From International Socialism (1st series), No.75, February 1975.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
“He was the working class in action, with all the shackles and fetters fallen: he was the spirit of the future age living and acting today. And therefore, workers of the world do honour and will do honour to all that is most real and most imperishable in themselves and their own future.”
Thus Rajani Palme Dutt in his final paragraph to an obituary of Lenin, published in April, 1924. It would be pleasant to say something, less grandiloquent perhaps, of like of Palme Dutt himself, now that he too is dead, if only because it is customary and well mannered. Unfortunately that is not possible. In his 60-odd years in the movement Dutt provides an object lesson in the politics of Stalinism and the abuse of great talent, in the service of those politics.
Born in 1889, he took a first class honours degree at Oxford but a promising academic career was blasted when he was sent down for opposition to the 1914-18 war. In 1919 he was made international secretary of the Labour Research Department, a post where he contracted his life long love of all things Russian. A foundation member of the Communist Party, he almost certainly owed his advancement to his Russian connection. Despite his comparative youth and lack of following in the party he became in 1921, editor of the theoretical magazine Labour Monthly. The following year he was appointed chairman of the party commission on organisation. Together with Harry Pollitt and Hubert Inkpin he was charged with the task of implementing the organisational theses of the Comintern. After six months of almost continuous session Dutt drafted the report that was accepted without dissent by a special party conference. In many ways the report went a long way to overcome the loose federalism of the party’s geographical branches. Functional work groups, with effective command structures and reporting were established. Nevertheless, the report had a strong “Russian” flavour, in content if not in style. Not all the recommendations were implemented and even so subsequent party congresses were much exercised, mitigating the rigours of the “Dutt-Pollitt” report.
In the streamlined “bolshevised” party that came out of the re-organisation, all three signatories reaped the reward of their work. Inkpin was elected chairman of the Central Control Commission Dutt and Pollitt were elected to the party executive. Thus started the long and close association between Dutt and Pollitt. Palme Dutt, the cool intellectual with a facility for theoretical exposition, with friends in the Kremlin and Pollitt the talented mass agitator and organiser.
As a member of the executive and editor of Labour Monthly Dutt occupied the role of leading theoretician as populariser and apologist for the line of the Comintern in whatever direction it happened to be moving. Labour Monthly in the early years was required reading for anyone with a theoretical turn of mind and a desire to see theory turned into practice. At one time or another almost every ‘left’ wrote for the magazine, and in the process exposed themselves more effectively than volumes of marxist critique. At no time, however, did Labour Monthly stray far from the line of Palme Dutt’s Russian mentors. Not a single zig of Comintern policy, not yet a zag or even both at the same time failed to find support in the Notes of the Month modestly signed “RPD”. The Anglo-Russian Committee, policy towards the TUC “lefts”, the so-called “third period” policy of “class against class” and the “popular front”, all were joyfully taken on board and extolled as the latest revealed truth. Even so if the Notes were long, complex and seemed more an exercise in squaring the circle than dialectics they were interesting if only to try and see how the trick was done.
As a fluent Russian speaker Dutt was well placed as a link with and interpreter of the directives emanating from Moscow. That this was not always appreciated by less loftily connected comrades is evident from the words of Ernie Cant (London District Secretary): “... once again Comrade Dutt intervenes at the last minute in a party discussion, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s and giving pontifical blessing to Comrade Pollitt. But Comrade Dutt has not only been divorced from the masses he has been divorced from the actual life of the party for a considerable period – he knows only resolutions, theses, ballot results and newspaper clippings.” But as every Catholic knows and perhaps Ernie cant had forgotten, the “pontiff” gets his authority from God. RPD’s deity was in Moscow and smiling on his protegé.
Interestingly enough the dispute that occasioned Cant’s outburst occurred in 1929. It concerned the lack of fervour with which the British CP leadership were introducing the “third period” policy. Dutt, Page Arnot and J.T. Murphy led the “ultra left” opposition of Comintern loyalists. So acrimonious did the dispute become that it finally had to be sorted out in Moscow. There the majority of the leadership were transformed into a minority. Harry Pollitt who changed sides just in time was made party secretary, the dissident ex-leadership being dumped.
Always a prolific writer, Dutt was in his element justifying the unjustifiable during the whole of the “third period”. If party membership declined, and it did, the party was stronger, because purer. If fascism succeeded in Germany, all to the good because: “After Hitler, us”. In this last context Dutt spent some time preparing a book proving the objectively fascist nature of social democracy, only to find that when the volume was published the “third period” had evaporated into the gaseous vapours of the “popular front”. The prospect of such a failure of vision must disturb the sleep of all votaries of capricious gods.
But the lurch from ultra-left idiocy of “social fascism” to the social pacifism of the “popular front” was a contradiction easily encompassed in Dutt’s own special dialectic.
Together with D.N. Pritt he was an enthusiastic apologist for the Moscow frame-up trials. Russian communists he had known, some as friends, disappeared in the horror of the great purge, not a words, not a whisper escaped Dutt’s lips or his pen to indicate anything but peace and socialist construction were going on in Russia under the avuncular beneficence of Joe Stalin.
The fruitful partnership with Harry Pollitt was interrupted in 1939. Harry with a logicality that years or training had failed to completely overcome had decided, at the outbreak of hostilities, that the war being against fascists must be, an anti-fascist war and so proclaimed it. He had, however, neglected the fact that the Stalin-Ribbentrop pact had been signed. Germany and Russia had a non-aggression pact. Palme Dutt, more versed in the signals, characterised the war as “imperialist”. Pollitt was removed from the secretaryship and returned to boilermaking, while Dutt took over his job, a situation that lasted until Russia entered the war when its character was immediately transformed into an anti-fascist crusade.
To chronicle each twist and turn of Palme Dutt’s devotion to the line from Moscow would be repetitive and tedious. Suffice to say his last big service to the Russian comrades was in 1956 when he stumped the country, attempting to calm the fears of party members distressed by Khruschev’s revelations at the 20th Party Congress and the Russian crushing of the Hungarian revolution. Palme Dutt’s discourse in justification of Stalin, was know as the “spots on the sun” speech. The sun, according to Dutt, is the source of energy, life, growth and was an all round good thing to have, nevertheless, there are spots on the sun: so it was with Stalin. The argument , for once, did not go down well with the comrades. Over 7,000 left the party and the monolith cracked in a way that defied restoration.
Dutt went on of course, he still edited Labour Monthly and wrote his increasingly tedious Notes of the Month. But it was not the same. Russians with H bombs and Sputniks have less need of foreign communist parties. The central links weakened, the party virtually rudderless, discipline almost non-existent, Palme Dutt’s last days must have been sad indeed. He surfaced briefly in 1969 to attack the party leadership for not supporting the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia at the party congress that year. It was a last very faint hurrah.
Intellectually Palme Dutt had all the equipment for penetrating analysis and a dedication worthy of better causes. He lived through and did his small part in assisting the degeneration of official Communism into the grotesque caricature that it is today.
It is appropriate to conclude by quoting again from RPD’s obituary of Lenin, words that were strikingly prophetic and that he would have done well to have taken to heart.
“Hideous things will be proclaimed and advocated in the name of Leninism. All the traitors to socialist principles will endeavour to hide themselves behind the man who was bigger than formulas. The audacious compromises of an indomitable fighter will be made the excuse for the dirty compacts of petty bargainers and timid self-seekers.” How very true.
Last updated on 19.10.2006