Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Dockers Against War

(March 1958)

From The Newsletter, 29 March 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

THE Communist Party’s current hesitancy on the question of industrial action against war preparations calls to mind its reaction to British dockers’ refusals to handle cargoes of ships carrying munitions to Japan, towards the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1938.

This movement, which began in Glasgow and passed through Southampton and Liverpool, culminated in the sending away empty, first from Middlesbrough and then from London, of the Haruna Maru, which had come to collect a cargo of scrap-iron.

These incidents aroused tremendous enthusiasm throughout the working class, expressed in hosts of solidarity resolutions by trade union branches and trades councils.

They were duly reported in the Daily Worker, and there was even the beginning of a campaign to extend the movement.

But the leaders of the Transport and General Workers’ Union frowned and the Government spokesmen muttered about the Trade Disputes Act, and the whole thing faded out.

They were embarrassed

When George Hardy wrote a survey, in World News and Views of February 4, 1939, of British trade union activity in the fight against Japanese aggression in China, he had nothing to say about this type of activity.

The fact was that class actions by the workers, however effective, were somewhat embarrassing then, as now, to King Street.

Demonstrations calling on Chamberlain to introduce an embargo, yes. Campaigns against buying Japanese toys as Christmas presents, yes. But strikes ...?

The difficulty was that the Stalinists then, as now, were concentrating on an attempt to bring about a change in the camp of the ruling class, helping to power a section they hoped would be friendlier to Russia.

The partners they hoped to win for their ‘broad alliance’ would be antagonized by forms of struggle that brought workers into conflict with employers. So the dockers’ efforts were quietly played down, lest they ‘rock the boat’.

It was not accidental that on January 1, 1938, the slogan ‘Workers of all lands, unite!’ finally disappeared from the masthead of the Daily Worker.

‘Come to slump-stricken Ulster’

Northern Ireland is in some ways a mirror just now of what the capitalists would like the whole United Kingdom to be.

On top of the traditional, carefully-fostered division among the workers, which binds one section closely to their employers, there is heavy unemployment.

The advertisement in The Times of March 12 inserted by the Northern Ireland Development Council (chairman: Lord Chandos) shows a group of business men, looking variously wolfish and foxy, sitting around a table and deciding to solve their problems by setting up a factory in the Six Counties. The letterpress tells us that:

‘Over 9 per cent, of the labour force – over 30,000 of them men – are looking for jobs. They are hard-working and loyal; absenteeism and labour turnover are low: output is high and shift-working is practicable.’

Well, they make no secret of what suits their book. Such frankness is welcome in that it can help Ulster workers in their turn to see what’s what, and bring back the spirit of 1919, when working Belfastmen of both ‘sorts’ (and none) stood together in fighting unity against their common exploiters.

Brailsford on Trotsky

The late H.N. Brailsford wrote, in The Russian Workers’ Republic (1921), one of the best accounts of the early years of Soviet Russia. His pen-pictures of leading personalities of the time included the following:

‘The Red Army is certainly the most efficient creation of the Revolution. Trotsky has a genius for organization, and he has battled with sharp severity against the slovenly un-punctuality traditional in Russia. His Ministry runs like clockwork ...’

Brailsford heard Trotsky speak in the Moscow Opera House:

‘It was more like a professor’s lecture than a demagogue’s speech ...’

Marshal Bagramyan speaks

The quotation we published recently from the Communist Review, on Red Army Day, 1922, was a bitter reminder of how the builders and best leaders of the Red Army were destroyed during the Stalin era.

Renewed confirmation of this fact is now available (as I briefly mentioned the other week), from the pen of Marshal Bagramyan. Writing in the Moscow Kommunist on the fortieth anniversary of the Red Army he states (I quote given in Soviet News for February 21):

‘The tremendous and fruitful work done by the party in this field [i.e. the training of officers], however, was considerably harmed by the criminal gangs of Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria and their accomplices, who snatched from the ranks of our armed forces a considerable number of experienced commanders and political workers.

‘As a result of this, towards the beginning of the war many posts in the army and navy were staffed with officers and generals who did not have sufficient experience and knowledge for work on a scale that was new to them’ (which was one factor in the setbacks suffered by the Soviet Union in 1941 42).

The Daily Worker has not published this important statement, doubtless because it clashes so sharply with that paper’s propaganda in the past that the execution of Tukhachevsky and the others ‘strengthened the defences of the Soviet Union’.

35,000 were purged

It is interesting to note the length of the period covered by Bagramyan’s statement. Yagoda was head of the NKVD from its formation in 1934 until September 1936, when he was replaced by Yezhov.

Yezhov ‘reigned’ until December 1938, when Beria took over, to remain directly or indirectly in charge of the Soviet security forces until his arrest in July 1953.

According to R.L. Garthoff, in the symposium How Russia Makes War, the 1937 38 purge in the Red Army affected 35,000 officers in all, or about half the total officer corps, including 90 per cent of all the generals and 80 per cent of all the colonels.

Of the eight military members of the tribunal that ‘tried’ Tukhachevsky, six later disappeared, including Marshal Bluecher.

Orders from King Street?

Comrade X for several years taught English to Soviet Embassy staff. During 1957 he emerged as an active and well-known critic of Stalinism from the Marxist standpoint.

Relations with his pupils remained unaffected, however, even when, towards the end of the year, he was expelled from the Communist Party.

Indeed, the Ambassador’s son was assigned to him for teaching, and the Ambassador himself arranged to begin lessons with X in February of this year.

On January 28, when calling for a pupil at the Soviet Consulate, X came face to face with Harry Pollitt in person. Nothing was said between them; but in the week immediately after this encounter X’s pupils began to cancel their arrangements with him, on grounds of illness, pressure of work etc.

By the end of February he was left without any pupils at all, and with no prospect of getting any more.

An experienced ex-member of the party ‘apparatus’ to whom X told his story observed: ‘You see, it’s of infinitely less importance to them that the Soviet comrades should improve their English than that you should be deprived of a source of income.’

Last updated on 10.10.2011