Friday, September 05, 2008

'Don't you think we look a bit silly sometimes?'

I often think that EP Thompson would have loved blogging. Thompson loved the sort of ding-dong arguments that the blogosphere seems to inspire, and he was a prolific polemicist, able to write thousands of words in dozens of letters over a few hours. During my PhD research on Thompson I came across a large number of his eloquently grumpy polemical letters; some of them are quoted into my thesis, but others couldn't quite be fitted in.

The following letter was sent to me by Carey Davies, a young researcher from Sheffield University. Visiting the archives of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the Museum of People's History in Manchester, Davies discovered that, in the fateful year of 1956, the party had begun collecting Thompson's correspondence and monitoring his activities. 1956 was, of course, the year when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin and issued a selective, but still shocking, list of the recently-deceased tyrant's crimes. Krushchev's revelations destabilised Communist Parties around the world, as activists who had come to see the Soviet Union as a beacon in a dark world were forced to confront realities like Stalin's bloody purges of his political rivals.

The leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain tried to stifle discussion of the Krushchev speech and the revelations of Stalin's crimes. Party theoretician Palme Dutt responded to the charges against Stalin by declaring blandly that 'we should not be surprised that there are spots on the sun'. The young EP Thompson quickly became a leader of the many dissidents in the party who wanted a full discussion of the 'Stalin question', and the party leadership began to take a particular interest in his correspondence and movements. By the beginning of 1957 Thompson had left the party's fold, after being further provoked by Krushchev's decision to send tanks to crush the dissidents of Hungary. Even after Thompson's departure, though, the Communist Party sometimes sent spies out to monitor his political activities, and Davies’ discoveries include some detailed, fly on the wall reports of Thompson’s appearances at political meetings and rallies, scribbled by bitter old Stalinists hiding in the back row of drafty halls in St Pancras and Sheffield.

All sorts of ironies attend the discoveries Carey Davies made in Manchester. In his trailblazing studies of plebian and peasant resistance to the ruling class of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, EP Thompson sometimes used the reports of government spies as raw material: he would read between the lines of accounts of Luddite meetings or food riots, to discover information that official histories of the era had either ignored or repressed. Now we can use the reports of spies to study Thompson himself. When I wrote about Thompson's role in the 'New Left' that emerged after 1956, I was able to mine the reports of the Stalinist spies for all sorts of details.

The Communist Party of Palme Dutt was obsessed with security, and guarded its 'internal documents' carefully. With the demise of the party, though, this very thoroughness has meant that some of the dubious activities of the leadership and its hacks have been preserved on paper for any interested scholar to find. Carey Davies himself is an activist as well as a scholar: in fact, he belongs to a group which calls itself the Communist Party of Great Britain - Provisional Central Committee, and claims descent from anti-Stalinist dissidents in the old party.

I wanted to put the following letter on this blog because it's a fine example of Thompson's epistolary style, and because I wanted to say a sort of thankyou to Carey Davies, who was very generous in sharing his findings with me (I've acknowledged him, as well, in my PhD thesis). Thompson wrote the letter to Joan Maynard, who was first a councillor and later an MP for the Labour Party in Yorkshire. Maynard had a good relationship with the leadership of the Communist Party, and was nicknamed 'Stalin's Granny' by the right-wing papers. In the aftermath of the Krushchev speech, Maynard had written to the party's Daily Worker newspaper, acknowledging Stalin's crimes but arguing that debate about them should be put aside in Britain where, after all, workers endured explotiation and lacked real democracy.

Thompson's letter is, by any standards, a remarkable political document. Thompson is a member of the Communist Party, yet he is urging a member of the Labour Party to be less complimentary toward the leadership of his own party. And Thompson makes his plea in the name of the rank and file members of the Labour Party, amongst others! Yet Thompson's arguments are less contradictory than they appear, and his defence of civil liberties as the fruit of the past struggles of the workers and their allies rings especially true in an era when democratic rights are being steadily eroded in the name of the defence of democracy.


Dated 3rd June, 56.

Dear Jean,

I very much appreciate your action in writing to the D.W. and this is a practical and important action for democracy, which the bans etc. have seriously limited. Since you will get brickbats from the Stanley Woods for doing so it seems unfair for me to join the critics: but I know you are the sort of person who thrives on criticism and does not like false praise, here I go!

Not a bad article: well written: at another time very valuable. But really - do you think it the sort of contribution to the discussion on democracy needed just now?

Do you follow the news closely? Or do you only have time to read the D.W.? During the last few weeks the following facts have been uncontestably revealed. 1). Stalin's regime was in effect a dictatorship, via the party, the political police, and the army. 2) 100s of 1000s of political dissidents, including thousands of Communists, have been silenced, put in concentration camps - some executed. 3). For years no opposition piece of any kind - even literary journals - have been allowed: potential critics, such as the Jewish writers, have simply been eliminated. 4). No real controversy has been allowed even within the Russian C.P.

This could go on indefinitely. The point is, all this concerns democracy as British people understand it.

Now it may be true that the ordinary labourer of Thirsk has no positive say in running the country, that in this sense our political democracy is a sham: it may also be true that he gets a poor sort of justice in the courts.

But he is protected from arbitary arrest: there is such a thing as the "rule of law", habeas corpus and all the rest. He is able to express his views: to attend political meetings: to elect Labour Councillors. And if he cannot run a paper or write in one, he can give support to voicing his grievances by supporting you.

Your analysis in the article is more Stalinist than Stalin: economic democracy is the whole - political democracy, the rule of law, does not matter; or can come later.

But the British people - your labourers at Thirsk - will never bring a C. Party to power if they fear it will lead to the destruction of liberties: and the point is that we should not deplore this as a sign of their bondage, but see it as a positive and mature aspect of the outlook of the British people.

You Stalinists, who think you can dismiss as "bourgeois democracy" all that British people - and mainly working people - have struggled for for centuries, make me wild. John Milburne, Jack Wilkes, Carlile and Hetherington, Tolpuddle and Peterloo - all "bourgeois democracy" - RUBBISH! By agitation, sacrifice, and organisation, the British people have won many democratic rights (negative perhaps, but you and I have much to thank for them) which they are right to value: and we are betraying their traditions if we write about them in this half-hearted way.

Bourgeois democracy (capitalist press, fake parliament, state machine) is a different thing altogether than these definite democratic rights and liberties (right to publish, right to organise, rights at law, etc).
We want to change the first and keep the second.

What makes me wild is that you should write in the D.W. as if there was no problem: as if the Communists have been right all along, and all the Labour workers have been wrong.

Communists (of the unrepentent sort) write this every day.

What was needed from you was an article saying, a) Communists have the aim of Socialism - and therefore of true democracy - at heart, but (as recent revelations show) have been lazy or dishonest in their thinking about democratic rights. b). There are many in the Labour P. who also have the aim of Socialism at heart, but who have been alienated from the Communists by their fear of losing democratic rights. c). The admission of these things in Russia now makes it possible for us both to get together, start discussions, and see how we can get real socialism without purges, false confessions, and trials, concentrations camps, etc.

I quite agree with what you say about the Tories' fundamental hatred of liberties. The important thing is that the Tories can't get away with it, can't behave as they like. If our democracy was only a facade, then they could. Their "belief in democracy" may be a "myth", but that is not the same thing as saying that our liberties are a myth.

Your article has two effects, one good, one bad. Good - it helps to get the discussion flowing: is an action of solidarity against the bans. Bad - it plays into the hands of the unrepentent Stalinists, who are so bemused with all things Russian, that they do not know the British people, bo not value their traditions, and consequently cannot win their trust.

At a time when some of us are doing our damndest to try and make our own version of Transport House (King Street) learn that this concern for democratic rights of the British working class is real, deep-seated, and positive, and is something we must pledge ourselves to guard and extend - is not all done by mirrors and by the bourgeoisie - but was done by the workers themselves at Peterloo and Trafalgar Square - at such a time we want good friends like you in the L.P. to be honest and tell King St why the workers don't trust and how we look from outside. Don't you think we look a bit silly sometimes? Well, then, SAY SO!

Very best wishes,


Blogger Phil said...

Can you also post the Maynard letter to which Thompson was responding?

1:25 am  
Blogger maps said...

Alas, I don't have it to hand! I don't have access down here in NZ to an academic library with the Daily Worker in its catalogue, but someone who did could ferrett out Maynard's letter pretty easily...

9:32 am  
Blogger Carey said...

hi scott,

i was just re-familiarising myself with your blog and i happened across this - must have missed it the first time around. thanks for the kind words, very glad to have helped! i'm pretty sure i still have a big plastic box full of photocopied archive material kicking around at home somewhere so i'll have a ferret around next time i'm back.

which will be a while, because i'm presently in new zealand. hence why i'm contacting you! would have e-mailed but i've lost your address. mine is carey.davies (at) i note you've been blogging from tonga but if you're back in auckland do get in touch - would be very interested to meet up. i'm presently bumming around northland and heading back sometime over the next week. let me know your movements and hopefully we can make them coincide...!

all the best,


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