Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3

Work in Progress

Harry Constable

BILL HUNTER and Keith Sinclair are working with Harry Constable towards a possible book based on his recollections. If anybody has memories of Harry in the 1940s and 1950s and are willing to help, please contact Keith Sinclair at 27 Strathmore Avenue, Hull HU6 7HJ.

John McIlroy

New Findings from the Moscow Archives

THIS CONFERENCE was called by the Communist Party’s Historians’ Network to discuss the impact of material found in the newly-opened Moscow archives on the historiography of the Communist Party of Great Britain, with particular reference to the party’s relationships with the Communist International and the Soviet Union. Much material from the CPGB’s own archives ended up in Moscow, and until recently the Comintern’s own archives were closed, so their opening promised much for historians of the British labour movement.

Yoram Gorlitski opened by outlining the practical problems of access to the archives in Moscow. Restrictions on access have only been lifted partially since 1989, and often what material can be seen is still dependent on the decisions of the archivists, some of whom have recently been implicated in corruption scandals. Different archives (for example, state and party archives) are subject to differing decisions, and, despite the demise of the USSR, the tendency of late has been for party archives, including that of the Comintern, to close again.

Kevin McDermott began his talk on recent developments in Comintern history by examining the impact of the purges of the late 1930s on the Comintern. About 220 members of the central Comintern apparatus (about 60 per cent) were purged between 1928 and 1938, mainly being sentenced to the Gulag. The illegal Eastern and Central European parties were worst hit (particularly the German and Polish), and Comintern leaders such as Dimitrov were actively implicated in these actions. More information on this may be forthcoming when Dimitrov’s diaries are published in English in 1997.

The remainder of McDermott’s contribution – and most of the rest of the conference – was concerned with the relations of the CPGB with Moscow. The common thread running through the contributions was that of the ‘new revisionism’ referred to by Paul Flewers in his report of the Exeter Conference in Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no. 1. In this view, the foreign parties (particularly the weaker ones such as the CPGB) had a great deal of autonomy in interpreting and implementing Moscow’s directives. Moscow was often unable to ensure that its line was implemented, whether because of bad communications, the lack of mechanisms of control or resistance by either sections of the leadership or of the rank and file of the CPGB. This is contrasted with the ‘orthodoxy’ whereby the Communist parties acted as ‘puppets of Moscow’. This view is exaggerated into a straw man, relatively easy to refute, by which no Communist party leader ever disagreed with Moscow, every detail of policy was handed down, decisions were always implemented, and no adaptation was made to match local circumstances.

The ‘revisionist’ view is based on an inability to see the wood for the trees (to put it at its most charitable), as the broad brush of history shows that the CPGB never made a major break with the strategic line laid down by Moscow between the mid-1920s and the 1950s. When leaders failed to fall into place quickly, they were replaced or demoted. It was therefore an irony of the conference that, despite the intentions of the ‘revisionists’, the material they provided either blew up relatively marginal examples of autonomy into something of major significance, or else provided material that could be better taken to support the ‘orthodox’ viewpoint.

For example, Andrew Thorpe outlined the methods of control at Moscow’s disposal in its dealings with the CPGB, focusing on the late 1920s and early 1930s. He argued that these mechanisms were often not used or were ineffective, that there were problems of communications given the physical distance from the USSR and the attentions of the British state, and that Moscow’s methods were ‘not enough to force the CPGB to do things it didn’t want to’. However, the list of control mechanisms given was long: the intervention of Comintern emissaries, the requirements to send minutes of party committees to Moscow, the opening and reading of mail, the provision of money and job opportunities in Soviet firms in the UK, meetings of CPGB and Comintern leaders, the use of reliable Lenin School graduates within the CPGB, and summonses to exile in Russia (both Arthur Horner and Andrew Rothstein going during the period of transition to the Third Period policy). True, the CPGB was not physically purged or liquidated like other parties more central or geographically closer to Moscow. But if Arthur Horner had been summoned to Moscow in 1935 rather than 1928, how likely is it that he would have returned? As Max Shachtman remarked in a debate with the ex-leader of the Communist Party of the USA, Earl Browder: ‘There, but for an accident of geography, sits a corpse.’ Whilst Thorpe admits coercion occurred, he emphasises its limits. But what did they mean in practice? How necessary was direct intervention once the Stalinist allegiance of the Communist Party leadership had been ensured by 1930? Nobody who doubted the need to follow the twists and turns of Moscow directives would be found to be in charge by then.

Kevin Morgan dealt with the issue of ‘Moscow Gold’ with regard to the CPGB of the 1920s. New material makes clear both the extent and impact of Moscow’s subsidies on the young British party. The years 1920–22 were years of ‘exceptional profligacy’, with a total of £75,000 (at historic prices) flowing directly to the CPGB, and more to related organisations such as the Labour Research Department. In late 1921 there were already complaints in the Comintern that the CPGB was not giving value for money, and the subsidy was cut in 1923 and only restored in May 1924 as part of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the party. It crept up again in the late 1920s, and was then again reduced in the 1930s. Morgan emphasised – contrasting his own position with Walter Kendall’s – that the mere giving of the money did not in itself determine the path the CPGB took. It is necessary to examine concretely what effects it had on the party’s development.

Morgan stated that the result was neither corruption nor direct control (with the CPGB complaining of neglect by the Comintern in November 1921), but rather a corrosive effect on the party’s activity. Increasingly, financial support from the USSR became to be seen as a magic wand (and as a right) that substituted for basic organisation, and led to an unnecessarily bureaucratic party and romantic fantasies, such as the setting up of an underground ‘British Red Army’. Morgan therefore saw the reduction of subsidies in the 1930s as something welcome, which allowed the CPGB to come to terms more with British realities. However, in drawing a direct line from the early 1920s through to the mid-1930s, he failed to analyse how far the context of the relationship between the CPGB and Moscow had changed as a result of the rise of Stalin in the USSR and the policy of ‘Socialism in One Country’. Here again, the ‘revisionist’ assumption is that ‘Leninism equals Stalinism’, and that the degree of freedom and autonomy remained similar from 1920 onwards, with the Comintern of the early 1920s playing essentially the same rôle as the Comintern of the Stalinist period.

The one time after 1928 that parts of the CPGB leadership did come into serious conflict with Moscow was in the period following the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the abandonment of the Popular Front policy in 1939. For this reason (and also because of their nostalgia for the cross-class policies of the Popular Front), it has received a great deal of attention from Eurocommunist historians. Given the straw man approach of many of the ‘revisionists’, it is worth noting that the most ‘orthodox’ analyst of the relationship between the Communist parties and the Comintern, one Leon Trotsky, foresaw precisely such a split occurring before it happened. In the article ‘A Fresh Lesson’, written at the time of Munich, he stated that ‘until recently the chauvinism of the French, British, Belgian, Czechoslovak, American and other Communist parties seemed to be, and to a certain extent was, a refracted image of the interests of Soviet diplomacy ... Today we can predict with assurance the inception of a new stage... Each one of the sections will begin to evolve a patriotic policy on its own account.’ [1]

Monty Johnstone presented a detailed account of events between 1939 and 1941 based on the secret coded communications which passed between Moscow and the CPGB’s leaders. The destination of these telegrams itself says something about what went on: Pollitt had been receiving them from 1933 until the autumn of 1939, when his opposition to the change of line describing the war as imperialist (and to pro-German apologetics) became known. The communication of 9 September announcing the change was delayed, and it is possible that Pollitt suppressed it, as he had an earlier press release. From then until July 1941 the telegrams went to David Springhall, who had returned from Moscow on 25 September with the new line, and was considered more reliable. They were then passed to Palme Dutt, who was the de facto party leader after Pollitt’s removal as General Secretary.

The telegrams showed the problems the CPGB had in keeping in line with the wishes of the Comintern, given the swift turns of events in the war and the difficulties in communicating with Moscow. After the fall of France on 22 June 1940, the Politbureau reversed the line, and dropped references to imperialist war (cf Paul Flewers’ article elsewhere in this issue). They may here have been taking a cue from Thorez, who, with Stalin’s approval, wrote a letter from Moscow to the French party which contained a defencist element. At this point the CPGB – apparently unsuccessfully – approached R.A. Butler for permission to travel to Moscow to consult. After three weeks, the CPGB returned to the status quo, apparently without any direct directive from Moscow either proposing or withdrawing the defencist line. Whilst it is unlikely that the cock-up theory of history explains the CPGB’s lurch in June, the mechanics and reasons for it from Moscow’s viewpoint are still unclear. It appears highly unlikely, however, that the CPGB undertook the turn on its own account, even given the pressure of the war in Britain.

Even after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, the CPGB continued to call for an end to the Churchill government and for a ‘People’s Government’. They were quickly corrected by the Comintern, and the Popular Front policy was reinstated in its full vigour.

The new material provided at this conference does not provide the basis for any major changes in the picture of the CPGB as the willing servant of Moscow from the mid-1920s onwards. In the light of this, the ‘revisionist’ argument can be seen as an attempt to present the CPGB as the carrier of a specifically British Socialist tradition. Given the weight of evidence for the ‘orthodox’ view, and the fact that both protagonists – the CPGB and Russian Stalinism – have left the historical stage, this amounts to an attempt at a retrospective rehabilitation of the CPGB. There is lacking from the ‘new revisionism’ any conception of how Stalinism worked as a system, and how this defined the relationships between the Communist parties and the centre in Moscow. The ‘relative autonomy’ of which so much has been made was, alongside this, of limited importance, or non-existent.

Bruce Robinson

Jack Jones and Land and Freedom

WE HAVE maintained a comprehensive listing of the reviews of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, plus any ensuing correspondence, in our Reader’s Notes section, and readers will have noted the rearguard battle of those who still prefer the Stalinist version of the Spanish Civil War to the generally accepted truth. A remarkable example of this is the review of the film by former Transport and General Workers Union General Secretary and International Brigader Jack Jones in the TGWU Record, no. 2, 1996, a copy of which was sent to this journal by Walter Kendall.

In time-dishonoured fashion Jones asserts that ‘there is now little doubt that Fascist agents were used to stir up the revolt’ in Barcelona in May 1937. Perhaps most gross of all is his use of George Orwell, of all people, to rubbish the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the POUM, quoting his statement that ‘I always thought they were wrong’. In fact, Orwell is commenting on the POUM’s political strategy, and he says in the same letter that ‘there is no question that appalling lies were published about the POUM ... by the official CP press’ (Letter to Frank Jellinek, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 1, p. 403). Orwell has been misused by all manner of political commentators, but has his authority been used before to support the Stalinist version of events?

Paul Flewers

From the Soviet Archives

PROFESSOR ROBERT CONQUEST of the Hoover Institute writes to ask us whether we know of anyone who was won over to Trotskyism in the USSR in the 1940s and 1950s, and who survived. He wondered about this after reading in the Solzhenitsyn Files an outburst by Brezhnev, which showed a continuity of mind-set which astonished even Conquest. Here, in the Politbureau minutes of 17 September 1973, Brezhnev said of Sakharov’s appeal to the US Senate: ‘This is not just an anti-state and anti-Soviet deed, but a Trotskyist deed.’ In the same work there is a statement by Kunaev, a Politbureau member and First Secretary in Kazakhstan, in a top secret extract from the Politbureau minutes of 30 March 1971, which, after explaining that ‘exiles’ common in Kazakhstan were still giving trouble, added: ‘Rukhimovich ... engages in activities that are flagrantly Trotskyist.’ Apparently this Rukhimovich was not the former People’s Commissar who was shot in 1938, but sounds from the context to be an oppositionist exile, even if probably not a Trotskyist. Conquest adds that Roy Medvedev could find but one survivor of that tendency. Trotskyism is, of course, an all-purpose swear word to describe any oppositionist with pro-working class sympathies.

Professor Conquest raises two interesting points. The first, though it is immensely sad for us to be reminded of the destruction of so much courage, intelligence and hope, is the question as to whether the sweep was so totally clean as we fear it was. Can any of our readers help us here? The second point is the fact that as late as the 1970s, Trotskyism was still considered to be the worst sin of all, and perhaps a threat. This, perhaps, seems even more astonishing to those looking at events in 1996 from the vantage point of Stanford University than it did for the members of the International Socialists who helped to close the Saltley coal depot in 1973 by winning over the local Communist Party engineering leadership, thus bringing down a government by industrial action, which had never happened before in this country (true, all were expelled or forced out of the IS within 18 months). In a second letter to us Professor Conquest emphasises this hatred (I would add fear) of Trotskyism, quoting the old Third Period anti-religious song, Down with God, sung to the tune of Three Blind Mice:

‘He sabotages the workers’ fight,
He’s always supporting the Fascist Right,
He’s a homosexual Trotskyite.
Down with God!’

The final and worst thing about the Deity, worse even than His unorthodox sexual orientation, is apparently His Trotskyite sympathies. We could point out to Professor Conquest that although nowadays the Democratic Left is more than happy to welcome gay vicars, Trotskyism still remains beyond the pale. And, as the recent discussion on Ken Loach’s film, Land and Freedom, has shown, this remains a very sensitive subject for both ‘liberal’ and unreconstructed Stalinists.

In another letter, Professor Conquest draws our attention to an article in the Soprotivlenie v Gulage, edited by S.S. Vilenskiy (Vozvrashchenie, Moscow), which contains an account by their son of the martyrdom of two Trotskyists, Solomon Naumovich Serbsky and his wife Evgenia Tikhanavo. Serbsky’s official record runs thus: ‘Trotskyite 1928; 1929, sentenced to a year in a political “isolator”, to be followed by two years in exile; 1931, deprived of the right to residence in 12 localities for three years; 1933, three years in a political isolator; 1935, for participation in KRTD, three years exile; 1936, for KRTD five years imprisonment in a labour camp; 7 September 1937, sentenced to death in the Kolyma camps for active Trotskyite activity; 13 October 1937, shot.’ His wife’s is virtually the same, and she was shot on the same day. In the police report they are accused of bringing up their four or five year old son ‘in a counter-revolutionary spirit’, for example, stopping him from singing Komsomol songs.

When the son enquired of their fate in 1957 (having learned his mother’s name for the first time), he was informed in 1964 that the father had died of trombophlebitis on 13 October 1937, and his mother of pneumonia on 10 January 1942. Rehabilitation was refused, and was to be finally granted only in 1988.

In a long review of Dmitri Volkogonov’s Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary (The Free Press, 1996) in The New Republic (18 March 1996), Robert Conquest points out that Volkogonov ‘notes the murder of Trotsky’s American guard Robert Sheldon Harte, and suggests that he may have been silenced as an unreliable accomplice. But Sudoplatov makes it clear that he was silenced because he knew the identity of Josef Grigulevich, the underground NKVD officer who had come to the gate for admittance; and it is only fair to clear Harte’s name.’

Later in the review he makes a most kind and flattering reference to our journal, which runs as follows:

‘Outside the Soviet Union, a Trotskyite tradition persisted. It included honest doctrinaire sectaries, but also those who maintained, and still maintain to this day, a tradition of veridical scholarship, as in the British Trotskyite journal Revolutionary History. The difference between these and the others is not based on the superiority of Trotskyite theory to Stalinist theory; and certainly it is no longer possible to entertain the idea that Trotsky himself would have been in any sense a beneficent ruler. What distinguishes the Trotskyite tradition of which I am speaking is its scepticism, its acceptance of the principle of critical thought. “Party differences ...”, says one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, “are a ripple on the water. The important difference is between decency and non-decency.”’

Readers may also be interested in Professor Conquest’s critical letter to the New York Times in response to Richard Pipes’ review of Volkogonov’s Trotsky, which we reproduce here with the author’s permission:

‘We owe a lot to Richard Pipes’ scholarship, but in his review of Dmitri Volkogonov’s Trotsky (your issue of 24 March 1996) he falls into a deplorable error when he attributes the show trials and “the bloodbath of 1937” to an “irrational yet genuine fear” of subversion based on the supposed fact that Trotsky and his son Lev Sedov “frequently said and wrote” that Stalin had to be “assassinated”. Even if this were true, it would surely account only for the killing of all surviving Trotskyites (as was indeed done), but not for the mass bloodbath.

‘But neither man publicly advocated the “assassination” of Stalin, nor does Volkogonov suggest anything of the kind. Moreover, the only evidence that either of them did so in private is in reports of Sedov making some “he ought to be shot” type remarks sent to Moscow by Zborowski, the NKVD agent in Sedov’s entourage – and given by Volkogonov with the reservation that these may well have been drafted in response to demands from the NKVD HQ.

‘In any case, these reports of Sedov’s purported remarks cannot “have struck terror” into Stalin’s heart thus motivating the purge of the Trotskyists. For they were written in February 1937 and February 1938; and Stalin had already publicly procured the judicial murder of four leading Communist figures allegedly given such a terrorist mission by Trotsky, in the Zinoviev Trial of August 1936 – and many others secretly.

‘Trotsky had indeed called for Stalin’s overthrow: no doubt a hopeless cause, but surely not a contemptible one.’

Ted Crawford

George Orwell and the Left

I AM hoping to produce a fairly substantial work on the manner in which the legacy of George Orwell has been claimed by commentators of nearly all political persuasions. Part of this project will involve investigating the attitudes of left wing activists towards Orwell and his writings, and in particular his political works. If readers who were around during Orwell’s lifetime, or who have studied Orwell’s writings, would like to help me in this project, please contact me c/o Revolutionary History, BCM 7646, London WC1N 3XX.

Paul Flewers


1. L.D. Trotsky, A Fresh Lesson, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938–39, New York 1976, p. 71.

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011