Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

A Revealing Burp!

(November 1959)

From The Newsletter, 28 November 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

To those of us who know the Communist Party from the inside, old Walter Holmes’ hiccup of joy in the Daily Worker over Peter Fryer’s defection from the Socialist Labour League has a rather pleasing significance. It shows that we are really making ourselves felt in that quarter.

So far as the ‘mass media’ are concerned, the Stalinist line has been for many years never even to mention the Trotskyist organizations except in such (so to speak) abstract terms as ‘fiends and mad dogs.’ The formula is: ‘not to give these people the pleasure they derive from seeing themselves in print.’ The real point is, of course, not to offer any not-completely-monolithic reader the opportunity of getting to know of a truly Marxist movement. Therefore, when Holmes breaks the rule it may well mean that he and his pals recognize that we have developed beyond the stage where the ‘conspiracy of silence’ can be effective.

I specify ‘mass media’, by the way, because those Stalinist journals which are not widely read by the masses, such as World News, have been used from time to time to hit at our movement. In 1954, for example, a couple of articles there on ‘the people behind Socialist Outlook’ were gratefully received and used by Transport House in connexion with its moves to ban that paper.

Pressure Politics – or Independent Class Action

The brief discussion which we had at the National Assembly of Labour about the terms of the resolution on the French nuclear weapon tests epitomized a dispute which has gone on in the working-class movement for many years and which is of deep significance, both theoretical and practical.

Should the resolution call on the capitalist Government to take action, or should it call on the working-class movement to take action? It was finally agreed that the latter line should be followed and that the resolution should be sent not to Downing Street but to the two great world groupings of trade unions, the ICFTU and the WFTU.

Trotskyists have always opposed resolutions and declarations which foster confidence in capitalist governments and concentrate popular attention on what capitalist politicians and diplomats will or will not do. They have always striven to get action by the workers themselves, and wherever possible through their mass organizations – to concentrate attention on developing and using the workers’ own power.

A classical example of a clash between these different approaches was the debate in the British Labour movement over ‘sanctions’ in 1935–1936. Fascist Italy had attacked semi-colonial Abyssinia. The leaders of the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist League, the two main centrist organizations of that time, adopted a do-nothing, semi-pacifist attitude. Some of them even excused themselves by talking of ‘a clash between two dictators’ (i.e., Mussolini and the Emperor of Abyssinia) and the main need of the movement, being for ‘the Abyssinian workers’ to ‘seize power’! Many of the rank and file, however, wanted something to be done to defend Abyssinia and hit at Fascism.

The Stalinists called for pressure on the Government to apply ‘sanctions,’ i.e., to take economic and military measures against Italy. The Trotskyists pointed out that this would mean either an imperialistic conflict or, as actually happened, a sell-out, and they pressed for ‘workers’ sanctions,’ i.e., for independent action by the workers’ organizations to stop war material going to Italy. For this they were, of course, called ‘Fascist agents’ by the Stalinists and ‘crypto-Stalinists’ by the lunatic fringe.

VFS and Bashing the Trots

What a pity Victory for Socialism did not see fit to include – in its statement on the election results a declaration for raising Transport House’s ban on the Socialist Labour League. This is hardly surprising, however, when one realizes that some of its leaders – not all, of course – have carried over from their Communist Party and fellow-travelling days that attitude towards Trotskyists which is, after all, of the very essence of Stalinism.

Take, for instance, Stephen Swingler. So far as I know, he has never withdrawn or apologized for the following (in which the nonsensical first paragraph leads to the nasty second one), from hisOutline of Political Thought since the French Revolution (1939).

‘The whole task of the Soviet Government [said Trotsky, according to Swingler,] must be to stir up insurrections abroad whilst pursuing a standstill policy at home. This issue was fully discussed in the USSR, and after a period of suspense and discussions it was decided to adopt the course of trying to establish a socialist system in Russia as the primary aim, whilst pursuing naturally an internationalist policy.

‘The idea that socialism could be built in one country has been proved correct in practice and has thus shown Trotsky’s theoretical diagnosis to be wrong. Thus, to demand freedom for Trotskyism in the USSR, or further discussion of the issue, is merely stupid if we regard political ideas as a guide to action, as a means to practical achievement. The controversy over theory has been settled in practice and further discussion can in no way aid action; therefore, to demand the right to “free discussion” of the issues [here a footnote: As people have done over the Moscow trials] is to demand the right to obstruct and to constrain, the right to negate freedom.’

I am not in a position to say whether this particular passage helped to inspire George Orwell’s conception of Doublethink, in 1984 (‘Freedom is Slavery’, etc.), but it may well have done.

Unpublished M.S.

To the Editor of Tribune, October 31.

Dear Comrade: Your readers should not be left in ignorance of the fact that Comrade Foskett, who writes to Tribune to jeer at Aldermaston marchers as persons ‘dedicated to the proposition: “Anything for a giggle,”’ is himself dedicated to the proposition: ‘Get the Reds out of the Labour Party at all costs.’

He was one of the foremost promoters of my expulsion from Finchley Labour Party on account of my association with The Newsletter.

May I suggest that it is to no small extent the purging activities of such as Comrade Foskett, which create the image of a party increasingly strait-jacketed by Right-wingers who want to keep the H-bomb, that drive young people of the Aldermaston generation away from Labour.

Banned Book

Soviet Prose: A Reader, edited by Ronald Hingley (Allen and Unwin, 12s. 6d.) has received publicity, soon after publication, in an unexpected way. It is one of the 30 books which the Soviet authorities have insisted on removing from the British book exhibition in Moscow. Mr Hingley, lecturer in Russian at Oxford, and now well known through the BBC’s Russian classes, will not sell any fewer copies of his book because of that, one may be sure.

What is interesting, though, is to consider why Soviet officialdom does not want the book placed where it can be looked through by Moscow citizens. After all, it consists merely of a number of extracts, in the original Russian, from works by well-known Soviet writers of fiction, with Mr Hingley’s explanatory notes. My guess is that they object most of all to the second extract given from Boris Pilnyak’s novel Mahogany which got the writer into serious trouble when it appeared in 1929 and is presumably quite unavailable in Russia now.

In this passage some old Bolsheviks who fought in the civil war reminisce bitterly over the changes in the party which look place in the early 1920s.

For English readers who are learning Russian perhaps the extract of greatest interest, from the standpoint of content, is the one taken from a fairly recent novel, Battle on the Way, by Galina Nikolayeva, which came out in 1957. It describes the crowd scenes in Moscow when Stalin’s death became known, and depicts very subtly the different reactions to this event by different sections of the people. When I was on the selecting committee of the ‘Russia Today Book Club’, which advises Moscow’s Foreign Languages Publishing House on what Russian novels to translate into English, I repeatedly urged that Battle on the Way be included in the list, but came up against an immovable though unexplained resistance.

Last updated on 13.10.2011