Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

The Litvinov Touch

(September 1959)

From The Newsletter, 26 September 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Khrushchev’s call for total disarmament in his address to the United Nations recalls Soviet deputy foreign commissar Litvinov’s famous appeal to the same effect, at the end of 1927. That was made to the preparatory commission of the world disarmament conference in Geneva, then the headquarters of the League of Nations. It sounded the keynote of the first movement in the distinctively Stalinist phase of Soviet foreign policy.

When, this first, semi-pacifist movement was interrupted by the victory of Hitler in Germany, in 1933, the transition began to the second movement, the theme of which was to be ‘collective security’. Litvinov conducted both movements, on Stalin’s behalf, but was replaced by Molotov to mark the opening of the third (Nazi pact) movement in 1939.

The futility of the ‘why-not-let’s-all-disarm?’ tactic was pointed out by Trotsky in an interview with the Chicago Daily News, printed in their issue of May 18, 1932.

‘That Litvinov is expressing at the Geneva Conference the honest desire of the USSR not to go to war cannot be questioned by any close observer. But I should like to hope that the Soviet delegation will find a moment to go over from technico-pacifist proposals which, even from an educational point of view, are of no great importance, to a more active policy – that is, to say openly to the conference what is, and thus to warn the peoples of the danger that threatens them. For if there exists on our planet a force capable of “limiting” armaments on land and sea, that force is the will of the masses.’

‘To say what is’ – that was the guiding principle of Lenin and Trotsky in foreign relations as well as in domestic politics. As regards the problem of disarmament, it means showing the real causes of the drive to war and rousing the forces which can alone impose peace. Avoiding these tasks means, willy-nilly, confusing and misdirecting the masses, helping the enemies of the Soviet Union to create the political basis for an onslaught that will make Hitler’s in 1941 look like a mild tiff.

Wrong angle

“When I watched the lovely stars of 20th Century Fox dance before the Premier and his family in Hollywood I could have thought well, now I’ve seen everything.

‘The performance had the quality of a midsummer night’s fantasy, yet in many ways it was profound and meaningful drama.’
– Joseph North on Hollywood’s reception to Khrushchev, Daily Worker, September 21.

‘Mr Khrushchev came through the train and told me last night: “I thought last night’s dancing at Hollywood of the Can-Can girls was tasteless and immoral. Surely normal people don’t like that sort of thing?”’
– Olga Franklin on same subject, Daily Mail, same day.

Empiricism and empire

All too rarely do historians of the British Labour movement, even those who draw upon Marx, Engels and Lenin, show awareness of the contributions by Trotsky on this subject. I was therefore particularly struck by a reference to that ‘interesting and neglected volume’ Where is Britain Going? when I noticed it in an article in the June number of the Political Science Quarterly by Neal Wood, of Columbia University.

The article is a section of a book, Communism and British Intellectuals, to be published in the near future. What interested Professor Wood in Trotsky’s book was the passage about the character, causes and consequences of the tradition of empirical thinking in the British labour movement. This Wood sees as one reason why ‘intellectuals’ have never played an outstanding part in the affairs of the British Communist Party, even before Stalin in the late 1920s and early 1930s ‘de-intellectualized’ the leaderships of Communist Parties generally, as part of his drive against the Left Opposition.

Among other factors explaining this feature of British Communism (which to some extent it shares with other sections of the British labour movement), Wood mentions the circumstances that ‘the British working class has always contained a relatively high number of very literate and articulate self-educated men who could provide competent political leadership’ and that ‘a large body of alienated, discontented, declassed intellectuals has never existed in Great Britain’ – partly because of the outlets provided by the Empire!

Change of life

‘Officialdom in the trade union movement has become a vested interest, so much so that questions which arise are viewed from the point of view of their own interests as much as, if not more than those of the rank and file of the trade unions ...

‘Starting off with great promises whilst the workshop memories are fresh, they soon feel the effects of a new environment, develop a superior pessimism which soon expresses itself in terms of disgust with the rank and file, and of a susceptibility to any appeal for peace and quietness.

‘This coincides nicely with a desire for their own security, a permanent office or a parliamentary career, and a “cushy” government job becomes more attractive as the days pass.’
– J.T. Murphy, Compromise or Independence? (1918)

Letter on the Easter Rising

A Friend has asked me why I ascribe such importance to the ‘bloodletting’ of Easter 1916 as a reason for the ‘weakness and disorientation’ of the Irish Labour movement in the following six years, in view of the fact, pointed out by Brian Behan, that workers’ participation in the Easter rising was only a token participation.

The killed and executed of 1916 were few, but they were key men. The labour movement did not lack militancy in the years of the Anglo-Irish war and the Civil War – but it lacked a revolutionary leading cadre. All through that period we see the contrast between the spirit of the rank and file and the dead hand at the top.

Workers let down

J. Dunsmore Clarkson brings this out very clearly in his Labour and Nationalism in Ireland (1925). After the splendid one-day general strike against conscription, in April 1918, the Irish Labour Party leaders decided not to take part in the general election as an independent force! In April 1919 the executive let down the workers of Limerick, whose local general strike had tied up the city for ten days. The wonderful response to the call for a one-day stoppage, everywhere outside the Belfast area on May Day 1919, was not followed up.

When the dockers of Dublin and Dun Laoghaire and the railwaymen of Dublin in May 1920 followed the example of the Jolly George men in London, and refused to load or unload any military equipment, their leaders advised them ‘to offer to carry everything that the British authorities are willing to risk on the trains’.

The seizures by the workers of the creamery at Knocklone (Co. Limerick) and the coal-mine at Arigna (Co. Leitrum) are merely the best-known incidents of many such that occurred in 1920, 1921 and 1922, expressing the desire of the rank-and-file workers to take over Irish industry. Clarkson writes: ‘A violent epidemic of seizures of industrial and even agricultural enterprises broke out. The executive committee of the Transport Union was seriously embarrassed; its members had no stomach for that sort of guerilla warfare.’

Ripe for revolution

Of the 1922 election he observes: ‘Coupled with the manifestations of undirected energy displayed by the trade union rank and file, the electoral figures seem to indicate that the country was reasonably ripe for the much discussed “social revolution”’. Thomas Johnson, the ablest of the Labour leaders, and most important official of the Labour Party and trades union congress, had no intention, however, of giving a lead in that direction. And so the boat was missed.

When the Free State government selected Liam Mellowes and the four men closest to him for a reprisal shooting in 1922, everyone knew that they had been selected because they were thinking along Connolly’s lines of linking the national struggle with the revolutionary struggle of the workers and poor farmers. The Irish capitalists correctly saw that they owed everything to the absence of a leading cadre worthy of the rank-and-file workers of Ireland – and they were determined to do their damnedest to keep things that way.

Last updated on 13.10.2011