All That A Myth Gan Give Us

The commemoration of John Maclean a century after his death reveals much about the current culture of the Scottish left, writes Henry Bell.

Surely in no country in Europe was such a tornado of energy let loose… His spirit was too strong for his body, so we find him a few days before his death out on the streets in cold winter weather carrying the message of hope to the unemployed workers of Glasgow. … With his death there passes one of the greatest fighters the movement in this country has known. But he has left the movement a heritage that is worthy of the devotion he gave the cause.

Willie Gallacher wrote these words for The Communist International a few days after the death of John Maclean. One hundred years later Clydeside has been wrestling with that heritage. In 2022 when myself, Suki Sangha, Ewan Gibbs, Sean Baillie and Joey Simons formed a John Maclean Centenary Committee, two facts struck us.

John Maclean: An Icon of Red Clydeside

Firstly, no institution, party, or organisation is well placed to commemorate Maclean. He stood as a Labour candidate but accused ‘Pink Labour’ (as he called them) of murdering Karl Marx every year since his death. He founded the first party for Scottish independence but loathed nationalists’ small-mindedness and class betrayal. Instrumental in the establishment of both British and Scottish communism, he stubbornly opposed the formation of the CPGB. He was not a trade unionist, held no elected post, and left no party or institution that lasted more than a few years. His defining characteristic, expressed alternately as unshakable integrity and infuriating thrawnness, made him a profound critic of almost any group that might wish to celebrate him.

Secondly, Maclean would not want commemoration. He was adamant that the working class did not need leaders, but needed to understand its material reality and rise for itself. He did not seek fame or power. When appointed symbolically as Bolshevik Consul, he viewed the title practically and threw himself into organising with and for Russians in Scotland. He would have reacted with something between embarrassment and horror to any monument to him.

The John Maclean Centenary concert at Celtic Connections, featuring Dick Gaughan and Billy Bragg

So as we considered how the Scottish Left should mark his centenary we asked: what is his symbolic use to us? Maclean comes to us as a mythic figure. An icon of Red Clydeside, he and his comrades unleashed an energy that helped generations in Scotland to understand their class interests and periodically shake the bastions of political and economic power.

As a symbol he was present at and helped to inspire decades of radical action, from the rent strikers and peace crusaders of 1915 to the international brigadiers of the 1930s; from the Tramp’s Trust and the unemployed movements of the 1920s to the Lee Jeans and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders of the 1970s and 1980s; and from the Glasgow Girls of the early 2000s to the surrounding of the deportation van on Kenmure Street in 2021.

Over the last six months, Maclean has been remembered as one of many comrades who transformed Clydeside into a radical centre. Far more than in the commemorations of 1973 or 1948, 2023 saw Maclean placed in the context of a movement that provided education and energy for a liberatory movement led by countless men and women, immigrants, exiles, anarchists, socialists and communists. Anniversary events foregrounded figures obscured by the myth of Maclean, such as Mrs Reid, Helen Crawfurd, and Irma Gelrich.

The Popular Education Network held a series of events for the centenary.

Maclean was also memorialised as an educator. His revolution began in the classrooms of Pollokshaws, Clydebank and Govan, and the centenary of his death saw a focus on his and his comrades’ educational work. The Popular Education Network presented packed Centenary Educationals on housing, just transition, imperialism, and the cost of living. Radical Glasgow Tours led walking tours round the Southside exploring Maclean’s life and work. Kiera McLean unveiled a new stained-glass window at Pollokshaws Library, illuminating the comrades who struggled alongside Maclean and the countless socialists and communists he inspired. Lectures were hosted by the baths in Govanhill, and by the SSP in Townhead and Rutherglen. One conference was held at the University of Glasgow by the Economic and Social History Department, and another at John Smith House by the Scottish Labour History Society. More talks and classes are planned for the coming months.

If Marxist education was at the centre of commemorations, nationalist and republican events were curiously absent. In memorial events of 1973, the fiftieth anniversary of Maclean’s death, his relation to a newly reanimated vision of Scotland’s political future came to the fore. Yet in 2023, not a decade after the independence referendum, appraisals touched little on his constitutional legacy, despite Gerry Cairns’s important work presenting Maclean as a republican first and foremost and despite ongoing efforts of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement to organise an annual march from his graveside to the cairn in Pollokshaws. Why has the national question not featured more fervently? Why have nationalists not organised events? Perhaps to some extent left nationalism has lost confidence in recent years, bruised by the SNP’s post-referendum centrism, and unable to properly assess its targets or its aims. Organisationally its connection to its radical roots has rarely looked weaker.

Version 1.0.0

Yet other of Maclean’s political positions have been the focus of attention. In his last speeches he railed against British and American imperialism, unsafe housing, unsafe food, and precarious work. Now Scotland grapples with a devastating housing crisis, one in five Scots face food insecurity, and weapons made in Glasgow rain down hell on Gaza in a British-backed genocide. His clear-sighted analysis of imperialism and war, and the need for committed internationalists to fight against both, are at the heart of his legacy, as Dave Sherry remarks in the new introduction to his republished biography of Maclean. Western support for the Ukrainian resistance alongside its condemnation of the Palestinian liberation movement highlights the same imperial hypocrisy that he decried. Perhaps the national question recedes when faced with the everyday horrors of capitalist imperialism. Yet Maclean’s point remains: the break-up of Britain would be a blow to the imperial world order.

It was the great working class poets and educators Morris Blythman and T. S. Law who said that ‘in the question of who will be remembered, poets have the final say’. By far the largest commemoration last year was the Centenary Concert as part of Celtic Connection on the 19th of January at the Royal Concert Hall organised by Donald Shaw, Siobhan Miller and myself. 2,500 comrades joined Billy Bragg, Karine Polwart, Jackie Kay, Eddi Reader, Gavin Livingston, Beth Frieden, Paul McKenna and Arthur Johnstone to sing Don’t Sign Up for War, The Internationale and the John Maclean March. In a sold-out Royal Concert Hall, Raymond Wilson read Maclean’s Speech from the Dock and Frances Wilson, Maclean’s granddaughter, read his last letters to her mother and grandmother. The most moving moment came when Dick Gaughan took the stage to lead the room in singing the Red Flag to its correct tune, the White Cockade. Dick’s first public performance since a stroke six years ago brought the hall to its feet and moved many in tears as they greeted one of the great bearers of the twin traditions of Scottish folk music and Scottish socialism.

Elsewhere in the city Fraser Bruce organised a songwriting competition that resulted in twelve new songs telling the story of John Maclean. The canon of popular song about Maclean continues to grow. The anniversary also saw the publication of a new book edited by myself and Joey Simons, Now’s The Day, Now’s The Hour: Poems for John Maclean, gathering more than 100 years of poetry and song about Maclean and the movement on Clydeside that track the resonances his life’s work among artists on the Scottish Left.

Maclean is in many ways a bridging figure, synthesising nationalism and communism, Calvinism and Irish republicanism, Gaeldom and internationalism, theory and action. New scholarship has further revealed the fissures in his identity: Jim McLean’s excellent archival work has established that the story that John Maclean’s father was cleared from Mull is a myth. In fact, his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all industrial workers in Pollokshaws and Bo’ness. Jim also confirms that Maclean’s maternal family were indeed migrants from the highlands as has been claimed, but that they came from a croft at Kilmonivaig, not nearby Corpach as all of Maclean’s biographers have it. Jim McLean also finds evidence in the census that Maclean’s grandmother was a Gaelic speaker. This maternal link is justification enough for Maclean’s claim to highland and Gaelic identity – so why then the Mull myth? Did Maclean himself invent the story to deepen his connection to a proto-socialist clan past (forward to communism, backward to communism!), or was this an established family story relating to some further distant connection to the island? Either way, Maclean remains both a lowland and a highland figure, a son of the croft and the tenement.

Other recent research by Catriona Macdonald and Patricia Krus has established both that Maclean’s studied at Glasgow University were funded by the Carnegie Trust, and that he matriculated in Divinity despite graduating in political economy. More intersections open here as Scotland’s most famous industrialist funds its most famous revolutionary, and as the exact point of Maclean’s conversion from Calvinism to communism is thrown into question. Had he considered entering the ministry in his teens? Certainly his conversion to atheism happened in his twenties: Jim McLean notes that John and Agness were married in an irregular wedding in 1911 with no kirk involvement.

These are all interesting details. No doubt there is more to be learnt about Maclean, with many articles still missing and letters still emerging. Maclean continues to serve, as his daughter said, as a Scottish link in the golden chain of world socialism. He was a martyr who died for the people; a comrade who broke with party and nation but never with his class. He was truly popular – in the sense of being of the people – and truly tragic – in the sense that his own virtues and flaws played out in the short epic of his life. It is small wonder that thousands of people in his home city still wish to come together to remember John Maclean and recommit themselves to the fight for life and all that it can give us. 

Henry Bell’s book John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside is published by Pluto Press.