Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

A Warning from the Past

(December 1959)

From The Newsletter, 5 December 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

E.P. Thompson’s fine book William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955) contains at least one cautionary tale for our times – the story of the Socialist League which broke away from the Social Democratic Federation and led a brief, hectic existence in the 1880s.

Many of its members, having left the SDF largely because of Hyndman’s dictatorial methods, reacted against any sort of discipline. Anarchist elements appeared amongst them, whose theory “tended in the direction of the liquidation of all organization, not only in the anarchist society of the future but also in the struggle for its realization.’

According to Engels, during the preparations for the conference of 1887, the anarchists on the council of the Socialist League proposed that there should be no checking of credentials (bureaucracy!), but ‘everybody accepted who said he was a delegate.’

Owing to the weakness of Morris and other leaders, the Socialist League was rapidly and throughly disintegrated by these people, with tragic consequences for the working-class movement.

Thompson writes:

‘The years between 1887 and 1893 were to provide a melancholy series of illustrations of the personal degeneration or political confusion of individuals not subject to the support, correction and discipline of a party – John Burns, H.H. Champion, Aveling – but no more forcible illustration can be found than in the actions of that ceaseless propagandist J.L. Mahon ...

‘Mahon was spoiled by his year of prominence and successful agitations in 1887. Cocksure, vain beyond his abilities, and impatient, he needed the criticism and support of a party to keep him “straight.” Having once tasted leadership, he was reluctant to play a subordinate role, not because he was a self-seeker, but simply because he had become convinced that he could lead and direct the policy of the movement better than anyone else. He could see where both Hyndman and Morris were wrong; he had no respect for Aveling; and he therefore thought he must replace the whole lot ... Mahon’s defection from the League was a serious loss. But Morris was right: Mahon was already sliding on the slopes of personal intrigue, and was before long to become one more among the many men in this period lost to the movement for the lack of an effective party.’

‘Portugese tragedy’?

Ralph Fox was a Stalinist, a bitter foe of the ideas now associated with The Newsletter. He was also a sincere anti-Fascist and gave his life fighting against Franco. After his death there appeared a slim volume Portugual Now (1937), in which he recorded his impressions from a visit to Salazar’s Catholic Action police State.

Besides describing the misery and oppression of the Portuguese people under their ‘philosopher’ tyrant, Fox gave a vivid picture of the activity then going on in Portugal in support of Franco, behind the screen of ‘non-intervention.’ At that time Portugal was the main channel through which, arms and ‘volunteers’ from Germany and Italy were pouring into Spain.

‘When you read,’ wrote Fox, ‘of the desperate struggles of men and women to be free in Spain, of the Moorish troops and the foreign legionaries, of the massacres of prisoners and bombing of children, don’t forget Lisbon, or your picture will be incomplete.’

General Delgado’s recent visit has focused attention on the prospect of a political crisis in Portugal and the possible downfall of the dictatorship. Ex-colleague Peter Fryer is reported to be in Portugal now, collecting material for a book to be published by Dennis Dobson. All who were influenced by his Hungarian Tragedy will watch with interest to see what kind of book it proves to be. There would certainty seem to be at least as much in Portugal to stir Fryer’s indignation as he found in Stalinist Hungary.

Better late than never

Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Unarmed has had a very good press. It was therefore all the more remarkable that Tribune failed to carry a review of this book in its issues of September 25, October 2, October 8 or October 16. (The Prophet Unarmed was published on September 24.) Pressure of election news and views did not prevent publication of reviews of other books in this period.

I must confess that I noticed this omission with special interest because, some months ago, I had been promised the reviewing of The Prophet Unarmed in Tribune.

Well, anyway, Tribune for October 23 presented at last a long review of the book, by Raymond Fletcher in person. And he certainly did it proud. ‘It is the most important book I have ever had the privilege of reviewing.’ More than that, he writes of the Trotskyist opposition of the 1920’s: ‘The ideological channels that were cut then have all that is best in Marxism flowing through them today. In this sense, Trotsky is still alive ...”

An intellectual

What is an intellectual? In the Labour movement the name is widely applied to anybody who is not a worker. Yet it should have a specific meaning: it should imply a certain standard of knowledge, of brain-power, of mental seriousness and integrity. One can see how loosely it is too often-used if one imagines the common procedure reversed – if everyone in the movement who is not an intellectual were to be called a worker ...

Can it be that what has attracted some perplexing recruits into the Labour movement is precisely the ease with which anybody in it who does not work with his hands can get called an intellectual? True, this is in such cases usually just a polite word for ‘big-head,’ but some people are thick-skinned.

These reflections are prompted by a colleague’s reminding me that November 16 was the anniversary of the death, and November 19 that of the funeral, of A.A. Joffe (whose name is also sometimes spelt Ioffe or Yoffe).

It was at Joffe’s funeral, in 1927, that Trotsky made his last public speech in Russia. An intellectual in the truest sense of the word, Joffe had been one of the outstanding Bolshevik diplomats of the pre-Stalin era. Because he linked himself with Trotsky’s opposition, he was persecuted and hounded to suicide. A sufferer from a crippling nerve disease which required treatment then available only abroad, he had been refused permission to leave the country.

Joffe had long been a favourite target of the hooligan element in Stalin’s following, for whom a man of his quality seemed a standing reproach to themselves. The fact that he had once been psycho-analysed was always good for a snigger in these circles.

The remarkable letter which Joffe left behind in which he recorded discussions with Lenin on the latter’s differences with Trotsky, and himself put forward certain criticisms of Trotsky, is available as a pamphlet from New Park Publications, at this address, price 4d.

Last updated on 13.10.2011