Brian Pearce

Letter: ‘To Label Ideas Does Not Help’

(May 1957)

From The Newsletter, 31 May 1957.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

While agreeing with Edward Thompson [The Newsletter, no. 3, pp. 21–22] that gratuitous bitterness only does harm in discussions among socialists, I must disagree with him regarding the need for sharp and cold analysis where questions of political principle are concerned.

It was once said that the British Communist Party was a ‘society of good friends’, in which ‘good relations with persons’ took precedence over ‘good relations with principles’. Perhaps there was something in the charge, and it may be at the root of some of our current troubles.

Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re [Gentle in manner, resolute in deed] is an excellent motto, provided one pays attention to the second part as well as to the first. In this connection, it seems to me that the epithet ‘sectarianism’ is being used as loosely and harmfully by some as ‘revisionism’ by others.

Though by no means of the opinion that Lenin was always right, I feel sympathy with his point of view in the story he tells in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back:

I cannot help recalling...a conversation I happened to have at the Congress with one of the ‘Centre’ delegates... ‘How oppressive the atmosphere is at our Congress!’, he complained. ‘This bitter fighting, this agitation one against the other, this biting controversy, this uncomradely behaviour!’

‘What a splendid thing our Congress is’, I replied. ‘A free and open struggle. Opinions have been stated. The shades have been made clear. The groups have taken shape. Hands have been raised. A decision has been taken. A stage has been passed. Forward! That’s the stuff for me! That’s life!’

‘That’s something different from the endless, tedious word-chopping of your intellectuals which does not terminate because the question has been settled, but because they are too tired to talk any more...

‘The comrade of the Centre stared at me in perplexity and shrugged his shoulders. We were talking in different languages.’

Now is a time for examining both past and present problems of the socialist movement with fresh eyes. It is hard, though, to examine objectively ideas for which we have made sacrifices and which have come to symbolise our own youth.

There is a temptation to get angry with people who insist that such an examination must be made – but this temptation ought to be resisted.

To label certain conceptions as ‘Trotskyist’ does not help in the least. Some of the ideas that Comrade Thompson has recently been expressing are easily recognisable to the student of communist oppositions as ‘Lovestoneist’ (or ‘Brandlerist’) but how does that help us either in understanding or refuting them?

Last updated on 17.10.2011