Revolutionaries in the Gorbals – one hundred years on from Red Clydeside

As the First World War drew to a close, John Maclean – the ‘accuser of capitalism’ - was seen as the most dangerous man in the country – but he was released from jail to a hero’s welcome.

Henry Bell
30 November 2018

Image: John Maclean, from the cover of Pluto Press's book "John Maclean, Hero of Red Clydeside"

Armistice remembrances often gloss over the role played by workers across Europe in ending the war. John Maclean “I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

A century ago, in November 1918, Britain celebrated the armistice and prepared for its first General Election since 1910. At the same time, the revolutionary leader John Maclean sat in Peterhead Jail, awaiting another day of force-feeding and solitary confinement. His place in the international revolutionary movement was unparalleled in these islands, and the growing support for him and his cause struck fear into the heart of government. For four years John Maclean had campaigned for peace, but for a peace with a revolution in it. Maclean argued that however the Great War ended, capitalism would guarantee a Second World War within fifteen years unless the workers rose up to stop it.

In May 1918 Maclean had been jailed for sedition and sentenced to hard labour by a government that viewed him as the most dangerous man in the country. At his trial he had told the jury:

“I am out for the benefit of society, not for any individual human being, but I realise this, that justice and freedom can only be obtained when society is placed on a sound economic basis. That sound economic basis is wanting today, and hence the bloodshed we are having… the only factor in society that can make for a clean sweep in society is the working class. Hence the class war. The whole history of society has proved that society moves forward as a consequence of an under-class overcoming the resistance of a class on top of them…I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

Maclean’s words were printed and re-printed and distributed around the country. In every town and city agitation for his release grew. Demonstrations in London and Leeds attracted tens of thousands, and his supporters filled the Royal Albert Hall. In Glasgow violence broke out as pro-Maclean crowds stormed the trams in the city centre. Regular cabinet meetings discussed the growing unrest, with a nervous eye to Europe where the movement for workers democracy that Maclean represented was continuing to sweep away the old order. Revolutions in Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary had replaced monarchies with republics and soviets: soviets which, in Petrograd and Budapest, had elected Maclean their honorary leader. Lenin wrote:

“MacLean is in prison because he acted openly as the representative of our government; we have never seen this man, he is the beloved leader of the Scottish workers, he has never belonged to our Party, but we joined with him; the Russian and Scottish workers united against the British Government.”

By 1918 Maclean believed that world communism’s day had finally arrived, and there was no doubt in his mind that the workers of both Petrograd and Clydeside had played a significant role in ending the war and in fomenting revolution.

Amidst the peace celebrations and against the backdrop of European revolution, John Maclean was nominated as the Labour candidate for the Gorbals in the upcoming General Election, and the British government decided that he should be released from prison. The Scotland Office feared that, if Maclean defeated the incumbent Labour Minister George Barnes and was then unable to serve his term due to his imprisonment, unrest on the Clyde might grow to dangerous proportions. It was decided that Maclean was more of a threat in jail than out of it, and in mid-November he was granted a pardon, back-dated to the day that nominations for the General Election had opened. The decision to pardon Maclean was a huge concession by the government towards an entirely unrepentant revolutionary. The Scotland Office, even in releasing him, noted that “if Bolshevik propaganda is largely put out in this country, Maclean will be leader.”

John asked that the news be kept secret, not wanting a public demonstration to mark his release. However, word got out, and by the afternoon of the 3rd of December, when he reached Buchanan Street Station in Glasgow, vast crowds had gathered to greet him. The newspapers estimated that 100,000 people lined the streets, including many striking from work. James Maxton, Willie Gallagher and other leaders of the Red Clyde organisations met Maclean off the train, and a carriage was pulled by the workers through the streets with Maclean atop, waving a red flag at the crowds. The suffragette and socialist Dora Montefiore wrote about the welcome for The Call:

“the carriage in which Maclean and Mrs. Maclean were seated was drawn by dozens of willing comrades, while the ‘ticket-of-leave’ man waved from the box seat a huge red flag… when the procession was halted for a minute in Jamaica Street, Maclean called for three hearty cheers for the German Social Revolution; and on these being given by thousands of voices, then called for three more cheers for the British Social Revolution, when the shouts that rent the air made a volume of sound that the capitalists of Clydeside will often remember in the near future, when they are troubled with bad dreams…”

As his hero’s welcome shook the city, Maclean’s election campaign was in full swing. The prospect of a recently jailed Bolshevik revolutionary fighting a cabinet minister for a seat in Parliament was an exciting one, and the press and public watched with interest. The Birmingham Post carried the following article:

“Now John Maclean is the head and front of whatever revolutionary movement there may be on the Clyde and the great cities in the South which are supposed to contain missionaries of his… These Bolshevists are in contact with Sinn Feiners. There is a large Irish element in Gorbals – Glasgow Irish next to Liverpool Irish, the least lovable sort of Irishman… The revolutionary spirit is a foreign importation, and that it has spread to the Gorbals is to some extent due to the presence of a foreign Jewish colony there.”

A piece in The Times also focussed on the Gorbals’ “slimy streets” and “foreign Jews”. But Maclean’s closeness to the Irish and Jewish communities stood in stark contrast to the hatred that pieces such as this tried to stir up.

On Friday 13 December, the eve of polling day, Maclean appeared in front of a packed St Mungo’s Hall. The Times reported that many hundreds who could not gain admission waited outside for a glimpse of their hero. He spoke as a revolutionary and as a Bolshevik. He declared that it was his “highland spirit” that had got him through jail, and that he had returned “loyal to his class and more bitter than ever against capitalism.”

The opposition, meanwhile, used Maclean’s candidacy to their advantage, and an open letter from “an ex-serviceman” was carried in newspapers around the country.

“This Labour party for which you are asked to vote is officially supporting the candidature of John Maclean, the Bolshevik Consul, who tried to breed revolution over here while you were fighting for England (sic) over yonder… Are you going to vote for the men who by their strikes and their agitation prolonged the war and postponed the coming of victory, or for the Coalition, that carried the war to a victorious end?”

Whether Maclean’s candidacy hurt the Labour party is unclear, but the result of the election nationally, announced two weeks later, was a landslide victory for Lloyd George’s coalition of Conservatives and Liberals. The Labour Party managed to secure just 20% of the vote across the country, though this was up from only 6% in the previous General Election. John Maclean came in second in the Gorbals, receiving 7,436 votes. It must have been a considerable blow to some in Maclean’s movement to see him defeated, and many may have felt that had he either remained in jail, he could have triumphed. However, the fact that more than 7,000 citizens voted for an explicitly revolutionary communist candidate and recent convict who had opposed the war was in itself a great achievement in what became known as ‘the khaki election’. Maclean estimated that if he could rely on 7000 communists in the Gorbals he could rely on 100,000 in the Clyde Valley and, looking across the Irish Sea to the landslide victory for Sinn Fein, he began to plan how he might harness a republican communist movement in Scotland over the coming year. A year in which he believed it would be possible to finally break up the British Empire and kill capitalism.

This article is an edited excerpt from John Maclean, Hero of Red Clydeside available now from Pluto Press, £14.99

On December 1st at Stereo in Glasgow James Kelman, Henry Bell, Heir of the Cursed, Declan Welsh, Cat Boyd and others will mark the centenary of Maclean’s release from jail with a night of music and readings in aid of Living Rent. Tickets are available here

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