John Maclean, the second youngest of seven children, was born in Pollockshaws, Glasgow in 1879. John did well at school and although his widowed mother was extremely poor, she was determined that he would have a good education. In 1896 he became a pupil-teacher and later entered the Free Church Teacher Training College.
Maclean joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Glasgow Teacher's Socialist Society and was active in the trade union and co-operative movements. He eventually fell out with H. M. Hyndman, the leader of SDF, who he felt was growing increasingly dictatorial. Later he became one of the leaders of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), an organization that had been inspired by the writings of Daniel De Leon, the man who helped establish the International Workers of the World (IWW). Other leaders of the SLP included John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Willie Paul, James Connally and Tom Bell.
In 1915 a group of Scottish socialists, including Maclean, Willie Gallacher, John Muir, David Kirkwood, and John MacLean, formed the Clyde Workers' Committee, an independent organisation of the rank and file. The CWC attempted to confront Government demands over dilution and conscription.
Maclean produced a journal called The Vanguard where he campaigned against the First World War.Maclean and James Maxton were both arrested and charged with sedition under the terms of theDefence of the Realm Act. Found guilty, the men served over a year in prison. The Govan School Board sacked Maclean from his teaching post at Lorne Street School.
Maclean was released from prison in 1916 and returned to work with the Clyde Workers' Committee. Senior members of the CWC, including Willie Gallacher, David Kirkwood and Arthur McManus helped organize production in Beardmore's Mile End Shell Factory. Kirkwood later remarked: "What a team! We organized a bonus system in which everyone benefited by high production... The factory, built for a 12,000 output, produced 24,000. In six weeks, we held the record for output in Great Britain, and we never lost our premier position." Maclean was opposed to this strategy. He wrote: "Lloyd George's purpose is to coax you to relax your Trade Union rules about non-union workers. The dangers... are the weakening of your unions and the lowering of your wages."
McManus had been impressed with the achievements of the Bolshevik Government following theRussian Revolution and in January 1918 Maclean was elected to the chair of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets. The following month he was appointed Bolshevik consul in Scotland.
On 15th April 1918, Maclean was arrested for sedition. He was refused bail and his trial fixed for 9th May in Edinburgh. He conducted his own defence. He argued that in his lectures he had "pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed.... I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. 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."
Maclean was found guilty and sentenced to five years. While in Peterhead Prison Maclean started a hunger strike. His wife wrote to a fellow member of the Socialist Labour Party: "John has been on hunger strike since July. He resisted the forcible feeding for a good while, but submitted to the inevitable. Now he is being fed by a stomach tube twice daily. He has aged very much and has the look of a man who is going through torture... Seemingly anything is law in regard to John. I hope you will make the atrocity public. We must get him out of their clutches. It is nothing but slow murder..."
Former comrades in the Socialist Labour Party such as Arthur McManus, Willie Gallacher, Tom Belland Willie Paul, formed the Communist Party of Great Britain. Maclean refused to join as he believed that workers in Scotland could develop into a revolutionary force before those in England and Wales. Maclean instead formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party (SWRP) which combined communism with a belief in Scottish independence.
In the municipal elections held in November 1923, none of the twelve SWRP candidates came anywhere near victory. Even Maclean only polled 623 votes out of a total of 8,190. Weakened by poor health and his spells in prison, John Maclean died on 30th November 1923.