Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

No Smoke Without Fire

(April 1960)

From The Newsletter, 2 April 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

FROM Trotskyism to Counter-Revolution, the headline reads above an article in the March-April number of Marxist Review, theoretical journal of the Canadian Communist Party. Once upon a time such titles were commonplace in the Stalinist press, but since a certain speech was made, back in 1956, they have been quite rare. So the Canadian article is of some interest.

It tells how the evil Trotskyites used to spoil efforts to form People’s Fronts, ‘making the class question an issue to disrupt the alliance’, and how ‘today the Trotskyites are attempting to exploit the growing militancy and growth of class-consciousness arising out of a new world situation’. It seems they have opened a bookshop in Vancouver which ‘peddles their insidious wares’ (that’s what the man says, I swear I didn’t make it up). They try to lure party members into discussions in ‘forums’ (ah, we know all about those sinks of ideological iniquity, from our own 1957 experience). ‘In some instances they use half-truths as a basis for their attacks as being, in their opinion, more effective than outright lies’ (no, honestly, you can read it for yourself if you don’t believe me).

All this leads to the grim conclusion: ‘there cannot be any united front with Trotskyites’. One doesn’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to discern behind such an article as this some serious worry about the susceptibility of party members to the arguments of our Canadian brother-Marxists. And there would certainly seem to be grounds for the party members to be getting dissatisfied with the official line.

World Marxist Review, the neo-Comintern journal published from Prague, carries in its March number an article by Tim Buck, leader of the Canadian Communist Party. It is as open a confession of bankruptcy as I have read for a long time. Buck wails and moans because the ‘capitalists who favour peaceful co-existence and trade with the socialist countries are, in the main, supporting the capitalist offensive no less energetically than are those fighting to maintain the cold war and dependence on armaments’. This makes it very hard, of course, to sell the workers the line that these capitalists are somehow nicer than the others and ought to be treated as ‘allies’. Buck pleads for help: ‘Those capitalists who advocate policies of peaceful co-existence would serve the interests of Canada better if, instead of joining the anti-labour offensive of the big monopolies, they supported internal policies which, correspond to the foreign policies they now favour.’

Yes, and if pigs had wings they would fly.

A Red Professor

London University students who are taking part in the Anti-Apartheid movement are carrying on a tradition begun by one of the finest men ever associated with their university: E.S. Beesley, who was professor of history at University College in the 1860s. He was in the forefront of the fight for solidarity with the anti-slavery movement in the United States, at a time when the British government of the day wanted to intervene on the side of the South in the American civil war. For a while he was the best-hated man in ruling-class circles, and efforts were made to unseat him from his professional chair. Punch characteristically wrote to him as Professor Beestly.

A distinctive thing about Beesley (who was a friend of Karl Marx) was his combination of the fight for Negro freedom with the fight for the rights of the British workers. This was what made him such a figure of fear and loathing to the ruling class. In 1867, when a campaign to restrict trade union freedom was being worked up following some incidents known as ‘the Sheffield outrages’ (compare the current boosting of the film The Angry Silence), Beesley spoke at a public meeting called by the London Trades Council, and contrasted the attitude of the capitalists to these events with their reaction to the massacre of Negroes which had recently been carried out in the British colony of Jamaica.

‘The wealthy class of this country,’ he said, ‘had been called on to express their opinion on the crimes committed by wealthy men in Jamaica just as the poorer classes in London were now called upon to express their opinion on the crimes committed by poor men in Sheffield. And what opinion did they express? Did they summon a meeting in Exeter Hall and proclaim aloud that they abhorred the crime, and that though they wished to protect property and wealth they repudiated such means of protecting it as Governor Eyre had adopted? Did they do so? No! but they offered him banquets; they loaded him with honours; they made his deed their own.’

An account of Beesley’s contribution to the working-class movement, by Royden Harrison, is included in Essays in Labour History, in Memory of G.D.H. Cole, edited by Asa Briggs and John Saville (Macmillan, 42s.). Harrison tells of Beesley’s views on industrial arbitration: ‘When arbitrators succeeded in preventing a conflict it was usually because they had made an intelligent assessment of the relative strengths of the contending parties and had split the difference accordingly. To look for arbitrators who would be impartial in some higher sense than this was a waste of time!’ At a time when politically conscious workers were still mostly Liberals, Beesley agitated for independent labour politics and warned against any dilution of a class programme in vague, general ‘radicalism’.

Among the principal trade union officials of his day Beesley was looked on as an awkward customer. They wanted to tag along with the Liberals and make careers that way. Beesley said the trade unionists ‘should put forward their own working-class candidates and undertake, if they were elected, to pay them the average wage of’their trade, plus a small amount for expenses’. When the trade union officials turned their backs on the Paris Commune of 1871, Beesley stood up for it – ‘the first act’, as he called it, ‘of the most momentous drama of modern times’; and he infuriated the bureaucrats by pointing out to them that Gladstone’s Criminal Amendment Act, with its new penalties upon peaceful picketing was what came of their ‘indifference to the fate of working-class Paris.’

Last updated on 15.10.2011