Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

There He Goes Again

(October 1959)

From The Newsletter, 31 October 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

R.H.S. Crossman, writing in the New Statesman of October 17, tells us that ‘our first task is not to rethink our policies once again but to liberalize our institutions.’ If by liberalizing the party’s institutions he means, say, raising the ban on the Socialist Labour League, we cannot but applaud that part of his opinion. But how could such a change take place except in the context of a new policy?

This is not the first time that Crossman in defeat has tried to turn attention away from policy towards organizational questions. Back in 1937, after being defeated in a by-election (one of twelve by-elections that summer, all disastrous for Labour), he wrote an article (also for the New Statesman and Nation) in which he asked for a truce to all inner-party controversies in order that all socialists should concentrate on the task of building up the party’s electoral organization.

That article led to a lively and now famous correspondence in which Crossman’s loose thinking was shown up. So should this one.

A rod for our own backs

‘No people that oppresses others can itself be free.’ The jolly old Empire, as Herbert Morrison once called it, comes home to us in many and varied ways. One of them is in the cadres it supplies to militant Toryism in the rural and suburban constituencies of the South of England – all those ex-officers of the armed forces, former colonial officials, retired planters and so forth, whose social position, and in many cases whose current income and resultant leisure, are based upon the exploitation of the Empire in one fashion or another.

J.A. Hobson, the radical whose book Imperialism (1902) was used by Lenin in writing his own work of the same title, wrote:

‘As the despotic portion of our Empire has grown in area, a larger and larger number of men, trained in the temper and methods of autocracy as soldiers and civil officials in our Crown colonies, protectorates and Indian Empire, reinforced by numbers of merchants, planters, engineers and overseers, whose lives have been those of a superior caste living an artificial life removed from all the healthy restraints of ordinary European society, have returned to this country bringing back the character, sentiments and ideas imposed by this foreign environment.

‘The South and South-West of England is richly sprinkled with these men, many of them wealthy, most of them endowed with leisure, men openly contemptuous of democracy, devoted to material luxury, social display and the shallower arts of intellectual life. The wealthier among them discover political ambitions ... The South of England is full of men of local influence in politics and society whose character has been formed in our despotic Empire and whose incomes are chiefly derived from the maintenance and furtherance of this despotic rule ... Everywhere they stand for coercion and for resistance to reform.’

The shrinking of the ‘despotic’ part of the Empire with the achievement of self-government by one dependency after another makes these people only the more viciously determined to hang on to what’s left, for their own and their families’ sakes. These are the men – and women, for their womenfolk are often even deadlier than they – for whom ‘Suez’ and ‘Hola’ were words of hope, pride and encouragement during the election campaign, and who will support with enthusiasm every terroristic act by the Tory government against a colonial people – and every attack on the workers here in Britain, too.

The liberal ‘come-back’

Many Labour Party members must be asking themselves how the Liberals, not so long ago regarded as of little account, have managed to take Labour’s place as the second party in a number of constituencies.

In the elections following the first world war, Labour for the first time outdistanced the Liberals, and by 1925 it looked to most observers as though a straight Tory-versus-Labour confrontation would from then on form the pattern of British politics, with the Liberals more or less rapidly withering away to vanishing point.

That did not happen, however. In spite of internal dissensions and splits, the Liberals remained in being. They proved able to keep their boat afloat, even if becalmed, until, in the late 1950s, a favourable wind at last came their way.

The turning-point for Liberal fortunes in the 1920s, as for so much, was the general strike of 1926. The readiness of the ‘leaders’ of the working-class movement to do a deal with the capitalists, provided they were approached in the right way, offered a splendid opportunity for Liberal ‘statesmen’ to show what they could do as go-betweens, and so recover some of their lost prestige – sufficient to survive and fight another day.

The Liberal Sir Herbert (later Lord) Samuel carried on the open negotiations, on behalf of the government, with the Trades Union Congress General Council. Behind the scenes, important confidential talks between J.H. Thomas and the representatives of the other side, including Lord Londonderry, the big coal-owner, were arranged by the Liberal Lord Wimborne at a luncheon party at his town house. Smooth-talking, ‘broad-minded’, these Liberals helped to find the formulas and arrive at the procedures required to bring about the great betrayal.

Osbert Sitwell, who played a part in this intrigue, gives an account of the meetings at Wimbome House in the volume of his autobiography called Laughter in the Next Room (1949)

They know not what they did

Editor Gerry Healy found at a recent public meeting that a remark of his about General de Gaulle having been supported by the French Communist Party, with British Communist approval, as head of the French Provisional Government in 1944, was received with noises of disbelief by some Communist Party members present. They were not saying: ‘And a good thing, too!’ but denying that it had ever happened.

Ignorance of their own (even recent) history is, of course, systematically maintained in Communist Parties by their Stalinist officials. The contribution made by Stalinist policy in the last years of the war and the immediate post-war years to preparing the present situation in which the Right is well dug into power in Western Europe is therefore little known in those circles.

Let me quote on this de Gaulle question, from the volume for 1944 of the Communist Party weekly World News and Views. In the issue of October 14 we find a policy statement by the French Communist Party, ending with a reference to ‘the unconditional support which it agrees to give to the government of de Gaulle until the elections.’ In the same issue, Sam Russell gives the General a boost in the following paragraph:

‘All parties in France now seem agreed that a large measure of nationalization of the key industries will have to take place to carry out even a minimum of reconstruction. The justice of this demand was recognized by General de Gaulle in the course of one of his recent speeches when he visited his home town of Lille.’

And in the issue of December 23 Harry Pollitt begins his list of ‘very positive developments to be noted in estimating the whole international position’ with “the consolidation of the French government, and its agreement with the Soviet Union.’

The workers’ committees and militia were broken up by the Communists throughout France immediately after de Gaulle had signed on the dotted line with Stalin. In this way a course of capitalist development was ensured for post-war France which led in due time – to the reappearance of de Gaulle.

‘One nation’ and all that

‘I think the only way to try to bring him up is as an ordinary little boy, sending him to private school, public school and Oxford. Don’t keep him aloof from ordinary life.’
– Sir Harold Nicholson, October 20, on the education of Prince Charles

‘If this boy had been at a public school he would have been handled intelligently and would not have been within 100 miles of a dock.’
– Mr Justice Elwes, same day, on the suicide of a 17-year-old boy in Durham Prison

Last updated on 13.10.2011