Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Fight with both Fists

(November 1958)

From The Newsletter, 8 November 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Throughout its long history the British Labour movement has been cursed by a tendency to ‘swing the pendulum’ between industrial and political activity.

At one stage the advanced workers were saying: ‘Down with politics, pure industrialism is the way forward.’ At another: ‘Mere industrial struggles will get nowhere, political power is the key.’

After the disappointing first Labour government of 1924 we had an ‘industrialist’ phase which culminated in the General Strike. That was followed by a ‘political’ phase crowned by the Labour government of 1929–31 ...

The process had begun much earlier, when the workers, angered by the let-down of their hopes connected with the Reform Bill of 1831–32, turned to pure trade unionism; then, after the failure of the Grand National Consolidated, switched to Chartism; then, after the failure of Chartism, back to a new kind of trade unionism – and so on.

The task is not to repeat the experiences of our rich history but to learn from them and avoid the errors of the past.

Today the rising militancy in industry needs to be accompanied by increased attention to political matters, more activity in the Labour Party and closer study of Marxism.

The adversary is not only the employing class, but also that class’s political parties and institutions. Only through a complete political transformation can the current problems of the working class be thoroughly and lastingly solved.

The tradition behind us

‘Respectability is the death of all working-class movements. With the change in the public attitude towards trade unionism came a change in the social standing of the officials.

‘They too became respectable, and with their new position came their divorce from the working-class point of view, the growing breach between the official caste and the rank and file.

‘Divorced from manual labour, the leaders ceased to understand the needs of the wage-earner, and with the crowning camaraderie of the House of Commons died the last semblance of the old unity.

‘The Labour leaders entered the governing classes, and Labour was left, perplexed and unmanned, to find new leaders from its own ranks...’

Who wrote this and when? Brian Behan in 1958? Leon Trotsky, perhaps, say in 1926? Alas for George Lowthian (and Dennis Goodwin), no and no.

The answer is: G.D.H. Cole, in 1913 – in chapter vii of his well-known book The World of Labour, A Discussion of the Present and Future of Trade Unionism.

The problem which the industrial conference called by The Newsletter will discuss is at least forty-five years old, and its roots are wholly in the British Labour movement.

Finger man writes novel

Kochetov, whose novel The Brothers Yershov is being praised by the official Moscow critics as ‘the answer to Not By Bread Alone,’ is a well-known spokesman on literary matters for the Russian equivalent of the Establishment.

A few years ago, in the period between Stalin’s death and the Twentieth Congress, the Communist Party’s publishing house in London planned to bring out a translation of a new work by the distinguished Soviet novelist Vera Panova, called Span of the Year.

Work had already begun on it when a message from Emile Burns stopped the rot. He had just seen a review of the Panova book in Pravda, panning it well and truly. The reviewer was Kochetov.

Needless to say, the novel in question, which featured some rather mild social criticism of the bureaucracy, was duly brought out in English later on by a capitalist publisher, not unprofitably, I believe.

‘The more the merrier’

The instructions issued by General Darling, the Massu of Cyprus (‘Go to it. Give them stick,’ etc.) bring back a sinister echo from the past – the notorious address by Colonel Smyth, Divisional Police Commissioner for Munster, at Listowel in June 1920.

‘Well, men,’ he began, ‘I have something of interest to tell you, something that I am sure you would not wish your wives and families to hear ...

‘Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present, and we are going to have the sport now ... If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown out into the gutter. Let them die, the more the merrier ...

‘Police and military will patrol the country roads at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, take over behind fences near the roads, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up!”

‘Should the order not be obeyed, shoot with effect ... You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes.

‘The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given it the inquest.

‘Hunger strikers will be allowed to die in jail, the more the merrier. Some of them have died already, and a damn bad job they were not all allowed to die. As a matter of fact some of them have already been dealt with in a manner their friends will hear about ...’

The accents of imperial militarism; have hot changed over the years between the unsuccessful war to hold Ireland, and the current war, which will also be unsuccessful, to hold Cyprus.

Colonel Smyth was shot dead a month later in Cork County Club.

Guess who?

‘The one serious question that arises to give one pause is how it should have been possible for the international communist movement to have built up this man, whose arrogance of character and limitation of intellect cry out from every page, into a major figure; this, it seems to me, is a problem (I do not suggest it was ever a simple one) which needs serious and self-critical consideration.’
– Arnold Kettle in Labour Monthly, October 1958, p. 477. The reference is not to J.V. Stalin but to ... Howard Fast.

Back numbers wanted

The set of The Newsletter in the British Library of Political and Economic Science lacks vol. i, nos. 2, 3 and 6, and vol. ii, no. 47.

This library, which is attached to the London School of Economics, is one of the most important centres of research for students – both British and overseas – working on the modern history of the working-class movement. The importance of ensuring that our publications are fully available there will be appreciated.

If any reader has a clean copy of one of the missing issues, and is ready to part with it, please send it to me at The Newsletter’s address (not direct to the library) and it will be passed on.

Last updated on 11.10.2011