Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


The Death of Uncle Joe

Alison Macleod
The Death of Uncle Joe
Merlin Press, Rendlesham 1997, pp. 269, £9.95

JUSTIFYING yet another memoir from the inglorious tradition of the Communist Party of Great Britain poses a lighter task now than it did a year or two back. As the Yeltsin era in Russia totters towards its end, Stalinism no longer appears the dead bird it was only five years ago. Shameless in their wooing of ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic currents, Russian Communists look quite capable of making a full comeback amidst the ruins of the Russian economy and social fabric. And – if we don’t watch our back-yard carefully – some significant satellite group may still emerge in Britain, their coffers suitably lubricated from abroad, without our quite being conscious of the new challenge. Marxism Today may have stepped back into a deserved obscurity only for Stalinism Yesteryear to pop out to take an unexpected late bow.

Alison Macleod’s recollections of her 13 years at the Daily Worker, from 1944 to 1957, are, then, timely – a reminder of the true nature of the beast which dominated the British left for so many years, which exercised a hegemony over trade union militancy for some decades, and which can in no way be excluded from that causal chain which led to the present parlous state of British left-wing Socialism. These memoirs are no apologia for the CPGB or the author, no subtle Hobsbawmian essay dovetailing past mistakes with supposed achievements in order to foster the illusion of justification. Macleod, who is fully aware of her own unimportance (she was the Worker’s lowly TV reporter), kept daily notes of debates and conversations for the crucial period, culminating in the traumatic months of 1956, and has since checked her facts and anecdotes with surviving participants. Consequently, her work is a detailed narrative of the party monolith in action, of the British leadership resolutely mimicking, or seeking to interpret, the Moscow line. And heaven help them when the line changed too abruptly, or got confused, as in the period following Stalin’s death! Such is Macleod’s cruel method that the reader has no choice but to alternate between bouts of indignation and fits of uncontrollable laughter. The casuistry of the Jesuits, acquiring its polish over the centuries, no doubt has its attractions, but Stalinist pseudo-scientific casuistry, with its dialectical basis, has a distinct earthy charm all of its own!

For the evolution of British Trotskyism, the crisis of late 1956 in the CPGB was a moment of fundamental importance; and the historic rôle of Peter Fryer, a Daily Worker foreign correspondent, cannot be overstated. Fryer had joined the paper in 1947, and had covered the infamous Rajk trial in Budapest, swallowing as holy writ in the process Rajk’s confession of being a Titoist agent intent on overthrowing the Hungarian regime. After Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress in 1956, Fryer came to his senses, and being an honest man, and in no way a party time-server, he underwent a mea culpa phase: he admitted that he’d deceived the paper’s readers on the Rajk trial, and attacked the rôle of the current Soviet leadership in the cult of personality surrounding Stalin. At the CPGB’s congress, he asked the question: ‘What solid guarantees are there that such a combination of circumstances so grievously harmful to the interests of the working-class movement shall never happen again?’ On 24 July, the Daily Worker printed his article on the rehabilitation of 474 non-persons in Hungary, including Rajk. But since this was an approved party position, that was no great advance on the editor’s part.

Tensions within the party could be glossed over for the time being by a few minor concessions to the critics. But the Hungarian uprising that began in the autumn blew the façade of party unity wide apart. Johnnie Campbell, the Daily Worker editor, made the mistake of sending Fryer to Hungary to cover events. Fryer’s first article, in which he described witnessing 80 corpses of men, women and children shot down by the security police, remained unpublished. No less than 455 key words were cut out of his second despatch, whilst his third despatch was completely suppressed. David Ainley, the paper’s Business Manager, justified censorship on the grounds of Fryer’s hysterical tone, whilst damning Fryer’s integrity with the jibe that he’d taken refuge in the British Embassy (in order to avoid being shot on the streets, be it said). Incidentally, this reviewer has his own axe to grind: Ainley was instrumental in my suspension from the 1960 Committee in the London Co-op in the late 1960s.

Fryer had long ago given notice of his intention to quit the Daily Worker, and it duly printed his letter of resignation. Not that it had much choice in the matter, for the letter was simultaneously published in the Manchester Guardian. Meanwhile, the anti-Fryer smear campaign was working at full throttle, saying that his resignation was brought on by his wife’s hand being found caught in the till (a total Stalinist fabrication, needless to say). Fryer and his poisonous truths about Hungary had now to be fully isolated from the purview of the party faithful, and inevitably he was suspended from party membership on 26 November 1956. He was expelled by 486 votes to 31, with 11 abstentions, at the subsequent congress, the weakness of party dissidents being thoroughly exposed. Yet this result masks the fact that 7,000 members, over 20 per cent of the total, had flocked out of the organisation in a few months.

By this time, Mephistopheles (that is, Gerry Healy) had caught up with Fryer. Healy the Pabloite had been busying himself with the Young Communist League, and Macleod notes Healy’s lustrous presence at the YCL congress, where he ‘sat visibly giving orders to some delegates’. The YCL’s critical resolution on Hungary proving unwelcome to the party leadership, it naturally did not merit mention in the Daily Worker. By the time of Fryer’s formal expulsion, Healy was producing Fryer’s daily Congress Special intended for the edification of delegates, and had published in pamphlet form the text of his appeal. Macleod’s analysis of Fryer’s relations with Healy is a shrewd one: ‘Peter was to realise within three years that Gerry Healy ... had all the worst habits of the Communist Party leaders, such as rigging congresses, blackening the names of those who disagreed with him, and manipulating young people.’ But Healy had offered the expellee ‘a rational explanation’, some way ‘to make sense of the events which had hit us’. As with Brian Pearce (also on the Daily Worker) and Brian Behan, Fryer was drawn to Healy ‘not only because he had been right about Stalin, but because he boasted of a historical theory which accounted for Stalinism’. And as Macleod says: ‘The attraction of the Trotskyists, that winter, was not that their arguments were good. It was that they were prepared to argue at all. The orthodox were not.’ As readers will already have guessed, Alison Macleod was never attracted by Trotskyism herself. She caustically cites Trotsky’s In Defence of Terrorism as ‘a do-it-yourself manual. It shows how to construct a morality which will destroy you.’

This is an indispensable memoir, the best of its genre I know. Replete with unique accounts of the thinking of the party leadership, it penetrates to the sordid reality of the CPGB at a historical watershed from which it never recovered in a way that can’t be obtained by ploughing through the party’s dusty archives. Macleod’s shading in of how the leadership sought to withhold knowledge of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech from the membership is unsurpassed. Her account of the leadership’s inability to come to terms with the fact of Soviet anti-Semitism highlights how institutional anti-Semitism in Moscow produced a satellite counterpart in London. But in one respect, Macleod fails the reader. The Daily Worker had a highly respected racing tipster. At no point does she explain why he so regularly backed the right horse whilst the party leadership was so regularly backing the wrong one.

Ron Heisler

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011