Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Workers in Uniform

(August 1958)

From The Newsletter, 9 August 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

ERNEST BEVIN’s outburst in 1920, which I quoted last week, against military discipline being used to ‘outrage the conscience’ of a soldier, related to the use of British soldiers to break a strike of dockers in Danzig.

The dockers were refusing to unload arms for Poland’s war against Soviet Russia.

Later in life, as is well remembered, Bevin lost his strong feeling against the use of men under military law for strike breaking purposes.

With the possibility of renewed trouble in the London docks, the principle he enunciated in the days when he was the dockers’ KC may nevertheless once again become a living and topical one.

Sailors took steps

Bevin spoke towards the close of a period in which soldiers and sailors had been taking their own kind of industrial action on an extensive scale.

The history of mutinies in the British forces during the first world war and the series of little wars that followed it has yet to be written. Tom Wintringham’s Mutiny (1936) is useful but only skims the subject.

There is a legend that the Royal Navy had no troubles comparable to those of the German and Austro-Hungarian navies until after the Armistice had been safely signed.

That this is untrue is shown by the testimony of Lionel Yexley, editor of The Fleet, and closely in touch with lower-deck feeling, in that paper’s number for June 1919:

‘In July–August 1918 the men of the Navy were very seriously considering the question of a “strike”; so seriously, in fact, that the matter had gone beyond talk and steps were being taken to put the plan into effect.’

Only a leak of information about, these ‘steps’, followed by an Admiralty promise of pay concessions and the posting elsewhere of locally-influential militants among the sailors, prevented a British ‘Kiel’.

Hangover from Stalin era

Khrushchev’s recent startling denunciation of vodka may revive, in spite of everything, the rumours in certain circles that the man is a secret Trotskyist.

For the question whether or not to relegalize vodka was one of the issues on which the Left Opposition clashed with Stalin, back in 1924.

After the Revolution vodka and all strong liquors of more than 20 per cent alcohol content were prohibited in Russia.

When in 1923 somebody ventured to suggest reviving the State monopoly of vodka production, on the ground that this would provide badly-needed revenue, Pravda retorted:

‘He proposes to get rid of the bankruptcy in our budget. But he would drive that bankruptcy into the bodies and minds and souls of our people.’

Anna Louise Strong records, in her useful book about pre-Stalinist Soviet Russia, The First Time in History (1924), a talk she had with Trotsky about the strategy and tactics of the struggle against vodka. After outlining the police measures taken to put down home-brewing, he observed:

‘But no repressions will solve the problem at the root. The basic cause is the emptiness of the peasants’ life, and this must be filled by higher standards of culture, by education and recreation and wholesome social life.’

She quotes Lenin’s dictum:

‘Whatever the peasant wants in the way of material things we will give him, as long as they do not imperil the health or morals of the nation.

‘If he asks for paint and powder and patent leather shoes our State industries will labour to produce these things to satisfy his demand, because this is an advance in his standard of living and ‘civilization’, though falsely conceived by him.

‘But if he asks for icons or booze – these things we will not make for him. For that is definitely retreat; that is definitely degeneration that leads him backward.

‘Concessions of this sort we will not make; we shall rather sacrifice any temporary advantage that might be gained from such concessions.’

The fight against vodka was abandoned in October 1924, on the excuse that revenue must be obtained from this source.

The alternative was higher taxation of kulaks, cutting of officials’ salaries and other measures unacceptable to the leadership which had usurped power after Lenin’s death.

Russia has paid a heavy price, economically (through accidents at work, absence from work and so on) as well as in other ways, for their ‘realism’, as Khrushchev is now being forced to acknowledge.

Review of reviews

LEADERS on Hungary, France and the industrial conflicts at home, in the latest issue of LABOUR REVIEW, are followed by articles on the London busmen’s strike and the economic situation.

The sociologist Cliff Slaughter contributes a long review of Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound and Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, under the title Religion and Social Revolt, and Tom Kemp a trenchant critique of Djilas’s The New Class, which contrasts with Ivor Montagu’s feeble and question-begging effort in Marxism Today.

Other features include an analysis of the economic and social basis of apartheid by Seymour Papert, a Reply to Harry Hanson which was rejected by the New Reasoner, and a review by Peter Worsley of a study of the Labour movement in the Sudan.

* * *

Worsley is also the author of what is perhaps the most useful article in the summer issue of the NEW REASONERBritain – Unknown Country, a critique of sociological studies in Britain today.

Among other readable items in this journal I found Peter Smith’s contribution to the discussion on ‘the welfare State’ particularly thought-provoking.

He suggests that the defeat of Labour in 1951 came because ‘as soon as the [1945] election was completed the struggle to implement the programme was virtually confined within the walls of the House of Commons’.

* * *

In the summer UNIVERSITIES AND LEFT REVIEW Michael Segal and Ralph Samuel trace the background to do Gaulle’s accession, noting the key importance of the French Communist Party’s abandonment in 1956 of active opposition to the war, in illusory hope of securing in return a French break from the American alliance.

E.P. Thompson, writing on NATO, Neutralism and Survival, gratifyingly rebukes Bevan for his ‘shamefully wrong’ attack at the London Labour Party on those whom the New Statesman called ‘neo-Trotskyist irreconcilables’.

Voice of the British?

‘How splendid it would be if at this hour of deepening crisis, the common people of India threw off the Nehru yoke.’ – Daily Express editorial, July 31.

Last updated on 11.10.2011