Brian Pearce

Some Lessons from History:

The Left Review, 1934–1938

(November 1959)

From The Newsletter, 7 November 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Middle-aged people often tend to idealize their youth. It comes hard to those in their forties to review critically the activities which they pursued in their twenties.

Perhaps the choice of the title New Left Review for the forthcoming amalgamated version of the New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review owes nothing to any nostalgic reminiscences of the Left Review of 1934–1938, predecessor of the Modern Quarterly. But on the other hand, perhaps it does; and we certainly know that among the older members of the circle responsible for the new journal a somewhat rosy picture of the ‘old Left’ of the 1930s persists strongly and influences their thinking about the present and future.

Nothing could be more dangerous today than revival of the illusions which dominated that ‘old Left’. One of the chief sources of the confusion and worse in ‘new Left’ quarters, and in particular of their hostile attitude to the Socialist Labour League, is to be found in the fact that though these people have broken with Stalinism they have not undertaken a thorough analysis of what they repudiate, have not seen the connexion between the apparently contradictory features of Stalinism at different times or even at one time, and so they remain unconsciously open to influence by false ideas absorbed during their period in the Stalinist camp.

Origins of Left Review

A brief examination of the old Left Review may start some useful trains of thought in any adherents of the ‘new left’ who chance to read this article.

Left Review began in October 1934, founded by a group of Communist Party and fellow-travelling writers. It gave expression to the wave of anti-fascist, anti-war and to some extent anti-capitalist feeling which had then arisen among considerable sections of the students and the younger intellectuals generally.

In its early numbers, Left Review devoted itself to exposing militarism and imperialism and all reactionary trends, through articles, stories, poems, reviews and cartoons. Its manner suffered from the schematic and sectarian features characteristic of the Comintern’s ‘third period’, but nevertheless it left no doubt where it stood in the class struggle and it tried to interest readers in the Marxist classics.

The journal participated with considerable effect in the campaign against the Incitement to Disaffection Bill and carried such articles as Pens Dipped in Poison, by Charles Madge, on the treason of the intellectuals who became warmongers in the 1914-1918 war.

But right from the very first number, Left Review revealed where its basic allegiance lay, with a poem by Louis Aragon glorifying the speed-up in a Soviet tractor-works. And in the number for February 1935 Tom Wintringham, one of the co-editors, launched a violent attack on Max Eastman’s book Artists in Uniform, which had shaken illusions among some left-wing intellectuals about the position of literature and the writer in the Soviet Union. A characteristic jolly-them-along phrase in Wintringham’s article ran: ‘Not a few bureaucratic absurdities have happened at times during the Soviet Revolution. And as soon as the Party has been able to be quite clear on what it is all about – they go.’ (Wintringham was himself expelled from the Communist Party only a few years later, for keeping company with the daughter of an alleged Trotskyist.)

Left Review capitulates to the Soviet bureaucracy

A journal whose editors entrusted their consciences to the Soviet bureaucracy was bound sooner or later to reflect the major turn in Soviet policy, constituting the final and complete break with the policy of world revolution, the ultimate maturing of Stalinism, which occurred in and after 1935. During that year, Left Review still carried such contributions as James Connolly and Another Jubilee, by Charles Donnelly, in the April issue, in which the story of the demonstrations organized by Connolly against Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was told, in ‘honour’ of the silver jubilee of George V then being celebrated as a Tory election stunt. But by 1936 a deep change becomes apparent, and this gets more and more marked as that year progresses.

Marxism and the class struggle (as distinct from stories in which poverty and misery are described and contemplated) fade out from the pages of Left Review. Curiosities like the following become not infrequent: ‘It is hard to believe that anyone with a normal and balanced sexual life could be an ardent Fascist’ (February 1936).

Aragon dismissed renewed worries about the position of literature in the USSR with the pointed remark: ‘It has been noticed how often Trotskyists have been in line with reactionaries.’ (May 1936)

At last, in August 1936, the cat comes fully out of the bag:

‘We urge our readers to popularize the building of a People’s Front in this country, based on the alliance of all those political groups and individuals who support a programme for immediate reforms – for improved conditions for workers of every sort, for the maintenance of peace through collective security; for the extension of civil liberties at home and the granting of equal rights to the colonial peoples.’

From anti-Trotskyism to class collaboration

As the class-collaborationist implications of the new policy were made more and more explicit, so the poisonous smokescreen against Marxism (Trotskyism) was systematically thickened. Thus, on the one hand, the editorial in the March 1937 number hailed the filling of the Albert Hall by a Left Book Club meeting as a sign of ‘the revival in Britain of the Liberal spirit’; in the June 1937 number we read that ‘on May 1 and 2 organized Labour revealed itself as the real leader of every section of the people’; and in the August 1937 number Hamilton Fyfe reviewed approvingly Cole’s book The People’s Front, expressing conviction that Labour could not win alone, that it was necessary to get at the large body of unattached voters’ who could ‘be won, not yet for Socialism, but for pooled security and a limited programme of democratic social legislation and economic control’.

On the other hand, T.A. Jackson put over the Moscow-trials (’scrupulous fairness of the trial ... unquestionable and entire guiltiness of the accused ... it all began with lack of faith ... no-one with any sense of evidence can retain any doubts’) and R.F. Andrews (Andrew Rothstein) told how ‘criminal disruption’ was characteristic of ‘the dupes of Trotsky’, and his ‘policy of counter-revolution’ (March and June 1937).

In November 1937 the publisher Frederick Warburg revealed in a letter to the New Statesman that Left Review had refused an advertisement for The Case of Leon Trotsky, published by his firm. This book was the report of the examination of Trotsky, regarding the statements affecting him made in the trials, carried out by an independent commission of inquiry headed by John Dewey.

Evidently the new liberalism of Left Review did not include giving a show to the other side. Editor Randall Swingler explained on behalf of the journal, in the next issue of the New Statesman, that ‘there is a line at which criticism ends and destructive attacks begin, and we regret that this line separates us both from Dr Goebbels and Leon Trotsky.’

The last-but-one issue of Left Review (April 1938) included a review of a book by Eleanor Rathbone in which she prophesied the pact between Stalin and Hitler which was actually signed in the following year. ‘An idea like that could only occur to Miss Rathbone!’ laughed the reviewer.

That was typical of the ridicule which alternated with abuse and misrepresentation as the method of preventing any objective, scientific examination by Left Review addicts of the realities of the political situation, the actual class forces at work in the world. This was an essential condition for selling them the ‘people’s front and collective security’ line which led Britain and the world into such a monumental succession of disasters in 1939, 1940 and 1941.

Surely there are lessons to be drawn from the story of the old Left Review for the guidance of the new one?

Last updated on 13.10.2011