John Maclean


Socialist (1879-1923)

FirstFoot ventures into the world of hard-left politics with some trepidation. For the dwellers of this hinterland, internecine factionalism and the art of hair-splitting have been raised to an art form.

And for many, John MacLean is a battleground on which they are happy to fight. MacLean is viewed as everything from treasonous lunatic to iconic Marxist hero. And that's just the left-wing spectrum of opinion.

However, what is undeniable is the warm place that he still enjoys in the hearts of many Scots, especially the working people of Glasgow.

MacLean rose from humble beginnings to become a world figure on the stage of politics. In 1917, Lenin's Bolshevik government named John MacLean the Bolshevik consul in Britain, a tremendous honour at the time it was bestowed.

John MacLean was imprisoned 5 times for political "crimes". He was subjected to food poisoning, sensory deprivation and was called "Britain's most dangerous man" by Lloyd George.

John MacLean was born in Glasgow in 1879. He was the third of four children. His father died when he was eight and the loss of the principal wage earner hit the family hard. But MacLean completed his education and, at the age of 25, graduated from Glasgow University with a degree in Political Economy.

University politicised him and he joined the Marxist Social Democratic Federation in 1902. This signalled a commitment to Socialist values and causes, which would cost him his freedom, his marriage, and eventually, through ill health caused by imprisonment, his life.

Even before the outbreak of the Great European War of 1914-1918, MacLean was a renowned public speaker. His classes, which began in 1908, teaching Marxist economics and industrial history, showed that he was a talented orator and communicator. He toured Scotland during the long holidays that his job as a teacher afforded him, preaching the Marxist doctrines outside factories and in public halls.

MacLean was vehemently anti-war and a fiery orator at public meetings denouncing it. In his view, it was a capitalist struggle which he saw as a gun with the working class at each end. In 1915, he was charged under the Defence of the Real Act (DORA) and found guilty of uttering statements calculated to prejudice recruitment to the military. He was fined £5 which he refused to pay. The alternative was five days imprisonment which cost him job as a teacher.

He was imprisoned again in 1916 under DORA and this time sentenced to three years penal servitude. Massive agitation against the sentence meant that he was released after serving 14 months. However, DORA was used again in 1918. This time Maclean was sentenced to five years penal servitude.

Once again he was released early. A combination of the signing of the Armistice and weekly marches by supporters in Glasgow saw him released in December 1918, having served eight months.

He was granted a royal pardon by the King for his 1916 and 1918 sentences. However MacLean refused the pardon saying that it was the workers of Glasgow who had secured his release and not the King.

He continued his political activity on behalf of the workers and this caused his final spells of incarceration. In May 1921 he received 3 months for sedition and in December of the same year another 12 months for the same offence. He served both sentences with the status of "political prisoner".

This last sentence was the beginning of the end for John MacLean. He had endured prison hunger strikes, cold cells, sleep denial and forced feeding through stomach tubes.

Released in 1922, his health was broken and he died on 30th November 1923, aged 44. 20,000 people followed his funeral procession.

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