There are a couple of books which came out last year which have remained on the SWH! ‘must-read’ pile, and which will be reviewed on these pages in due course. One of them is Henry Bell’s biography of John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside, which looks behind the mythology to reveal the man, his life, and offer comment not only on that time and place, but also on the politics of today.
Chapter One begins, perhaps surprisingly, with the subject’s death, and goes on to detail MacLean’s funeral and how widespread the mourning was. It’s an arresting opening which sets the tone for what follows with Bell’s ability to set a scene matched by his clear and concise way with a statistic. More than any other section in the book it shows just how important and iconic John MacLean had become to the people of Glasgow, and beyond. You are immediately made aware that this story is important and it encourages you to read on and learn more about the life which led to this.
Most of us will only know John MacLean, if at all, by his reputation as “Scotland’s Greatest Revolutionary Socialist” without having given too much thought as to who, how, and why. To some that description will immediately make him a hero, to others a villain. As always the story is more complex than that and, as with the the best biographers, Bell goes on to unpick that complexity and makes things more clear and balanced. John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside is a profile of a man whose story demands to be read and understood more widely. It’s a thoroughly researched and engaging read which walks that fine line between giving the reader the facts and telling the story in an involving way.
It looks at MacLean’s Highland heritage and Calvinist upbringing, his life as a teacher (the belief in the importance of education for all arguably at the heart of everything he fought for), his incredible relationship with Communist Russia and the Kremlin, and his links to those involved with the struggle for an independent Ireland. It is little wonder that the UK government, and other western countries, took such a keen interest in this man – a skilled and charismatic orator who could command large audiences for his speeches. Some of the most powerful sections in the book are where Bell details MacLean’s time spent in jail as a result and the toll it took, especially on his health and family.
What is of particular interest is MacLean’s move from his belief in Marxist internationalism to socialist independence, at least where Scotland was concerned. He wasn’t the only Scottish figure to hold these apparently opposing beliefs – years later Hugh MacDiarmid would become a member of the Communist Party and the National Party of Scotland (and be expelled from both), and there are echoes of this complex political and idealistic view evident in Scottish politics to this day. If you want to understand better Scotland’s current political landscape it helps to know your history, and Bell’s book is an excellent place to fill in many of those gaps.
I’m not a great reader of political biographies, but I have read many concerning the lives of philosophers and John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside works in a manner similar to Rudiger Safranski’s biography of Nietzsche, Ray Monk’s on Wittgenstein, Bernard-Henri Levy’s Sartre and, most appropriately, Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx. As with all of those Bell strikes a balance between the subject’s life-story and their ideology – the personal, the political, and also, (as important for MacLean as any of the others), the philosophical.
Henry Bell makes it clear that while MacLean was a man of action, prepared to suffer and even die for his cause, he was also a man of ideas – an intellectual who often placed those ideas above all else. Radical, yes – but only in a society where individuals and groups were, and are, too willing to compromise what they believe. Now, perhaps more than at any time in the last 100 years, John MacLean has lessons for us all. Here begins the lesson.