Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Socialism and the Wolfenden Report

(December 1958)

From The Newsletter, 6 December 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Prospect of increased powers being given to the police to deal with prostitutes, and of heavier penalties being inflicted on the latter, should make all socialists examine their attitude to this question.

The old socialist classic dealing with it was August Bebel’s Woman in the Past, Present and Future (English edition, 1885), spoken of as such by Lenin in his well-known discussion with Klara Zetkin on women’s problems. (Bebel wrote that ‘for modern society, the prostitution question is a sphinx whose riddle it cannot read; it sees no way out of the difficulty but that of State sanction and control, if greater evils are to be avoided’.)

On the same occasion Lenin recalled that Rosa Luxemburg, ‘a true communist, acted and felt like a human being when, she wrote a certain article in defence of a prostitute who had landed in jail for violating a police regulation connected with her sorry profession’.

‘Yellow passport’ system

In tsarist Russia the police enjoyed extensive powers to control prostitutes-the notorious ‘yellow passport’ system- and these gave rise to a variety of abuses and tyrannies which were ventilated in two scandalous court cases involving the police chiefs of Kronstadt and Nikolayev.

In 1910 an all-Russia conference against the traffic in women and children was held in St Petersburg. A spokesman of the social-democratic workers addressed the conference, declaring:

‘We have no hope of getting rid, under the present economic system, of the terrible evil that is called prostitution, and that weighs upon the national organism with its deadly effects ...

‘For that reason we regard it as our chief duty to reveal the deeper causes of prostitution.’

After the revolution

After the revolution and civil war in Russia the People’s Commissariat of Public Health, in a circular issued in 1922, stated that ‘the former methods of supervision adopted in pre-revolutionary Russia, which in practice meant not the protection, but the oppression of women, must be quite definitely repudiated ...

‘Under no circumstances must the war against prostitution degenerate into a war against prostitutes.’

Klara Zetkin vigorously opposed a project for a ‘militia of morals’, pointing out that such a force could ‘have no power to reduce demand and supply in prostitution; the most that they can attain is a mere outward transformation of the market’.

Dr Bronner, head of the famous venereological institute in Moscow, declared that ‘if the government cannot assure to all women the work they need to make a living, it cannot punish them for earning a living as best they can-in this instance by taking their own bodies to market’.

He showed that not only unemployment but also inadequate wages and the housing shortage, to mention only directly material factors, inevitably produced a constant supply of prostitutes.

While stern measures should be taken against brothel-keepers, pimps and white-slavers of all kinds, it would be grossly unjust to persecute the women themselves.

Mixture as before

Anybody who hoped that Andrew Rothstein’s review, in the Communist Party monthly Marxism Today, of the recent history of the party by Henry Pelling, would be an improvement on James Klugmann’s squib in the Daily Worker, will have been disappointed.

The same old method-disingenuous misrepresenting of what the writer actually says-remains Rothstein’s stand-by as it remains Klugmann’s.

Pelling refers to the conflict in Barcelona in May 1937, during the Spanish civil war, as a ‘communist coup’. This is very wrong of him, writes Rothstein, for it is well known to have been ‘a Trotskyist affair’.

The point is, of course, that Pelling, in accordance with the mass of information which has been published by eyewitnesses of and participants in that conflict, presents it as an attack by the Stalinists who ruled the roost in Barcelona at that time, upon a working-class party which they saw as a rival and as a centre of activity to keep the Spanish struggle on the revolutionary path which it had originally taken.

By means of provocation and aggression they crushed a group which Stalin feared as a potential threat to his intrigues.

Extremely instructive

The whole incident is extremely instructive as to the aims and methods of Stalinism, and it is to be hoped that the recent mentions of it, not only by Rothstein, but also by Dennis Goodwin in World News, will lead thoughtful Communist Party members to give it some study.

The best book from a Marxist standpoint is Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (1938).

Also worth reading are Fenner Brockway’s Workers’ Front (1938), George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), Gerald Brenan’s Spanish Labyrinth (1943), and two books by ex-GPU officers who were involved in the coup – Walter Krivitsky’s I Was Stalin’s Agent (1939) and Alexander Orlov’s Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes (1954).

How do they get that way?

‘There must be something in the nature of the life of a bureaucracy, whether it be of a government, trade union, political party or a religious institution, that deadens the receptive faculties and smothers the imagination.

‘Whether it is the comfortable life of the office, the necessary routine of their work, with its rules and regulations, or a cynicism induced by their escape from industrial life, I, for the moment, leave to the sociologist and the psychologist.’
– J.T. Murphy, Sheffield engineering shop stewards’ leader in the first world war, in New Horizons (1941), p. 50.

Putting it mildly

‘It is doubtful whether many trade union leaders regard their task as being the fulfilment of the normal aims which preface the written constitutions, and which are mainly couched in the terminology of the early socialists.’
– V.L. Allen. Trade Union Leadership: Based on a Study of Arthur Deakin (1957), p. 13.

Last updated on 11.10.2011