Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Oxford Episode

(March 1960)

From The Newsletter, 5 March 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

DID those dons who ganged up against Macmillan’s election as Chancellor of Oxford University have any particular danger in mind, I wonder, when they wrote that it was unsuitable for an active politician of marked allegiance to hold this office? Perhaps some of them remembered an incident from the last period when such a politician was Chancellor at a time of social and political upheaval.

When the arch-reactionary Tory Minister Lord Curzon of Kedleston was Chancellor, there darted across the Oxford firmament a comet called Free Oxford. This was ‘an independent socialist review of politics and literature’ (later: ‘a communist journal of youth’), which came out in six numbers in 1921 and 1922 and achieved an amazing success, with a circulation of at least double that of other university papers. Contributors included Louis Golding, A.E. Coppard, Edgell Rickword, Richard Hughes and other bright young writers, together with Edward Carpenter, of the older generation, and also E. Varga and K. Radek, who sent their articles from Moscow.

Free Oxford found purchasers in every university and aimed to become a regular inter-university paper reflecting and promoting the work of the University Socialist Federation. Already before it was closed down it was publishing a regular Cambridge Letter from the youthful Maurice Dobb.

Towards the end of 1921 the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, one Lewis Farnell, sent for the editors, told them: ‘I will not have Bolsheviks at Oxford’, and expelled them. Free Oxford went down with all guns firing. In particular, the following headlines caught public attention: Editors Sent Down. Curzon’s Campaign Against Free Oxford. Foolish Foreign Minister Forces Feeble Farnell to Fight Free Speech.

Reaction in the university world and in the press to Farnell’s action was generally unfavourable (Farnellism and Crime, and Academic Pogrom by Modern Canute, were typical newspaper headlines) and Curzon, being a politician, sought to dissociate himself from his Vice-Chancellor. This he did, in a letter to The Times. Farnell was stung to reply to it, and a great deal of unpleasantness was created for the University. The more Farnell and his supporters tried to justify themselves, the bigger fools they made of themselves. ‘The crux of the matter was whether it was wrong to advocate the use of force as a means of attaining political ends, and it was pointed out, with reason, that if this ruling held in the university the Officers’ Training Corps should be abolished’ (Maurice Ashley and Christopher Saunders, Red Oxford).

Arthur Reade

The last issue of Free Oxford, a special May Day number (1922), carried as its masthead a quotation from Trotsky: ‘To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him.’ And the managing editor, Arthur Reade, of Worcester College, was destined to be the forerunner of Trotskyism in Britain.

After being sent down from Oxford, Reade worked as business manager on R.P. Dutt’s Labour Monthly (Dutt had been sent down from Oxford on similar political grounds a few years earlier). He was very active in the youth movement in South-West London, then the main Communist stronghold in the capital. In 1924, when the Communist Parties of the world were called upon by Moscow to pass resolutions condemning Trotsky for his work Lessons of October, Reade spoke out against this.

The British central committee had passed its resolution without having read the book – it was not then available in English – on the basis of an ‘official summary’ of its contents.

Reade had read a German edition of Lessons of October, and found it an important and constructive work, quite unrecognisable from this ‘official summary’. As a member of the Communist Party’s London District Committee he kicked up a fuss, and an all-London aggregate had to be held, in January 1925, to discuss a motion from Reade regretting the ‘hasty’ action of the central committee and supporting Trotsky’s fight ‘against bureaucracy’.

A concentration of party big-shots exerted themselves to prevent Reade from influencing the meeting. In supreme charge was Andrew Rothstein (then known as ‘C.M. Roebuck’), political bureau member with special responsibility for youth work. He dismissed Lenin’s testament, mentioned by Reade, as ‘a gross forgery’ and warned him and any co-thinkers he might have to realise the error of their ways ‘before it is too late’. Reade’s amendment got only a few votes, but what was alarming for King Street was that a motion to adjourn the discussion and reopen it later when comrades had a chance to read and think was defeated by the comparatively narrow margin of 81 to 65, in a house of about 200.

After this aggregate, a number of leading party members, reliable upholders of the official line, were transferred into South-West London so as to combat any sympathy there with Reade’s point of view. At the party congress a few months later Tom Bell, reporting on ‘Trotskyism’, referred to the aggregate and said: ‘The political bureau dealt with this matter very energetically and, removed from his post the particular comrade who was responsible for raising the matter.’ The platform’s resolution was carried unanimously, without discussion.

The methods used by the leadership in this affair, and their acceptance by the members of the party, turned Reade somewhat cynical. He went abroad (to Greece) soon afterwards, and when he returned two years later made it plain he was lost to left-wing politics altogether. But Harry Wicks, a worker who had known Reade in South-West London and had been affected by his arguments at the 1925 aggregate, was by then in Moscow, where the Communist Party had sent, him for a course, at the notorious ‘Lenin School’. As a result of his experiences there, when Wicks returned to London in 1930 he sought out Trotskyist literature, and soon became a builder of the first Trotskyist group in this country.

The bomb shop

Reade’s ‘London office’ in the days of Free Oxford’ was Henderson’s bookshop in Charing Cross Road, known in the socialist movement as ‘the Bomb Shop’. This shop remained, down to 1934, a place where the publications of all socialist trends could be obtained, and it was there that Harry Wicks and other seekers after unadulterated Marxism found the American Trotskyist paper The Militant.

In 1934, Henderson’s was taken over by Collet’s, and it became a shop where Trotskyist publications were not, repeat not, displayed. As Stalinists and ‘fellow-travellers’ the directors of Collet’s acted in a similar spirit to that shown by the Oxford booksellers Basil Blackwell when, in 1921, they refused to display Free Oxford and wrote to Reade:

‘We have received from you twelve copies of Free Oxford. As rank bourgeois, however, we feel that we ought not to hasten the collapse of our class by assisting in the distribution of this paper. Accordingly, we return the copies.’

Last updated on 15.10.2011