The CPGB Historians’ Group’s New Statesman Letter

Following on from my post the other day about Eric Hobsbawm’s legacy, I thought people might be interested in the letter that the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain wrote to the New Statesman and The Tribune in late 1956. Most of the following is based on notes from my Honours thesis, which I’m hoping to finally turn into an article eventually – when I finally get a chance to re-read all the CPGB archival documents on the Historians’ Group and 1956.

In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton drafted a letter and collected signatures for a letter to be sent to the CPGB’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, protesting against the invasion of Budapest. In his autobiography Interesting Times (Verso, 2002, p. 207), Hobsbawm states the Historians’ Group was responsible for the initiative behind the letter, but other Party intellectuals, connected with the Party’s National Cultural Committee, also signed. The letter was sent to the Daily Worker on November 18, 1956 and was not published, but on December 1, the letter was printed in the New Statesman and The Tribune.

The letter that was published was signed by Hill, Hilton, Hobsbawm, an another Group member Victor Kiernan, as well as Chimen Abramsky, Hyman Levy, Robert Browning, Paul Hogarth, Jack Lindsay, Henry Collins, George Houston, Hugh Macdiarmid, Ronald Meek, Doris Lessing and E.A. Thompson. In Interesting Times (p. 207), Hobsbawm states that another Historians’ Group member, Maurice Dobb, signed the letter, but this is not substantiated by the published letter. It is possible that Dobb signed under a pseudonym, a practice not unknown to oppositionist intellectuals in the Communist movement. It may be possible that the signatory E.A. Thompson is E.P. Thompson, misspelt when published, but this is unlikely as there is no mention of this in any of the other accounts on Thompson and the Historians’ Group (Scott Hamilton of Reading the Maps blog might know more on this).

The letter was barely over 300 words, but brought the ire of the CPGB leadership upon the letter writers. The text of the letter is as follows:

SIR, – The following letter was sent to the Daily Worker on November 18. As it appears that it will not be published there, the signatories would be grateful if you could find space for it.

“All of us have for many years advocated Marxist ideas both in our own special fields and in political discussion in the Labour movement. We feel therefore that we have a responsibility to express our views as Marxists in the present crisis of international Socialism.

“We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves. We had hoped that the revelations of made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have made our leadership and press realise that Marxist ideas will only be acceptable in the British Labour movement if they arise from the truth about the world we live in.

“The exposure of grave crimes and abuses in the USSR and the recent revolt of workers and intellectuals against the pseduo-Communist bureaucracies and police systems in Poland and Hungary, have shown that for the past twelve years we have based our political; analyses on a flase presentation of the facts – not an out-of-date theory, for we still consider the Marxist method to be correct.

“If the left-wing and Marxist trend in our Labour movement is to win support, as it must for the achievement of Socialism, this past must be utterly repudiated. This includes the repudiation of the latest outcome of this evil past, the Executive Committee’s underwriting of the current errors of Soviet policy.”

Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.

Thanks to the online archive of The Tribune that is now available, you can see a scan of the original letter here.

This letter was seen by the CPGB leadership as a serious breach of Party rules and according to John Saville, John Gollan sent a strongly worded letter to the signatories warning that ‘such an action is unpermissable and will not to be tolerated in future’, adding that the act was technically punishable by expulsion from the Party. (Saville, ‘The 20th Congress and the Communist Party’, Socialist Register, 1976, p. 16, p. 23) Quoting from Saville’s account (p. 23), Gollan stated that the signatories had ‘the same righst as all other Party members to put your views on Party policy in your Party branch and in the Party press’, but the complaint from those who signed the letter was the same that had existed since the 24th Congress of the CPGB and the cause for Saville and Thompson to publish The Reasoner – the right to express views in Party branches and press only existed in principle, but was meaningless in practice, as the leadership censored and disallowed opinions contrary to the official Party line.

After the Executive and Political Committees passed resolutions on the ‘factional dangers’ of collecting signatories and the ‘impermissable act’ of criticising the Party in the non-Party press, George Matthews, the Assistant Party Secretary, wrote the official position of the Party leadership in an article that appeared in the CPGB weekly paper, World News, on 19 January, 1957, titled ‘The Lessons of the Letter’. Matthews declared that the letter was an ‘attack on the Party’ and a major violation of Party rules, and appeared concerned that the letter’s signatories saw ‘nothing at all that is good or positive’ in the twelve years since the end of the Second World War and establishment of the Eastern Bloc ‘peoples’ democracies’. He maintained the Party line that ‘errors’ occurred under Stalin, but the ‘great contribution which [Stalin] made to the Communist and working class movement’ outweighed these errors. Repeating the Party’s jargon-laden pronouncements of the Stalin question and its support for the Soviet Union, Matthews escaped any satisfactory debate on the Communist Party’s support of the Soviet line towards the Hungarian invasion and the unquestioning support the Party had given in the past.

One of the signatories, Hyman Levy, replied to Matthew’s accusations in a ‘pre-Congress discussion’ in the World News, which charged Matthews with deliberate misrepresentation of the letter’s content (Levy, ‘Lessons of an Article’, World News, 2 March, 1957). For Levy, Matthews’ article (as well as other actions by the Party leaders) demonstrated clearly that ‘the whole principle of democratic centralism’ was called into question, and for this principle to work satisfactorily, it required ‘genuineness and honesty of the Centre vis-a-vis the members, and the alertness and frankness of the members vis-a-vis the Centre’. Levy proposed that only a ‘drastic change in attitude and in atmosphere’ at the 25th Special Congress of the CPGB would allow the Party to continue.

Gollan replied to Levy in another ‘pre-Congress discussion’ article that ‘the content of the letter was not the issue’ and repeated the leadership’s insistence on obedience to the rules and practices of the Party (Gollan, ‘The Cause of the Party is Socialism’, World News, 9 March, 1957). Gollan’s article was a polemic against those in opposition, particularly addressing the intellectuals, and described them as having ‘placed themselves above the Party’ and joining in the ‘attacks of the class enemy’. Gollan asked rhetorically, ‘If the Communist Party is not the Marxist instrument for achieving socialism, what is?… There is no such Marxism [outside the Party]’ and stated that those who remained in the Party were ‘better comrades than those who have left’. Gollan suggested that the intellectuals within the Party had ‘lost all sense of [their] class position’ (as the Party leadership presumed that no working class members were opposed to them) and that there was a gap between their moral and political arguments and their class position, which was believed to be linked to the Party. For Gollan, to be in opposition to the Party was to be in opposition to the working class. The overall message Gollan was conveying through his piece was for the intellectuals to either ‘get behind’ the Party leaders, or leave. The drastic change that the signatories of the letter had hoped for at the 25th Special Congress now looked unattainable, and most of those who signed the letter left the Party shortly after.

For further reading, see:
Revolutionary History journal issue 31
Keith Flett (ed.), 1956 and All That Cambridge Scholars, 2007

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4 comments

  1. EA Thompson was a quite well-known historian of the ancient world who published on Visigoths, Attila the Hun etc.
    I was present at a conference in about 1995 when Matthews apologised to Peter Fryer for the suppression of his reports from Hungary.

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