Accuser of capitalism: speech from the dock

“I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

John Maclean delivers his speech from the dock at Edinburgh High Court, 9 May 1918

A schoolteacher, revolutionary socialist, and hero of Glasgow’s ‘Red Clydeside’ era, John Maclean (1879-1923) argued that socialists should not support their own governments’ imperialist wars, and should instead work internationally to overthrow capitalism. He welcomed the October Revolution in Russia and was elected an honorary member of the Petrograd Soviet. However, he was critical of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain, and attempted to build a separate Scottish party within the Communist International. The chief of British military intelligence described him as “the most dangerous man in Britain.”

Maclean lost his job as a teacher as a consequence of his political activities and his health deteriorated during his numerous spells in prison, in part due to brutal mistreatment and force-feeding while on hunger strike. He died in at the age of 44.

The speech Maclean gave at his trial for sedition in 1918 at the High Court in Edinburgh has gone down in history as a fearless cry of resistance to war and capitalist repression. Extracts from the speech are reproduced below. The full text of the 75-minute speech is available from the Marxists Internet Archive here.

Striking workers raise the Red Flag in St George’s Square in Glasgow, 31 January 1919.

It has been said that they cannot fathom my motive. For the full period of my active life I have been a teacher of economics to the working classes, and my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill”, and I 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. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention.


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 had previously been sentenced to three years in jail for anti-war activities in 1916, but was released after mass campaigns in June 1917.


It has been pointed out that if we developed a revolution the Germans would come over and, instead of having liberty, we would be under the iron heel of the Kaiser. If I grant that that is true, it is equally true in the other case that the allies would do in Germany what the German Kaiser with the capitalist class of Germany would do in this country. There can only be a revolution when the workers of all the countries stand united and capitalism is crushed, and until then the war must go on incessantly and incessantly. It is not because I am against my own people. My own people are the workers here, and the workers in Germany and elsewhere.

It was not the workers who instigated the war. The workers have no economic interest to serve as a consequence of the war, and because of that, it is my appeal to my class that makes me a patriot so far as my class is concerned, and when I stand true to my class, the working class, in which I was born, it is because my people were swept out of the Highlands, and it was only because of my own ability that I remained. I have remained true to my class, the working class, and whatever I do I think I am doing in the interest of my class and my country. I am no traitor to my country. I stand loyal to my country because I stand loyal to the class which creates the wealth throughout the whole of the world.


I have taken up unconstitutional action at this time because of the abnormal circumstances and because precedent has been given by the British government. I am a socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place. I act square and clean for my principles. I have nothing to retract. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Your class position is against my class position. There are two classes of morality. There is the working class morality and there is the capitalist class morality. There is this antagonism as there is the antagonism between Germany and Britain. A victory for Germany is a defeat for Britain; a victory for Britain is a defeat for Germany. And it is exactly the same so far as our classes are concerned. What is moral for the one class is absolutely immoral for the other, and vice-versa.

No matter what your accusations against me may be, no matter what reservations you keep at the back of your head, my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.

John Maclean died on 30 November 1923. His funeral procession was led by the Clyde Workers’ Band and followed by 10,000 people.


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