Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Political ‘Find the Lady’

(July 1959)

From The Newsletter, 25 July 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Agag, King of the Amalekites, walked delicately, the good book tells us. But he had nothing on the Communist Party leaders in their presentation of their H-bomb policy, discussed by colleague Cliff Slaughter last week.

It is so trickily done that one meets many an honest party member who believes his party is ‘against the bomb’, in the sense of being for unilateral renunciation of it, and is genuinely hurt when Michael Foot or The Newsletter point out that this is not so.

A previous occasion for smart footwork on a not dissimilar issue was the end of 1938 and beginning of 1939, when conscription was being introduced by the Chamberlain government.

The measure was unpopular, and the Chamberlain crowd were as dangerously reactionary a set to give such power to as could be found.

But the Communist Party could not oppose conscription on revolutionary class grounds, for that would be ‘Trotskyism’ – especially as there were some hopes that Chamberlain might sign a pact with Stalin.

So they sought a line that would please everyone, they supposed, and leave the door open for fully supporting the imperialist war machine if Moscow should require this.

It was discovered that ‘well-informed military opinion’ repudiated mass armies of conscripts in modern war. General Sir Ian Hamilton and Captain Liddell Hart were quoted as the great authorities determining communist military policy, and Gollan (then leading the Young Communist League) appeared on platforms with Liddell Hart.

Britain’s contribution to the hoped-for ‘grand alliance’, it appeared, was to be rendered mainly by the navy and the air force, the mass of the PBI being supplied by Russia and France.

Very dull thud

Alas, this scheme fell with a very dull thud in Paris. The French communist paper pointedly supported conscription for Britain.

Sam Russell, then the Daily Worker’s Paris correspondent, found himself cold-shouldered by his hosts. To make matters worse – indeed worst – the Soviet Press showed unmistakably that Stalin favoured the Paris line rather than the London one.

Clearly ‘the situation had changed’, as they say. And so in May 1939 the British Communist Party announced, in complete disregard of ‘well-informed military opinion’, that it would support conscription under a government which stood for collective security and a few other things including the granting of ... democratic rights to the colonies.

Soon afterwards, in August to be precise, Stalin’s pact with Hitler made nonsense of all this pussyfooting.

The older generation of Stalinists must sometimes wonder whether something similar, isn’t waiting around the corner for them now, as they shuffle their double-meaning slogans on the H-bomb.

What happened to Agag? – Why, he was hewn to pieces before the Lord, I regret to say.

About chaps

The new volume of the Dictionary of National Biography, covering the years 1941–50, contains brief lives of many prominent men and women who died in that period.

The biography of Lord Baldwin quotes a letter of his written after the General Strike, in which he expresses the fearful attitude of his class towards the workers.

‘Democracy has arrived at a gallop in England, and I feel all the time it is a race for life. Can we educate them before the crash comes?’

A good deal of ‘educating’ of the workers along the lines desired by the Baldwins has, of course, been done by trade union and Labour Party leaders of the type of J.R. Clynes, who also appears in these pages.

As Home Secretary in the second Labour government he became notorious for his use of police against strikers. (He also refused Trotsky permission to settle in England.) Such services are rendered in return for solid rewards.

‘In 1947’, we read, ‘Clynes wrote to The Times and other journals relating his straitened circumstances owing to the insufficiency of his union pension, and a fund was raised by his parliamentary colleagues and friends. Those closest to him felt that his complaints were ... hardly justified, a view which was somewhat confirmed when his will came to be published.’

No place for Noel

A very different man, who died in 1942, but for some reason is not accorded a place in this volume, was the Rev. Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted in Essex.

An outstanding propagandist for socialism, Noel influenced a number of men who were militant at one time and another – in the British working-class, movement, such as Harry Pollitt and Reg Groves, one of the founders of Trotskyism in Britain.

Utterly unlike some later ‘progressive’ clergymen, Noel came out in defence of Trotsky when he was being slandered during the notorious Moscow trials, an action typical of the integrity which won him universal respect.

He will be honoured when the Baldwins and Clyneses are mere bogy men of the bad old days.

Last updated on 12.10.2011