James D Young 1996
Source: Letter in Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no 1, 1996. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
At the ‘Scottish Dimensions’ conference in Oxford on 24-27 March 1995, I simply could not believe that Stalinism was still such a strong current in Britain. Organised by Ruskin College and the History Workshop Journal, the Oxford conference gave a platform to speakers from the now 57 varieties of the Stalinist left. Far from coming to this conference with a sense of shame and humility, I was appalled by the arrogance of Stalinist historians who ought to have admitted to their role in the multi-dimensional crisis of late twentieth-century socialism. I was just recovering from my experience of sharing a workshop with Willie Thompson on the themes of the history of Scottish radicalism and Scottish communism when I read his letter in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3, in defence of the indefensible – The Good Old Cause.  Unlike what he says in his letter to you, he pleaded innocence of any knowledge of Comintern subsidies to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) until after his book was written. But he must have known about John Maclean’s accusation of the subsidies from Moscow at the very beginning of the party’s history in Britain.
It is evident that Thompson needs a few lessons on the real democratic role of leftist historians in contributing to labour and socialist history. In his excellent book My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution (1920), M Philips Price wrote: ‘There are those today who say that education and historical research are one of the most powerful instruments of the ruling class to secure spiritual hegemony over the toiling masses.’ But although this remains true in 1995 in a context where establishment historians have spent the past two decades rubbishing ‘the Red Clyde’, Thompson engages in academic pedantry to rubbish Kenneth Newton’s book The Sociology of British Communism at the same time as he helps the ‘revisionist’ historians who are committed to writing the Red Clyde out of the pages of history.
Thus in Raphael Samuel’s edited collection of the conference papers entitled Scottish Dimensions, Thompson uses his paper ‘Scottish Communism’ to summarise some of the themes of his book The Good Old Cause. To score a cheap point against Newton, he says: ‘Certainly the experience of Red Clydeside (whether or not its status was legendary) contributed significantly to the party’s formation and to the temper it developed thereafter...’ By sleekitly formulating his attitude to Red Clydeside in this way, Thompson can keep himself out of trouble with the right-wing historians in the British universities.
The tragedy of his endeavour to produce a book on the history of British communism is that he seems incapable of writing critical history. Furthermore, he is less than competent in attempting to produce history for those young people who are trying to understand an apparently triumphant capitalism towards the end of the terrible hell of the twentieth century. Like so many of his spiritual brethren, he sees his mission in life as interpreting history (for whom, by the way, one may ask) rather than in trying to change the world. But Thompson’s ‘history’ will not do anymore; and one of the things that pleases me more than anything else is that critical, class struggle historians like me can now challenge Stalinist historians without really being accused of witch-hunting.
Making the point that Thompson in his capacity as an historian makes a virtue of ignorance, Al Richardson will perhaps be interested to know that he used the same technique whilst ‘debating’ against me in Oxford. But, although he responded to my critical questions about the history of the CPGB by accusing me of being ‘a professional heretic’, Thompson has not understood that some of us belong to a different cultural history summed up in the old Scottish saying ‘The truth against the world’. At Oxford Thompson justified his decision not to discuss individuals (including John Maclean, the famous Clydeside socialist), by asserting that history has always been made by ‘social forces’, not individuals. Hence, too, his omission of Joe Stalin from his paper on Scottish communism. However, with regard to the difference between the book and the paper, he contradicted himself by mentioning ‘the Trotskyist’ Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Discussing the CPGB’s ‘class against class’ policy in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he asserted that ‘an echo of this can be found in the third part of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, Grey Granite’.
Therefore, when Thompson replies to Richardson’s review of The Good Old Cause, by defending his decision not to discuss ‘various individuals’ who ‘came up against the CPGB from a Trotskyist standpoint’, he must have known about what Hugh MacDiarmid called Gibbon’s ‘ineradicable Trotskyism’. Moreover, since he mentioned A Scots Quair in his Oxford paper, I'd like to know why he did not inform the young people in the large audience about Gibbon’s critique of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the light of the attention that contributors to Revolutionary History, New Politics, etc, have paid to Victor Serge, Thompson had an historian’s responsibility to discuss Scottish – and English – socialists and communists who challenged the moral corruption of the CPGB and its affiliates in other parts of the world. I suppose he threw in a brief reference to Gibbon to give his paper ‘colour'; or perhaps to show the human side of a ‘communist’ who is apparently not interested in individuals in history.
Though a man of the extreme left, Gibbon was never a Trotskyist. Objecting to the Stalinists’ role in creating moral corruption in the labour movement, he did so with the same concerns as Victor Serge and Ignazio Silone. Unlike Thompson, I have taught many courses in Scottish – and other – labour history classes, and unlike him I tried to identify the concrete moral corruption of ‘communists’ by quoting how an American Stalinist like Joseph Freeman rubbished classical Marxism by insisting:
The unequal development of individuals has raised a Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Chicherin or Bukharin to that leadership which every social group requires whenever such men show a greater capacity than the average for understanding and manipulating the mechanics of history. (Joseph Freeman, An American Testament (London, 1938), p 204)
Though Thompson is probably incapable of grasping this, Gibbon was not just objecting to the ‘class against class’ mystification. While he was not an orthodox Marxist, Gibbon was much closer to Marx than Thompson in his insistence that ‘history does nothing’. Moreover, when he used Grey Granite to dissect the bunkum about the CPGB’s manipulation of the world’s working folk as ‘history’s instruments’, he was dealing with the conflict over moral values between socialists and Stalinists, as well as the issue of the nature of the vanguard party as a party of a new type.
Although it has not been noticed by literary critics, Silone made similar anti-Stalinist criticisms in his novel The Seed Beneath the Snow. When two of the comrades in Silone’s novel about fascist Italy in the late 1930s discussed their shared experience inside the Communist Party of Italy, the ensuing dialogue took place:
To tell the truth, they did not hold much with friendship in the party; there was something suspicious about it, as if it might engender the formation of cliques and gangs. For this reason I should even rightly admit that friendship, in the true and human meaning of the word, was regarded and despised as a remnant of bourgeois individualism... After a long silence Simone got up to make ready his bed, and murmured: ‘I didn’t know how widespread was the decay.’ (I Silone, The Seed Beneath the Snow (London, 1943), pp 251-52)
It is no longer possible to write a history of the CPGB without acknowledging the deep moral corruption – and the practical eradication of classical Marxism and socialist humanism – represented by Stalinism. By the time that Gibbon was writing his trilogy of fine novels A Scots Quair, there was already an implicit clash in the Western Stalinist organisations between classical socialist ideas and the brutal and forced industrialisation in a Russia without soviets.
Before the libertarian Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the classical socialist attitude towards the historical process was summed up by Antonio Labriola when he said: Labour, which is the prerequisite of all progress, has pressed the sufferings, the privations, the travail and the ills of the multitude into the service of the comfort of the few. History is like an inferno. It might be presented as a sombre drama entitled The Tragedy of Labour. (Socialism and Philosophy (Chicago, 1906), p 109)
Social forces have always been personified by individuals; and, despite Thompson’s Stalinism, socialists have not been sexless, ageless, nationless or classless. The real tragedy of Thompson’s ‘his-story’ is that he has not even attempted to explain why the CPGB became a powerful force hostile to and murderous in response to democratic, class struggle Socialism from below.
Thompson wants people to think that he is ‘humane’, but, quite apart from the truth of Dante’s observation that ‘the way to hell is paved with good intentions’, real humanity in the 1990s demands participation in the new world that is struggling to be born.
1. Al Richardson reviewed Willie Thompson’s The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London, 1992) in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 2 (1994), and an exchange between Willie Thompson and Al Richardson appeared in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3 (1995) – MIA.