Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Students in the ’Thirties

(March 1959)

From The Newsletter, 28 March 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Nostalgic idealization of the progressive movements of the thirties, as indulged in by some Universities and Left Review circles, certainly needs debunking.

But was Bill Parry right last week to dismiss the student movement of that time as a mere ‘Left radical’ affair of ‘do-gooders’?

Between 1932 and 1936, under communist leadership, the socialist societies in the universities became stronger and more influential than ever before or since.

Great numbers of students were organized to co-operate with the great Hunger Marches of the unemployed, to help strikers and to fight the fascists.

The hopes entertained by the latter of building big branches in the universities were frustrated.

Students, who had scabbed en masse in the General Strike, conspicuously refrained from scabbing in the 1937 bus strike.

The Marxist classics were widely read, and Marxism, albeit with Stalinist distortions, became a formidable influence on at least three ‘generations’ of students, the effect of which is far from exhausted.

John Cornford’s warning

A useful book on this subject is John Cornford: A Memoir, edited by Pat Sloan (1938). It consists of selections from the writings of the young man to whom the socialist movement in the universities in that period owed more than to anybody else, together with contributions by people who knew him.

Cornford was killed in action in December 1936, fighting with the International Brigade in Spain. His writings while in Spain suggest that, had he lived, his Marxist approach would have brought him into conflict with Stalinism.

For Cornford the struggle in Spain was ‘a revolutionary war’.

‘In Catalonia at least the overwhelming majority of the big employers went over to the fascists. Thus the question of socialism was placed on the order of the day.’

The Communist Party should ‘force recognition from the government of the social gains of the revolution’.

Cornford feared that the party was ‘a little too mechanical in its application of People’s Front tactics. It is still concentrating too much on trying to neutralize the petty bourgeoisie – when by far the most urgent task is to win the socialist workers...’

They are shameless

I thought I had a strong stomach, but I must confess it turned over when I looked through the current issue of New Hungary, the London organ of Judas Kadar’s government.

Do you remember how one of the ‘proofs’ that Imre Nagy was playing the fascist-imperialist game was that he included in his government Bela Kovacs, leader of the Smallholders’ Party?

Now they feature a testimonial to Kadar by this very same Kovacs, under the title: We are on the right road.

An article by Andrew Rothstein on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 is illustrated with a portrait of Bela Kun.

Not a word, of course, about the murder of Kun by Stalin and the slandering of his memory for nearly twenty years.

On writing history

Seeing Kun’s face reminded me of some characteristically cynical remarks by Harry Pollitt at the first meeting of the British Communist Party’s History Commission, on December 10, 1956.

‘Of course you can’t write the history of a communist party until it has taken power. And even then there may be difficulties.

‘Rakosi told me at the Twentieth Congress that a fine history of the Hungarian Communist Party had been written, putting the blame for everything that went wrong on Bela Kun. Then the Russians went and rehabilitated Kun and it had to be scrapped!’

But what has happened to Rakosi in Mr. Rothstein’s article? He played a part of some significance in the Hungarian Soviet Republic, and down until 1956 one used to hear rather a lot about it in Hungarian official propaganda.

Now, however, he has sunk without a trace – become an ‘unperson’ in fact.

Strictly for the bairns

If there is any ‘trouble with the Jewish comrades’ at this week-end’s Communist Party Congress, Willie Gallacher will doubtless be put up to deal with them. When Gallacher began to figure as an expert on the Jewish question I do not know, though he was already functioning in this capacity at the time of the Palestine rebellion of 1936.

But dear old Willie has dabbled in anti-Semitism in his day.

It was in 1925, when communist leaders throughout the world were being obliged to take their stand publicly on Trotsky’s criticisms of the bureaucracy.

Jews need not apply

There had been rumours of a testament left by Lenin, warning against Stalin and recommending Trotsky as the ablest man in the central committee. This is how Gallacher dealt with this absurd legend in the Glasgow weekly the Worker for May 16, 1925:

‘Comrade Trotsky is deservedly popular in Russia. He has given great service to the Revolution.

‘But the last thing on God’s earth that he would suggest, or that Lenin would have suggested, or that any present living Bolshevik would suggest, would be Trotsky as a successor to Lenin.

‘If Max Eastman or any of the others who are babbling about Trotsky understood the situation they would know, as Comrade Trotsky knows, that in this stage of the transition period the head of the USSR must be a Russian.’

The emphasis is in the original.

So that, kiddies, is how Georgian Joe got the job. And anybody who suggests that he was rather less of a Russian than Trotsky is a typical intellectual hair-splitter.

Anybody who follows Gallacher’s line of thought to the conclusion that William Wainwright, James Klugmann, Max Morris, and others too numerous to mention in the leading circles of the Communist Party, are ‘not English’ is, of course, a ... revisionist.

Last updated on 17.10.2011