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Review of John Maclean and the CPGB

Robert Pitt, John Maclean and the CPGB, published by the author, 1995. Pamphlet, 44pp, £1.95.

Reviewed by Paul B. Smith

From New Interventions, Vol.7 No.1, 1996

ROBERT PITT’S pamphlet is welcome because he reprints the full text of John Maclean’s 1921 "Open Letter to Lenin". I would advise readers to study this letter prior to reading Pitt’s controversial interpretation.

In 1917 Maclean gave a series of economics classes to workers. He argued that capitalist nations were forced into "dumping each nation’s surplus on undeveloped countries" and that, unless "the need to sell Labour-power to anyone" were abolished, economic wars for a monopoly of the world market would lead to an even "bloodier business than we are steeped in just now". He remarked that the United States had "now definitely passed from a borrowing to being a lending country" and wrote that US capital had established itself in South and Central America. It was competing with Japanese capital for control over the Chinese market. These lectures were published in a pamphlet titled The War after the War in 1918. (See 1973 reprint by "Socialist Reproduction" with an introduction by Steve Vahrman, pp.25-27).

Maclean’s strategy and tactics from 1917 to his death in 1924 were guided by this Marxist analysis of the relationship between trade wars and World War. Maclean argued that, in response to the revolution in Russia, Britain and America were likely to go to war for control of the world market. Maclean thought that the immediate break-up of the British Empire would prevent this war happening. The analysis informed his support for anti-colonial struggles in Ireland and India and his alliance with those who thought that a worker’s republic could be speedily established in Scotland. It was kept alive by members of the party he founded. (See the 1925 Manifesto of Scottish Workers’ Republican Party.)

Maclean reiterated the idea that war between America and Britain was imminent to Lenin in 1921. He thought that preparations for an inter-imperialist war would require that the British government make approaches to the Soviet government. He suggested that the newly formed Communist Party would be of use to the British government as a means of influencing the Third International.

In the letter, Maclean claimed that the people who visited Russia and attended meetings of the Comintern were self-selected. They did not represent the revolutionary movement in Britain. They were ill-informed of events and incapable of engaging Lenin in an intelligent discussion of the class struggle in Britain. He advised Lenin to consult Peter Petroff, Maclean’s prewar collaborator and correspondent for Trotsky’s newspaper Nashe Slovo: "Petroff is the only Russian who knows the working class movement intimately in London and Glasgow."

He especially mentioned two leaders of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). These were the party’s first MP in parliament, Lieutenant-Colonel Malone, and the editor of the party newspaper The Communist, Meynell. Until a visit to Russia in 1919, Malone had been consistently right-wing and actively engaged in anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Meynell was a former editor of the Daily Herald. Neither were Marxists. Malone, for example, had no record of sympathy with the movement for the working class emancipation.

Maclean described the composition of the new party as consisting of "a heterogeneous mixture of anarchists, sentimentalists, syndicalists, with a sprinkling of Marxists". He also alleged that a campaign of disinformation was underway concerning the state of his mental health. He concluded that he hoped his letter would enable Lenin to "better examine more critically than ever the fairy tales that are likely to be poured into your ears by conscious and unconscious tools of Lloyd George and the propertied class of Britain".

It is clear from this last sentence that Maclean thought that the British ruling class had already gained a direct and indirect influence on the new party. Pitt provides evidence that substantiates Maclean’s thinking. Pitt cites a report by an unnamed informer who sat on the executive committee of the British Socialist Party (BSP) during discussions in 1919-20. The BSP soon became the heart of the new CPGB. It is likely that the highly placed informer was at the centre of the new party.

Pitt also records that the first suggestions that Maclean was insane were made by prison doctors in 1916-17. He states that they were politically motivated. They were continually repeated in Special Branch reports to Lloyd George and the Cabinet. One of these informers’ reports indicated that agent provocateurs were, if not actively promoting the notion of Maclean’s insanity, at least happy to welcome the left’s acceptance of the idea. The tone of the Special Branch report of March 1920 exudes a sense of glee. The informer writes: "The British Communists have at last become convinced that John Maclean is insane." It would have been a success indeed if the leaders of the new party had begun to share the Special Branch’s own opinion of Maclean.

Pitt’s reading of the Maclean’s letter to Lenin is therefore controversial. For Pitt, the letter is conclusive evidence that Maclean believed that "the establishment of the CPGB was the result of a state conspiracy". This belief can only be explained by Maclean’s paranoid delusions. These had destroyed his political judgement. In other words Maclean was mentally ill from 1917 to his death in 1924. In a footnote, Pitt expresses dismay that most historians "close their eyes to the evidence" the letter provides of Maclean’s paranoia.

Pitt writes in a style that oscillates between an internal "party" debate and a respectable essay in the academic discipline of Labour History. Pitt keenly defends a political position at the same time as scrupulously accumulating empirical evidence for a psychological explanation for Maclean’s decision to reject the CPGB. His political position is that the Third International was successful in advancing the cause of socialist revolution worldwide. The British section of the Third International, the Communist Party of Britain (CPGB), "marked a considerable advance over the earlier practices of its various component groupings". The author measures this success by the CPGB’s development of a "political intelligence, tactical flexibility and agitational sharpness".

This statement presupposes that the party was successful both in creating a milieu in which the development of Marxist theory and education could flourish and in bringing Britain closer to a socialist revolution. Pitt honestly admits that his focus on Maclean’s state of mind is "narrow" (Preface). He therefore gives no attention to the role that the CPGB played in suppressing the earlier movement for Marxist education in Britain. He avoids mentioning that the CPGB, from its inception, stood to the right of the Comintem; quickly abandoned any perspective on the quality of its cadre in the search for a mass membership, and, by 1930, had degenerated into a sect. (See J. Hinton and R. Hyman’s Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the Early British Communist Party, 1975).

The author is worried that as a consequence of the recent disintegration of the Soviet Union, workers and intellectuals might be attracted to the ultra-left sectarianism of John Maclean, Sylvia Pankhurst and Guy Aldred. These worries inform his defence of the orthodox Communist Party line that Maclean’s isolation from the party was caused by mental illness. The pamphlet is a powerful warning of the personal consequences of "ultra-leftism": isolation and madness. The reader is left wondering whether Maclean was an exception or whether Pitt thinks that all forms of "ultra-leftism" are symptoms of insanity.

In order to prove that Maclean was mentally ill, the author is heavily reliant on testimony provided by police informers. Special Branch reports are cited twenty three times. Pitt uses these to confirm the opinion of William Gallagher that Maclean tended to deal with differences by accusing his political opponents of being police spies. This opinion is stated in Gallagher’s 1966 memoirs, almost fifty years after the differences emerged.

To charge a socialist of being a police spy, is the most serious allegation anyone can make. It spreads distrust and demoralises the whole movement. It therefore demands an immediate investigation. A jury independent of the state must decide whether the accusation is a slander or well-founded. The Dewey commission played this function in clearing Trotsky’s name from Stalin’s allegations. The outcome of such proceedings must be published openly in the socialist press. If Maclean accused any other socialist of being a police spy, then his party, the BSP, dealt with the matter incompetently, with no investigation, no internal inquiry and no publication of findings.

At a secret meeting in 1920, Maclean challenged the leadership of the BSP to be open about the sources of money that were flowing into the party. The informer on the executive at that meeting reported to the Cabinet that the reason the meeting had been held was because during the preceding Conference Maclean had "charged the leaders of being police spies". If this were true, then there should have been reports in the left press of Maclean’s allegations. Pitt remarks that "most labour movementnewspapers failed to report Maclean’s outburst". The reason he gives for this failure is that the accused leaders were angry with and aggrieved by Maclean’s accusations. If Maclean had indeed accused them of being police spies, their anger justified an immediate investigation. If his allegations had been proved slanderous, they could have severely reprimanded Maclean for an outrageous breach of socialist conduct.

A socialist who denounces another comrade as a police spy is playing the game of a provocateur. It is a favourite tactic of the opportunist who wants to discredit tile revolutionary. For example, Pitt mentions that Hyndman had used it to discredit Theodore Rothstein. The history of the socialist movement is littered with famous examples. Both Blanqui and Bakunin were victims of such slanders. Faced with differences of opinion, Stalinism made provocation into a systematic policy. Stalinists tried to make the propositions that every Trotskyist is a police spy and every left dissident is a Trotskyist into tautologies. The practice was internalised by the Trotskyist groups themselves.

The spy’s report of Maclean’s inquiry into the source of finances is consistent with another interpretation. This is that Maclean was vigorously asserting his opposition to secrecy of every kind. This is essential to the internal democracy needed in a socialist party. The BSP, like its offspring the CPGB, was never a proscribed organisation forced to operate underground. In such circumstances, secrecy is necessary to protect the lives and freedoms of its members. The BSP was supposed to be an open, democratic and legal organisation. Maclean had to struggle to get the party leaders to be open with him. Openness was successful in convincing Maclean that the money was coming from the Russian and not from the British government.

Moreover Pitt is unable to provide written examples of Maclean’s "spy-mania". The closest Maclean came to this accusation is when he wrote of Malone that he denounced him as "an agent of the Government". This is the kind of evidence that found Maclean guilty of the "monomania of the ’hidden hand’" in the judgement of the Special Branch. Only a few agents of governments are spies for the state. For example, some MPs are "agents of government". Malone was elected to parliament in 1918 as a Liberal. This was a party of government at the time.

Maclean’s use of "agent of government" is a strongly worded political characterisation of Malone. It is consistent with Maclean’s view that the CPGB promoted people who wittingly or unwittingly reproduced bourgeois ideas and opinions through their lack of an understanding of Marxism. In hindsight the language of "government agents" seems careless. Yet, it is comprehensible in the context of a struggle to establish a party with a Marxist leadership that knows that the abolition of "the need to sell Labour-power to anyone" is required to stop war. If Maclean was correct, Malone and many other leaders of the new party did not appreciate this fact.

Only a few readers with a thorough knowledge of theories of psychology and the use of psychiatry as a means of social control might want to judge with any competence about whether Maclean was mentally ill or had a "deranged" personality. Pitt does not claim such knowledge and given that Maclean is long dead it seems odd that controversy still rages on the matter. Pitt puts forward, however, a highly confident and well-researched thesis that attacks the credibility of established left-wing historians of Maclean such as James D. Young and Terry Brotherstone. Following the author’s example, most readers will judge for themselves on political grounds and their experience of the left.

Certainly prolonged periods in prison, hunger strikes, forced feeding, isolation from other prisoners and the denial of literature weakened him. The final blow to his health came when he lost his job as a tutor with the Scottish Labour College he had founded. ILP members had gained control of the College whilst he was in prison. They were opposed to his insistence that he continue his work in Marxist education. They demanded he give up political work in return for re-employment. Maclean refused to do this. Loss of this job meant he had no income. He soon became the victim of malnutrition and exhaustion. His immune system was destroyed and a minor infection killed him when he was fourty-four.

Pitt argues that the state caused his mental illness and his mental illness caused him to be politically isolated. It is true that he was isolated from the CPGB and the ILP at the time of his death. Moreover if the state were happy to foster the idea that he was insane, and, if the left consciously or unconsciously went along with the idea, then the left’s attitude to him was also responsible for his isolation and death. Whatever the reader’s opinions on the matter, our obsession today with the state of Maclean’s mental health is a poor substitute for an explanation of the nature of his split from the leaders of the CPGB. It is a symptom of an unhealthy left. Maclean’s split with the CPGB can only be fully explained in terms of a Marxist theory of the defeat of the Bolshevik revolution worldwide. The gap between objective conditions and subjective responses to it needs a convincing explanation.

For example, both Maclean and Lenin had an inadequate understanding of the relationship between imperialism and finance capital. Maclean’s opinion that war would break out between the two major finance capitalist powers, Britain and America, was based on a limited theorisation of imperialism. A convincing theory of imperialism during a period of capitalist decline, superseding Lenin’s, has yet to emerge out of the debris of Stalinism. Much may be yet learnt from studying the thinking of past and present Marxists considered by some socialists as "ultra-left" because of their critical attitudes to evolution of the Third and Fourth Internationals. From the past I think of the writings ofAnton Pannekoek, and, of course, Trotsky himself. In the present, I think of Hillel Ticktin’s work on finance capital and Stalinism in the journal Critique. All these thinkers have paid attention to the notion of transition to socialism.

The left is still bedevilled with rumours that this or the other person or group might be police spies because they behave or think in certain ways. It is still weighed down with insinuations that this or the other person or group is a "nutter", "loony", "insane" or "mad" because they have differences with this or the other person or group. However there is also a growing awareness that this conduct is degenerate, futile, and a form of barbarism and ignorance. It is now time that revolutionaries start aspiring to become skilled practitioners of healing and counselling as well as skilful intellectuals, organisers, rhetoricians and tacticians.

I have argued that Pitt’s "narrow focus" on Maclean’s mental condition is unhelpful in explaining his abstention from the CPGB. Pitt distracts our attention away from the nature of his criticisms as well as from the social and political limits every Marxist confronted during and after the Bolshevik revolution. Pitt’s pamphlet is thus at its weakest when he discusses Maclean’s thinking on the role the working class in Scotland had to play in the revolutionary process unleashed by war and the new Soviet Republic.

Pitt states that Maclean did not express any "consistent nationalist ideology". He attempted to "fuse Marxism with an incoherent version of Scottish nationalism". This apparent contradiction – a man who is both a nationalist and not a nationalist – is a result of Pitt’s argument that Maclean’s mental illness destroyed his judgement. It follows that the judgement of people who support nationalism today and claim to be Marxists has also been destroyed.

Another explanation of the contradiction is more convincing. This is that what has become a nationalist position – the break-up of Britain into component republics as a precondition for a socialist revolution in either or all of them – was not a nationalist position at the time of Maclean. Whatever was subsequently to become of Maclean’s party the SWRP, its 1925 Manifesto is Marxist in inspiration and dominated by his analysis that war between America and Britain was about to happen. It only appears to be nationalist from the point of view of later Stalinist support for nationalist movements beginning with China in 1927 and ending with the ANC’s recent rise to power in South Africa. If Maclean had become a nationalist in 1920, this would have been a turn to the right, not to the "ultra left" as Pitt argues.

Maclean was never a Scottish patriot, nor were his immediate followers. Perhaps the SWRP became nationalistic towards the end of its life. If it did, it would have been a victim, like the whole of the left, of the crushing defeat that Stalinism inflicted on the working class worldwide. One of the consequences of this was the substitution of Stalin’s catechism of "Dia-Mat" for the development of Marxism as a science. This made it impossible for workers and intellectuals to understand the nature of the period they were living through. No-one should be blamed for failing to correct a mistake if she or he has been prevented from understanding the nature of it. If critical or uncritical support for nationalism is a symptom of poor political judgement today, then this is explained by the influence of Stalinism, not by the personalities of individual Marxists.

One challenge Marxists face today is developing themselves intellectually and morally to the point where the contradictions between the requirement for revolution and the subjective fetters upon the capacity of working class leadership to realise it are superseded. This development is more advanced than the one faced by Maclean (or Lenin and Trotsky) because our understanding of the nature of leadership recognises and strives to go beyond the historical limits of their own. It is enriched through Marxist study and criticism.

In the meantime, Pitt’s pamphlet will appeal to everyone who has an interest in the left, especially those who are inclined to believe that political and theoretical differences between socialists and communists can be explained psychologically or reduced to the operations of a secret state. It will fascinate those who wrongly believe that the left is permanently atomised both by the influence of agent provocateurs and by the disturbed and disordered personalities of its adherents. Put differently, the left now falsely appears to attract only moles and megalomaniacs, and will shortly die with the civilisation that brought it into being. This appearance is more acute today than in 1917 for two reasons: firstly, social democracy is no longer an effective control over the working class, and secondly, the actuality of this appearance was embodied in the shape of Stalinism.

Glasgow. 28.11.95.

The reviewer is a member of the John Maclean Society and editor of Unmasking Reality: Lectures given to the John Maclean Society 1990-92.