the docks,” in which Bell beautifully brings the moral thrust of the speech to life, guiding the reader through the many rhetorical moves Maclean employs.

I’d like to end by pointing to a possibility for biography of the kind Bell has written specific to Marxist readers.(2)

Marxism has an aversion to formal moral system — rightly so, considering those usually on offer.(3) This has allowed our tradition to avoid the ethical traps that liberalism and its various religious forms lay for themselves, which more often than not render them unable to think about serious political and economic change.

In that sense, its aversion to the moral systems available in capitalist society has been one way Marxism has maintained its ruthless critique of it. But this aversion has also kept Marxism, by and large, from imagining good answers to crucial questions its adherents must face in their lives.

One of these questions might look like: “How, as I fight against capitalism and imperialism in all its forms, do I also live a good life?”(4) In other words, what does it mean to live a good, fulfilling life as a Marxist?

Organizing on your job, leveraging power to fight for freedom, studying revolutionary theory — all of this could be part of an answer to that question; but what about the more mundane parts of our lives, and what about how we structure our lives as a whole toward the material goal of world communism?

Marxism, it could be argued, is not a rule for life. Maybe not. But even if it isn’t, biographies of Marxists are essential for those who would like to know what being a Marxist means for their ethical life.

If Marxism may very well be right to abjure prescriptive moral systems, all the more then biographies of Marxists ought to show us what being a Marxist looks like — which is, in many ways, of greater use. John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside does just that.


  1. Neil Davidson, Holding Fast to an Image of the Past. Chicago, IL. Haymarket Books, 2014, 81.
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  2. I owe the following insight on the moral use of biography to Paul Griffiths, Christian Flesh, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2018.
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  3. For arguably the best attempt at creating a coherent Marxist ethical system, see Paul Blackledge, Marxism and Ethics, Albany, NY, SUNY Press, 2012.
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  4. Something similar to this question is precisely one the moral philosopher and erstwhile Trotskyist Alasdair MacIntyre believed Trotskyists should have asked, but didn’t.
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November-December 2019, ATC 203

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