Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


A Good Old Cause?

Dear Editors

I’d appreciate the opportunity to respond to the review which appeared in Revolutionary History (Spring 1994) of my book The Good Old Cause. Given the divergence of our standpoints and the no doubt numerous failings in the text, I would certainly have expected searching criticism rather than commendation, but in view of the standards which Revolutionary History has so far set for itself, I was surprised as well as dismayed to find a review characterised principally by dishonest misrepresentation. I must say too that the formulation ‘admits to joining the CPGB from the Labour Party and CND’ reads a bit – shall we say – oddly in a journal of the left: ‘Are you now or have you ever been …?’ Suffice to say that it is not a connection about which I feel any embarrassment or regret.

It isn’t only that most of the review consists of point scoring, an endemic vice in both Stalinist and Trotskyist traditions, with the book’s argument only addressed at the very end, but that quotes are torn out of context and brutally distorted, in some cases being stood on their heads to imply a meaning more or less the reverse of that actually intended. The following examples, which are by no means comprehensive, illustrate what I mean.

The review asserts that I attributed the withdrawal of Tom Bell’s history to its meandering style and numerous factual errors. I did not. I noted that it did indeed possess these shortcomings, for which it was attacked in Labour Monthly, but nowhere suggested that they figured as a reason for the book’s suppression. Nor is it accurate to claim that my sole source of information on the Trotskyist movement is Callaghan’s text, as any cursory inspection of the text, bibliography or footnotes will confirm.

Disingenuous or hoary falsehood is ascribed to my contention that by the mid-1930s direct Comintern subsidies had largely ceased, as did direct supervision by the CPSU after Stalin’s death, although Al Richardson neglects to inform his readers that my point was precisely that neither were needed to keep the British party wholly at Moscow’s command; its internal reactions and outlook were quite sufficient.

Likewise, the reviewer dismisses with a sneer the book’s assertion that the party had no involvement with the Cambridge spies, did not oversee the ETU ballot-rigging, and was not substantially influenced in policies by the Soviet subsidies after 1956. In relation to the ETU, I didn’t in any case positively assert that there was no Communist Party involvement, only that after assiduous searching I had never been able to find any evidence of it. If Al Richardson has evidence, hitherto unknown to anybody else, to contradict me on any of the above points, perhaps he would be kind enough to make it public. There is certainly no sign of such in the review.

On the Great Purges, I stand accused of harbouring lingering sentiments of starry-eyed credulity towards all things Russian for having made what should be the fairly obvious point that their purpose and motivation is not yet fully understood if we shift our attention from the destruction of the Old Bolsheviks in the Moscow Trials, where motivation isn’t very hard to discern, to the millions of unknown victims who regarded themselves as Stalinist loyalists – a distinction your reviewer skates over. On the Kirov murder, reputable historians of the period differ on whether Stalin arranged it, or whether he took advantage of an unforeseen opportunity. Roy Medvedev thinks the former highly probable, but doesn’t wholly commit himself; J. Arch Getty and Adam Ulam conclude otherwise. It doesn’t seem particularly naive to suspend judgement, and whatever answer is true hardly affects the grisly character of the purges. Nor did I claim that the Soviet Union’s intervention in Spain constituted ‘the most reliable barrier against any further extension of Fascism’. What I wrote was that party members saw things in that light, which happens to be true.

I find particularly astonishing Al Richardson’s reaction that the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six were convicted on no stronger evidence than that used in the Moscow Trials. That is a factually true statement, and I stand by it. In both instances, virtually the sole content of the prosecution case was extorted confession – the point does not of course allude to any other features of the trials or the respective political regimes. Is it really necessary to have to say this? ‘… barefaced cheek when confronted with the obvious fraud of the confessions’ is as applicable to the reactions of the British judiciary in the 1970s as to the CPGB in the 1930s.

I could go on, but one further instance will suffice. It is pointed out that the party’s involvement in the Stalin-Trotsky conflict of the 1920s receives ‘one sentence and a footnote’. This is true, but what the review omits is that the footnote is a lengthy one, is critical of the CPGB’s role, and quotes Deutscher’s damning judgement on the party and its Comintern representative.

Your reviewer appears indignant that I did not give more attention to various individuals and organisations who came up against the CPGB from a Trotskyist standpoint. Since I was writing a short history of the Communist Party, which, except for certain brief periods of its career was mainly preoccupied with other matters, I did not feel under any obligation to do so, and make no apologies. However, I can’t resist pointing out that Al Richardson’s pretensions to sectarian omniscience in this review let him down badly in his opening paragraph. Firstly, I have never taught a Labour History course anywhere. Secondly, far from my book being syndicated to coincide with the launching of the Democratic Left, it was written without any reference whatever to the CPGB/DL, whose leadership was not even informed of the project until it was well advanced. Nor was it commissioned by Pluto. On the contrary, the approach to Pluto was made by me, again without any CPGB involvement.


Willie Thompson

The Editor replies:

I do not think I have read a letter – or a book – that made ignorance a virtue to the extent you do. Given that this appears to be your main defence of the past of the Communist Party, my reply will be brief:

Paragraph 3: If you knew the real reason why Tom Bell’s history was withdrawn, why didn’t you tell your readers this, instead of leaving them with such a false impression? If your sole source of information on the history of the Trotskyist movement – in text or footnotes – is not Callaghan’s book, where are your others? Your ‘select bibliography’ (a description at least we can agree on) contains not a single book on the history of the British Trotskyists by a Trotskyist. Does your party really think it can still get away with this sort of thing, now that our movement outnumbers yours by at least two to one?

Paragraph 4: Your very words were ‘it would appear by the mid-1930s direct Comintern subsidies had ceased’ (p. 58), and ‘with Stalin’s death and the liquidation of the Cominform any remnants of direct Soviet supervision of the CPGB’s affairs came to an end’ (p. 10). Did you or did you not write them – whatever your ‘point’ may or may not have been?

Paragraph 5: Al Richardson does not have to provide any evidence of the activities you list – they have been in print and in the public domain for a long time, and indeed are very well known. Try reading the recent exchanges between Walter Kendall and your own comrades in (amongst others) the New Statesman or the Labour History Review. For the involvement of the CPGB as a party in the affairs of the ETU, read again Mr Justice Winn’s summing up as excerpted on pages 222–5 of the book All Those in Favour listed in your own bibliography. And for Soviet subsidies continuing well beyond that time, your own comrades’ admissions in The Times and The Independent of 15 November 1991 and The Sunday Times of 17 November, a year before your book came out, might prove to be relevant.

Paragraph 6: In view of all the evidence regarding Nikolaev’s previous arrest, the mysterious ‘car crash’ of the GPU men, and all the rest of it, don’t you think it isn’t a teeny weeny bit naive to ‘suspend judgement’? The Secretary of the Second International didn’t at the time, nor, unfortunately, did Mr Vyshinsky in his courtroom. On the last point, your full sentence on Spain actually reads: ‘Furthermore, the Soviet Union represented not only itself but also the guarantee that similar revolution was possible elsewhere and the source of practical assistance to achieve it, as well as, more immediately – as Spain showed [my italics] – the most reliable barrier against any further extension of Fascism.’ Did the operations of the Soviet Union through the GPU in Spain prevent the victory of Franco? Or assist it? And returning to the full sentence and its first quotation from your remarks on Spain, can a government that intends to take 200 years to give the land to the peasants really be described as a ‘socially reforming republican government’?

Paragraph 7: I don’t doubt at all that the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were fitted up. But at least their stories didn’t talk about aeroplane flights to Norway that never took place, meetings in hotels that had been burned down 10 years previously, or contacts with the Gestapo a year before it was set up, all of which were made known at the time. Moreover, if Willie Thompson knows about large numbers of others who were beaten to death in jail refusing to confess, or were simply shot out of hand without a trial during the Birmingham Six or Guildford Four proceedings, I suggest he contacts Amnesty International at once.

Paragraph 8: QED.

Paragraph 9: My review talked about groups that were expelled from the Communist Party, not just ‘various individuals and organisations who came up against the CP’. The fact that in contrast you spend a fifth of your book dealing with ‘the low level factional squabbles of these latter years’ only underlines the point. As for the arrangements you made with Pluto Press or the leaders of the Democratic Left, you and they are privy to them, not I. I await fresh revelations on that score. The only apology I feel justified in making is that in saying that your book ‘shows all the marks of Polytechnic Labour History teaching’, I may have implied that your own history lectureship deals with the labour movement. I am glad to admit any error in this – not without a feeling of relief, need I add, where your book is concerned, for it confirms my suspicion that you have been unwisely advised by your older party comrades in the selection and interpretation of your material.

And now for the first paragraph. The sentence from which you extract the phrase ‘admits to joining the CPGB from the Labour Party and CND’ continues ‘because it seemed to me at the time the only consistently revolutionary force in British society‘ (my italics), and this was quoted to prove that you were ‘so staggeringly naive as to be almost beyond belief’. For a party whose programme was The British Road to Socialism, and whose main inspiration thought that ‘Socialism is possible in England, even under a king’, I would have thought that this was fair comment. But the fact that you try to equate this with McCarthyism shows that ‘Democratic’, ‘Left’, or no, the time-honoured Stalinist tactic of the amalgam remains acceptable currency in your ranks.

Updated by ETOL: 22.9.2011