THE period of Red Clydeside thrust greatness on ordinary people who rose to become leaders of the working classes at the time of their mightiest struggles in 20th-century Scotland.

Last week we learned about Mary Barbour and next week we will start to learn about Davie Kirkwood and his friends and colleagues, but this week we will learn about a man who most knowledgeable Scots would consider a legend, indeed an almost mythical Celtic (with a K) giant of socialism, a blend of Finn MacCool, Hugh MacDiarmid, Vladimir Lenin – some might prefer Leon Trotsky – and St Andrew, the latter because he truly was a martyr for his cause.

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For the brutality meted out to John Maclean by the British state shortened his life so that he was dead at just 44, and though that state always denied culpability, the working people of Scotland acclaimed him as a martyr.

A romantic view of a man who went from Calvinism to Communism and was not exactly tolerant of opponents or even friends? Perhaps, but as we will learn, we modern Scots need to see Maclean for what he was – a revolutionary, a radcial, and a man who inspired countless thousands with his writings and oratory and whose legacy is with us today.

You will notice I started by saying “we will learn”. That is because we must always learn every day of our lives, and I have learned since last week’s column that, contrary to what I wrote, the history of Red Clydeside is indeed being taught in our schools as part of this year’s Scottish studies in History, thanks in no small part to the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History, whose efforts to promote Scottish history I highly commend. I also learned in the past few days that a number of people – I thank them for their emails – think I should devote a whole column to the Battle of George Square, so that will happen next week and this three-parter on Red Clydeside just became four. Honestly, I could write a whole book on the subject if any publisher is reading this …

John Maclean was born in Pollokshaws in Glasgow in 1879, the second youngest of seven children of a potter, Daniel, and a weaver, Ann, who had come south from Mull and Corpach respectively. They were from a Free Church background, and after his father died in 1888, Maclean’s mother still managed to ensure he had a good education and at the age of 17 he entered the Free Church teacher training college, becoming a fully fledged teacher in 1900. He studied part time at Glasgow University to earn an MA, meeting a certain John Maxton there – more about him next week – and began his working life as a teacher.

Almost immediately he became passionately engaged in working-class education and the politics and philosophy of revolution. All the usual analyses of Maclean emphasise that his was a “gut” socialism, a mixture of his original Christian beliefs and his faith in a Scotland reborn along the lines of the clans of old. He was passionate for home rule, and later in life would promote complete independence.

Yet he also studied Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and corresponded with socialists everywhere, gradually acquiring a firm Marxist belief that only worldwide revolution could achieve a global change for the better.

Maclean first came to the fore as an early member of the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF), Britain’s first organised socialist political party where a certain James Connolly from Edinburgh had also been a member. By his own personality and organisational skills, Maclean established a branch of the SDF in Pollokshaws in 1906, assisted by a 16-year-old James MacDougall who would become Maclean’s chief supporter in all his work. He also married the long-suffering Agnes with whom he had two children, though in truth he was married to his cause.

He became known for his speeches and his writing in pamphlets, and was seen as a true pioneer of working-class education through the many lectures he gave in west central Scotland to large audiences.

When the SDF splintered – it did so repeatedly – Maclean joined the British Socialist Party in 1911. He would become one of its leading lights, and by 1914 he had become convinced that Britain was heading for war and daily railed against the prospect. When the war started, Maclean took a position of outright opposition and it cost him his job and liberty.

In 1915, as a noted working-class leader who spoke up to five times daily at factory gate and street corner meetings, he was part of the Rents Strike led by Mary Barbour, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan and indeed it was Maclean who wrote on the strikers’ behalf to Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, who in turn pressurised the Government to bring in the Act that froze rents and mortgage interest at 1914 levels.

By now he was associating with the openly Communist Willie Gallacher and Arthur McManus and other Labourite members of the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) such as Davie Kirkwood, but the CWC was intent mostly on ensuring that shipyard and munitions workers were not exploited and they did not all share his anti-war views.

With MacDougall’s help he brought out a new newspaper, a relaunch of the old Vanguard, and under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, Maclean was arrested and briefly imprisoned for his columns against recruitment and conscription. That allowed the school board to sack Maclean who became a full-time lecturer and organiser working for various groups such as the Co-operative Movement as well as founding the Scottish Labour College.

Several events in 1916 were turning points for Maclean. The Easter Rising in Ireland polarised opinion in Scotland, the majority condemning it if newspaper reports are to be believed, but Maclean and other socialists were appalled at the British State’s brutal reprisals, especially the execution of James Connolly, his old party colleague.

The start of the anti-war Women’s Peace Crusade led by Helen Crawfurd in the summer of 1916 greatly encouraged Maclean, but by then he was in prison, having been jailed along with Willie Gallacher and John Muir of the CWC.

Charged with sedition, Maclean was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude – reports of the case show that the prosecution was a sick joke with evidence that was trumped up to say the least, the jurors being hand-picked and Maclean’s own lawyers very poor. He never again used lawyers in court.

In prison, he was allowed no contact with the outside world and his treatment was poor – his weight fell by a third to just eight stone – though the authorities denied his claims of being drugged, diagnosing paranoia on his part. There was indeed some evidence of mental disturbance, according to his wife Agnes.

Following the early revolution in Russia in February 1917 and with the Government fearing similar uprisings on the Clyde, Maclean was freed early.

Long before then he had been in regular contact with Lenin and his Bolsheviks and after the success of the October Revolution, three months later Maclean was appointed the chairman of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets and in February, 1918, Lenin made Maclean the first Bolshevik consul to Britain, though the British Government did not recognise Lenin’s government or Maclean’s consulate.

Maclean continued to promote Marxism and agitate for revolution and in February 1918, he was arrested and put on trial for sedition. The evidence was again flimsy, but Maclean knew the verdict was inevitable.

SO he rose and gave a speech that has passed into legend: “My contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was ‘Thou shalt not steal’; thou shalt not kill”, and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together.

“On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention.”

He went on: “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.”

He concluded with a rallying cry: “No matter what your accusations against me may be, no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.”

The speech is regularly included in pamphlets and books about what it means to be a revolutionary and is undoubtedly one of the finest Scottish declarations of all time, as David Torrance acknowledged in his book Great Scottish Speeches.

Maclean went off to jail, this time to Peterhead, where he went on hunger strike and was force-fed by a tube down his throat as he refused to eat prison food for fear it was drugged.

He was tested for his mental health in September 1918 and declared sane. The Gorbals Labour Party selected him as their candidate for the General Election, and Maclean was freed from prison after the Armistice – crowds gathered to greet him on his return to Glasgow. Sadly, his health appeared to have been broken in prison and his electoral campaign petered out in failure.

He did recover some health, and was active around the time of the Battle of George Square in 1919 – next week’s instalment – but afterwards wasted much of his energy in the sort of internecine fratricide that the left so often indulges in, not helped by his doctrinaire adherence to his own views.

Largely inspired by James Connolly’s life and teachings, Maclean founded the Scottish Workers Republican Party which advocated independence and communism for Scotland. He was arrested and briefly held in jail on yet more charges of sedition, but in 1923 he stood for parliament in the Gorbals.

Campaigning in wintry weather he contracted pneumonia – perhaps because he gave his only overcoat to a suffering West Indian – and in those pre-antibiotic days and with his weakened state it was a death sentence. Maclean died on St Andrew’s Day, 1923, aged 44. Thousands marched with his coffin and many thousands more lined the streets of Glasgow to say farewell to their champion.

His memory was best preserved by his daughter, the late Nan Milton who wrote his biography and collected his works. She devised the inscription on his memorial cairn which states that Maclean “forged the Scottish link in the golden chain of world socialism”.

His main legacy is the belief of working people in Scotland to this day that with education, organisation and leadership, they can determine their own future, if allowed to.