Socialists Took Down the British Empire

When the Comintern was founded in 1919, the British Empire was the most powerful state in the world. Scottish communist John Maclean promised to destroy it from within.

John Maclean's casket being removed from his home, November 1923. Gallacher Memorial Library / Wikimedia

A hundred years ago the Third, Communist International was founded in Moscow, heralding a new era of world revolution. Its creation in 1919 came five years after the collapse of the Second International, whose parties had failed to resist the outbreak of World War I. As Germany’s SPD and British Labourites backed the conflict, Lenin declared that he was no longer a social democrat, but a communist. For the Russian revolutionary, the terrible slaughter that followed was proof of the old reformist parties’ bankruptcy.

While the majority of European socialists supported their countries’ war efforts, small groups formed in each nation to carry on the traditions of working-class internationalism. James Connolly struck against the British in Dublin and Rosa Luxemburg struggled against the German government in Berlin. And in the streets of Glasgow, the socialist educator and organizer John Maclean fought for “a peace but a peace with revolution in it.”

The events of World War I would, indeed, mark out Maclean as Britain’s most famous revolutionary. Throughout the conflict he was tireless in his campaign to foment revolution and spread Marxism among the Scottish working class. Huge rent strikes, programs of mass education, and the largest antiwar strike ever to take place in Britain cemented Glasgow — the largest industrial center in the British Isles and the “Second City” of the Empire — as the most staunchly red city under London’s rule. Just months after peace was declared, in February 1919 the British Government sent tanks and twelve thousand soldiers in to Glasgow in order suppress the insurgent labor movement.

When the Comintern was founded in Moscow in March 1919, its relevance for the Scottish communist was obvious. Appointed a Soviet consul by Lenin, Maclean became a leading representative of a revolutionary movement which promised to sweep around the world. Such hopes would be disappointed: and a century after the Comintern’s foundation, the expectations which animated it are now replaced with rising nationalism on both Left and Right. Exploring Maclean’s activism and his legacy for the Scottish left, we see both the opportunities that can come from international working-class organization, and the perils it can entail.

Two Cities of Revolution

As World War I became increasingly unpopular and its massive death toll became apparent, pockets of resistance such as that formed by Maclean in Scotland had grown around Europe. If the workers of the world were looking for a place most likely to lead them out of their chains, that leadership seemed likely to arise from a city like Glasgow, dominated by an industrial proletariat. Maclean’s hometown was also a city built on immigration, mainly from the rural Scottish Highlands and Ireland, but also Germany, Lithuania, Russian, and the colonial world.

In fact, thanks to the events of 1917 the leadership for the international revolution would unexpectedly arrive from elsewhere. The spark came from Russia, as the Bolshevik revolution shook Europe. Ending the war on the eastern front, the revolution of October 1917 for the first time put the workers in charge of a whole country. Here, at last, was evidence that the ruling class could be beaten and that the message of Peace, Bread, and Land could catalyze a revolution.

If this could happen in Petrograd (today St Petersburg) then it seemed all the more possible in industrial hubs like Glasgow, Hamburg, or Turin. The feeling of hope was immense. Thousands gathered in the streets of Glasgow to hear news of the revolution and of the new internationalism. Lenin appointed John Maclean in Glasgow as one of the first two Soviet consuls abroad, alongside John Reed — author of Ten Days That Shook the World — in New York. The socialist magazine the Call remarked that:

The workers on the Clyde particularly are proud of the distinction and recognise in the action of the Russian workers in electing Maclean an invisible but none the less real connection between Petrograd and Glasgow.

The Daily Herald called Glasgow and Petrograd “the two great cities of the twentieth century revolution.”

The incredible idealism and liberation that the early days of Bolshevism heralded are hard to imagine now, given the Soviet Union’s terrible later failings. Yet the revolution instantly brought a decree on peace, the emancipation of women, sweeping land reform, the decriminalization of homosexuality and abortion, and worker control in the factories and farms. The movement around John Maclean hoped that such moves could inspire a revolution in Britain — one not just possible, but necessary in order to defend the young Soviet state. For the first time since the collapse of the Second International, there was a real and tangible link between the Scottish and Russian working class, in word and in deed.

In April 1918 Maclean was arrested and tried for sedition, ultimately being condemned to five years’ hard labor. In his Speech from the Dock he proudly defended his cause, insisting “I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.” Yet he added that the workers could not be the victors in one country if they stood defeated in another: the return to the pre-war status quo would lead inevitably, through capitalism and imperialism, to a second World War.

By the time he was released under public pressure, the world had changed, and the revolutionary movement looked increasingly international. A German revolution had begun in Hamburg and Berlin and finally put an end to World War I. As he returned to Glasgow he was met by tens of thousands of workers who stood along the Clyde and cheered “Victory to the Russian revolution, victory to the German revolution, victory to the British revolution.”

Building a British Communist Party

Amongst this incredible international turmoil, with soviet (council) republics declared in Berlin and Budapest, and strikes and revolutions fermenting in Italy, Ireland, Egypt, and India, in March 1919 Lenin and Trotsky declared the formation of a Communist International that sought to spread the Russian experience across the globe.

Communist and socialist parties around the world were asked to join the new International. The invite for Britain was specifically addressed to “the left elements in the British Socialist Party (in particular the group represented by Maclean).” No British communist party had yet formed, and the different factions of the British Socialist Party were torn between affiliation to the moderate socialism of the pre-war period, and the communism of the Russian Bolsheviks and German Spartacists. Here, in the founding document of the Comintern, Lenin and Trotsky indicated that if a British Communist Party was to be built, it should be organized around John Maclean.

The conference called to found that party in 1919 was dominated by the divide between factions who supported a return to the democratic socialism of the pre-war period, and those who favored affiliation to the revolutionary program of Soviet Russia. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported on the conference:

John McLean [sic], the Clyde deportee, led the extremists with an impassioned oration appealing to brute force and complete war against the existing constitution. He preached the gospel of revolution in the Army and Navy, and carried the conference with him in spite of a more reasoned and intelligent appeal by Mr. Fairchild, of London, who advocated caution and British — not Bolshevik methods.

The British Socialist Party was carried to the revolutionary position that both Maclean and Lenin had supported throughout the war. The new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) that was to be formed at the next conference would follow the ideological and tactical line set by Maclean.

But two other key events in 1919 were to dramatically change Maclean’s position. Early 1919 had seen a general strike for a forty-hour week in Glasgow and Belfast that found itself isolated from English labor and crushed by military force, and the Irish revolution began following the election of a swath of Sinn Féin MPs. Maclean noted both the defeat and demoralization of workers in Scotland, and the strength of the resistance against British imperialism in Dublin. For Maclean:

through these manifestations of the Irish mind at home I began to realize the spirit that 700 years of oppression had failed to subdue. Once the workers develop a similar hatred of Capitalism things are going to move on avalanche-like.

The Scottish Revolution

This idea became key for Maclean, as he shifted towards the belief that national feeling can and must be used as a recruiting sergeant for communism. Maclean believed that this new nationalist stance was in line with the views of Lenin, understanding through the call for the Third International that the Bolsheviks intended to build world Bolshevism by building national communist parties. The experience of the rebellion in Ireland encouraged him to believe that left-wing politics and anti-imperialism could be combined in a national struggle leading to a socialist revolution.

This was particularly important given Scotland’s place in the British Empire. Lenin had written in 1916 that the very concept of peace under imperialism was a “petty bourgeois” delusion, and that empire inevitably meant constant war and oppression. Maclean found himself the preeminent revolutionary in the city that was at the heart of the British imperial war machine; Glasgow constructed the ships, tanks, and munitions that were fighting on the side of reaction and domination in Ireland, Egypt, and White Russia. He thus came to see the Scottish national struggle against the British as the clearest road to aiding the workers of the world. He wrote:

I hold that the British Empire is the greatest menace to the human race …. The best interests of humanity can therefore be served by the break-up of the British Empire. The Irish, the Indians and others are playing their part. Why ought not the Scottish?

With this ideological step towards Scottish nationalism, Maclean broke with British socialism and British communism and marked a division that still stands today. His political views became increasingly at odds with his party as it began to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

The leadership of the CPGB and the Comintern did not sanction a distinct Scottish communism, and by early 1920 Maclean was extremely eager to visit Russia in search of Soviet approval for a Scottish Communist Party. His application was repeatedly denied by the British government. If he had made it to Russia, Lenin might have convinced him of the need for a British Communist Party and the importance of a presence in Westminster. Or, had Lenin spoken directly with Maclean, he might have come to understand the Marxist and Leninist underpinning of Maclean’s own push for a Scottish Communist Party.

Lenin personally requested that Maclean visit Moscow and take a greater role in uniting the different communist groupings. However, Maclean remained unable to travel, and unwilling to join the CPGB which he saw as in thrall to Russian money and to tactics that he believed were a misjudgment of the revolutionary potential in England and did not give due weight to the situation in Ireland or Scotland.

Maclean wrote to Lenin on the eve of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s formation in 1921,

A conference is being held today … to form a united Communist Party as the British section of the Third International … we learn that you are asked to believe that large numbers of workers are organised on a workshop basis ready for the signal of revolution …. That is a black lie …. No industrial movement of a radical character is possible at present outside the ranks of the miners …

Maclean’s bleak assessment was that the revolutionary moment that had followed the Great War had passed, and he believed that key figures in the CPGB were deliberately misleading Lenin in order to secure their own power within the Party.

He continued:

… I am still carrying on, although betrayed, not by the workers, but by so-called “comrades” …

As more and more are thrown idle and begin to starve … sooner or later, a mass movement, vaster and bolder than ever before, is bound to show itself. The situation becomes all the more serious, since many wage-slaves here are Irishmen, whose country is being more and more cunningly and cruelly tortured. The rightful racial and class hatred of these men is going to make for an avalanche of opinion and feeling that are bound, sooner or later, to break through the bonds of English capitalism.

Maclean’s loyalty gave him hope that Lenin would come to understand the true political situation; and he made it clear that he himself remained very much within the Third International. But in the final paragraphs of the letter we see the new color of Maclean’s politics, with Scotland and Ireland assuming far greater importance against the “rightful racial and class hatred” of “English Capitalism.”

Nationalist sentiment was suddenly placed on a level with class politics. Whilst this nationalism was still wholly combined with Marxism, this approach was indicative of Maclean’s new willingness to see the class struggle through the lens of two opposing “Celtic” and “English” races.

It would be a mistake to say that hatred of the English was ever a motivating factor for Maclean. However, his willingness to conjure up an image of English capitalism rather than Scottish capitalism would have a profound impact on his legacy and on those who would pick up his ideas. Maclean knew as well as anyone that Scottish capitalism was, in 1919, at its zenith. But through his experiences in Ireland he came increasingly to the belief that the merger of ethnic, romantic, and historical narratives could be used instrumentally to deliver socialism.

Maclean’s own family were Gaelic speakers and had been cleared from their homes in the Highlands to make way for industrial-scale agriculture sixty years before, and Maclean was no doubt encouraged by Marx’s use of the memory of the Scottish clans’ destruction in Capital. Maclean argued that as a first step towards the destruction of nations, a new Scottish nation must be asserted, and in doing so he was willing to conjure a Highland fantasy of an invading English capitalism. Many around Maclean saw this turn to nationalism as a betrayal of internationalism.

But at the same time, the internationalism of the Soviet dream was itself being betrayed. As the Soviets emerged victorious from the civil war, those among them committed to liberation and workers’ democracy found themselves isolated as a dictatorship emerged. The galvanizing hope that the Comintern offered in 1919 stood in contrast to the despair that emerged over the 1920s and was crystallized in the Stalinism of the 1930s.

Rock of Nations

It is in this failure of Russian Bolshevism that the importance of Maclean’s break with the CPGB came to assume greater meaning. John Maclean was a radical, but always a democrat, and he was perhaps responding to the seeds of totalitarianism when he wrote, in 1922, “I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow.” Edwin Morgan wrote that this stand was “the rock of nations … saw toothed, half submerged … a wreck of ships all around.”

Maclean’s letter to Lenin and rejection of the CPGB arguably represented his last moment as a significant force in British politics. That party took form without him and indeed would have its political line dictated to it by Moscow. Maclean’s own comrades and organizations left him for either the Communist or Labour parties. He died in November 1923 in poverty, still admired by tens of thousands of workers, but without any real party or platform.

It was “the rock of nations” that had sunk Maclean in his lifetime. But it was also on that rock of nations that his greatest monument would be built. In death, his attempt to forge a distinctive Scottish communism, to utilize nationalism in the cause of socialism, marked a fork in the road for the Left, and one that continues to drive action and debate today.

In Maclean, socialists, republicans, nationalists, and communists have found a figurehead who is both Scottish and international; a martyr, uncorrupted by the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s, and full of the hope and passion of the first communist heroes, like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Lenin.

In this sense, for the Scottish left, Maclean stands as a kind of missing link between international communism and Scottish nationalism, indeed as a counterpoint to its bourgeois variant. He embodies Scottish nationalism and populism in a romantic tradition that can be tied to Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie and, just as importantly, to Marx and Lenin.

Fork in the Road

In twenty-first-century Scotland, competing nationalisms still dominate the Left. Conflicting and overlapping identities of Britishness, Scottishness, and Europeanness cut across its ranks. The socialisms dictated to Glasgow by Moscow and London have all but collapsed. Yet at the same time, the huge achievements of the Scottish branches of the CPGB — from the occupation of the Upper Clyde Shipyards, to the fight for Home Rule and an enduring internationalism — have left little organizational legacy.

In the 2014 Scottish independence campaign, many on the Left insisted that “the workers have no country, but Scotland is a good place to start.” A contradiction present already in Maclean remains unresolved by left-nationalists: indeed, it seems we face the same fork in the road as in his day. The hope of Scottish nationalism being harnessed and turned into a liberatory and internationalist politics, such as Maclean hoped, stands in tension with the idea of replacing it with a socialism that transcends all borders.

John Maclean’s experience in the Comintern both galvanizes radical hope today and offers lessons in failure. In Scotland as elsewhere, it remains to be seen whether socialists and communists can find a new internationalism able to react to the borderless terrors of capital, imperialism, and mass extinction. But in 2019, as upon the Comintern’s foundation in 1919, the struggle is an existential one. In this, we can draw continuing inspiration from a famous rallying cry from Maclean: “we are out for life, and all that life can give us!”