Duncan Hallas

The shyster lawyer

(September 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.167, September 1993, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism
John Callaghan
Lawrence and Wishart £19.99

The name Palme Dutt probably means nothing to most revolutionary socialists today. He died nearly 20 years ago (December 1974) and had long outlived his influence in the British working clan movement. But he once had a significant (and malign) influence as the most articulate ‘theorist’ of Stalinism in Britain.

It is for that reason, and only for that reason, that this book deserves notice. It is informative, factually accurate and contains new information.

A word or two about the author’s viewpoint is necessary. In earlier books he moved from the standpoint that the Communist International’s perspective of 1920 (the year of the International’s real foundation) was mistaken -obviously right in hindsight - to the view that the whole operation was misbegotten and, finally, to the view that Leninism in practice leads to Stalinism - although he does not confuse the two. In this work, Bolshevism, Communism and Stalinism are not clearly distinguished and so the full inequities of Dutt’s role are not fully brought out.

Dutt was never a Bolshevik, never a Communist in Marx’s sense, because he never at any stage of his development identified with the working class as the only force that could achieve the fundamental change from capitalism to socialism.

That is not to say he was never a rebel. Growing up in what was the small university town of Cambridge, offspring of an Indian father (a doctor) and a Swedish mother, he felt the full force of racism and the philistinism of the ‘educated’ English middle class.

He rebelled; and though a relatively privileged person - a student at Oxford when 90 to 95 percent of working class children left school at age 14 or earlier - he stood out against the imperialist war of 1914-18, bravely defied the authorities (and popular opinion) and was sent to prison. He was then a genuine rebel, not a time server of any description. The point is worth making because a good many others who later succumbed to Stalinism. had similar backgrounds.

There was, however, a difference. Fenner Brockway relates in his book Inside the Left that in 1919 Dutt consulted him about the advisability of accepting an offer to edit an Indian bourgeois journal (published legally under British rule). Brockway advised him not accept on the grounds that such journals were financially unstable and Dutt, after hesitation, accepted the advice. So much for the legend of the ‘Bolshevik’ Dutt.

In fact, Dutt, with some financial support from left (and not so left) sources produced a book in 1920, The Two Internationals. Its contents are a mix of left reformist, centrist and revolutionary ideas - with the emphasis on centrism. From July 1921 Dutt edited a journal, the Labour Monthly.

According to Callaghan, “the Comintern courier Stalitsky visited Britain to convey Lenin’s conception of a journal which though under Communist editorial control would have no official connection with the party and conduct itself as a forum of the labour movement.”

Now this may or may not be true. No evidence is given by Callaghan. Certainly, it is in flat contradiction to Lenin’s published views in the period which emphasised the need for open Communist publications.

There is an interesting twist here. In 1922 a commission was appointed to ‘Bolshevise’ the CPGB. Dun was one its three members. It duly produced a report endorsing the organisational resolution of the third (1921) Congress of the Comintern. Callaghan makes much of his role here. In fact the recommendations were not and could not be implemented. As Lenin himself said later in 1922, “I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our road to further success ... If we do not realise this we shall be unable to move ahead.” This is not mentioned by Callaghan.

Now the twist. One of the most reasonable of the 1921 requirements was that all publications Issued by the party should be owned and controlled by the party. Labour Monthly never was.

Dutt soon became a channel for the transmission of the line of the Stalinist centre in Moscow, both before and after the counter-revolution of 1928-9.

In May 1924 Dutt went to live in Brussels, alleging ‘ill health’ as the reason, and stayed there for more than ten years. He had obviously been recruited to the Comintern apparatus.

Yet all this time Dutt remained in the leadership of the British party and edited the Labour Monthly from afar. Month by month, his Notes of the Month arrived from Brussels, like papal encyclicals, expounding and defending every twist and turn of the Stalinist line with never a backward glance or explanation. It supported the rightist line of the CPGB in the run up to and during the 1926 general strike, the turn to lunatic ultra-leftism in 1928-29 (which met with strong resistance at first in the British party) and then the abandonment of class politics altogether with the popular front. All with the calm assurance of a first class shyster lawyer defending a gangster boss.

After his transfer back to London in 1935 Dutt continued in the same vein. He repeated every vile slander against Trotsky and his followers and against the old Bolsheviks murdered by Stalin through the 1930s, praising the obscene parodies of trials that condemned them as ‘Soviet justice’.

After years of arguing for a war against fascism he suddenly discovered (as soon as the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed in August 1939) that the war that ensued was an imperialist war, and then less than two years later, without turning a hair, that it was a patriotic war for democracy.

ft is wearisome to continue an account of the life of this scoundrel. For Callaghan to represent him as a genuine Communist is an insult to the intelligence of his readers.

A final note is necessary. When, in 1956, Khrushchev, the boss of the USSR, denounced some of Stalin’s crimes in his famous secret speech (not published in the USSR of course) Dutt sought to brush it aside with these words: “That there should be spots on the sun would only startle an inveterate Mithras worshipper ...”

This was one cynicism too many, even for the core leadership of the CPGB, let alone the membership. Pollitt, the general secretary, felt obliged to resign; up to a third of the membership left over the next couple of years. Dutt’s influence was at an end. Unfortunately it had lasted 25 years too long.


Last updated on 25.11.2003