John MacLean

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JOHN MACLEAN, 1879-1923.


Born 24th August 1879 in the district of Pollokshaws near Glasgow. His family were forced by the clearances of 1840 to move to the industrial belt of Scotland. John, second youngest of seven, (3 died at birth) was 8 when his father died. His mother for a while returned to her trade as a weaver. Later she opened a shop but that failed.She took in lodgers to provide for herself and her children. Her self sacrifice and suffering had a tremendous impact on John. It was her self sacrifice that allowed John to be educated, and he vowed to use his education in the service of the working class.


Educated at Queen's Park School and Pollokshaws Academy. During this time he would work during the vacations as a news vendor, a caddy at the local golf course and also in a print work machine shop. His first appointment was as pupil teacher at Polmadie School 1896-97. He enrolled at the Free Church Teachers' College graduating in the year 1900. His first full time teaching appointment was at Strathbungo School Shawlands. In 1903 he joined the S.D.F. He registered as a part time student with Glasgow University and in 1904 graduated with an M.A. in Political Economy. The years from 1904 to 1907 he attended continuation classes at the Glasgow Technical College studying three subjects chemistry, ,mathematics and physics.


John was a founder member of the Glasgow Teachers' Society, in 1905. His socialism was born from a hatred of landlordism that had grown out of the personal social experiences of his family and a rejection of religion, (although brought up a strict Calvinist of the Original Secession Church). His reading of T. H. Huxley, H. Spencer and others, added to his experiences and observations regarding the hypocrisy of the Churches on social questions turned John to secularism very early in his life. His Calvinistic upbringing endowed him with a very strong sense of morality, austerity and seriousness. He rarely visited the theatre or art galleries, never drank or smoked had a strong appreciation and love of literature. In spite of his humanitarianism and unstinting generosity that impressed everyone who met him he appeared to lack a sense of humour.


In 1900 he joined the Pollokshaws Progressive Union, this was mainly an educational and debating society but also campaigned for progressive social reforms and proved to be a useful platform for John's intellectual and political ideas. It also introduced him to a wide range of concepts and writers in the social sciences. The year 1905 saw John as the Pollokshaws Co-operative Society's delegate to the British Co-operative Congress held in Paisley. He used this platform and subsequent ones, to advocate a more class orientated approach. In 1912 at the Renfrewshire Co-operative Society's conference his resolution, "urging school boards to introduce classes in Marxian Economics and if they failed, to carry on classes under the auspices of the Societies themselves" the resolution was passed. Many large west of Scotland Co-operative Societies did hold these classes. In 1914 John was conducting a speaker's class for the Glasgow Guildswomen. August 1914 saw the Co-operative leaders become very patriotic and John's influence in the Co-operative Movement diminished.


In 1906 he was appointed SDP lecturer in economics, he conducted his class unfailingly every Sunday in Glasgow. Weekdays with James MacDougal the classes were taken to the outlying districts of Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where he won the respect of the workers in the mining areas. During the winter of 1915 the classes in Glasgow attracted 400 workers, the classes were suspended in 1916. Due to MacLean's efforts the classes resumed in 1917 with a class roll of 500 in Glasgow and 1000 in the coalfields of Lanarkshire and Fife.


In 1908 John MacLean enthusiastically threw himself into organising the unemployed and lead one demonstration through the Glasgow Stock Exchange. 1910 saw him successfully organise female workers at Neilston thread mills, who were on strike for higher wages and shorter hours. He was involved in the 1911 strike at the American owned Singer Machine Co. at Clydebank. It was during this strike that he came into contact with members of syndicalist union the Independent Workers of the World and became a believer in the "One Big Union" as the only way to combat monopoly capitalism. He believed that the socialist revolution could be carried out peacefully by the adequate political education of the working class not by the violent overthrow of the system by an elite group nor would it come through the inevitability of some Darwinian principle. The working class had to acquire political power before it could proceed to socialise the means of production and distribution.


Even with this exceptional workload in the field of education he continued to throw himself into active political work at strikes and industrial disputes. By July 1914 it was obvious that the police were taking a greater interest in his meetings. August 9th 1914 saw the first anti-war demonstration held in Glasgow Green under the auspices of the Labour and Socialist Organisation and the Peace Society

Aims of the demonstration;

1. To demand an armistice

2. To protest against food prices

3. To call for Government distribution of food

MacLean stated “ ...our business is to develop a 'class patriotism', refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism ”. ... “ ...let the propertied class go out old and young alike, and defend their blessed property---" In Glasgow on January 3rd 1915, the BSP passed the following revolution; "That this meeting of the Glasgow members of the BSP. Recognise that this war has been brought about by the intrigues of the Capitalist and Landlord interests of all the countries involved; and that the workers of the world will obtain no advantages out of the war, determines to do all it can to peacefully stop the war at the earliest moment" This summed up John MacLean's views on war, and he continued his anti-war campaign of meetings and articles..


Wednesday 27th of October 1915 MacLean was brought before the Summary Court in Glasgow charged under the "Defence of the Realm Act" with "uttering statements calculated to prejudice recruiting", and remitted to the Sheriff on the 10th of November. He was brought before Sheriff Lee and defended by Mr Cassels. Long before the proceedings were due to begin a large crowd of workers from all over the Clydeside had assembled in support of MacLean. The Sheriff and Officers were overwhelmed by the numbers and the proceedings had to be suspended for ten minutes to allow the crowd to settle. Dispensing with court ormalities, MacLean loudly stated, "Do you want me to repeat again what I said at the meeting. I have been enlisted for fifteen years in the socialist army which is the only army worth fighting for; God damn all other armies! I have already said so, haven't I? Did you not hear me? The Sheriff sentenced him to a £5 fine or five days imprisonment. After the case MacLean was dismissed from his post as a teacher. On his day of release from Duke St. Prison, a large crowd gathered to greet him, the authorities however, to avoid a demonstration had released him earlier. A delegation of South Lanarkshire miners arrived at Central Station and marched through the streets, on learning of his early release they marched to Pollokshaws to make sure for themselves. Later they made their way to Fairfield Shipyard where a massive workers meeting was held.


MacLean continued to remain active at work gate meetings during the day and at public meetings in the evening. On the 1st of February 1916 he was again arrested and handed over to the Military authorities in Edinburgh Castle. Public outcry forced his release from Military to Civil authorities. He appeared in private before the Sheriff on the 14th of February and released on bail of £100, the trial set for 11th of April 1916. There were six counts in the indictment concerning statements allegedly to have been made at separate meetings during January 1916. He refused to take the oath and affirmed. He was found guilty on the first four charges, not proven on the fifth and not guilty on the sixth. The sentence was three years penal servitude. Large meetings and demonstrations for his release continued throughout his prison sentence. He was released on the 30th of June 1917 on "ticket of leave", having served 14 months and 22 days. In July 1917 he was served with call up papers, but they were immediately cancelled.


1917 saw him appointed Consul for Soviet Affairs in Great Britain. He set up a Consulate Office in 12 Portland Street Glasgow. The police raided the office on March 22nd 1918 and arrested MacLean's assistant Louis Shamus. On Monday the 13th of April 1918 they again raided the office and arrested MacLean. The charge was sedition, this was to prove one of the greatest political trials in Scottish history.

May 9th 1918 was the date for the start of the trial in Edinburgh High Court. There were 11 charges in the indictment, accusing MacLean of " addressing audiences in Glasgow, Shettleston, Cambuslang, Lochgelly and Harthill, making statements which were likely to prejudice the recruiting, training and discipline of H.M. Forces. He further attempted to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection among the civil population. MacLean conducted his own defence and refused to plead. When advised that he could object to any particular juryman, he replied, "I would object to the whole of them". Without retiring, the jury intimated through the foreman their verdict of guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude. MacLean turning to friends in the court shouted, "Keep it going, boys; keep it going". His stay in Peterhead Prison caused a considerable deterioration in his health, being force fed through hunger strikes.


On his release on the 3rd of December he travelled from Peterhead Prison to Aberdeen by train. On arrival he was given a formal reception by friends of the I.L.P. Later a social was held in the S.L.P. rooms in Aberdeen with MacLean as Guest of Honour. The train carrying him from Aberdeen was due in Glasgow Buchanan Street Station at 4:30. Two hours before its arrival thousands gathered at George Square. The two hours waiting was spent singing revolutionary songs and chanting slogans. Mr and Mrs MacLean were met at the station by a horse drawn carriage, the horse was duly removed and the carriage was drawn through the streets by a group of workers. Thousands lined the streets and thousands more followed the procession as it wound its way through the city to the offices of the A.S.E. in Carlton Place. After short speeches Mr and Mrs MacLean went home by taxi. LAST DAYS.

John MacLean, though by now a very sick man continued with his meetings. He campaigned as a republican candidate for the Gorbals District in the coming election of 6th of December 1923. Sadly he was seized by a very virulent pneumonia and died two days later on the 30th of November 1923, six days before polling day. On the day of his funeral crowds lined the streets from Eglinton Toll to Auldhouse Road and followed the cortege to Eastwood Cemetery where he was buried.

Posted by John Couzin.

The book Radical Glasgow.

Radical Glasgow website