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Brian Pearce

Useful but Shallow

(December 1958)

From Labour Review, Vol. 3 No. 5, December 1958, pp. 156–157.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.

The British Communist Party: A Historical Profile
by Henry Pelling
A. and C. Black, 18s.

The first thing to be said about this book is that it is a useful contribution to the subject, which ought to be widely read in the working-class movement, and especially among Communist Party members and recent ex-members. The author brings together many important facts which have been syste-matically suppressed by the party leadership in their so-called ‘education’ of the rank and file, and refers to many accessible sources for further study. The book can have a considerable enlightening effect and set in train a fruitful process of thought and investigation. That is, of course, why Klugmann has dismissed it, in the Daily Worker , as a mere potboiler: a charge that comes queerly from the author of From Trotsky to Tito and non-author of the so-long-overdue official history of the British Communist Party.

Particularly worth studying is Pelling’s account of what he calls the ‘coup d’Etat’ of 1929, which substantially supplements my own version (in the ‘Joseph Redman’ pamphlet published by the Reasoner). Among numerous shrewd observations, the following, on the present situation of the party, seems espe-cially worth quoting: the party is tending ‘to become an “agency” for the propaganda wares of the Soviet bloc nations – a “holding company” controlling a number of organizations concerned with “peace” and “friendship” on communist terms, and also possessing a few incidental “properties” such as trade unions and professional bodies which were acquired in palmier days, but with an ever shrinking activity of its own in its original role’.


Having said this, it is necessary to point out that the book – which is, indeed, modestly subtitled A Historical Profile – is far from being without serious weaknesses. There is this much to Klugmann’s potboiler sneer: that after about 1932 the pace quickens and the matter grows thinner and shallower to a degree which suggests that the author may have been hurrying to get the manuscript ready for the printer. The biggest shortcoming, though, is that the party is shown as essentially the same from the very beginning down to the present. Nothing is said about a number of opposition movements – in 1925 against the blind repudiation of ‘Trotskyism’: the Balham Group in 1932; the trend centred on the Welwyn branch in 1947–48. The role of Moscow is presented in the same light throughout. (Thus, for instance, we are told that when the central committee was invited to Moscow in 1922 to discuss the reorganization of the Party, ‘the recalcitrant members were overawed’. Perhaps they were convinced?)

The high standing enjoyed by the party in the British Labour movement in 1924–25 does not emerge, the widespread solid-arity shown in connexion with the Campbell case, and then with the arrest of ‘the Twelve’, being played down. The crucial transition period of 1933–36 is skated over, without even a mention of the key decision to support sanctions. Though he records that in 1936–38 ‘any criticisms of Soviet policy from the standpoint of the Left were instantly labelled “Trotskyist”, and, once so labelled, were regarded as beyond the need for further serious consideration’, Pelling tells us nothing of what these criticisms were – or of the expulsions of members that occurred because of them. On the most recent period, there is no discussion of the significance of the party’s programme adopted in 1951, The British Road to Socialism , nor is it linked in any way with the 1952 rules change depriving members of the right to share in formulating party policy, though both facts are baldly mentioned.

Describing the publication in 1956 of the three issues of the Reasoner, Pelling writes of no. 2:

‘Perhaps without realizing it the editors had already passed from a Leninist to a liberal position, which was exemplified by their use of a quotation from Diderot: “Though a lie may serve for the moment it is inevitably injurious in the long run; the truth, on the other hand, inevitably serves in the end even if it may hurt for the moment.”’

As I proposed the inclusion of that quotation in the Reasoner, perhaps I may be allowed to assure all concerned that it does not seem to me to express a liberal rather than a Leninist idea. Henry Pelling identifies Leninism with Stalinism and so perhaps does not realize that Lenin and Trotsky insisted that the first duty of a revolutionary to the working class is to ‘say what is’.

In discussing the disintegration of the British Communist Party after the Twentieth Congress, Poznan and Hungary, Pelling mentions the establishment of the Universities and Left Review and the New Reasoner, but says nothing about Labour Review. This definitely does not arise from un-awareness of the latter journal’s existence and character. In contrast, Colm Brogan, reviewing this book in the Daily Telegraph, ended his remarks by drawing particular attention to the fact that a section of former party members have broken away not on the grounds that ‘Marxism is discredited’ but because the party has abandoned Marxism. Labour Review and The Newsletter are the organs of this section, who seek to revive and carry forward the great traditions of the British Communist Party’s earlier years, which show only faintly through Pelling’s narrative.

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