Friday, January 29, 2016

The Tragic comedians (1966)

Letter to the Editors from the October 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Sir,

I should like to comment on one or two points raised by your reviewer (June, SOCIALIST STANDARD):—

(1) He gives the impression that I write as a Communist sympathiser. What 1 said in my Introduction was “I have approached it (the CPGB in the twenties) from the point of view of an informed British socialist of the nineteen twenties, accepting the principles of Marxism, sympathetic to the aims of the Communist Party, but aware of its shortcomings" (p. 11).
(2) Any reader who believes that 1 have made "an uncritical acceptance of the grandiloquent claims made by the Communist Party" should read the book itself (especially the sections on "the New Line" 1928-1929) or Palme Dutt’s review in the Daily Worker (7th April, 1966).
(3) Your reviewer may have been convinced by reading The Communist that the Council of Action set up in August, 1920, "had no perceptible effect on the actions and policy of the British Government," but this was not the view of the Government itself or of the whole Labour Movement. The Cabinet Minutes for 9th August. 1920, refer as follows: "In the subsequent discussion great stress was laid on the very strong public opinion against intervention in the Russo-Polish War, and during the meeting information was received to the effect that several Parliamentary Labour organisations were meeting, and it was apprehended that Labour might endeavour to prevent the intervention of Great Britain by declaring a general strike." A visit to the Public Record Office is recommended.
(4) Mr. H. by insisting that as far as I am concerned "we are all socialists" seems to imply that I see no essential differences between the Labour Party, ILP, Guilds Movement, and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement and is good enough to inform me that most of them were not really revolutionary bodies. Again space requires me to refer your readers to my book itself. It is worth mentioning that I pointed out how events led the Communists in the Unemployed Movement "to present the organisation more as a movement of social protest and less as an instrument of revolution" (p. 129). This should please your reviewer.
(5) Mr. H. complains that I do not criticise Lenin’s estimate of revolutionary prospects in 1919. If he will refer to p. 278 he will find the criticism he is looking for.
(6) While it may surprise H. that I do not refer to the internal conflicts in the Communist Party on the issue of religion, it will not surprise those who were active in or knowledgeable about the activities of the CPGB in this period. Religion was not an issue which confronted either the working class or any but a small minority of the Party’s membership.
(7) I did not refer to the establishment of the SPGB in 1904 because the history of that Party is irrelevant to my theme which was the British Communist Party. I was not unaware of the birth of the SPGB—it appeared as a footnote in my original doctoral thesis!
(8) I should be happy in future editions of my work to amend the "extraordinary statement" which offends your reviewer to read "Was it surprising that the overwhelming majority of Marxists and socialists everywhere should turn to the leaders of the revolution (of October. 1917) for inspiration and guidance."

L. J. Macfarlane, 
Ruskin College, Oxford.

P.S.—I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the SPGB for the loan of certain pamphlets while I was carrying out my researches.

The most important issue raised in Dr. Macfarlane’s attempt to answer our criticisms is his statement in paragraph (7) that the history of the SPGB "is irrelevant to my theme which was the British Communist Party."

Dr. Macfarlane claims that he accepts the broad principles of Marxism, that the Communist Party is Marxist and that he is sympathetic to the aims of the Communist Party. Those aims included the suppression of Parliament by Workers Councils, direct action, the general strike and armed uprising to get power, a spurious "dictatorship of the proletariat" and urging workers to vole for the Labour Party and other perpetuators of capitalism. If he wished to treat his theme seriously he was under obligation to justify this travesty of Marxism and meet the Marxist case against it. In the years covered by the book the one solid body of opposition to Communist Party theory was the SPGB (sufficiently successful for the Communist Party to issue a directive telling their members not to get involved in arguments with the SPGB). What Dr. Macfarlane did was to make a brief reference to “some Marxists” who pointed out that according to Marx and Engels a socialist revolution was impossible in Russia (see p. 12). Here was his opportunity to seek to justify his and the Communist Party’s claims about being Marxists, but that, of course, would have required meeting openly the SPGB case. All he did in his book to meet this case was to refer to the answer to it by the Russian Communist leaders, which was that they relied on extending the revolution to Europe, where, according to Dr. Macfarlane, "this call to arms was eagerly taken up by revolutionary Marxist groups.” Now he comes back (see his para. 5) with the statement that he thinks the Russians were wrong and that “there was no possibility of working class revolution in Britain at this time” (p. 278). All the more reason therefore why he was under obligation to meet the SPGB case as part of his theme.

In reply to (4) he did in his book (pp. 12 and 123) describe all of the organisations he names as being socialist, including the unemployed movement

In (3), dealing with the failure of the 1920 Council of Action, he offers us a couple of red herrings. The claim he made in his book (p. 24) was that the Council was “to arrange for the whole industrial power of the industrial workers to be mobilised . . . " He tells us that some members of the Cabinet took note of strong public opinion against intervention in tho Russo-Polish War. Of course large numbers of people, wearied of four years of war, hated the thought of another; but what has this to do with industrial action to stop munitions going to Poland? The second point is farcical. Some Labour MP's were giving off hot-air about calling a general strike but did not even attempt to do so! The munitions went to Poland in a flood. The Russian armies were driven back and the Russian government was forced to accept peace on terms which allowed Poland to annex great areas of Russian territory. When the Communist journal admitted in October, 1920, that “the National Council of Action has failed" they were right.

Pressure of space prevents going into other questions, but if the SPGB had been mentioned in Dr. Macfarlane’s book a number of other statements made by him would have been shown to be incorrect, only sustainable by treating the SPGB as if it did not exist.

One small point, probably not known to Dr. Macfarlane, is that a small number of members of the SPGB left and joined the Communist Party at or soon after its formation.
Editorial Committee

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