Celebrating John Maclean at Celtic Connections

A century has now passed since the death of “great John Maclean” of pneumonia, aged just 44. The Marxist schoolteacher’s health had been greatly weakened by force-feeding in Peterhead prison, where he was jailed for opposing the First World War. He used the opportunity of a speech from the dock at the High Court to lambast the judges: “I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

MacLean was a socialist, an educator, and an organiser. He was an internationalist who advocated Scottish and Irish independence, a Glaswegian from a protestant background, and a Gaelic-speaker whose parents fled the clearances. As a figure he embodies the strengths and the contradictions of Scottish socialism like no other.His heroism has inspired countless artists in the century since, and so it was fitting for the centenary of his death to be marked by an all-star performance of poetry and song at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall.

This spectacular show defied all expectations. Organised by folk singer Siobhan Miller and poet and biographer Henry Bell, it saw an ensemble cast troupe on and off one of the country’s finest stages. The likes of Billy Bragg, Karine Polwart, Eddi Reader, and Jackie Kay gave magnificent performances, but perhaps the greatest moments came from crowd interactions.

When Scottish folk hero Dick Gaughan, now 75, joined the stage, he had to wait through s long standing ovation before he and Bragg could lead the crowd in singing the Red Flag to its original tune of Robert Burns’ The White Cockade.

Irish singer Karan Casey caught the mood when she remarked that it was good to be in a room where she could say what she really thinks. There was power to being in a room with several thousand comrades, raising their voices in song together. A power I had almost forgotten, between pandemic lockdowns and so much of our lives moving into sterile online spaces constructed not as gathering places but as marketplaces.

The media’s most powerful weapon against radical organising is to make us feel isolated, even while our neighbours face the same challenges as we do. Social media, more insidious still, can make us feel alone in a virtual crowd, afraid to speak up for justice. It can divide us, presenting comrades as competitors and foes.

As the concert closed on a mass rendition of The Freedom Come All Ye, a man in the row behind offered me his hand in solidarity. The unalienated solidarity of direct human contact, communal singing, looking around to see thousands of people united in the timeless cause of peace, justice, and human flourishing. Perhaps John MacLean’s method, speaking to the people in the streets, has not yet had its day.

Photo credit: Miriam Brett

Comments (13)

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  1. Jim Aitken says:

    Like Alistair, I attended the Centenary event for John MacLean. It was a terrific night in many respects. Great to see the great man’s grand-daughter take the stage too. People I spoke to afterwards lamented the fact that there is no comparable politics today. The only people, it seems, with class consciousness these days are the Tories. They are still fighting the class war, for sure. And both Labour and the SNP don’t even want to use the word class. John MacLean is still highly relevant today and without any appeal to the lives of working class folk, we go nowhere.

  2. John says:

    They sang the the Internationale as the second from last song. Personally I would have liked them to have sang that as the last song of the night.

    1. Alan Smart says:

      I think the choice of The Freedom Come A Ye was the right one. Aside from its specific mention of Maclean, it is both an internationalist song and a distinctly Scottish one. Indeed. If i had a criticism of the excellent concert, it was in its underplaying of Maclean’s support for Scottish independence and his embrace of Celtic natinalim in the last 5 years of his life. And not a mention of Maclean’s foundation of the Scottish Republican Socialist Party and his rejection of the central control of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This did not suprise me, as it is an aspect of Maclean’s lie and political
      outlook which has consistently bee underplayed, even ihnored, by the largely Lenninst hostorians and organisations who have told Maclean’s story. It also, in my view explains in big part why Maclean temains a relatively obscure figure. They sell him as “Scotland’s Lenin” But who would want to be that , given the disastrous outcome of Leninism? Maclean rejected Lenins view on how Scotland should move to socialism, a rejection that led to his victimisation and smearing by the Communist Party in the final years of his life. A victimisation that did as much as his 7 months in Peterhead and blackballing by the British state to send him into poverty and an early grave. Maybe the concert was not the place to spell out this important part of the Maclean story, but it could have at least illuded to it. In the concerts otherwise excellent narrative. Maclean was relased from Peterhead in late 1918, and then died 5 years later. But near no mention of what happened in the 5 years in between. And what happened was pretty disgraceful. And when semi rehabilated by the Communist influenced left in 1948, this split was in effect airbrushed by order of the party. So Maclean remained “Scotland’s Lenin” as the appeal of Leninism declined and all but disappeared post 1989. The 20th Century’s William Wallace is how I see him, and certainly a better way to interest people in his life and legacy in 2014. Both rejected fealty to London. Both took on the establishments of their day….and paid the price. Both were ultimatey done in, not by the obvious enemy, but their apparent friends

  3. Gavin says:

    Afraid I found the concert a bit underwhelming – less than the sum of the parts.
    Some wonderful singers and musicians, but maybe not enough rousing anthems or stirring instrumentals for my taste.
    I think there were around 20 performers in total. But for a concert in Glasgow, celebrating a man from Glasgow, there weren’t too many Glaswegians performing. The only singers from Glasgow may have been Kapil Seshasayee, Gavin Livingstone and Arthur Johnstone (none of whom were on stage for very long), plus of course that diehard anti-imperial revolutionary socialist firebrand, Eddi Reader – Member of the British Empire.
    I hadn’t actually realized that Reader had an MBE until I googled her this morning.
    I think it was she who said at the concert that she hoped Scotland would be the next country to get its independence from the British Empire.
    Meanwhile, presumably, she’ll be hanging on to her imperial honour …

    1. Satan says:

      Musicians don’t tend to be at all socialist. Its the opposite of a socialist occupation and they tend to be pretty right-wing and/or libertarians. Of course there are exceptions to that generality (Dick Gaughan, and possibly Michael Marra come to mind), but self-publicity is part of the job and that might involve lying about anything. Billy Bragg sold his mansion a few years ago for something like >£2 million, Mark E Smith was a great fan of Thatcher, etc, etc. If it pays enough, I would think that just about any musician would do a socialist jamboree, or a Russian oligarch’s garden party.

      1. “Musicians don’t tend to be at all socialist.”

        What garbage.

        1. Anna says:

          Gaun yersel, Mike.

      2. Niemand says:

        To say MES was a great fan of Thatcher is highly overstated. He once vaguely indicated he might have voted for her once. But listening to his occasional ramblings on politics is a waste of time as they are mostly incoherent. I do agree that the idea that musicians are generally left wing is a myth.

        So what I think matters here is looking to artists for political nouse is a mistake in general. It isn’t their forte and I don’t think it should be, or even can be. By and large I have no interest in what musicians’ political views are unless really extreme. Most of them are sensible enough to keep those views to themselves and with rare exceptions, if they do really push them out into the public arena, they are embarrassing at best.

        1. Gerda Stevenson says:

          With respect, this is a somewhat patronising and stereotypical view of artists, many of whom, throughout the ages, have had illuminating things to say about politics.

          1. Niemand says:

            I am a creative artist myself so have some experience.

            Illuminating views? Yes, sometimes, I agree, as filtered through their art. It can offer a different and useful perspective. But when it comes to thought through political positioning, policy, broader political understanding etc I am much less convinced.

  4. 240122 says:

    Hagiography stinks.

  5. Stan reeves says:

    I am delighted that the concert was packed to honour John Maclean and also give Dick Gaughan a much deserved standing ovation. Dick has been an almost a lone voice in the depoliticised arts world in Scotland, unafraid to nail his colour to the mast. Who now will do the same in alienated isolated and commodified Scotland? Who in the arts stands for independence socialism, Palestine or women rights? Or are we happy to run and take part a competition to write a tune for King Charles!
    Karen Casey remarked that it was good to be in a room where she could say what she really thinks.
    This is the nub of the matter. Have people so internalised a fear of being cancelled or called out, that they are terrified to say anything on any issue regarding the liberation from the forces of capital, imperialism, and simple bad mouthing internet bullies?
    Isolation breeds paranoia. Have a look inside? what actually is there to be afraid off? Say what you think. Say it loud and proud. Listen to criticism and adjust, but your silence and lack of physically connecting with others enables the triumph of the right.

    “The unalienated solidarity of direct human contact, communal singing, looking around to see thousands of people united in the timeless cause of peace, justice, and human flourishing.” Make it so! Organise something local with your friends. Anyone want to join my liberation marching band??

    1. Alan Smart says:

      Plenty are just waiting to be asked….no Creative Scotland grant required!

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