Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 10 No. 1


Recalling Brian Pearce

BRIAN Pearce, who has died at the age of 93, was to the end of his life an erudite and wily talker, whose recollections of the political battles he had been embroiled in fascinated all his hearers.

Those who loved him best, however, would not have wished him to live longer. They knew how much he missed Margaret, his wife, who died a few months earlier.

Brian graduated in history at London University. What period he specialised in I do not know; he seemed equally expert in them all. When we were both working at the Daily Worker, early in 1950, I would ask, ‘Why did Greece attack Turkey in 1922?’, and be sure of getting an answer. Brian’s expertise on India was to be expected; he had spent much of the war there, as a major in the British Army. But he could answer my questions about other countries too.

The questions arose from the books the Daily Worker had asked me to review. None of them, in any period of history, were too much for Brian. Not only did he know the main outlines of each event; he remembered any particularly foolish remark made at the time by any statesman.

It was a great loss to me when he went to work for the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. There he suffered the first blow to the illusions (widely shared at the time) which had made him an uncritical admirer of Russia. He actually went there. This had been impossible to any ordinary tourist since the Second World War. Brian went as part of a delegation, charged with writing a pamphlet about the Ossetians living in the Crimea.

Stalin had died a few months earlier. While Brian was in a train heading towards the Crimea, he noticed that everyone was attentively reading Pravda. This was unusual. The news in Pravda was that Stalin’s former police chief, Beria, had been shot. Brian went up and down the train, trying to find somebody who would talk to him about the event. Brian was always modest about his grasp of Russian, but he certainly knew enough to ask such questions, and understand the replies. Only there were no replies. Not one person on the train would talk about the news which they had all been avidly reading. That was Brian’s first encounter with Soviet freedom of speech.

His next, after his return to London, came when he had written his pamphlet, A People Return. This described the resettlement of the Ossetians in the Crimea. Brian discovered that they had gone to live there after the Chechen and Ingush peoples had been forcibly deported. After a long argument at the Soviet Embassy he was allowed to say that the Chechens and Ingushes ‘were given an opportunity to develop elsewhere in the USSR’.

Brian could never forgive himself for writing those words. He was haunted by the reality they covered up – the people dragged from their beds in the night, thrust into cattle trucks, left to die of cold and hunger on a nightmare journey … His relations with the Communist Party were never the same again.

The aftershocks of Stalin’s rule continued. Throughout 1954 and 1955 ‘rehabilitations’ were announced. Many of those now cleared of wrongdoing had already been shot. ‘The Soviet Union has very good taxidermists’, commented Gabriel, the Daily Worker cartoonist. Brian, when I met him at this time, told me to look out for the Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, fixed for February 1956. This Congress was as dreary as we expected, until its final hours. Then, behind closed doors, Khrushchev made a speech blowing the gaff on Stalin. Foreign Communist delegations were excluded, but their leaders got copies of the speech. The Polish Communists, then struggling for their independence, gave a copy to the Western press. The contents were not so shocking to Brian as to the British Communists in general. Most of them had, until that moment, believed every word that came out of the Soviet Union. Their leaders, who had not, relied on the Soviet leaders to keep up the old pretences. Brian, who could not get his letters printed in the Daily Worker, embarked on a press campaign through the Guardian and other papers.

Nobody likes to be exposed as a liar, and the letters Brian wrote made him bitterly hated by the British Communist leaders. The Russian Communists took it more calmly; they continued to employ Brian as a teacher of English to Soviet diplomats. He got the sack only when Harry Pollitt protested to the Russians.

When the Hungarian rising broke out in October 1956, the Daily Worker tried to suppress the despatches of its own correspondent, Peter Fryer. Brian sought out Peter Fryer, and introduced him to a man willing to print everything he wrote: the Trotskyist, Gerry Healy. By this time neither Peter nor Brian was afraid of the word ‘Trotskyist’. For a time they worked happily with Gerry Healy, who enabled Peter to produce a regular newssheet.

Unfortunately Healy’s power mania made it impossible for anyone to work with him for long. First Peter and then Brian broke with him. Healy kept his grip, however, on some devoted young ladies. Brian and Peter, after quarrelling over Healy, were reconciled. Both had long been expelled from the Communist Party.

The rest of Brian’s life was calmer and pleasanter. His book How Haig Saved Lenin (MacMillan, 1987) is typical of his historical researches, in its juxtaposition of characters not normally considered together. He was not contending that Haig had any intention of saving Lenin, but that this was the effect of his action on the Western Front. It is, like everything Brian wrote, splendidly written, terse and to the point.

Though I never could agree with Brian about politics (he thought Trotsky was a great man; I did not), I continued until his last weeks to delight in his conversation. Few talkers like Brian are still alive to talk.

Alison MacLeod

Updated by ETOL: 1.11.2011