By Dave Sherry
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John Maclean: enemy of empire

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
Dave Sherry's book John MacLean: Red Clydesider has recently been republished by Bookmarks. Here we print an abridged version of the new introduction which looks at the importance of Maclean in the context of the debate about Scottish independence.
Issue 391
John Maclean

1879 – John Maclean born. A Scottish schoolteacher & revolutionary socialist

This year sees the anniversary of the First World War, the independence referendum and the hosting of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The convergence of these three important events affords socialists an opportunity to shape the referendum campaign and challenge both British and Scottish nationalism.

Glasgow’s merchants prospered from slavery and colonialism. Its street names – Jamaica, Virginia, Buchanan and Glassford – pay tribute to the plantation colonies and the Glasgow merchants who made vast fortunes trading with them.

These ill-gotten gains laid the basis for Glasgow’s emergence as the British Empire’s second city, when it became the key munitions hub for the British state and its war profiteers; together they bear collective responsibility for the slaughter of millions on the Western Front during the First World War.

Against the attempts of the state to whitewash militarism and colonialism in 2014 stands the tradition of the Red Clyde. In John Maclean, Glasgow produced an outstanding revolutionary leader who led the opposition to the First World War because he understood it as a war to repartition the world between the Great Powers, and that it would lead to further imperialist conflict involving the new global power, the United States.

He also grasped the importance of national liberation struggles in the colonies and how they could weaken the British Empire and imperialism as a whole. This was manifested in his consistent support for the republican struggle in Ireland, Britain’s oldest colony. In doing so Maclean was breaking from the dominant position of the British socialist movement.

The independence referendum will be at the centre of official politics in Scotland until the autumn, and it is vital that we connect it with the fight against austerity and the struggle for a better world. My book has been reprinted to assist in that process.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has always supported Scotland’s right to self-determination because socialists have no interest in defending the unity of the British state. But we have not previously argued that Scots must actively exercise their right to separate. Scotland is not an oppressed nation, and until recently self-determination remained an abstract argument. But ever since it became clear that there will be a referendum, members of the SWP in Scotland have been campaigning for a yes vote, essentially for the following reasons:

1 The UK is an imperialist power that pillages the world’s resources. It is a state at war in the Middle East, operating in alliance with US imperialism. It supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and is still willing to intervene in Syria and Iran. Prime minister Cameron and Labour leader Miliband are both desperate to preserve the union because a yes vote in the referendum will weaken the British state and make it more difficult to play the role of America’s henchman. Calling for the break-up of Britain therefore means that independence can be supported for anti-imperialist reasons, without lining up behind the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).

2 The unionist campaign endorses a reactionary idea of Britishness based on imperialism, racism and anti-immigrant hysteria. Its backers will use the First World War centenary and Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games to spread propaganda about a glorious imperial past. The dominant tone of the “better together” campaign will not be the unity of the British working class, which should not be confused with the unity of the British state. It will not be about the Chartists, the Suffragettes or the Great Miners’ Strike, and for socialists to give left wing cover to the pro-union campaign would be a grave mistake. If we fail to put forward an argument for class politics within the independence campaign, the choice will be British or Scottish nationalism. Evading the issue by abstaining is to opt for the former while pretending to oppose both.

3 With devolution has come the delegating of responsibility for cuts and austerity. If nothing else, in a separate state the Scottish government could no longer pass the buck to Westminster. In 2010, for example, the SNP cabinet “reluctantly” accepted the Tories’ savage cut to its block grant funding from Westminster. Alex Salmond argued that the unprecedented 35 percent cut he made to the Scottish social housing budget was not as bad as the 65 percent cut to housing in England and Wales.

What kind of Scotland?
Socialists need to engage with all those who see the referendum as an opportunity to win something better than what’s on offer from the SNP – including those who currently favour more devolved powers but can’t vote for that option because it won’t be on their ballot paper.

The political ramifications of what a future Scotland might look like are already upon us. The SNP leadership’s decision to dump its most popular policy and keep an independent Scotland in Nato was a major turning point in the debate on independence. It underlines the need for a serious socialist position that won’t accommodate to the nationalist project.

Although, under Salmond’s leadership, the SNP has sought to claim the mantle of social democracy and win disillusioned Labour voters, in practice the SNP remains committed to a pro-business agenda. In 2012 Salmond was damaged by revelations about his close relationship with Rupert Murdoch. The Sun newspaper had backed him and the SNP, and it later emerged that he had met with Murdoch and, like Tory cabinet member Jeremy Hunt, promised to back his bid to gain total control over BSkyB.

The SNP’s commitment to a capitalist Scotland has been clear from its very first budget. Money was spent ensuring business rates went down – hitting local authority services. Last year SNP finance minister John Swinney said he was “providing all the support we can to the business community”, and boasted that “Scotland has the most competitive business rates in the UK”.

Before the financial crash Salmond, a former economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland, cited his old bank as an example of what a great Scottish-based institution could achieve. He argued that Scotland could join “the arc of prosperity” with Iceland and Ireland, and become another “Celtic Tiger”.

In plain language this means a low wage economy competing with other low wage economies in a race to the bottom.

The existence of a Scottish national identity is not in question and there is no reason why Scotland could not become a capitalist nation-state like any other. It is hypocritical to oppose Scottish nationalism and claim that it is reactionary while remaining silent about British nationalism or, even worse, championing it.

British nationalism is the main enemy, but we should be under no illusions about what kind of Scotland the SNP has in mind. It wants to retain the royal family, Sterling, the Bank of England and Nato. It is a single-issue party, intent on achieving independence and nothing else.

Edinburgh-born socialist James Connolly – a contemporary of John Maclean – wrote about this very problem in Ireland: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, your efforts would be in vain – the capitalist class would still rule you.”

Maclean, one of the few on the British left to defend the Dublin Easter Rising in 1916, shared Connolly’s view. The SNP’s solution is simple. There will be no change in the system of government and no real change in the corrupt society of which the present system of government is an integral part. Instead, says the SNP, as soon as we have our independent parliament in Edinburgh, its doors will open to a bright new future.

It’s like saying Coca Cola rots your teeth when bottled in London, but site the bottling plant at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and Coca Cola will be good for you.

Maclean’s legacy
Britain has always been an imperialist state, but from the founding of the Friends of the People Society in 1792 the great majority of radicals, trade unionists and socialists in Scotland – with the exception of Thomas Muir in the 1790s and Maclean in the 1920s – opposed independence and assumed that democracy, and later socialism, could only be achieved on an all-British basis. They were right to do so at the time and Maclean was tactically wrong in calling for independence, even though he approached the question as an anti-imperialist and from a revolutionary socialist standpoint.

Maclean was still highly regarded among the Scottish working class, as was shown by the thousands who lined the streets for his funeral. But sadly, his Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, founded in the last year of his life, numbered its membership in the dozens and its electoral support in mere hundreds.

Today the limits of devolution, the world recession and the continued drive to war have changed the context in which we operate. The British state has already begun to fragment and to call for its break-up on an anti-war basis, in a situation where the majority opposed the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, means Scottish independence can and should be supported for anti-imperialist as opposed to nationalist ends – the position Maclean advocated after 1920. In a collection of essays on the referendum Neil Davidson posed the question, what is independence for?

“What then is Scottish independence for? It opens up a space for struggle – a space that can be filled either by the continuation of neoliberalism or by the beginning of an alternative, but the only way to ensure that a Scottish successor state is not as committed to the capitalist agenda as the British one is to build self-confidence and solidarity in unions and working class communities now.

And by emphasising the possibility of change now, the socialist elements in the yes campaign can make a link with those workers who are currently opposed or unsure about independence. There are no guarantees and certainly no possibility of socialism being established within the boundaries of a Scottish state: but independence can be part of a process, which, by weakening the neoliberal, imperialist state in Britain, can potentially bring the necessarily international basis of socialism closer.”

(Neil Davidson, “What is Scottish Independence For?” in Gregor Gall (ed), Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose, Scottish Left Review Press, 2013)

An independent Scotland would not be a socialist Scotland. There is nothing intrinsically beneficial about Scottish independence. To think otherwise is to encourage the myth that the Scots are more left wing than the English and that there can be a Scottish parliamentary road to socialism – a notion that John Maclean ridiculed. Workers in Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland and beyond will still need unity in struggle against those who rule us. But the break-up of the UK would be a small victory for the world working class and, as John Maclean argued 90 years ago, that is something to fight for.

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