Opposition to WW1 - Clydeside - John Mclean

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The CWC and John Maclean

Opposition to WW1 centred in Clydeside. Maclean immediately set about educating the workers about the real nature of war by taking the message directly to the shipyard gates In February 1915 there was a strike at the munitions factory Weirs of Cathcart. The odds were stacked against them. The Defence of the Realm Act had made strikes illegal and the TUC had made a pledge of industrial peace for the duration of the War and so the Strike was an unofficial, shop steward led strike, (most of whom were pupils of Maclean), in defiance of the Union. The workers formed a rank and file Labour Withholding Committee to conduct the strike but were forced back to work with no strike pay. However this was to prove the start of real militancy on the Clyde.

Since the start of the War the landowners had taken the opportunity to push up rents. Mrs Barbour in Govan and the women there refused to pay increased rents. Maclean supported the women. The agitation soon spread to other areas of the city as working class women organised against the rent rises. Maclean took the fight to the shipyards and factories until the men declared that they were ready to strike to prevent the rises.

Passed July 1915 this prevented right to organise, to  strike or to move from workshop to workshop. The Rank & File soon learnt that the union leaderships were preparing to betray them and so took steps to reform Labour Withholding Committee. Delegates were sought from every shop across the Clydeside and a Manifesto was drawn up, “ To organise the workers upon a class basis and to maintain the class struggle until the overthrow of the wages system, the freedom of the workers and industrial democracy have been attained \". The new body became known as the Clyde Workers Committee  and it was to play a central role in Clydeside’s opposition to War. Many of the delegates were pupils of one of Maclean’s classes.

As part of the employers offensive Maclean was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) 18th November. Bailiffs had decided to sue householders to collect the  increased rents. 18 men were summonsed to the Sheriff Court. Mrs Barbour organised women to march to the Sheriff Court to protest. Govan Shipyards and factories went on strike and deputations marched to the town, one of which marched via Lorn Street School and carried MacLean (who was working under notice of dismissal) shoulder high to the Sheriff Court, this was to be his last day as a teacher. In the town they met deputations from all over the city & Maclean addressed a crowd of 10,000 and demanded that if rent rises were implemented a General Strike should be called. The Sheriff realised the desperate situation & phoned Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, who told him to stop the case and announce that a RENT RESTRICTION ACT would be passed. MacLean hardly had time to celebrate though because next day he was jailed for refusing to pay his fine.

Maclean believed that a successful Revolution could only be achieved if workers were grounded in Marxist principles. His Sunday afternoon class alone, now had 481 students. From his classes he formed the Labour College Committee which planned an Inaugural Conference in February 1916. The plan was  to run a full time course of 3 terms a year, funded by Unions covering all aspects of Industry, Economy, Labour Laws and History.

Inevitably Maclean became the first victim of government repression.He was arrested  in February.  Gallacher, Muir and Bell were arrested shortly afterwards. Then on March 9th leaders of CWC were seized and deported to Edinburgh, where it was reckoned they would cause fewer problems. The next day Maxton and McDougall urged a general strike at meeting on Glasgow Green, but a mood of fear was creeping over the workers, and this was compounded when Maxton and McDougall were later arrested for sedition.

At Maclean’s trial he was charged with 6 counts against him connected with statements made that were ‘all likely to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection amongst the civil population, and to impede the production, repair and transport of war material.’ All prosecution evidence came from the police. Maclean gave a valiant defence and the Judge admitted definite conflict of evidence but decided in favour of the police, as to do otherwise would mean that the police were guilty of conspiracy. The jury found MacLean guilty on 4 of the charges and he was sentenced to 3 years penal servitude (hard labour) at which point Maclean turned and waved to his wife & the crowd sang the Red Flag.

Although the British Government may have temporarily abated the Strike movement on the Clyde the effects were to reverberate internationally. 

Demonstrations were held throughout the country to protest at against the treatment of political prisoners as Scottish prison conditions were worst in Europe- McDougall suffered a nervous breakdown. The February Russian Revolution had helped galvanise the position of the revolutionaries. Maclean was elected to Executive of BSP when Hyndman clique were forced out.

The Mayday March 1917 saw 80,000 marchers & 250,000 lining streets to support the Soviets and demand Maclean's release . At the end of May 100,000 people demonstrated on Glasgow Green at Lloyd George being given the Freedom of the City and to demand the release of Maclean . When Lloyd George came to Glasgow. Thousands took to the streets to protest and the Government was forced, under intense pressure from the working class to release Maclean to pacify the crowds. As soon as Mclean was released he set about denouncing the War, Capitalism and gathering support for the Soviets. This work was to see him appointed an Honorary President of the First All- Russian Congress of Soviets and appointed Bolshevik Consul for Scotland . The authorities refused to recognise the Soviet Government. and Maclean’s consulate. They refused to deliver mail addressed to him and he had trouble getting funds to run the newly opened office. His Assistant was arrested and deported to Russia. MacLean saw that the best way to help the Soviet Government was agitation at home and later said that the Sinn Feiners ‘though non-Socialists at best’ had done more to help the Soviets than British labour by keeping Capitalism busy at home. Willie Gallacher testified to this when he wrote \"The work done by MacLean during this winter of 1917-18 has never been equalled by anyone. His educational work would have been sufficient for half a dozen ordinary men, but on top of this, he was carrying a truly terrific propaganda and agitational campaign. Every minute of his time was devoted to the revolutionary struggle, every ounce of his extraordinary energy was thrown into the fight.\" and the Scottish Labour College now had 17 classes with over 1,500 pupils.

Meanwhile the Americans had joined the war & the British Government feeling assured of victory decided to crush the anti-war movement. In April 1918 MacLean was arrested for sedition on his return from a tour of Durham. The workers took the 1st of May for May Day celebrations at MacLean’s insistence for the first time and after listening to the speeches from 22 platforms on Glasgow Green a huge crowd marched to Barlinnie Prison where MacLean was being held.

At his trial on 9 th May the Indictment took 10 minutes to read & consisted of 11 charges the main one of which that he said the Workers should follow Russia and strike a blow for Revolution. He conducted his own defence and cross examined 28 witnesses 25 of whom were employed by the police. He called no witnesses of his own but instead gave an impassioned speech lasting for 75 minutes giving a full & unashamed account of his own activities & beliefs with his famous quote:

“No human being on the face of the earth, no government, is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I AM NOT HERE, THEN, AS THE ACCUSED: I AM HERE AS THE ACCUSER OF CAPITALISM DRIPPING WITH BLOOD FROM HEAD TO FOOT.”

He was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude in Peterhead

The Clyde District Defence Committee was formed to protect activists and provide for Maclean’s family. Monthly demonstrations on Glasgow Green to demand his release and the July demonstration  was attacked by police. When his wife Agnes got to visit him in October she found out that he had been on hunger strike since July as he claimed he was being fed drugged food . Since July he had being force-fed by Warders. Such was the fury of the Labour Movement the Government, was forced to pay attention. More than anything they feared Social Revolution at home similar to that which had happened in Russia and was happening in Germany and elsewhere. 10,000 marched to demand his release in Finsbury Park, London. He was released on December 3 less than 7 months into a 5 year sentence. He launched straight into an election campaign, standing for the Labour Party but on a revolutionary platform, denouncing parliamentary methods. His return to Glasgow is best given in this contemporary account “ I do not believe the extraordinary and deeply moving spectacle of that evening will be easily effaced from the memory of those who witnessed it. The slowly moving carriage being dragged through the thronged streets by a score of muscular workers who had taken the place of the horses, the surging, exultant mass of people, the incessant cheering and singing and standing upright in the carriage, supported by friends, was the challenging figure of John MacLean waving a large red banner with an air of triumph and defiance\"