Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

It’s Hard to be Non-Political

(April 1960)

From The Newsletter, 30 April 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

AS the Socialist Labour League contingent entered Trafalgar Square at the end of the march from Aldermaston, I heard a speaker from the plinth sounding off about the unimportance of ‘politics’ compared with the fight against the H-bomb. My local paper for April 22 reports, however, that the Finchley Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has been classified as ‘political’ by the local Council of Youth, and on this ground refused affiliation thereto. The Youth Campaigners are indignant.

In one of the novels of J.B. Priestley (husband of our red-hatted leader on the great march, Jacquetta Hawkes) a character explains that, where, he lives, ‘Toryism doesn’t count as politics; it is just the normal, decent thing, and only ideas that in some way jar on Tories are regarded as “political.”’

There are a lot of places where that outlook still prevails, and our good friends in the CND will find they can’t overcome it by pretending to be ‘non-political’ and ostentatiously avoiding any special attention to the working-class movement. On the contrary, they will by so doing merely strengthen its hold.

Old Acquaintance Not Forgot

During the Aldermaston March this year I caught a glimpse of an old associate of student days, Dick Freeman, now a well-known worker for the British Peace Committee, which seeks to convince us all that Summit conferences are the answer to the danger of war. I wonder what he thinks now of the ideas he expounded in his contribution to the book Young Oxford and War (1934), which he wrote as a representative Communist student, one of the founders of the October Club of famous memory?

‘Whilst recognizing that imperialist wars are inevitable under capitalism, the Communists attempt, in the interests of the workers who bear the brunt of any war, to prevent war by proletarian revolution. It is for this reason’ (wrote young Freeman) ‘that vague phrases of a pacifist nature are condemned. Not only must the real issues involved in war be clearly exposed, but also the only means of preventing war.’

It is an interesting and important problem how men like Freeman, who were, or thought they were, revolutionaries in 1931-1934, could be transformed into increasingly conscious opponents of revolution from 1935 onward. Part of the explanation is certainly to be found in the distorted and vulgarised character of the ‘Marxism’ they were fed by the already-Stalinized Communist Party during the early 1930s. Hearing some Young Socialists on the march chanting (to the tune of Solidarity forever): ‘We’ll make John Strachey read the books he used to write’, I understood what they meant, but it struck me, too, that one needs to look critically at the doctrines preached in The Coming Struggle for Power, The Menace of Fascism and The Nature of Capitalist Crisis. To some extent the Left mistakes of the early 1930s prepared the way, through the clash between theory and reality which became more and more apparent, for the Rightward retreats in the second half of that decade.

One other thing that should never be lost sight of in studying the history of now-middle-aged cadres of Stalinism in Britain is that these men and women serve and always have served not the British capitalist class but the bureaucratic rulers of the Soviet Union, with whose interests they identify those of the world’s workers. Their allegiance has sometimes brought them into conflict with the entire capitalist class, sometimes into collaboration with one section against another, but always there has been conflict – and there must always be, for reasons we can explain better than they can!

More About a Burglary

Since my remarks the other week, for Christopher Hill’s benefit, about the burglary of Trotsky’s archives by Soviet police agents in 1936, a friend has shown me an article by David Dallin, well-known authority on Soviet affairs, which appeared in the American socialist weekly The New Leader for March 19, 1956, giving additional information about this incident.

Dallin’s article is based on evidence given by Mark Zborowski, a Soviet spy detected in the United States, who turned out to have been for some time an informer working inside the Trotskyist organization in Paris. He writes: ‘In the fall of 1936, fifteen bundles of Trotsky’s archives were transferred (with Zborowski’s help) to the International Institute of Social History. Here the NKVD (Soviet secret police) later MVD, outdid itself. In its eagerness to make a gift to Stalin on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, NKVD men broke into the Institute on the night of November 7, 1936, and stole the 15 bundles. The rest of the archives, which contained the most valuable documents, had not yet been transferred.

Zborowski was unhappy about this. In the first place it was a piece of unfinished business. Secondly, it could expose him. Today he tells this story: “When I heard about the burglary, I rushed to my NKVD chief and vehemently protested, because this could expose me as a spy. Only four persons knew the archives whereabouts. I was one of them; the three others were out of the question. The answer I received was: ‘We never inform our agents about a forthcoming operation because, being nervous, they may betray us. Besides, we had to get hold of the documents that night in order to make our present to Stalin’.”

Last updated on 14.10.2011