Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Young Socialists

(April 1960)

From The Newsletter, 9 April 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

FRIENDS working in the Labour Party youth movement have asked me to write about the earlier history of this movement, before the period of Stalinist control in 1936–1939, which I discussed in this column for December 12 last.

The fundamental fact is that the Labour Party bureaucracy have never wanted a youth movement, and have only ever given it countenance under pressure and in order to avert some greater ‘evil’. Arthur Peacock, who edited The New Nation, the official paper of the Labour League of Youth in 1933–1936, writes in his book Yours Fraternally: ‘Somehow or other the official adult movement never caught on to the League. It was not really welcomed.’ And Maurice Webb (Minister of Food in 1950), who was made the Labour Party’s national youth organizer in 1933, revealed the spirit in which he approached his job when he wrote: ‘If we do not give them leadership they will find it elsewhere’ (in Plebs, October, 1933).

Youth sections were first formed in the Labour Party in 1924, mainly in order to counter the attraction of the Young Communist League. In 1926, the bureaucrats felt obliged to go further, owing to the success of the Independent Labour Party’s Guild of Youth. In those days the ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party and was a very considerable force in many working-class areas. After the expulsion of the Communists from the Labour Party in 1925, left-wing trends expressed themselves increasingly through the ILP, and this compelled new gestures to the Labour youth. The youth sections were formally grouped into a ‘Labour League of Youth’, and it was permitted for members, who could join at 14, to stay on in the League until they were 25, instead of leaving it at 21.

Nevertheless, the League’s functions were defined strictly as ‘recreational and educational’. After much unrest, the young people were allowed to have a national conference in 1929, and there to elect a Youth Advisory Committee with the task of ‘co-ordinating’ the work of the branches in consultation with the Labour Party’s national executive committee. But an official pamphlet about the League, published in 1931, laid it down that, ‘as it is an integral section of the Labour Party, the League does not concern itself with questions of policy.’ When the ILP broke away from the Labour Party in 1932, and for a short time looked as though it might develop as a revolutionary Marxist party, the Labour Party leaders got really worried. A national youth organizer was appointed, and a monthly printed youth paper launched. It was agreed to have two representatives of the League at the Party’s annual conference and to include the League’s chairman on the national executive committee. But the right to discuss policy was still refused, and the work of the League was hedged about with restrictions. Maurice Webb’s handbook on the League, Youth for Socialism (1934), made it quite clear that the League’s annual conference and the national advisory committee, it elected were to confine themselves to organization and administration problems; and while in each town the senior party should allow the youngsters to develop their League branch in their own way, this must be ‘subject, of course, to the necessity of avoiding contraventions of the Party constitution and programme.’

The New Nation was an intolerably dreary paper, continually warning its readers against getting mixed up in unofficial anti-war and anti-fascist activities, ending lively controversies in short order with ‘this correspondence must now cease’, and generally playing right into the hands of the Stalinists. The latter were able, by striking militant attitudes, both to win a number of young Labour people away to the Young Communist League and to get control (from 1936 onward) of the League itself, their faction paper Advance replacing The New Nation as the League’s official paper. What happened then is outlined in my notes of December 12.

The ILP Guild of Youth, which at one time seemed capable of rescuing the socialist youth from both the Right wing and the Stalinists, suffered from the victory, on the issue of ‘workers’ sanctions’, of the pacifists over the Marxists in the ILP itself, which began the downward drift of that once significant party (see this column, November 28 last), and the Guild lost many of its best people to the Stalinists from 1935 onwards.

O’Casey and Gorky

Are the people who write to the Daily Worker consciously dishonest or just stupid? A little of both, perhaps – or maybe a lot of both. This reflexion is prompted by one page of one issue, that of March 31.

Here we have the reviewer of a new book about fellow-travelling playwright Sean O’Casey objecting to the author’s remark that ‘O’Casey overlooks the fact that if he wrote about Russian life in the critical way that he wrote about Irish life, the commissars would probably treat him more roughly than the clerics did.’ What about the way Gorky, a rather similar writer, was honoured and cherished in Soviet Russia, demands the reviewer.

Well now, surely a man of the theatre like Mark Dignam cannot but know that the plays Gorky wrote between his return to the Soviet Union in 1929 and his death in 1936 were all laid in pre-revolutionary times? In his creative work Gorky avoided representing the Soviet scene. So Dignam’s point hardly reaches its target: and one is left wondering with David Krause (Sean O’Casey, the Man and His Work, MacGibbon & Kee, 18s.), whether O’Casey might not show the same discretion as Gorky were he placed in the same setting.

Those Tory ‘Friends’

The other item on that page I have in mind is a malicious letter from ultra-reactionary Tory MP Sir Thomas Moore. A ‘profile’ of this person had omitted to mention Moore’s role in a certain connexion during the last years of the second world war, and so he writes to point out: ‘I was a founder-member of the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society and from its inception until the end of the war helped to set up branches in most of our chief provincial cities. For this I was warmly thanked by many of your comrades, including the late Mr. Rust.’

The author of the profile replies: ‘Sir Thomas has kept his work for Anglo-Soviet friendship very quiet indeed in recent years, so perhaps it is not surprising that I overlooked it.’ Perhaps it was as innocent (and incompetent) as that. Or perhaps the writer did not wish to recall that period when all sorts of Tory elements, desperately needing the Red Army’s help against Germany, and anxious to adapt themselves to the pro-Soviet feeling of the workers, temporarily put on the protective colouring of ‘friends of the Soviet Union’. Not only did the Communist Party help them to get away with this masquerade, but also it fostered the impression that ‘friendliness’ to the Soviet Union as a military and diplomatic force implied some kind of conversion to Democracy and Progress on the part of the capitalist politicians concerned. (See, for instance, Pollitt’s 1945 pamphlet Answers to Questions.)

Last updated on 14.10.2011