Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Labour Youth

(December 1959)

From The Newsletter, 12 December 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

I see from my local paper that Mike Birch, of my own Labour Party (i.e., the one I was expelled from), Finchley, spoke at Blackpool for a revived Labour League of Youth, with its own conferences and so on. ‘He suggested that past failures were due to young people not having a free hand.’

The story of how Labour’s youth movement was first scuppered, in the years just before the war, should be better-known – especially because it illustrates how the Right wing are helped, with or without intention, by the Stalinists.

Alarmed by the growth of Left ideas among the League of Youth members, Labour Party HQ in 1936 suspended the League’s national committee and deprived it of its right to discuss policy. The pretext was provided by moves on the part of the Stalinists then active in the League – headed by Ted (Blue Lamp) Willis – to bring about a merger with the Young Communist League. The first reaction of the Stalinists was one of bluster (We Shall Not Surrender). To the surprise of the less sophisticated this attitude was soon, however, rapidly reversed.

The Stalinist youth paper Advance, in its issue of November, 1936, explained that after all the League was still allowed to carry on propaganda, and this must be its “strong point.” The shape of things to come was indicated by an article in the same issue from the pen of Soviet youth leader Kosarev, in which he said: “It is necessary to unite all sections of the youth, without political, religious or other distinctions.”

From that time onward the Stalinists not merely gave up every kind of criticism of official Labour policy from the Left, but began to try to use their position in the League to promote ideas far to the Right of Transport House’s stand at that stage. The role of the League members, it was explained, was to be foremost in doing the Labour Party’s donkey work; this would win the gratitude of the leaders and then, filled with remorse, the latter would restore the League’s rights. Those who persisted in trying to fight Transport House for an independent socialist youth movement were “Trotskyist wreckers” : “There is no place for them in a live movement,” wrote Willis, “just as there is no place for boils on a healthy human.” Meanwhile, the anti-socialist doctrine of the “people’s front” and “peace alliance” was gradually unfolded, until the Stalinists were seen advocating through the League machinery they controlled, a government headed by Churchill, Attlee and the Liberal leader of those days, Sinclair, and voting Liberal against Labour in certain by-elections.

All this gravely weakened and confused the membership, and it gave Transport House the pretext in early 1939 to go forward to the next stage in suppressing the youth movement. The Stalinist-dominated national committee was disbanded, the annual conference called off, and every form of separate youth organization at district and national level forbidden. Thus the war came to a Britain in which the Labour youth movement lay in ruins, thanks to a “combined operation” by the Right and the Stalinists.

“New Left” Journal Fails

“Malicious enjoyment of others’ misfortunes” is something which British people undoubtedly experience from time to time, but for which, characteristically, we have no one word, and so have to use the German “Schadenfreude.” It is a feeling we might be tempted to indulge in connexion with the news that the monthly magazine called The American Socialist is ceasing publication – but of course one doesn’t yield to such unworthy feelings.

Two years ago or thereabout Cedric Belfrage recommended to me this production of a “sensible, non-sectarian” group which had broken away from the Socialist Workers’ Party, the American Trotskyists; and I have often seen it since on sale at the Partisan, headquarters of our own “New Left.” Our sister weekly in New York, the Militant, comments on the decease of the American Socialists : “Because they lumped together ‘dogma’ and valid Marxist concepts, they proved unable to develop the cohesive body of theory and programme needed to stand up against the adverse circumstances of the times. Moreover, the editors deliberately cut off all connexion with their Trotskyist past, which did not help them as interest revived in Trotsky’s views.”

Nikita and Nicholas I

Khrushchev’s addiction to old Russian proverbs and sayings is now well-known. Another feature of his extraordinary speeches which attracts attention is the historical allusions he now quite often makes. One of these, in his recent address to the works of a Budapest factory, I find most suggestive.

Soviet armed intervention in Hungary was dictated by the class interest of the international proletariat, he claimed, just as the armed intervention of Tsar Nicholas I in Hungary in 1848–1849 had accorded with the class interest of ‘the international reactionary bourgeoisie.’

Now, to talk of an ‘international reactionary bourgeoisie’ in 1848 is to commit an anachronism. The revolution which the Tsar helped the Habsburg emperor to put down was a bourgeois revolution and enjoyed widespread sympathy among the European bourgeoisie. Tsarist Russia was then not a bourgeois but a feudal-autocratic State, and acted as such in Hungary.

Nevertheless, it is true that the dominant element in one national bourgeoisie did welcome the Tsar’s action, and even helped it materially with a timely loan. The British bourgeoisie, having established their own power at home and emerged as masters of ‘the workshop of the world’ jealously sabotaged trends towards bourgeois revolution elsewhere, except where (as in Greece or South America) they felt confident of establishing British economic control. In Central Europe, in particular, bourgeois revolution, leading to customs union and rapid capitalist development, might destroy a profitable , market for British goods. Hence a covert sympathy for the brutal interventions of Tsarist Russia – in support of the status quo.

The sympathy had to be covert because of the enthusiastic friendship of lower middle-class and working-class sections of the British people for continental liberation movements. Need to ‘adapt’ to this led to Lord Palmerston, the outstanding statesman of the time, evolving a highly-refined technique of saying one thing while doing the opposite, which Marx analysed with deadly penetration. Behind a screen of phrases and gestures, Europe was held down for years under what Marx called ‘the Anglo-Russian slavery.’

Now, what I find suggestive in Khrushchev’s reminder of this period is that it deals with a case of collaboration in maintaining the status quo against revolution between two powers of quite different and even sharply opposed social structure. Each for its own purposes – Russia in defence of feudalism and autocracy, Britain in defence of commercial monopoly – stood hostile to the aspirations of the peoples of Europe, and in spite of contradictions and conflicts they managed to work together a good deal of harm. If historical precedents are needed to back our warnings about the real aim of ‘summit talks,’ what about this?

The fact that common interest in opposing revolutions did not prevent Britain and Russia from eventually coming to blows in the Crimean War also offers food for thought.

Last updated on 13.10.2011