Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

A Political Con Man?

(February 1960)

From The Newsletter, 20 February 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

TO leave error uncorrected is to encourage intellectual immorality. Those wise (but perhaps a little ‘sectarian’?) words of Marx’s served as the motto of The Reasoner, the factional journal edited by John Saville and Edward Thompson which played a role in the revolt in the British Communist Party in 1956. They supply my excuse for reproducing here the essence of a letter I wrote to The Listener on January 21, which is evidently not going to be published there.

It was written in reply to one by Harry Hanson, of Leeds, attacking Alasdair MacIntyre’s talk on Communism and British Intellectuals. Hanson, a ‘New Left’ ex-Stalinist who seems to be not so ‘ex’ as all that, dealt with historical facts in his letter in a way that must be commented on, given these people’s ostentatious concern for Morality with a big M.

To discredit a point made by MacIntyre, Hanson referred to ‘the 1936 programme of the Communist Party, For a Soviet Britain,’ as though this had been the programme of the British Communists from 1936 onward. Actually, For Soviet Britain was adopted at the Party Congress held in February 1935. Within a few months, owing to changes in the Moscow line, it had ceased to be referred to in the Party press and propaganda. By 1936 Soviets (workers’ councils) were definitely ‘out’ so far as the Stalinists were concerned, as was vividly demonstrated in France and Spain in the summer of that year. To advocate them was now to be ... anti-Soviet. And in 1938, when an article in the Party journal Discussion surveyed past congresses of the British Communist Party, the programme adopted at the 1935 congress (by then, of course, long since ‘unavailable’) was referred to as For Socialist Britain !

Either Hanson knows these facts – and he writes to correct MacIntyre from the standpoint of one who was politically active in the period concerned, and so knows it from experience and not merely from books – or else he doesn’t. If he does, is he not something of a political confidence trickster? If he doesn’t, why did he miss this opportunity to keep his mouth shut?

Rome and Moscow

The Jesuit Father Messineo, editor of the important Italian Catholic periodical Civilta cattolica, has been invited to visit the Soviet Union this month, it is reported, and will travel accompanied by his physician Dr. Spallone, who is a member of the Communist Party of Italy.

There will be speculation about what diplomatic feelers for an agreement (concordat) between the Vatican and the Soviet Government may be put out through this mission. The last time a Jesuit went to Russia on the Pope’s behalf the results were not happy.

On that occasion the reverend father concerned was Edmund Walsh, of Georgetown University, USA, which has prepared so many young men for the American diplomatic service. (It was Walsh who, when a certain Senator Joe McCarthy was looking for a gimmick to make himself famous, advised the senator to take up hunting for Reds in government jobs.)

Walsh was in Russia in 1922–23, in charge of Catholic relief work among sufferers from the famine which followed the years of war and civil war. Around this time, the then Pope was hoping – if we are to believe Louis Fischer, in The Soviets in World Affairs (1930) – to get some advantage for his church in Russia out of the disestablishment of the Orthodox Church. At the Genoa Conference, it seems, Soviet foreign commissar Chicherin had a friendly chat with the local archbishop into which a lot was read by some observers. Much significance was seen in the comparative restraint with which the Pope reacted to the trial for treason of some Polish Catholic priests in Russia, at a time when the British Government bombarded Moscow with indignant protests.

Whatever the possibilities, Father Walsh did his damnedest to kill them. He made trouble with the Soviet authorities wherever he went, especially over the question of Church property which they wanted to sequestrate for famine relief purposes; he was suspected of abusing the privileged facilities allowed him in order to help counter-revolutionaries; and he systematically despatched to the Vatican false information about the situation in Russia. By the end of 1923, when he left, he could be certain that all ‘danger’ was past.

It may be that since, in 1960, Soviet Russia is still there, the Society of Jesus has decided to change its approach – that remains to be seen. Methods of combating the revolutionary working-class movement are many and various, and the enemy is very flexible. One recalls how the Webbs, who loathed Lenin’s Russia, became in the early 1930s enthusiasts for the regime of Stalin. Nevertheless, Fabians are one thing and Jesuits quite another ...

Dick Beech and Others

Don’t look now, but it may be that we are at last going to get some instalments of the official history of the British Communist Party (promised since 1956), in the form at any rate of articles by James Klugman. The journal Marxism Today had in its January issue a piece by him on the foundation of the party, in 1920 and 1921.

I was interested to see that Klugman mentions Dick Beech, who attended the second (1920) congress of the Communist International as a representative of the British section of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Beech died in 1955. He had left the Independent Labour Party for the Labour Party not long before. He had been well-known in the trade union movement for a quarter of a century as an active worker for the Chemical Workers’ Union, whose journal he was editing at the time of his death, and was also busy in the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Married to Moira, one of James Connolly’s daughters, Beech always took a special interest in the fight against imperialism.

As a member of the Communist Party’s central committee in the 1920s Beech had for his chief sphere of work the National Minority Movement, the ‘red opposition’ in the trade unions. He was co-defendant with Harry Pollitt in a famous libel case brought by an official of the National Union of Seamen in 1927. When Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, then sent into exile, and finally banished from the Soviet Union, Beech, who had known the revolutionary leader personally, was not satisfied with the Stalinist ‘explanations’. He was one of the small British group who established contact with the American Trotskyists around Jim Cannon and made their paper – The Militant, founded 1928 and still going strong – known to Marxists in this country.

(I am told, by the way, that a certain Len Williams, then a keen young tutor for the National Council of Labour Colleges in South Wales, helped to get subscribers for The Militant in that area in the early 1930s. Can this be that same Len Williams who, now at Transport House, presides over the purging of Trotskyists from the Labour Party?)

Whether Dick Beech was expelled from the Communist Party for his educational activities or left of his own accord I am not clear, but I understand he had been out of it for some years before, in 1939, on Bob Edwards’ persuasion, he joined the Independent Labour Party.

I am assembling information about the earliest years of the Trotskyist movement and of interest in Trotsky’s ideas in this country, and would welcome any papers or reminiscences which might contribute to this task by filling in gaps in the political biographies of comrades like Dick Beech.

Jack Tanner, now of IRIS and a mighty Red-hunter before the Lord, was at one time a friend of Beech’s, and in his militant days showed a brief, cautious curiosity in relation to Trotsky’s writings, or so they tell me. I suppose it’s useless to expect any help from him in this bit of research. Still, should he read these lines (as he doubtless will, in the way of business), and feel moved to send along some notes, they would be appreciated. The same applies, of course to Len Williams.

Last updated on 13.10.2011