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


Brian Pearce (1915–2008)

BRIAN Pearce was found dead in his flat by a good neighbour, who had contributed to Brian’s care and support, and who had been tutored by Brian’s wife Margaret, on the afternoon of 24 November 2008. His death, at the age of 93, ends a lifetime of scholarship and independent enquiring spirit the equal of which is rarely encountered.

I had exchanged letters and telephone calls with him many times before I met him face to face, when I went with Professor McIlroy to interview him for the 1956 issue of Revolutionary History, to which the reader is referred for a detailed account of Brian’s break with the Communist Party. In the course of this conversation, Brian remarked that as a youth he had always wanted to be part of something strong, and that he might easily have become a fascist if he had not become a communist first. Trying to look retrospectively across Brian’s career, this is a much more incomprehensible comment than it seemed at the time. Brian gave so much more to the revolutionary movement than he received from it, and I can only resort to a concept of ‘intellectual integrity’ to account for the important decisions of his life.

At the University of London (where he joined the Communist Party in 1934), against everybody’s expectations, including his own, he did not win First Class honours. His theory was that he had been madly in love with a girl in the same class (he never revealed her identity to me) and she had been placed quite near him in the exam hall. His attention kept wandering towards this siren and away from his work. So unexpected was his Upper Second that a friendly academic personally checked the scripts and with regret concluded that the mark was a fair one: ‘Your final answer, Mr Pearce, was pure verbiage.’ As a consequence, Brian was not eligible for a scholarship, and his father was unable or unwilling to finance him to continue as a post-grad researcher. His only opportunity to undertake research was in a position under an unsympathetic senior lecturer who specialised in administrative history. He set Brian a topic on logistics and administration in the Tudor period. This was very unattractive, but he decided to attempt it, in the hope that if he completed it well he might then be able to find a better situation. It was very hard going, and he several times considered abandoning it. He then found that he had been ‘scooped’. A year ahead of him a Cambridge scholar published a doctoral thesis on the same subject, and his supervisor had neglected to register the project in the list intended to prevent such duplication. Brian had to consider whether, with a radically altered approach, a thesis might yet be salvaged, but the Second World War broke out and he signed up in the army instead.

Before he engaged in action, a rumour circulated that his unit was to be sent to Finland, to defend the Finns against the invasion by the Red Army. Brian later discovered that the planned deployment, landing at Narvik and travelling overland into Northern Finland, was not designed to defend the national sovereignty of Finland at all; British strategists assumed from early on that this was a lost cause, that Finland would be overrun by Russia or Germany almost as a preliminary to the real action. The true military aim of the British was to destroy an iron mine in the north, and the railway connection that allowed winter-time export of iron ore via Norway, which would have been of strategic importance to the German war effort. At the time, of course, this was not known to the soldiery. Brian received no ‘line’ from the CPGB, but he told me that he and a couple of comrades presumed it obvious that their duty would be to desert and join the Red Army at the first opportunity. However, the Finnish resistance ended before he was to face this test, which might well have snuffed out his career almost before it had begun.

The origins of the influential CPGB Historians Group can be traced to an initiative of Brian’s during his postgraduate period. Following the appearance of A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England, he contacted a number of other post-grad historians, and a joint letter was drafted and was published in The Modern Monthly welcoming the publication for its educational value, but pointing out a number of places where the book would have benefited from acquaintance with the latest academic work. (Morton was working as a schoolteacher at this time and could hardly be expected to be on top of the academic developments.) The researchers said what a good thing it would be if a group of sympathetic scholars whose up-to-date knowledge extended across the whole of English history could work with Morton to strengthen the book. Around this group of volunteers, the Historians Group was later to coalesce and to shape a left-wing approach to British history that exercised an hegemony for decades.

During the Second World War, Brian attained the rank of Major, serving much of his time in India. After the war, he worked for the Daily Worker mainly as a ‘copytaster’, spotting the news stories that should be carried and developed. He subsequently worked for the Society for Cultural Relations with Russia (SCRR). He also taught English to Russian embassy staff until his departure from the CPGB, when Harry Pollitt intervened personally to end the arrangement. During his work with the Embassy he received only one invitation to spy for the Soviets, and none at all from the British intelligence services.

Following an increasingly determined disagreement with the CPGB leadership over the verity of its line on history, Brian was eventually brought into contact with Trotskyism by the long-serving militant Joe Pawsey (according to notes by John Archer), whose involvement in the movement went back before the Second World War to the Revolutionary Socialist League (‘Mark 1’), and prior to that to C.L.R. James’s group in the Independent Labour Party in the early 1930s. Brian never knew how Pawsey had become aware of him as a ‘prospect’, but had a vivid recollection of him arriving very late one night on the doorstep, drenched with rain and carrying a bundle of soggy propaganda. The transition from the CPGB to ‘The Club’ as the Trotskyist organisation led by Gerry Healy was then known, was made the easier by contact with Peter Fryer, whose famous despatches from Hungary had been suppressed by the Daily Worker, and who was accepting Gerry Healy’s offer to edit the Trotskyist weekly The Newsletter. Healy counselled Brian against resigning from the CPGB, urging him (and every other dissident and critic ‘The Club’ could contact) to stay and fight for as long as possible, and to do whatever was needed to spread oppositional ideas within the CPGB. How this was done, using noms de guerre and getting letters into Tribune and elsewhere, has been fully documented in Professor McIlroy’s article.

Fryer undertook the editorship of The Newsletter, and Brian began to contribute articles and features aimed initially at the dissidents and discontented among the CPGB, later turning to more general Trotskyist educational material. The Club won some of the best intellectuals and industrial militants from the Communist Party at this stage, though many of them were soon to find the party regime unacceptable. Fryer, Cadogan, MacIntyre and Daniels were to depart. Open critics of Healy were briefly to organise themselves as the ‘Stamford Faction’, but Brian was not to be among them. By this stage he was a member of the Central Committee and was contributing original articles to Labour Review and Fourth International. John Archer pointed out the importance of this material in opening up for study many aspects of the history of the Third International and its sections, which had been inaccessible to the Trotskyist rank and file previously, and which extended their perspectives. (It was during this period that Fryer produced his famous pamphlet Lenin as Philosopher, which still stands as one of the best expositions of dialectical materialism.) A number of Brian’s articles from this period (with one by Michael Woodhouse) were compiled by New Park Publications under the title Essays in the History of Communism in Britain. [1] During this period Brian used the noms de guerre Leonard Hussey (drawing on a family surname), Joseph Redman and Brian Farnborough (from the depot in which he had been based at one stage during military service).

Alison Macleod has mentioned Brian’s prescience in relation to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956. This same depth of insight was of great value within the Healy organisation, in the inner-party struggle against the ultra-leftism of Brian Behan. Behan had shown himself an outstanding motivator and organiser, at first during the Shell strike and later in a number of interventions by The Club/Socialist Labour League (as The Club subsequently became) into industrial disputes. He was irreconcilably opposed, however, to ‘entry work’ in the Labour Party, which had long been a key element in Healy’s strategy. (He was also proud to describe himself as ‘a philistine’ and cordially detested the aspirations of Fryer and Pearce to a raised cultural level in The Newsletter and Labour Review.) Brian warned Healy that Behan’s trajectory would lead him into a sectarian rejection not only of the Labour Party but also of the trades unions. (Ken Weller has described Behan at this time as: ‘Reading the FT every day and expecting headlines reporting the collapse of capitalism.’) Brian selected for Healy the key texts of Trotsky, including the articles on Kronstadt, that should be published to prepare the membership for the fight that was to come. He was proved correct in every detail within 18 months. Behan was to depart and never again to have political significance. I have found no evidence that Brian himself worked inside the Labour Party during this phase.

Inevitably tensions developed in Brian’s relations with Healy, and with other members of the leadership. Healy always found it difficult, if not impossible, to accept that members of his organisation might be making independent contributions to the movement. As early as September 1959, Peter Fryer in his Open Letter to members of the SLL described how he had ‘heard the general secretary and B__ P__ come near to blows as each uttered threats of violence and vengeance’. In 1961, Brian wrote an article, Lenin and Trotsky on Pacifism and Defeatism, in which he set out his support for Trotsky and his criticism of Lenin. Healy had not read the article before he saw it in print, and reproved a puzzled Brian. Healy clarified that differences between Lenin and Trotsky were played up by the Stalinists, to underpin their refusal to discuss with Trotskyists; consequently such differences were not to be brought up. Brian’s spirit rebelled at this, and a parting of the ways was to follow soon afterward. Although Brian was to continue to do translation work for the Healy publishing company, New Park, politically and organisationally he cut himself off from Healy (although maintaining relations with a number of individual SLL members such as Cyril Smith). So complete was this separation that Brian was able to write to me the day before his death: ‘Did anything appear on paper regarding my departure from the SLL in 1961? Was I ever formally expelled?’ But in contrast to his leaving the CPGB, where airing his differences led to some of his best writing, he never attempted to settle scores with Healy. Unlike some of those former CPGB members who had found the Healy regime unacceptable, such as Cadogan, he never published criticisms of Healy or his organisation. And unlike many who stayed with the Healy movement through to and beyond the implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party and its international (‘Clapham Ragnarok’), he always referred to Healy by his first name. (When I was in a position to show him copies of internal bulletins of the Healy organisation documenting the expulsions of Fryer, Cadogan, Daniels et al., he was interested to read whether he had assisted any of ‘Gerry’s dirty work’.) After Healy’s expulsion for sexual abuse of female comrades, it became easier to maintain relations with former comrades, and he often recalled with pleasure his ninetieth birthday celebration organised by Cliff Slaughter and other members of the movement.

During his phase of ‘political independence’ Brian was able to focus on areas of historical research of his own choice. What he regarded as much of his best work appeared in the journal Revolutionary Russia and its forerunner Sbornik. He valued his participation in the academic work of these journals, and this esteem was warmly reciprocated by the other participants. His book How Haig Saved Lenin was one of the fruits of this independence, as was his less well known little book The Staroselsky Problem. Brian’s book of translations of David Riazanov’s book Marx and Anglo-Russian Relations and Other Writings came to our attention almost by chance. Brian mentioned to me that he had an unpublished translation of an early article by Trotsky, On the Intelligentsia, for which we were able to help find a publisher. When I asked him if he had any other unpublished material of a similar kind, he told me about the Riazanov translations, and said how much he would like to see it in print, but doubted if any publisher would touch it. Al Richardson worked many late nights to word-process it, and many hours seeking a publisher, before Francis Boutle accepted it into his catalogue.

Cyril Smith often recalled with affection an incident where he had disagreed with Brian and they had both gone home after whatever meeting it was, a little disgruntled with each other. By some miraculous process, before Cyril was up and about (which was usually early as a dedicated member of the Healy movement and a single parent), Brian had delivered by hand an envelope to Cyril’s address. It contained his translation of Trotsky’s famous article of advice to young communists – Learn to Think! Cyril’s admiration for Brian was great. I remember an occasion where the minutes of a meeting were being checked. I had said, and it was recorded: ‘Brian Pearce was right.’ Cyril wanted the minutes amended to insert ‘of course’ between ‘was’ and ‘right’. Brian reciprocated Cyril’s admiration, in a typically understated manner: ‘He was a very useful person to argue with.’

During his later years Brian developed a relationship with the University of Aberdeen, attending and contributing to conferences there, and maintaining a correspondence with Terry Brotherstone. A few years ago he donated his personal library to the University, and expressed the wish that his files of political correspondence should also end up there. He was an enthusiastic letter writer, and maintained contacts across the world with people he had met and worked with. He enjoyed quoting Pascal: ‘I am sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.’ He never got to grips with computer technology; all his correspondence, indeed all his writing, was in manuscript.

Of the articles he wrote during his ‘Healyite’ period, Brian was to say that there was much he no longer agreed with, but he was happy to have the material made available on the internet so that interested readers could make up their own minds. ‘What I have written, I have written’, he said. Volunteers on the ETOL section of the Marxists Internet Archive, mainly Ted Crawford and Einde O’Callaghan, scanned and marked up his articles from Labour Review and Fourth International. The material can be found at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/pearce/index.htm.

Brian’s contribution to the broader revolutionary movement as a translator of many of the most important revolutionary documents will leave us always in his debt. If you got a translation from Brian it was always a case of ‘Buy one, get one free’, as he always added more and better notes to the document than any editor could reasonably expect, and there was always a letter explaining the meaning and context of the document better than you could arrive at yourself in weeks of reading.

If a document attracted his attention he would work at it with extraordinary energy. When we were assembling the material which was to form the book In Defence of the Russian Revolution edited by Al Richardson, we thought we had a huge scoop in Lenin’s major speech on the invasion of Poland. I phoned Brian to ask if he would translate it, thinking that here we have something he won’t know about. He immediately replied: ‘I expect you mean the speech where he says “I request that less be taken down”, yes I’ll be happy to do it, it’s very interesting.’ And of course he was right, having read it in Russian several months earlier in a journal sent to him by a friend in Moscow. He completed and delivered the translation even before I called to check he had received the original safely, and before we had the chance to discuss payment for his work. He must have worked all day and night for 48 hours. For a man in his late eighties, a magnificent achievement.

Brian’s translations for New Park provided many of us who came into the movement a decade after he left it with the material that helped us form our political understanding. A quick look through my shelves brings up a number of his translations of Trotsky in pamphlet form – The Intelligentsia and Socialism, Class and Art, Culture and Socialism, Tasks Before the Twelfth Congress, Through What Stage Are We Passing? – all of them essential reading for aspiring Trotskyists. Among the most significant was Permanent Revolution/Results and Prospects. Brian’s translation of the five volumes of Trotsky’s military writings, How the Revolution Armed, was an impressive feat of concentration and insight. He described it in his last letter to me as his most important translation. As if it were not sufficient to have completed the work of translating such a massive document, following the publication of each volume the Newsline correspondence column would receive a series of short notes from Brian suggesting corrections and improvements to his translation.

He translated other valuable volumes on the Bolshevik revolution for New Park, including Preobrazhensky’s From NEP to Socialism, Raskolnikov’s Tales of Sub-Lieutenant Ilyn and Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 and Ilyin-Zhevensky’s The Bolsheviks in Power, as well as the proceedings of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, and the transcripts of the 1903 Congress of the RSDLP. Nobody can claim to understand Bolshevism without having studied these last two in particular.

New Park by no means held a monopoly on Brian’s gifts as a translator. Preobrazhensky’s The New Economics, Bettelheim’s Class Struggles in the USSR, Sergo Beria’s biography of his father Lavrenti (Brian thought this was an unjustly neglected source), Boris Kagarlitsky’s political reflections and Fernando Claudín’s history of communism in Europe are among the important books that he helped make available through other publishers. In addition, with Ian Birchall, he edited and prepared for publication John Archer’s translation of Pierre Broué’s The German Revolution 1917–1923, and brought it to print after interminable delays.

Brian’s translation of Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin was the first of three occasions when he won the prestigious Scott-Moncrieff prize. We are not yet sure of having a full list of Brian’s translations (we will put our best effort on the Revolutionary History website in the near future). The following deserve to be mentioned: The War Correspondence of Leon Trotsky: The Balkan Wars, 1912–13, The Institutions of France Under the Absolute Monarchy, 1598–1789 by Roland Mousnier, Ernest Mandel’s Marxist Economic Theory, Rationality and Irrationality in Economics by Maurice Godelier. The sheer scale of Brian’s intellectual contribution is difficult to grasp – how different our intellectual world would be without access to these books.

Brian was a friend to Revolutionary History from the time it first appeared. His support to Pete Glatter in preparing our issue on 1905 was essential. Pete himself was a very capable Russian reader, able to conduct himself among the Moscow and provincial archives, but he described Brian’s assistance as ‘a master class’. Brian contributed important checking of translations to our issue entitled Culture and Revolution in Trotsky’s Thought, and also translations for the volume still in preparation on Iran. In the current issue we present Brian’s review of a book on Radek. He also supported Ian Thatcher’s Journal of Trotsky Studies with translations, reviews and original articles, and regretted the end of that journal. He contributed to it a short but moving obituary for his friend Alec Nove.

Despite his prolific output, he never earned much money from his work and continued to be on the look-out for suitable work well into his eighties. His most productive years were given to the CPGB and the Trotskyist movement, when a less altruistic man would have been building an academic career and a pension fund. The small flat he and his wife Margaret occupied in Barnet was comfortable and sufficient for their needs, but by no means compared fairly with the fruits of the long academic careers of his former comrades, many of whom he continued to correspond with. Historians who had grafted their way across the decades to big volume sales were still first names to him – ‘Eric’ (Hobsbawm), ‘Christopher’ (Hill), ‘Edward’ (Thompson) and so forth.

The end of his wife Margaret’s life was far from easy. They had coped together with the onslaught of cancer, from which she appeared to have made some recovery, only to be struck down with a dementia of the Alzheimer’s type (‘That man Alzheimer has a lot to answer for’, he would remark), one of the hardest of ends to face as the mind and personality of the loved one are changed out of recognition. Brian devoted his time to Margaret exclusively during her final months; the effort was a great drain on his health, but he gave unstintingly and stoically as much as he could. In the few months between her death and his, he remarked often on how much he missed her, and despite the support he received from neighbours and friends, how lonely his life was without her.

Despite his continuing pain at the loss of Margaret, I am convinced that his final hours were passed in a positive mood. I had discussed with him a project for Revolutionary History. I asked him, and he had agreed, to look at Yurii Felshtinsky’s four-volume collection in Russian from the Trotsky archives at Harvard, to select the most important of the untranslated material and assess whether we could publish it as a special issue of Revolutionary History. I took him the material on the Saturday before he died. At first he was doubtful whether he had the capacity for the task, but as he looked through the tables of contents his enthusiasm was building. Here was a piece never published on Trotsky’s differences with the Kremlin on China, we must have that of course, no question (how pleased I was to hear that ‘We’). And look at this, the basis of the agreement with Zinoviev to form the United Opposition. And so on. Brian’s neighbour Mark told me that when he visited him on Sunday afternoon he was energised with the task, and delighted to have been asked to do it. His work table was cleared, and the four volumes of Felshtinsky, the Louis Sinclair bibliography of Trotsky, and Brian’s much sellotaped Russian dictionary commanded the terrain. He had a project that he felt worthy of his time and talent, and the prospect of a stream of visits from old-fashioned Trotskyists to bring him news and journals. He had also said that he hoped to be able to die at home, not to have to ‘go into a home’, but stoically added: ‘That may not be in my hands.’ Well at least that wish was granted to him. I don’t think anybody else will be capable of the project we had asked him to undertake.

At that last conversation he had talked about two areas where he hoped to stimulate historical discussion. The first was on Lenin’s Imperialism and defeatism. Brian recalled how Marx and Engels had not espoused defeatism as a universal strategy, but had looked to throw the political weight of the proletariat, wherever it could be influential, into inter-imperialist or inter-capitalist struggles on the side where the workers’ self-interest would benefit. When Lenin proposed a strategy of defeatism (which Brian thought was ‘of no use to anybody’) some German communists had written to him recalling Engels (who was not long dead) and asking what had changed to require so fundamental a change of line. Lenin’s response was that Imperialism had emerged, and that changed the whole picture. Brian wanted to probe further into the relationship between Imperialism and defeatism, to question whether Lenin’s view was not premature, whether it had not led to the isolation of the communists from the workers during the major twentieth-century conflicts. The second topic was the emergence of capitalism. Why had capitalism emerged in Western Europe alone, if the ‘five stage scenario’ of human development (primitive society, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism) was universally valid? He referred to footnotes by Marx in the French edition of Capital where he and Engels had noticed in Japan a different route to the origin of a mercantile class. That night, my brain fired up with calvados, I photocopied Cyril Smith’s notes on Marx’s unpublished, unsent, letters to Zasulich, doubting Plekhanov’s insistence that Russia had to pass through a capitalist phase before socialism could be considered as next business, and extracts from Shakeri describing the emergence of a native merchant class where there had been no feudalism in Persia. All too late, overtaken by the implacable progress of time’s cortege. The envelope was still in my bag waiting to be posted when I learned on the Tuesday evening of Brian’s death. I had assured Brian that if he could not find any more prestigious publisher, Revolutionary History or New Interventions would be proud to take whatever he wrote.

De mortuis nil nisi bunkum is not an approach to obituary writing that Revolutionary History espouses. Nevertheless, there are few valedictory criticisms that one can honestly make of Brian. His reticence about his departure from Healy, and how that event was to transform itself into a departure from Trotskyism contrasts oddly with his openness and clarity on his split from the CPGB. It was a gap that should have been filled. Also, it has been suggested that in some of his early articles for The Newsletter Brian’s pro-Arab, anti-Israel line exceeded even Healy’s in vigour. We will be better able to comment on that when we have completed assembling the material. Brian Pearce is, and will remain, irreplaceable both as a friend and as an intellect.

J.J. Plant


1. This selection was compiled by Alan Clinton, but his contribution was never acknowledged. Instead, as he had joined Alan Thornett in the opposition which was to become the Workers Socialist League, he was subject to a vituperative attack in the foreword.

Updated by ETOL: 1.11.2011