Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Slump Nonsense

(January 1960)

From The Newsletter, 9 January 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Interviewed in the Observer of December 20, Gaitskell remarked: ‘It is true that in the new situation the Opposition cannot expect the kind of automatic escalator to power which a major slump often provided in the past.’

What does this mean? If by ‘major slump’ Gaitskell has in mind the whole period between the beginning of the depression after the first world war in 1920, and the beginning of the rearmament boom in 1937, how are we to explain that of the six general elections held in those years only two returned Labour majorities?

Moreover, the first Labour government was elected at the end of 1923, in a period of relative recovery of Britain’s heavy industries (largely due to the French invasion of the Ruhr, which hindered German competition). The second Labour government was elected in May 1929, at a time of semi-boom which induced such Labour publicists as H.N. Brailsford to write that Marx was being refuted by economic facts. The Wall Street crash came several months later; and the worst moment of the ensuing ‘major slump’ saw the election of the anti-Labour National Government of 1931.

It is curious how both Right-wingers and ultra-Lefts – each for their own reasons – go in for this ‘vulgar Marxist’ treatment of the connexion between economics and politics. For a corrective, may I refer Gaitskell and co-thinkers to Trotsky’s two speeches on the world economic situation given at the Third Comintern Congress, 1921? They are in Volume I of The First Five Years of the Communist International.

That Constitution

The insertion in the Labour Party’s constitution of that phrase about common ownership of the means of production was one of the moves undertaken by the bureaucracy of the British working-class movement in the ‘dangerous’ years after the first world war in order to retain the confidence of the workers by seeming to be more Left than in truth they were.

Characteristically, it was accompanied by some quiet organizational steps aimed at making the party less open to socialist influence than hitherto. The 1918 constitution ended the situation whereby to belong to the Labour Party you had to be either a trade unionist or a member of one of the societies of convinced and active socialists which had combined with the trade unions to set the party up in the first place. Henceforth, ‘individual membership’ became possible.

The real focal points of party activity in the localities ceased to be the Independent Labour Party branches. The local Labour Parties which came into being under the new constitution led in the main a much less intensely political inner life – and they had no autonomy, either separately or together, so that party headquarters could keep them much more firmly under control.

At the same time the original system of reserved places which had ensured that, there should be representation of the affiliated socialist societies on the National Executive Committee was abolished. And it was .laid down that the Parliamentary group should ‘give effect’ only ‘so far as practicable’ to ‘the principles from time to time approved by the party conference.’

Up The Republic

It is already clear that we are in for a real sousing in monarchist propaganda in 1960, in connexion with the tercentenary of the Restoration. This anniversary will be linked up, no doubt, with all manner of ballyhoo about the royal baby. And if it’s a boy and the Queen names him James, or a girl and she names her Mary, this, coming after Charles and Anne, will put our present sovereign’s sympathy for her predecessors of the house of Stuart quite beyond a doubt.

During a recent session by The Critics, when they were discussing a film about the American civil war, Pamela Hansford Johnson remarked: ‘There has been a plot to cover our civil war up.’ How true this is struck me when, during the Christmas break, I was in Cambridge and walked through Market Passage, where the Arts Cinema now stands. Here stood in former times the Bear Inn, which during the civil war served as headquarters of the Eastern Association, the grouping of advanced and thoroughgoing revolutionaries of the East Anglian area that was the nucleus of Cromwell’s New Model Army. Such a historic spot deserves some monument, but there isn’t even a plaque on the wall.

Mention of Cambridge and the Eastern Association recalls the splendid letter which Peter Cadogan contributed to the discussion columns of the Communist Party’s weekly World News for March 9, 1957, debunking the alleged historical precedent for the revolutionary role assigned to Parliament in the Stalinist fantasy-programme The British Road to Socialism. Cadogan showed how the driving force of the English bourgeois revolution lay outside Parliament and dealt brusquely with Parliament when it tried to obstruct – as it inevitably did. ‘A Parliament bred in the old order cannot of itself create a new one.’ This important point from English history had, incidentally, been already made in the document called The Communist International Answers the Independent Labour Party, first published in 1920 and reprinted in 1932, but now, of course, practically unknown to rank-and-file Communist Party members.

The Daily Worker and Bob Edwards

‘MP Franco sentenced to death goes back.’ That was the headline to the report in the Daily Worker of December 22 of Bob Edwards’ visit to Madrid in connexion with a trial of Franco’s opponents.

As it was so near Christmas I let myself speculate dreamily about what would be at the end of the report. You know how they sometimes have a star after the straight news, followed by a bit of background information, in italics? Perhaps there would be a piece like this: ‘We take this opportunity to retract with apologies the charges we hurled at Edwards and his comrades, to the effect that they were in cahoots with Franco, at the time when they were earning a death sentence from him.’

Bob Edwards led the contingent of volunteers organized by the Independent Labour Party which went to Spain during the civil war and fought on the Aragon front with the militia of POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity). When the Spanish Communist Party launched its Barcelona coup d’etat against POUM, the British Communist Party broadcast the wildest and foulest accusations of treason by these alleged Trotskyists, in which the ILP men were also supposed to be involved. Harry Pollitt refused to speak on the same ‘Aid Republican Spain’ platform with representatives of the ILP, and sellers of their paper were beaten up by the Stalinists.

The truth about the Barcelona events of May, 1937, has long since been well established. Indeed, the Stalinist version was refuted very rapidly and effectively by one of the ILP volunteers, Eric Blair, who happened to be on leave in Barcelona at the time, in a book called Homage to Catalonia, published over his pen-name, George Orwell. But the Communist Party, while not publicly maintaining (since a certain speech in 1956) their legend about ‘Trotskyism in the service of Franco’, have never withdrawn it, much less apologized for it.

Of course, my dream was just a dream. No star. No italics. The Daily Worker is a leopard that doesn’t change its spots, even at Christmas.

Last updated on 15.10.2011