Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

One Way Only

(March 1960)

From The Newsletter, 12 March 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

I DIDN’t hear Julian Symons’s wireless programme on the general strike of 1926, but I understand from a friend who did that it followed the lines of his excellent book on the subject (The General Strike, Cresset Press, 1957), which every reader of The Newsletter ought to ensure is in his local library and known to Young Socialists in his neighbourhood.

One of the most significant features of the 1926 struggle, it seems to me, was the. way the middle classes, tremendously impressed by the might and majesty which the working-class movement then displayed, showed is those nine days went by definite signs of breaking away from allegiance to the capitalists. The mood of these sections was reflected in the resolution passed by the Tory city council of Newcastle-on-Tyne calling on the government to make peace with the workers, and in the famous appeal by the Archbishop of Canterbury for a negotiated settlement – suppressed by the BBC under government pressure! Less spectacularly but more directly it was voiced by Canon Donaldson of Westminster: ‘I earnestly pray that the workers will stand firm. If they stand firm, they will win; but if they begin to doubt and quaver and to blackleg – all will be lost, and lost for a generation.’

That experience provided an object lesson in the way to win the support of the middle class. But the effect of the betrayal of the strike and of the epoch of disintegration and demoralization of the working-class movement that followed was proportionately severe.

The key to the thirties

While the workers were still winded from the betrayal of 1926, the great slump arrived, bringing unemployment on an unprecedented scale, and so rendering exceptionally difficult a revival of militancy in industry. Then on top of this came the sell-out by the front-rank leaders of Labour in 1931, causing further discredit and depression.

All of which formed part of the background to the widespread acceptance by middle-class people of left-wing inclinations of that idea of a ‘People’s Front’ in one form or another which exerted so malign an influence in the crucial period between 1936 and 1939. The other major element in this background was the terrifyingly rapid advance of fascism, with the unchecked rise of aggressive Nazi Germany and militarist-expansionist Japan. To middle-class people desperately seeking an answer and a defence, the slowly-reviving working-class movement of the middle 1930s presented no immediately impressive picture, and it was all toe easy for them to turn instead towards fallacious schemes involving Liberals, ‘patriotic’ Tories and other sections of the ruling class.

The specific and particularly harmful contribution made by the leaders of the Communist Party in that situation was to divert the efforts of their followers and sympathizers more and more away from the indispensable, irreplaceable Marxist task of building up and extending militant rank-and-file movements, arousing class-consciousness and leading the workers into direct action against the capitalists, the fascists and war-makers, domestic and foreign. Instead of doing everything to strengthen confidence in the working class as the only force capable of safeguarding, democratic rights and stopping imperialist war, they set the tone of the essentially defeatist propaganda for the People’s Front.

Having decided, because of the relative weakness of the working-class movement at a given moment, to base their calculations elsewhere, on various capitalist states and sections of national capitalist classes, the Communist Parties of the world, directed from Moscow, were inevitably led to oppose such expressions of revived workers’ militancy as did occur, since these could not but upset the new ‘allies’. From being unsuccessful would-be revolutionaries they became downright counter-revolutionaries: as was to be seen written in blood in the streets of Barcelona in May, 1937. The shrill international campaign against ‘Trotskyism’ was intended to stun everyone within earshot into acquiescence in this treachery.

No excuse this time

The People’s Front policy bought defeat wherever it was tried. That is something which needs pointing out again and again, now that the ‘New Left’ are trying to foist an essentially similar conception upon the nuclear disarmament movement, the movement against colonial oppression and so on. What also has to be said is that the excuse that existed in the 1930s for looking elsewhere than to the working class for salvation does not obtain today, when the workers are undefeated, in a very strong position and full of fighting spirit.

As things are now, to carry forward ‘People’s Front’ notions into our present situation is to reveal a total lack of historical sense. This point is effectively made by Alasdair MacIntyre in replying to Edward Thompson, ex-Stalinist ‘New Left’ spokesman, in the Listener of February 25:

‘Mr. Thompson boasts that his present position is not a reversion to a mirror-opposite of the old dogmas, which I imagine he takes mine to be. Certainly it is true that his position is in no sense a reversion. It is, in the aspects revealed in his letter, a straightforward continuation of the old, lacking only the context of the ’30s which made that position slightly more excusable than it is now.’

Last updated on 14.10.2011