Republican socialism, not defeatism, led Maclean to back independence

by Allan Armstrong

John Maclean is a significant figure who the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) feel the need to address in Breaking up the British State: Scotland, Independence & Socialism (hereafter ButBS). There are 31 references to Maclean and two distinct longer sections about him in the book. This highlights the continued political relevance today of what Maclean was arguing towards the end of his life.

Bob Fotheringham’s conclusion wants to place the SWP within Maclean’s (and James Connolly’s) international socialist tradition. But it also wants to criticise key aspects of their politics. There should be no problem with this; we don’t want to make secular saints out of Maclean or Connolly. But it is not only some of their outdated historical thinking or certain tactics that ButBS contributors want us to jettison. It is their socialist republican politics, which are Maclean’s and Connolly’s major political contribution and which still have so much relevance today.

Connolly and Maclean came to appreciate the fundamentally anti-democratic, imperialist and unionist nature of the UK state. They could see the underlying contradictions this would give rise to, long before the majority of the working class (and small farmers/crofters). They used their workers’ republican/socialist/communist politics to analyse these contradictions. They understood that the underlying tensions would lead to future crises in the relationship of two of the constituent nations – Ireland and Scotland – to the UK state.

Therefore, Connolly and Maclean thought that socialists should draw attention to this possibility, long before support for the exercise of more vigorous measures of national self-determination had become more widely accepted by the exploited and oppressed of these nations. They were strategic thinkers. Connolly set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1898 and Maclean set up the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party (SWRP) in 1923.

In rejecting Maclean’s and Connolly’s socialist republican strategic thinking, ButBS contributors have to look elsewhere to explain the political emergence of Scottish and Irish self-determination. They put this down to working class ‘defeats’. How much better things would be if there were just trade union struggles and whatever the movements of the day were doing!

Economic defeats and political advances

Keir McKechnie and Angela McCormick argue that Connolly’s decision to give support to the immediate creation of an Irish Republic in the 1916 Easter Rising was the product of the defeat of the 1913-14 Dublin lock-out, rather than arising from the murderous pursuit by the British ruling class (including its reactionary, conservative and liberal wings) of the First World War, or the reactionary and conservative unionists’ determination to prevent Irish home rule and the inability of liberal unionists and their Irish constitutional nationalist allies to deliver it.

Yet, despite ButBS seeing Connolly’s support for the 1916 Rising as a product of defeat, elsewhere it does recognise that there was a positive, if historically thwarted, attempt to set up the First Irish Republic from 1918. Sinn Féin called on Irish voters to use the 1918 Westminster general election to endorse the Easter 1916 Republic declaration, which they did overwhelmingly.

The gung-ho, post-war, British unionist coalition government immediately organised to suppress this democratic vote for Irish self-determination. It took until the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the 1922-3 Irish Civil War before the UK government could partially thwart this, forcing the abandonment of the First Irish Republic and the creation of the 26-county Irish Free State as a British dominion, alongside a devolved six-county Orange garrison statelet in Northern Ireland.

The SWP does view Irish unification as being unfinished business. Indeed, the fact that the Socialist Workers Network (SWN) is an independent organisation in Ireland, only linked to the British SWP through the International Socialist Tendency (IST) – which is not the case for the SWP in Scotland – is a sure indication of this!

But Fotheringham then also goes on to put down the political emergence of the issue of Scottish self-determination to ‘defeats’. Thus, the reason for the left’s current involvement in the Scottish independence campaign “grew out of years of defeat – socially, politically and economically”. Furthermore, this argument is taken back historically to Maclean.

Maclean became an advocate for a Scottish Workers’ Republic and a Scottish Communist Party back in 1920. Dave Sherry argues that this “[said] more about his own isolation than it did about the balance of class forces. By then the movement was weak on Clydeside, the CWC [Clyde Workers Committee] had been broken by mass unemployment and the victimisation of its leadership”. Furthermore, Sherry argues that Maclean was wrong because he “thought the workers in Glasgow were ready to seize power”.

This is very much a misrepresentation of Maclean’s own views at the time. He explained to Lenin, in his 1920 Open Letter, that it was his opponents who were trying to set up the new Communist Party of Great Britain who were talking up an immediate revolutionary scenario amongst workers in Scotland and England, the better to curry favour with Lenin: “You are asked to believe that large numbers of workers are organised on a workshop basis ready for the signal of revolution… I am of the belief that the workshop movement in England is as dead as it is in Scotland.”

Back in 1917, Maclean had indeed been one of the first socialists in the UK to appreciate that workers were now living in an international revolutionary wave following the October Revolution in large parts of the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks recognised this by appointing Maclean the Russian consul in Glasgow. This did not mean he was pushing for an insurrection in Glasgow (even in January 1919), but that he fully understood that genuine socialists – soon to be called communists – should organise their activity the better to advance this international revolutionary wave. Therefore, they should link whatever class struggles they were involved in – initially the anti-war campaign and the strikes for greatly improved pay and conditions – with building the consciousness and organisation needed to raise the revolutionary tempo.

For Maclean, such activity always went along with alerting workers to struggles elsewhere which were contributing to the ongoing international revolutionary wave. Maclean fully recognised the political significance of this wave’s knock-on effects. Its epicentre lay in the ‘Russia’ of the soviets. But he also understood the importance of struggles against the British Empire in India and in Ireland.

It was these that led Maclean to champion a road to communism based on internationalism from below and the break-up of the UK and the British Empire. Despite Sherry’s comments on the falling away of the CWC and the wider workshop movement, Maclean recognised that there were other struggles which could contribute to the international revolutionary wave – initially the unemployed, the Lewis land raids, but most of all the Irish republican struggle.

It wasn’t until Maclean’s visit to Dublin in June 1919, at the prompting of social republican Constance Markiewicz after she spoke at the Glasgow May Day rally that year, that he began to appreciate the greater revolutionary potential of political over economic struggle. The UK government had derailed the potentially revolutionary impetus of the 40-hour strike in Glasgow in January and early February, but the experience of the more serious challenge of the Limerick ‘Soviet’ in April had not set back the wider Irish republican struggle.

By 1920, Maclean’s pamphlet, Ireland’s Tragedy, Scotland’s Disgrace, was pointing to the centrality of the Irish republican struggle in challenging the UK state and British Empire. And this political struggle was far from being in retreat at this time, unlike the largely economic struggles of early 1919 in Glasgow, Belfast and London. Maclean could see that the Irish struggle represented a qualitatively higher level of political struggle.

Maclean’s more strategic thinking was also displayed in The Vanguard, the journal he set up with others to pursue the new socialist republican politics. He began to adopt a programmatic approach – A Fighting Programme Needed (no. 6, May 1920); The Fighting Programme Welcomed (no. 7, June 1920); Still the Fighting Programme (no. 9, August 1920).

The ebbing of the international revolutionary wave after 1921 certainly undermined Maclean’s (and many others’) immediate revolutionary hopes. But there is another way of looking at the political impact of events in Ireland and Scotland. This would be similar to the approach needed to assess the thinking adopted by Marx and Engels after the defeats of the 1848 Revolution and of the 1870 Paris Commune.

In 1850, Marx and Engels wrote their Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. This highlighted key lessons that had been learned and developed an early theory of permanent revolution. Immediately after the defeat of the Paris Commune, Marx wrote The Civil War in France. This highlighted the need to dismantle the capitalist state and replace it with communal organisation.

Connolly’s adoption of a ‘break-up of the UK and British empire road to socialism’ and John Maclean’s later adoption of a ‘break-up of the UK and British empire road to communism’ also represent considerable political gains. These can contribute to a growing awareness of the anti-democratic nature of the unionist and imperialist UK state, based on the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster with its armoury of anti-democratic Crown powers.

Such thinking is not an adaptation to defeat but leads to a greater degree of understanding learned in the testing school of democratic struggle. This still provides a good basis for politics in these islands today.

The old Brit left arguments on Maclean

The attempts to marginalise, misrepresent or reinvent Maclean (and Connolly) go back a long way. Whenever there has been rising support for the exercise of Scottish self-determination, sections of the British left have had to make new political adjustments in their assessments of Maclean. This has often meant a rejection of earlier slurs and the adoption of new fall-back positions.

One of the earliest attempts to marginalise Maclean came from the CPGB’s Willie Gallacher and was later taken up by others on the British left. They have argued that Maclean’s refusal to join the CPGB and his support for a Scottish Workers’ Republic came about through a loss of his mental capabilities following his harsh term of imprisonment at Peterhead and further jail sentences. However, Maclean’s post-jail writings, the frequent calls for him to address meetings throughout these islands, and the huge crowds at his funeral in December 1923 undermine this particular attack.

Harry McShane was originally a close comrade of John Maclean but subsequently became a CPGB full-timer, later resigning after the 1956 events in Eastern Europe. In 1978, Joan Smith, then in the SWP, interviewed McShane and wrote his biography. In this book, McShane distanced himself from Gallacher’s personalised and sectarian attacks on Maclean. But McShane developed his own fallback position, claiming that Maclean’s “Scottish Workers Republican Party… had some queer people that I didn’t quite like” – which was no doubt true – who “had never been to John’s economic classes and … knew nothing about socialism or revolutionary work.”

But many of the people Maclean was now working with were unemployed or women responsible for maintaining homes in very adverse circumstances, not the skilled and semi-skilled workers who had been the main attendees at his economic classes and the main backers of the BSP and the Socialist Labour Party on Clydeside.

Even then, Peter Marshall, who had been part of the Tramp Trust Unlimited with McShane and Maclean and was a teacher at the Scottish Labour College, certainly joined the SWRP. And Neil Johnston, Maclean’s black comrade from Barbados and his co-lodger in Auldhouse Road, Pollokshaws, poured praise on Maclean’s politics and comradeship in his final SWRP days. Both Sylvia Pankhurst and Constance Markiewicz, no strangers to “revolutionary work”, were campaigning with Maclean right to the end, and he maintained contact with his old comrade Jim Larkin and his brother Peter in Australia. McShane’s distancing himself in 1978 from Maclean’s old SWRP had more to do with his own renewed support for Scottish devolution as opposed to Scottish independence.

Today the SWP, whilst wanting to locate itself in the John Maclean tradition, has to fall back on other political criticisms – particularly claims about the impact of ‘defeats’, questioning the significance of comparisons between Scotland and Ireland, and Maclean’s opposition to the infant CPGB. I have dealt with the first criticism here and the second elsewhere, but what about the significance of the claim, which argues that Maclean was completely wrong in refusing to join the CPGB in 1920?

This charge tends to reinforce a Scottish left versus British left political confrontation. This was a secondary feature of Maclean’s Open Letter to Lenin. It made no plea for any new communist party to adopt support for a Scottish Workers’ Republic. The principal disagreement was about the political nature of some of those promoted to leading roles in the new CPGB. e.g. Lieutenant-Colonel Malone MP and Mr Menell, director of the Daily Herald, and the political shortcomings of some people after their record during World War One. They still went on to become leaders in the infant CPGB.

Maclean’s arguments on the political weaknesses of some of those who were to join the leadership of the infant CPGB were to be taken up again in a new form in his last years. Maclean had already been in a political alliance with Sylvia Pankhurst from east London. She also had an inspiring anti-First World War record. They both went on to mount campaigns against rightist and racist-accommodating members of the planned new CPGB.

Later, Maclean’s and Pankhurst’s renewed political alliance was based on a significant difference with the CPGB over how to win over what we might call ‘red’ Labour (then mainly Independent Labour Party members) from ‘pink’ Labour (the First World War, national Labour-backing leadership and some former ILP pacifist supporters).

In some ways, this anticipated the recent debate over Jeremy Corbyn. Do you try to win over the best red Labour supporters to socialist politics, or go along with Corbyn’s own social-democratic accommodation to the pink Labour right? Corbyn’s strategy led to a call to vote for a far greater number of right than left Labour candidates in 2017 and 2019.

Should this strategy have proved electorally successful, Corbyn would soon have been summarily ejected from office with the collaboration of the same Labour right he had asked people to vote for. There would have been even less to show for Corbyn’s efforts than for those Red Clydeside MPs who left for Westminster in 1922 and again in 1923, who went on to support Ramsay MacDonald’s short-lived 1924 Labour/Liberal coalition pro-imperialist government.

Maclean’s supposed isolation on the left

We can see, in retrospect, that Maclean and other socialists (including those in the CPGB) were undoubtedly working in a period of retreat. They partially acknowledged this and adjusted their tactics accordingly, but thought that the situation was temporary. But Sherry’s argument that Maclean was isolated on the left is not borne out by the facts.

Compared to others on the left, Maclean’s support remained high. The votes he won in Glasgow council and general elections were good. In November 1921, Maclean, whilst still in jail, stood in Kinning Park in the local election and came second. Standing as an SWRP candidate in Townhead in a 1923 Glasgow local by-election, Maclean came second again, beating the CPGB-backed official pink Labour candidate.

In the 1922 Westminster general election, Maclean came third with 13% of the vote. This time Maclean stood in Govan against a red Labour and Scottish home rule-supporting candidate, George Buchanan. On the previous occasion in 1918, when he stood in Govan, Maclean was officially backed by Labour. Maclean had stood on a revolutionary platform against a national Labour candidate George Barnes, a vehement upholder of the First World War. Having worked so hard in the area, Maclean was not willing to move to another constituency.

By 1922, in recognition that he was now confronting a red, rather than pink, Labour candidate, Maclean’s address stated that if electors could not vote for him, they should vote for Buchanan. Maclean’s unanticipated death meant that his candidacy had to be withdrawn in the following 1923 Westminster general election. So, this prevented his likely increased electoral support from being tested.

Nowadays, ‘British road to socialism’ politics are more and more rejected in Scotland (including by the SWP). These politics are usually, but not exclusively, associated with the old CPGB. But they have prior and deeper roots, going back to Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (1885-1911), followed by the British Socialist Party (1911-1920).

Former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ tradition is also long-standing. It goes back to Robert Blatchford, Fabian Society member and publisher of The Clarion, which published his article, Britain for the British (1903). The TUC supported the first UK anti-migrant legislation, the racist Aliens Act (1905). Before Brexit, right and ‘left’, there had been other ‘British jobs for British workers’ detours through the British National Party and New Labour’s Gordon Brown.

Social democratic ‘British road to socialism’ politics can best be countered by an updating of Connolly and Maclean’s socialist republican, internationalism from below, break-up of the UK and British empire politics to achieve socialism/communism. This leads us to a fuller understanding of the UK’s imperialist and unionist state, and the changing strategies that the British ruling class has resorted to maintain its power. And it also provides a better basis for challenging them.

This article is an edited excerpt from Allan Armstrong’s review of Breaking up the British State: Scotland, Independence & Socialism. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of his review in full on Intfrobel.

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