Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Traditions must be timely

(January 1960)

From The Newsletter, 23 January 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Talking of his visit to France in the near future, Khrushchev told the USSR Supreme Soviet that ‘a liking for France, for the French people ... has developed historically in our country’. Experienced readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that this reminds me of something – something which illustrates the insincere and artificial character of such official affections.

When French imperialism headed the anti-Soviet forces in Europe, nothing was to be heard of this Russian historical liking for France. Instead, we had the following from Stalin, in an interview with Emil Ludwig in December, 1931: ‘But if we are going to speak of our liking for a particular nation, or rather, for the majority of its citizens, then of course we must not fail to mention our liking for the Germans. Our liking for the Americans cannot be compared to that!’

Ludwig asked Stalin: ‘Why precisely the German nation?’ In the original version of the interview, as published in pamphlet form in 1932, Stalin replied: ‘I simply mention it as a fact.’ As given in Stalin’s collected works, published after the second world war (English edition, Volume 13, 1955), the reply reads, however : ‘If only for the reason that it gave the world such men as Marx and Engels. It suffices to state the fact as such.’

(I understand, by the way, that the editor of the English version of Stalin’s collected works was Clemens Dutt, brother of the more famous ‘Raji’. This is the same C.P. Dutt who wrote in the Communist Review of February, 1935, criticizing some edition of one of Marx’s writings : “We shall always be vigilant to see that distortions are not allowed to appear.’)

The reverse side of ‘historically-formed likings’ was seen in the series of treason trials held in Moscow between 1930 and 1938. At each of these the accused ‘confessed’ to having criminal dealings exclusively and over long periods with those powers which at the time of the trial happened to be on bad terms with Stalin. First France was the chief villain, then Germany. Only in 1938, after Eden’s resignation had damped Stalin’s hopes of an Anglo-Soviet alliance, did prisoners start confessing to plots, going back many years of course, with British agents (including such improbable figures as the Labour Lord Alexander). Never at any stage did Mussolini’s Italy figure in the confessions, though one might have supposed that ‘Fascist beasts’ would have had a natural leaning toward that state; as Trotsky remarked at the time, these unfortunate men might plan attempts on Stalin’s life, but never on Litvinov’s diplomacy. American imperialism was a conspicuous absentee from the ‘confessions’, too, though in. 1945–53 the Soviet people were to be told that this power had been foremost in plotting against their State since its earliest days.

Orwell fans will recall the story of relations between Animal Farm and its neighbours, Foxwood and Pinchfield, and how this story was repeatedly revised by ‘Napoleon’ to fit in with the current requirements of his diplomacy.

IRIS Doesn’t Love Us

Most of our readers have heard, I expect, of IRIS (Industrial Research and Information Service), the nosey-Parker, Red-hunting organization which works for the employers and the trade union bureaucrats. In the latest issue of the IRIS bulletin William McLaine has a bash at my article for Labour Review on Some Past Rank-and-File Movements, which has been off printed as a shilling pamphlet.

What he dislikes most about this little study of why and how rank-and-file movements have arisen in the trade unions since the early days of this century is the attention given to the ‘de-classing’ of trade union officials as a factor in this connexion. One would think from McLaine’s rage over this that it is something only a thoroughly dirty-minded Trotskyist could think up. Yet (as, indeed, is shown in the article-pamphlet) it used to be a commonplace among industrial militants – in the days when McLaine himself moved in those circles.

William McLaine was a leading light of the Scottish Labour College in 1919–20, in the days of his great near-namesake John Maclean. He was secretary of the Workers’ International Relief in 1921–23. So late as the publication of the Labour Who’s Who for 1927 he was giving his ‘Clubs and Societies’ as ‘AEU, CPGB, LP, LCS’. Let me illustrate my point about the commonplaceness in the 1920’s of the idea which McLaine now seems to find so unheard-of, by means of yet more quotations from a couple of pamphlets which I’m sure he did his best to push around the movement in the days before he became a renegade.

The first is from Direct Action, written for the Scottish Workers’ Committees in 1919 by J.R. Campbell and W. Gallagher:

‘The experience of the Russian and German revolutions has revealed the sordidly reactionary position of the bulk of the trade union leaders. Having attained to a measure of security, comfort and power under capitalism, they were not prepared to lead the workers in a struggle in which they as leaders would have to face risks. In the hour of crisis they revealed themselves as being more capitalist in outlook than the capitalists themselves. The trade union movement, in fact, by creating conditions which remove those it chooses as leaders from a working-class environment, and by placing its destinies in the hands of these men, is actually raising barriers to the emancipation of the working class.’

The second is from Consolation and Control: The Policy of the Engineering and Shipbuilding Section of the National Workers’ Committee Movement (McLaine was himself, of course, an engineer), published in Glasgow by the National Workers’ Committee in 1921:

‘The working class in their generosity raise the permanent official to an economic level which opens out to him the possibility of living in a new social environment. The official is a human being. He reacts to his environment like everyone else ... Gradually the influence of the new environment makes itself felt. The official gets conservative, or, as the capitalist press describes it, he becomes sane ... There is no way of preventing this from happening in the case of any official except the cutting down of salaries to nearer a working-class level, plus an allowance for educational facilities in the way of books, etc.’

In my humble opinion, the fact that McLaine has forgotten an idea, in the course of his own social ascent (?), does not render it a new one when he stumbles upon it again in 1960.

Right-winger’s Old Rope

What riles me most about Tony Crosland and friends is the air they assume of being so very up-to-date and original with their line that left-wing policies are out because the workers are better off than in the 1930’s. They recall earlier propagandists to the same effect – in the 1930’s. Their line has whiskers on it.

Ernest Hunter, political correspondent of the Daily Herald, contributed an Open Letter to a Youth Socialist to the New Nation, organ of the Labour League of Youth, for February, 1936. He was worried by the left-wing tendencies of his young friend, who had even said that the best elements in the movement ought to get together on the basis of Marxism, to fight for power with a militant socialist programme.

What was the knock-down argument Hunter used to sober up this revolutionary firebrand?

‘One would think,’ he wrote, ‘to hear the way some of you young socialists speak, that the social condition of the people in this country is going from bad to worse instead of getting better and better. Read what the conditions in the East End were when Jack London wrote his People of the Abyss! If Jack London were alive now and went back to that dreadful place he visited over thirty years ago, he would find a different world.’

Last updated on 13.10.2011