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All Hail, the Scottish Workers’ Republic!

Allan Armstrong

In November 1923, the Scottish revolutionary John Maclean died of pneumonia at the early age of 45. This piece commemorating his death is extracted from the pamphlet All Hail, the Scottish Workers’ Republic and the Struggle for a Communist World, which was published by the Communist Tendency in the Workers’ Republican Movement as a contribution to a debate on the Scottish national question within the Scottish Socialist Alliance (now the Scottish Socialist Party). We are grateful to comrade Armstrong for permission to reprint it here.

THIS YEAR is the 75th anniversary of the death of the great Scottish communist and Marxist John Maclean. In August 1920, three years before his death, whilst the world was still experiencing the by now ebbing tides of the great international revolutionary wave of 1916-21, Maclean issues his famous call – "All Hail, the Scottish Workers’ Republic!" Although many communists, socialists and republicans still want to claim John Maclean’s mantle, most distance themselves from this slogan. The "Brit left", including its "British Marxist" wing, wish to claim Maclean as the great working class educator, Maclean the principled anti-war martyr and Maclean the first Bolshevik consul in "Britain".

However, Maclean’s support for a Scottish Workers’ Republic is rejected. Some see this as a product of mental delusions. This has a long tradition. Willie Gallacher of the old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), was the first on the left to make such an attack.1 The attack has been taken up today by British Labour Party Trotskyist Bob Pitt,2 with the backing of Workers’ Liberty along with the present-day CPGB/Weekly Worker. Alan McCombes of Scottish Militant Labour (SML)3 sees Maclean’s position as representing a tactic designed to prevent a new war being launched by the British ruling class against the USA. He also sees Maclean’s new call as arising from a pessimistic lowering and narrowing of his sights due to the setback of the 1919 strikes. For Alan, this ideological "retreat" was later proved unnecessary because of the British-wide workers’ unity displayed in the 1926 General Strike.4 There is a Scottish left nationalist flip-side to all these "Brit left" responses. For them, Maclean’s post-1920 politics can be seen as the precursor of the Scottish nationalism which took root later in the 1920s and eventually gave birth to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

This latter position is fairly easy to dismiss. In November 1922 Maclean reissued his leaflet with the call for "A Scottish Workers’ Republic", alongside his address for the general election. This address began: "I stand ... before the world as a Bolshevik, alias a Communist, alias a Revolutionist, alias a Marxian. My symbol is the Red Flag and it I shall always keep floating on high."5 John Maclean, therefore, wasn’t a Scottish nationalist but a Scottish internationalist, who saw the setting up of a Scottish Workers’ Republic as a link in a chain, which began with the break-up of the British state and ended when "all the independent workers’ republics will come together into one great League or Parliament of Communist Peoples, as a stage towards the time in the future when inter-marriage will wipe out all national differences and the world will become one".6

Refuting British Marxism’s attacks on Maclean
More pernicious are those "British Marxists" who attack Maclean’s sanity to dismiss his political positions. Given the former USSR’s state record of imprisoning political oppositionists in psychiatric wards, you might have thought that these people would be more careful. Unfortunately, the "Brit left" has produced its own deeply sectarian culture, where personalised abuse is only too common a substitute for political debate. Now, Maclean’s health was undoubtedly affected by the many privations he suffered, particularly in prison. Not all of his personal judgements need to be left unquestioned.

However, those who resort to slandering Maclean (often quoting as reliable evidence the very state stooges who harassed and vilified him at every turn!) do this for other reasons. They want to cover up the bureaucratic and financial manipulation surrounding the setting up of the infant CPGB and play down the dubious political records of some of those who "emerged" as its first leaders, particularly former British state-backed anti-Bolshevik, Colonel L’Estrange Malone! A study of Maclean’s writings from his last years, the close loyalty he received from many comrades, and the respect shown by thousands of Clydeside workers upon his death on 30 November 1923 give the lie to this particular calumny.

The attempt to tie Maclean’s support for a Scottish Workers’ Republic purely to the threat he perceived of "the coming war with America" also misrepresents his position. Whilst the issue of a possible new war was undoubtedly a factor, far more important was the example of Ireland. Indeed, Maclean is quite explicit in his leaflet advocating a Scottish Workers’ Republic. Here Maclean stated that he was "inspired by Ireland and Russia".7 For Maclean certainly did learn new lessons from the setback of the 1919 strikes, particularly in Scotland. Looking to Ireland, over the same period, he could see that a political movement was better able to sustain a revolutionary thrust than a mainly economic movement. Limerick was even taken over by workers in 1919 in response to British army occupation, something which hadn’t happened in Glasgow, when troops occupied the city that year.

The Scottish question in Maclean’s time
During and after the First World War, the National Question in Scotland was bubbling beneath the surface. This was largely ignored by the economistic "British Marxists" of the day, particularly Maclean’s own British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party. Therefore this important political question had been left in the hands of a small band of the pro-Celtic intelligentsia (e.g. Ruaridh Erskine), the leaders of the Independent Labour Party, the Scottish TUC and the cross-party, trade-union-backed Scottish Home Rule Association.

Those Labour Party and trade union bureaucrats who, the better to send workers to the slaughter of the First World War, were brought into government or given other state posts, were soon "politically educated". They could see that the UK state and its key institutions needed institutions needed defending if they were to keep a hold on the new privileges now open to them. They saw the need for major reform of the UK constitution, to counter the powerful pull of the "Russian" Revolution on workers everywhere, along with the threat posed to the UK state by a rising national democratic movement in Ireland.

In the autumn of 1917 the STUC sent a deputation to the Prime Minister seeking support for Home Rule. By 1919 they were voting for separate Scottish representation at the Peace Conference in Versailles. In the same year, faced with the mounting challenge posed by Sinn Féin and workers’ direct action in Ireland and fearing wider revolution everywhere, a group of Scottish Labour MPs decided to press for a federal political system for the UK. Such was the ruling class panic that even a section of the Tories began to give their support to a federal solution. This resulted in the setting up of a Speakers’ Conference, which included Tory, Liberal and Labour representatives. This reported to the Prime Minister in April 1920.

Maclean adopts an independent working class view on the Scottish question
Powerful sections of the ruling class, middle class and the workers’ "representatives" were moving towards a common last-ditch defence of their UK state, in the face of the revolutionary challenge. Their last line of defence then, as it will be tomorrow, was federalism. However, the working class itself was politically disarmed by the economism both of "British Marxism" and of the wider "Brit left" of the day. Their recommendation to workers was either to treat such political questions as a diversion from real class needs or to leave it to the politicians. To counter this, John Maclean adopted the tradition earlier established by the late James Connolly. This was to support a Workers’ Republic, not as an attempt to set up an isolated socialist society, but to trigger off a wider communist movement which would break up the British state and empire and spread worldwide. He could now clearly see the necessity for the working class to forward its own view on the political struggles, including the Scottish Question. In doing this, he didn’t become a Scottish nationalist, as those shallow thinkers on the "Brit left" maintain. He became a Scottish internationalist.

Unfortunately, Maclean only arrived at this position as the 1919 working class challenge ebbed in "Britain". He was unable to see fully that the whole international revolutionary wave was ebbing too. Its end was marked by the crushing at Kronstadt, in 1921, of the remaining working class power in Russia. Despite not seeing the full implications of this, Maclean was one of the earliest communists to fight back against the growing bureaucratic trends in the communist movement, alongside Sylvia Pankhurst and others. He also took the Scottish Workers Republican Party, founded in 1923, into the first Fourth International (not Trotsky’s later one) to widen this fight internationally. A major indication that the international revolutionary wave was on the retreat everywhere was the new situation in Ireland. The break-up of the UK was aborted at much the same time with the partitionist Treaty of 1922. This also greatly contributed to the political marginalisation of the powerful workers’ movement in Ireland.

In Scotland, Maclean’s 1920 leaflet stated that: "The control must be in the hands of the workers only, male and female alike, each workshop and industry sending delegates to district councils and to the National Council. The National Council must be established in or near Glasgow."8 By 1922, however, this revolutionary prospect had gone and working class hopes were focused instead on sending off the victorious Red Clydesider Labour MPs to Westminster. In August of that year, 35,000 people joined a Home Rule demonstration in Glasgow addressed by the leading Red Clydeside MP, James Maxton. He declared that the experience of Westminster "had converted him absolutely to the necessity of making a strenuous effort to keep their own Parliament in Scotland".9 But by now this was mere rhetoric – the lure of Westminster office and its privileges was to prove too great for most Labour MPs. The great hopes of those thousands of workers who had cheered off their new Labour MPs from Glasgow Central station in 1922 were disappointed.

The relevance of a Scottish Workers’ Republic today
However, John Maclean’s late discovery of the importance of a "break-up of the UK" perspective, although marginalised by the defeat of the international revolutionary wave, is all the more important as a political message for today. For it is clear that the break-up of the UK is once more on the cards. At the moment in Scotland, the debate is largely confined to how best to maintain the UK or "Great Britain" – the unionist status quo, unionist devolution, unionist federalism or "independence" under the Crown. There are some in the SNP who talk "socialist" or "republican", but they are not prepared to rock the boat too much in their monarchist party. After independence they hope to "get their turn", just as Irish labour were told by their leaders in 1921. Their turn never came! The lesson Maclean holds for us today is the need to raise the banner of the Scottish Workers’ Republic now. This is to prevent workers becoming "cannon-fodder" for the interest of others and to ensure that our class rallies and fights for its own cause.

Marx only came to his understanding of the need for "uninterrupted revolution" after the defeat of the 1848-9 revolutions. He only fully understood the need for workers to form their own organs of power after the experience and defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871. Those socialists who claim that Maclean’s support for a Scottish Workers’ Republic was only a product of his time and of the experience of defeat, and therefore irrelevant to the conditions of today, couldn’t be more wrong.

A willingness to defy the authority of the UK state has already shown itself in the massive Anti-Poll Tax Revolt from 1987-91. This defiance is the essence of real republicanism in the UK today, even if it isn’t always consciously expressed. It has undoubtedly contributed to the growing anti-monarchist feeling in Scotland. However, workers’ republicanism is still in its infancy. Further developing this movement is the real task facing the Scottish Socialist Alliance10 today. Are we to become just a home for the "British Marxist" fragments, disillusioned Old Labourites and leftist nationalists, all hoping to hold on to some remains of the social democratic past in the face of Blair’s New Labour assault? Or do we lead the major struggle of our class to reclaim or create anew our own fighting organisations which will cover every aspect of our lives – economic, social, cultural and political? When we achieve this a real workers’ republicanism will have been created and we will be on the threshold of realising John Maclean’s call – "All Hail, the Scottish Workers’ Republic!"

Editorial Notes

1. William Gallagher, Last Memoirs, 1966.

2. Bob Pitt, John Maclean and the CPGB, 1995.

3. SML is now the Committee for a Workers International (Scotland).

4. Alan McCombes, "Scottish Independence and the Struggle for Socialism", What Next? No.9.

5. John Maclean, In the Rapids of Revolution, 1978, p.234.

6. Ibid, p.238.

7. Ibid, p.218.

8. Ibid.

9. Michael Keating and David Bleiman, Labour and Scottish Nationalism, 1979, p.80.

10. The Scottish Socialist Alliance was dissolved into the new Scottish Socialist Party in September 1998.