Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

South Bank and Tolpuddle

(December 1958)

From The Newsletter, 13 December 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

No serious struggle was ever without its casualties. What hypocrisy is revealed by those whose response to the current persecution of militants is to blame The Newsletter for ‘inciting men to activity which imperils their livelihood’.

No alarm at the creeping advance of unemployment, which will engulf many hundreds of thousands in the near future if the capitalist class and its Tory government are not taken by the throat – alarm only at the fight to rouse the workers in time, in face of all the usual intimidation.

A few weeks ago the trade union and Labour Press was full of ‘tributes’ to Robert Owen.

If some of the present-day bureaucrats of the movement, and their hangers-on, had been alive at the time of the Tolpuddle prosecution, we may be sure that they would have rebuked Owen for ‘causing’, by his agitation and setting-up of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ‘the penalization of ignorant labourers’.


That van, with loudspeaker attached and union emblem prominently displayed, which The Newsletter has advocated as the proper form of transport for trade union officials, seems to have caught the public’s imagination.

Important in itself, this proposal is even more important because it sums up and symbolizes a whole conception of what trade unionism is and is not.

Charlie Dukes told the conference of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers in 1941:

‘Every officer in this union knows that whereas some thirty years ago your job was at the street corner, today it is in the conference room.’

With all due appreciation of the work done in the conference room, The Newsletter thinks that there is as much need today as ever there was for trade union officials to direct their main attention, if not to ‘the street corner’, then certainly to the factory gate.

And that’s what the van is for.

On alien foundations

No sane person denies, I suppose, that substantial gains have been made by the British workers in the last fifteen or twenty years. The point is, though, that these gains have not touched the fundamental structure of capitalism.

So long as the capitalists retain economic and political power they can take back what they have surrendered owing to a particular temporary set of circumstances.

Indeed, there are plenty of signs that they are already in process of doing just this.

In 1934 the splendid social achievements of the social-democratic municipality of Vienna were destroyed as the result of a reactionary coup d’État. The bombardment of the ‘Karl Marx Hof workers’ model flats by the guns of the Heimwehr symbolized for many young socialists of that period the smashing of their ‘welfare State’ illusions.

An Austrian social democrat had, shortly before, told the Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg with some complacency that in Vienna they had begun with the T-square and compasses instead of with the machine-gun, as in Russia.

‘Don’t you ever have the feeling you are building on somebody else’s land, and that one day the owner will assert his rights against you?’ Ehrenburg asked.

He should indeed

The December issue of Labour Monthly devotes its two middle pages to John Milton, in honour of the 350th anniversary of his birth. The heading is: ‘Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.’

It is good to commemorate the anniversaries of great fighters for freedom, especially when their legacy has proved so valuable to succeeding generations as Milton’s has!

For instance, he wrote Areopagitica, a classic exposure of the fallacies and iniquities of censorship. Communists and socialists have made good use of passages from that work on numerous occasions – during the fight against the Sedition Bill in 1934, for example.

It does not get even a mention in Labour Monthly, though. Doubtless the Pasternak case makes Areopagitica one of those classics it is not expedient to remind readers of, for the time being, lest ‘dangerous thoughts’ arise.

Milton and Trotsky

That R. Page Arnot, managing editor of Labour Monthly, is an admirer of Milton we have long known.

‘Within its compass it is probably the best short statement and defence of Soviet Russia that has yet been written . . . For any parallel we have to go back to John Milton’s Defence of the English People.’

Thus wrote Arnot in his review, in Labour Monthly of October 1921, of Trotsky’s In Defence of Terrorism.

Arnold Kettle, the authority on English literature who is also a member of the Communist Party’s, executive committee, is, I believe, another Milton fan.

Might it not be an educative exercise for his students to ‘compare and contrast’ Milton’s book and Trotsky’s as polemical defences of revolutionary governments against their detractors?

Novel source of a scoop?

Don’t look now, but I think I have discovered where Roy Nash of the News Chronicle gets his stuff about a Red Club meeting clandestinely in a central London pub. It’s all in The Princess Casamassima, a novel by Henry James, published in 1886.

Last updated on 11.10.2011