Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Stay-Down and Stalinism

(July 1959)

From The Newsletter, 4 July 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

The late Montagu Slater wrote a memorable piece of reportage – Stay Down Miner (1936) – about the stay-down strike of the South Wales miners in 1935.

The immediate object then was to force the bosses to stop employing non-members of: the Miners’ Federation, and the strike succeeded – with the co-operation of the local railwaymen, who refused to man trains carrying blacklegs.

The idea of the stay-down strike was taken by the South Wales miners from their comrades in Hungary, and in turn it inspired the stay-in strikes which swept the French factories in the following year.

In assessing why the mighty wave of militant action by the miners and other workers in 1935 and 1936, in Britain and France, achieved so little, it is impossible to leave out of account the part played by the Stalinists in that period.

Slater wrote of a battle to come in 1936 which would be of the same order of magnitude as that of 1926. Yet it did not take place.

Scottish and other miners should keep that lesson of history in mind. Today as then the last thing that the Stalinists want is an all-out, class-against-class showdown in defence of the workers’ interests, for this would interfere with the high-political calculations of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Unless the rank and file wrest control we may see an exhausting and fruitless series of marches to London and back again, down the pit and up again, without any clear strategical aim arising from the needs of the struggle.

Having it both ways

An acquaintance in my local Labour Party, a councillor, has just been telling me – for the umpteenth time in the short period I have known her – about the backwardness of the workers as shown in their failure to register at elections sufficient enthusiasm for herself and her colleagues.

Yet this person reacts with horror to events like the South Bank struggle, and to expressions of working-class militancy generally. These, forsooth, ‘discredit the movement’.

So it is wrong when the workers are passive and accept the capitalist Press line on politics – but apparently it is even worse when they revolt and hit out on their own behalf.

Needless to say, this worthy, who wants the workers to be just sufficiently awake to vote Labour, but God save us, no more than that, supported my expulsion from the Labour Party.

There is a book which ought to be better known, giving an amusing and pentrating ‘profile’ of this element of patronizers and paternalists in the movement – G.T. Garratt’s The Mugwumps and the Labour Party (1932).

The New Reasoner and ourselves

A friend from the New Reasoner circle was telling me recently that he notices a tendency among the members of the Socialist Labour League to assume that all truth has already been revealed and the only thing that remains is to apply it.

That is certainly a weakness to which Marxist groups are traditionally prone (as we see from the example of the old Social Democratic Federation, the pioneer Marxist organization in this country) and against which we must constantly be on our guard.

But while we must not suppose that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ we must not fall into the opposite error, either – that of failing to see that certain phenomena are not so unprecedented as some may think.

The New Reasoner group, for instance, has much in common with the original Fabians. Not the degenerate, anti-socialist Fabians of today, but those of whom Engels wrote in 1893:

‘With great industry they have produced amid all sorts of rubbish some good propagandist writings as well, in fact the best of the kind which the English have produced.

‘But as soon as they come to their specific tactics of hushing up the class struggle it all turns putrid. Hence too their fanatical hatred of Marx and all of us – because of the class struggle.’

A major obstacle

For today’s set-up one should perhaps substitute another name for Marx’s and something like ‘irritated resentment’ for ‘fanatical hatred’ – otherwise the characterization fits not at all badly.

One of the other reproaches our New Reasoner colleagues make against us is that we are too fond of criticizing the Stalinists.

While we are ready to engage in joint activity with Communist Party members on such issues as the fight against bans and proscriptions, we certainly do not aim at any sort of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with Stalinism, whose ideas and methods we see as a major obstacle to the progress of the working-class movement.

Nor is it imaginable that one of our publications could carry an article in praise of the ‘communist’ government of Kerala, which shoots down workers on strike and governs on behalf of ‘all classes’.

Last updated on 12.10.2011