John McLean - accuser of capitalism

by Brian Durrans

“My own people are the workers here, and the workers in Germany and elsewhere” So said John Maclean 100 years ago at his trial for sedition.

On the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Lenin declared:

“The world working-class revolution began with the action of individuals, whose boundless courage represented everything honest that remained of that decayed official "socialism" which is in reality social-chauvinism. Liebknecht in Germany, Adler in Austria, MacLean in Britain—these are the best-known names of the isolated heroes who have taken upon themselves the arduous role of forerunners of the world revolution.” [1]

These “best-known heroes” – Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), Friedrich Adler (1879-1960) and John Maclean (1879-1923) – applied their understandings of Marxism in their own countries to support working class struggles and steer them through appropriate forms of political organisation, nationally and internationally, to the achievement of socialism. As Lenin wrote the above words, of the three only Maclean was currently out of prison and would soon be going back again. 

All three implacably opposed the imperialist First World War, still raging at that time. By breaking repressive laws, their anti-war activities brought them repeated spells in prison, but campaigns to get them released were remarkably successful. Behind bars, a prisoner was isolated from his comrades outside, though sustained by the knowledge that he and his cause were not forgotten. Yet even when carrying out their normal agitational work, Lenin’s three heroes were in another sense hampered (though not really ‘isolated’) by the lack of a fit-for-purpose political party able to unite and amplify the individual contributions of its members, as the Bolsheviks had created in Russia and which was on the verge of proving its merits in the most spectacular way.   

A short paragraph on each of the two outstanding revolutionaries whom Lenin ranked alongside him should emphasise the high esteem in which Maclean was held shortly before he made the speech summarised in the rest of this article.  


In Berlin, the ‘social-chauvinist’ government couldn’t prevent Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founding the Communist Party of Germany at the turn of 1919 but brutally destroyed the attempted revolution a few days later and had its Freikorps militia assassinate them both on 15 January. For years, however, Liebknecht’s resolute anti-militarism made him a key enemy of the German state. He was the only member of the Reichstag (parliament) to oppose the War at its outset in 1914, declaring “my protest is against […] those responsible for it, against those who are directing it; against the capitalistic ends for which it is being pursued”. [2]


In Vienna, Adler was perhaps the most surprising of Lenin’s three “courageous heroes”. He personally assassinated a leading statesman, fatally shooting the warmongering Austrian prime minister Karl von Stürgkh in October 1916, but actually got away with it. So unpopular was his target that Adler escaped the death penalty by defending himself in court with the same cool logic that led him to pull the trigger. [3] He was sentenced to eighteen years’ hard labour but popular pressure and a royal pardon got him released after only two years.


Perhaps the best-known act of speaking out that any of these outspoken revolutionaries managed was Maclean’s ‘Speech from the Dock’, delivered during his trial for sedition on 9 May 1918 at the High Court in Edinburgh. [4] Most of what follows is in the present tense to try to bring the scene to life. 

Maclean has no legal counsel and calls no defence witnesses. Despite refusing the role of defendant, he does, however, cross-examine prosecution witnesses [5], and is so incisive that his questions and their replies are worth reading along with his speech itself. Once he asserts the right to be heard on his own terms, the court is powerless to stop him talking for a full hour-and-a-quarter:     

“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 do 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.” [emphasis added]

As Lenin said, the crisis of imperialist war had exposed the bankruptcy of reformism in social democracy. Given that the charges against him are brought by the capitalist state itself rather than its reformist minions, Maclean’s subject is the inhumanity of capitalism as a whole rather than how working-class interests might find their best political expression. His judgement is sound: this is not a meeting of comrades. With no hope of acquittal, he sets out to justify his words and actions as an inspiration to others.     


The complete text of Maclean’s speech is available on the websites referenced below [4]. The following attempts to describe and selectively quote its main content, avoiding both over-abbreviation and duplicating the whole thing.  The three subheadings headings are added (there are none in the transcript) and, unless indicated as his own, so are many of the contextualising comments. Sometimes a particular point in the speech could be placed as logically under one heading as under another. Maclean mixes levels of detail as he proceeds; as far as practicable, the summary of the full text is arranged from global matters to personal ones, but no attempt is made to preserve the order in which topics were made in the original speech.  


Maclean sketches a Marxist analysis of capitalism, making it as intelligible as possible to his audience by using familiar terms and examples and arresting comparisons. The Biblical injunctions of “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill", for instance, are starkly contrasted with “the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today” and recognition that “our […] countries have had to keep armies”, with the consequence that “inevitably our armies must clash together”. 

The household name of the recently-deceased Edward VII is used to illustrate how ruling-class ‘patriotic’ propaganda masks the real causes of war. Since the “entente cordiale” with France and the alliance with Russia, both attributed to ‘Edward the Peacemaker’, were not about peace at all but meant to isolate Germany in anticipation of the conflict that was now underway. Maclean says the King were better called a warmaker.    

Expanding on the proposition that “robbery […] goes on in civilised societies”, Maclean explains that “[O]wing to the surplus created by the workers, it was necessary to create a market outside this country, because of the inability of the workers to purchase the wealth they create. You must have markets abroad, and in order to have these markets you must have empire”, and that as this applies to both Britain and Germany, their competing search for empire leads them into war. (From a warmaker, in other words, the late King is now demoted to an agent of political economy).    


Neither does Maclean limit his perspective on the nature of imperialism to Anglo-German rivalry but cites up-to-the-minute analyses of the geopolitical interests of US and Japanese imperialists, in respect of the Middle East, South America, Siberia, China and elsewhere; and he points out that the new scramble for raw materials, cheap labour and markets, with war in its wake, threatens workers wherever they might be. 

Given the abominable inhumanity of capitalism (the dead of the current War alone then numbered around 12 million) no wonder Maclean praises the Bolsheviks for their progress in bringing capitalism to an end in Russia and to others in Finland and the Baltic states working for the same cause. He refutes those who accuse the revolution of violence by stressing that for such a momentous upheaval, it was accomplished with relatively little loss of life yet had already in its first six months mobilised vast numbers of people in the reconstruction of their society, despite the far greater violence directed towards them by those loyal to the previous regime and by western (and Japanese) interventions. He had welcomed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk which took revolutionary Russia out of the war and, if Britain had wanted to, could have ended the war for all combatants, so he now emphasises the hypocrisy of the British ruling class who encourage German workers to revolution to weaken German capitalism while discouraging it at home.

Industrial action and political agitation, including military mutinies, currently developing across Europe – he gives special mention to Italy - and all directly or indirectly connected with the War and a desire to end it, were signs of change to come and Maclean welcomes these developments as in the best interests not only of those concerned but also of British workers.  


What does Maclean mean by declaring that “There can only be a revolution when the workers of all the countries stand united and capitalism is crushed […]”? He is clear that capitalism needs to be eradicated and “the only factor […] that can make for a clean sweep in society is the working class […].  The whole history of society has proved that […it…] moves forward as a consequence of an under-class overcoming the resistance of a class on top of them.”

That the struggle to unite and mobilise workers to win improved wages and conditions also builds the will and capacity to replace capitalism itself is implicit in the speech but not, given its audience, argued explicitly. He does say, though, that in this process, workers come to recognise that this War (and war in general) is their enemy, and that some employers are also changing their attitudes. Although the reasons for the latter are not spelled out, the implication is that the War is leading people on both sides of the class divide to think about alternatives to war and inequality: questions which, far from diverting from the core struggle between workers wanting higher wages and employers wanting higher profits, better inform that struggle by reminding us of its consequences.  Revolutionary change is not only necessary and overdue but preliminary changes that might help open the way to it are already underway. Since the words in question were uttered only six months after the Russian Revolution and well before the defeat of the short-lived German uprising, Maclean’s speech might reflect romantic ‘domino theory’ optimism that Bolshevik success would send reactionary regimes toppling across Europe and further afield.

Alternatively or in addition, Maclean might have been speaking rhetorically. Elsewhere, he rejects accusations that he urged malnourished workers to burn down farms if profiteering farmers refused them food and that he advocated breaking up printing plants to prevent newspapers misleading their readers. His counter-argument is that these were just vivid expressions designed (on the evidence, effectively) to draw attention to underlying injustice.


Maclean refers to recent or current issues of wages and conditions affecting the working class in Scotland or elsewhere to illustrate principles of socialist politics. This must have given his speech a special resonance at the time, at least among his supporters; but as these references are mostly very specific, requiring a detailed knowledge of local labour relations available to few readers today, I will highlight only the more general principles which he also sought to draw from them.


One of the questions dealt with in this regard came up in the context of the war-effort but also went to the heart of capitalism’s exploitation of the working class.  The government and employers urged skilled workers to ‘patriotically’ increase production by speeding up their work, and likewise to accept ‘dilution of labour’ – i.e., the introduction of less skilled workers - though many suspected this would weaken their bargaining power with employers. [6]

Some workers tried to negotiate deals to limit these negative aspects, but Maclean argued against the measures in principle: “If it is right for the employer to get the maximum of energy and pay the minimum of wage, then it is equally right for the worker to give the minimum of his energy and demand the maximum of wage.” Even so, there is room for improved wages and conditions within capitalism under favourable conditions. But that doesn’t make capitalism a rational way to run things. Examples of mismanagement of the war-effort itself exposes the inefficiency of capitalism even more starkly since at such a time production and distribution are more than ever matters of life and death.    

Maclean presents his arguments to the court as he probably did to the workers themselves, clarifying the principles on which his advice is founded, of which the most important (and difficult) was to champion the interests of the working class as a whole above those of particular sections of it, and those of the workers everywhere over those of workers anywhere.  


While defending himself against charges that he advocates the violent destruction of property in respect of farms and printing presses by saying his words on these matters were rhetorical and not to be taken literally, Maclean provides two illustrations to put the whole matter into context and expose capitalist hypocrisy. 

First, in respect of hunger, he says that not only diet but also health and housing are skewed by class, and that such conditions are clearly indexed by mortality: “the death rate among the working classes has always exceeded that in the better-to-do districts.” Second, he recalls his efforts, while honorary consul in Scotland for the Russian revolutionary government, to help the dependents of locally-based Russian families who found it hard to survive on their meagre stipends from the British government after it sent their menfolk to fight the Bolsheviks. He argues that although these men should never have been sent, at least the women and children should not pay the price for it. He reports that he asked the British government to help the families but got no response.  

Foreign affairs, economic life, the reporting of news and opinion, can be thought of, he implies, as “the culture of Britain”.  In other words, such subjects, ordinarily thought about or argued about under separate headings, in reality ‘fit together’, and are certainly brought together in his speech. Maclean acknowledges that he was attacked for proposing to “seize the press” but argues that all he meant was to express the “the disgust of the organised workers” with particular regard to the Daily Record (not the Glasgow Herald);  and that he didn’t really want to break up the printing plant but simply to draw attention to “the Harmsworth family and to the Rothermeres and so on, and to their vile press which seems to be an index of the culture of Britain.”  More rhetoric then, but plainly effective in making a popular, class-conscious argument.


Maclean repeatedly insists that his political work is undertaken not for personal gain but “for the benefit of society” and that “justice and freedom can only be obtained when society is placed on a sound economic basis”, the want of which, he explains, is the root cause of current bloodshed.  A man whose activism was already known to have cost him his position as a school teacher and earned him several spells of imprisonment might hardly need to stress that he wasn’t a career politician, but the cynical or ill-disposed might believe anything of a man in the dock, especially if told lies about him by the popular press.

The prosecution tried to blame Maclean personally for the decisions of engineering workers in government munitions factories to take strike action, in defiance of the Man Power Act; but Maclean points out that the action itself was taken after the collective decision of the workers themselves, so his own support for them thereafter could hardly be blamed for it. In addition, by laying off thousands of women munition workers (‘girls’ as they were then called) immediately before the strike, the government itself is as “guilty of stoppage of output” as it alleged the men were.


Those in prison for their class politics at this time may have suffered far worse than the frustration of being kept from political work or loved ones, especially if, as in Maclean’s case, the offences were serious enough to carry the penalty of hard labour.  Although he recounts his ill-treatment during previous periods of imprisonment for anti-war activism, Maclean turns the focus away from himself onto how prisons are run, the predicament of inmates in general, and the provision of poor food and medical treatment – and mistreatment - for them and especially for conscientious objectors to the war.

Prison with hard labour was at best a severe punishment, worse in the depths of winter and worst of all when at least some inmates were, as Maclean says happened to him, deliberately mistreated by prison doctors: by any measure a terrible experience. As he’d said before in public, he would “rather be immediately put to death than condemned to a life sentence in Peterhead”, and he adds that if sent there he would go on hunger strike.


Maclean had been in Peterhead prison before and must have feared he would return after his present trial. The jury, who may or may not have listened patiently to his speech, promptly found him guilty and he was sentenced to five years’ hard labour. As promised, he went on hunger strike, was force-fed, and went on another. Weekly demonstrations and other demands that he be set free, and concern in the government that allowing him to die in prison could boost his cause, led to Maclean’s release after seven months. Even so, the ill-treatment he received had permanently damaged his health.


Lenin’s commendation of the “forerunners of world revolution” acknowledges the difficulties they faced. If heroes don’t always solve problems, neither do they shirk them. An indication of why Maclean’s political work had so alarmed the ruling class can be grasped from this obituary tribute from his former comrade, the later Communist MP Willie Gallacher:

“[s]urely in no country in Europe was such a tornado of energy let loose. Never for a moment was he in doubt about the war or what it meant. -With the first blast of the trumpets, he was on the streets.” [7]

As a reminder of his inspirational courage and commitment, and that socialism is not only necessary but possible, John Maclean’s speech has never deserved an audience more than it does today.

Endnotes (all websites mentioned were accessed in early-mid August 2018; in citing any source here I neither vouch for its accuracy nor endorse the politics of its author or of the website on which it appears.)

[1] V. I. Lenin, ‘The Crisis Has Matured’, Rabochy [newspaper], 20 October 1917, reprinted in Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 26, 1972, pp. 74-85:


[3] Douglas D. Alder, ‘Friedrich Adler: Evolution of a Revolutionary’, German Studies Review,

vol. 1, no. 3, October, 1978, pp. 260-284.


[4] The following two online versions of the speech were used in the preparation of this article.;


[5] Maclean’s questions and prosecution witnesses’ replies are given about two-thirds into the following unpaginated document:


[6] “By May 1915, there were three Labour MP's in the Coalition Government, one of them, Arthur Henderson, in the cabinet. The two Treasury Agreements signed by government and trade union representatives confirmed labour's promise to abandon strike action for the duration of the war. It also drew the unions (including the Amalgamated Society, whose members were principally affected) into agreeing to suspend 'restrictive practices' in skilled trades by agreeing to the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour (particularly that of women) in the war industries. (This was known as 'dilution'.)” -




John McLean's passport application photograph (1919)

German communist leader Karl Liebknecht. c. 1911

Austrian left Social Democrat and progressive assassin, Friedrich Adler (photo taken c. 1917)