From The Newsletter, 1 November 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Mention of the Special Branch last week calls to mind one of its most colourful chiefs to date, Sir Basil Thomson.
He was one of the officials who made it their business to circulate alleged evidence of indecent conduct by Roger Casement in order to discourage moves for a reprieve and ensure his execution.
Son of an Archbishop of York, Thomson was in charge of British imperialism’s civil spying and provocation work from 1913 to 1921.
He acquired a reputation for zeal and thoroughness. But in the end he proved a bit too zealous and not quite thorough enough.
On February 28, 1921, the Daily Herald published a photograph of what appeared to be a copy of Pravda – except that it bore the imprint of a London printer in the usual place at the bottom of the page!
The accompanying story told how the Special Branch had had a quantity of a forged issue of Pravda, containing items calculated to cause alarm and despondency among Soviet citizens, printed secretly in London.
They were to be smuggled into Russia to help in some cloak-and-dagger stunt against the Bolsheviks.
The imprint was carefully guillotined off before dispatch, of course: but a printing worker who thought the job stank had abstracted one copy before it reached the guillotine, and taken it to the Herald.
The Home Secretary had to admit the truth of the Herald’s story, but excused himself on the ground that Thomson had acted without his knowledge. Shortly afterwards, Thomson was forced to resign.
In his autobiography, in which he referred to the conspiracies of ‘the Moscovite Jews in Moscow’ (sic), he wrote:
‘My weekly reports on subversive activities on the part of certain Labour leaders had prejudiced them against me as a person who knew too much.’
Five years later, in 1926, Thomson was convicted for an act in violation of public decency in Hyde Park. According to the Times report, he said to PC Lawrie, who arrested him:
‘I am Sir Basil Thomson, the ex-Assistant Commissioner. How can I keep this from my friends? Lawrie, if you overlook this, you could leave the police tomorrow.’
His defence was that he was collecting material for a book; he had ‘made up his mind to go to Hyde Park for the double purpose of finding a communist and getting information about life in the park by night’.
Whatever views one may have about the merits, literary or other, of Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago, there can surely be only one possible reaction by socialists to the behaviour of Soviet officialdom towards the author.
The abuse and penalization to which he is being subjected discredit socialism in the eyes of millions who still think the Soviet Union a socialist State.
How very different was the attitude to writers taken by the leaders of the October Revolution may be seen from Klara Zetkin’s Reminiscences of Lenin and Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution.
A new edition of the latter appeared not long ago, and the Pasternak affair makes it most topical.
The Russia Today Book Club has been responsible for making available here very cheaply a number of new Moscow-published translations of the Russian classics, both pre-1917 and Soviet: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Fadeyev, Sholokhov and others.
This, however, is the literature produced by Russia yesterday rather, than that of Russia today, which it is the prime function of the Club (an offshoot of the British-Soviet Friendship Society) to popularize.
Here the difficulty has been the extreme dullness of most of the novels and short stories made available by the Soviet organization which works with the Club.
Little of the fiction of the 1956–57 period, in which a critical and realistic note was struck, has been supplied.
Repeated applications for The Battle on the Way, by Galina Nikolayeva, a novel which made something of a sensation in Moscow, and then was attacked by the pundits there for ‘denigrating Soviet life’, have been rebuffed.
I learn that Jack Lindsay – perhaps the only writer of distinction still associated with the Club, since Doris Lessing’s defection – is to write to the Moscow authorities concerned, ‘expressing his criticisms of their reluctance to publish controversial novels’.
Let us hope that this may prove for him a battle on the way to understanding the true social and political character of the Soviet bureaucracy.
‘It might have been wished that some of our Marxist historians could have been lured from the recesses of the seventeenth century, the Peasants’ Revolt or Chartism or even daring glimpses, into the socialist eighties, to give the same systematic attention to the rich and still largely uncharted field of the twentieth century and the modern Labour movement.’
– R.P. Dutt in Labour Monthly, October 1958, p. 433.
‘His analysis of the fatal breach between the Levellers, the consistent representatives of the common people, and Cromwell and his ‘Grandees’, with their vested interests, illuminates a significant theme running through each of the episodes here related.
‘Class alliances of this kind always betray any revolutionary movement.’
– Allen Hutt, reviewing Fagan’s The Commoners of England in the Daily Worker, October 23, 1958.
Last updated on 11.10.2011