Review: Paul Flewers and John McIlroy (editors) 1956: John Saville, EP Thompson and The Reasoner Merlin Press, 2016, pp450, £20.

“Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage. He was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism”. Gerry Healy

“I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. The notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.  E. P. Thompson

 E.P. Thompson had been dead for two decades and John Saville for 12 years. It is perhaps a little strange that in 2016 a book came out that republished for the first time three copies of the obscure The Reasoner journal that Saville and Thompson established during their split from the British Communist Party in 1956.

The essays in this book by McIlroy and Flewers largely provide Thompson and Saville with a Psuedo left cover for their anti-Marxist positions. This review will show that while breaking organisationally from the Communist Party, Thompson and Saville never broke from many of the ideological positions held during their time in the Communist Party, one of which was their hostility to Trotskyism.

In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime, Joseph Stalin. Kruschev’s “secret speech” was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.

Khrushchev’s speech was typical of a man implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats agreed on was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky, the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said, “We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed all the enemies of Leninism ideologically. The ideological fight was carried on successfully … Here, Stalin played a positive role.[1]

Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of the social forces he was inadvertently unleashing with his speech. Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin before him: to unleash terror on the working class worldwide.

Trotskyists inside Gerry Heally’s Socialist Labour League welcomed the crisis inside the Soviet Communist Party. Healy sought to clarify the issues involved in the crisis of world Stalinism. However, Pseudo Left groups such as the British Socialist Workers Party muddied the water and argued that despite Khrushchev’s Speech, there was “a process of self-reform” going on under pressure from the working class Stalinism would move in a revolutionary direction.

Thompson got a warm reception from the British SWP, who broke from the Fourth International in the early 1940s. The SWP, from its inception until the present day, has given these emigrants from Stalinism a left cover and justified their reformist and nationalist adaptation and orientation. According to SWP member David Mcnally E P Thompson, “was the greatest Marxist historian of the English-speaking world and had a “political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement.[2] “

It is perhaps an understatement to say that the speech caused mayhem in the British Communist Party. It lost over 9000 members, most of its important intellectuals, and nearly all its historians inside the Communist Party Historians Group. The leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain attempted to deal with the crisis by suppressing any opposition occurring inside the party.

Historians John Saville and EP Thompson were among many who refused to bow down to the party line and issued the three magazines published in this book. Saville and Thompson resigned their party membership, saying, “We believe that the self-imposed restrictions upon controversy, the ‘guiding’ of discussions along approved lines, the actual suppression of sharp criticism – all these have led to a gradual blurring of theoretical clarity, and the encouragement among some communists of attitudes akin to intellectual cynicism when it has been easier to allow this or that false proposition to go by than to embark upon the tedious and frustrating business of engaging with bureaucratic editorial habits and general theoretical inertia” (p137).

While the Reasoner was critical of Stalin and some of his crimes, it said nothing about the persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of left oppositions, including the state murder of most leading Bolsheviks, including Leon Trotsky. They stayed silent on the Show Trials and purges carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy.[3]

Perhaps the worst aspect of this book among many is that it continues the lie that Thompson or, for that matter, Saville were Marxists. After leaving the party, Thompson cherry-picked which bits of Marxism he would use while rejecting orthodox Marxism. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position; instead, he advocated a form of “socialist humanism”.

After closing down The Reasoner, Thompson founded the New Reasoner in 1957 along with historian John Saville. The group was made up of ex and current members of the CPGB. It also attracted a varied group of people who had left the Fourth International and members of the Labour Party who wrote articles for the magazine. Most ex Stalinists from the Communist Party dropped out of politics altogether or found an easy life within the Labour Party and trade union apparatus.

Thompson was avowedly hostile to an international revolutionary perspective and sought to imbue his new publication with an “English Marxist” tradition.  Thompson rejected orthodox Marxism, and in its place, he preached a form of utopian socialism entitled socialist humanism. To protect his so-called Marxist credentials, he launched “a series of reckless, stage-managed and convoluted polemics against a series of academics, intellectuals who in one form or another had been mistakenly labelled Marxists”. Thompson held the belief that classical Marxism was sectarian. He believed that this “sectarianism” and “purism” dated way before the Russian Revolution.

While Thompson and Saville shared hatred of early classical Marxism, they reserved their most vitriolic hatred for the Trotskyist’s inside the SLL. It must be said that the editors of this book share Thompson’s attitude towards the Trotskyists inside the Socialist Labour League.                 

The orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International, which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), saw the crisis within the British Communist party as an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Healy went on an offensive to win the most important cadre from the breakup of the Communist Party. According to Stan Newens,” When the April 1957 Communist Party Congress took place in Hammersmith Town Hall, many of them, including Gerry Healy himself, were outside selling journals and lobbying delegates.”[4] Those figures who had not been entirely corrupted by the years of lies and calumny of the Stalinist regimes throughout the world were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer.

Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to Thompson’s politics but were open to debate. Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in and told Thompson that “The New left Must Look to the Working Class”[5].

While cordial in tone, Healy did not mince his words when he said, “What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson’s article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently, there is no attempt to analyze the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas.”[6]

During the early years of Thompson’s magazine, the Reasoner and later the New Reasoner, and later still the New Left Review, it is clear that he had no intention of debating with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to secure cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters, it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist’s around Healy as a part of the working class. Healy’s response was to say that “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.” Thompson’s response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history.

This book is useful to future generations of revolutionaries only because it is an example of how not to build a revolutionary movement. It is important to study the history of the workers’ movement both in Britain and internationally. Students and workers could do no worse than a systematic study of David North’s The Heritage We Defend[7].

Postscript.

In 2014 several capitalist newspapers reported that MI5 had been spying on many members of the British Communist Party starting in the early 1930s. MI5 systematically followed, broke into their house and stole documents of a significant number of academic members of the Communist Party. MI5 even went so far as to plant large numbers of agents inside the Communist Party. One agent, Olga Gray, succeeded in becoming secretary to Harry Pollitt, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Great Britain.[8] How much disruption was caused by these agents is a moot point. Madeline Davis seems to think not much. In her article, Edward Thompson, MI5 and the Reasoner controversy: negotiating “Communist principle” in the crisis of 1956, she downplays MI5 involvement in the aftermath of Kruschev’s speech. My point is why is none of this mentioned in Flewer’s and McIlroy’s book.

 [1] Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. https://www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24-abs.htm

[2] E.P. Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism-https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1993/isj2-061/mcnally.htm

[3] See Vadim Rogovin’s 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror-https://mehring.com/product/1937-stalins-year-of-terror/

[4] http://isj.org.uk/memories-of-a-seminal-year/

[5] Labour Review October –November 1959 edition,

[6] “The New left Must Look to the Working Class”

[7] The Heritage We Defend (30th Anniv. Edition): A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International-The work reviews the political and theoretical disputes inside the Fourth International, the international Marxist movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. It is a devastating reply to former WRP General Secretary Michael Banda’s document “27 Reasons why the International Committee Should be Buried Forthwith and the Fourth International Built.”Contains a detailed and objective assessment of the political contribution and evolution of James P. Cannon, Trotsky’s most important co-thinker in the US, as well as the evolution of the US Socialist Workers Party. The 2018 edition of the foundational 1988 work by David North, chairman of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, contains a new preface, photo section, and an extensive glossary.

[8] https://www.mi5.gov.uk/the-soviet-threat-between-the-wars 

One thought on “Review: Paul Flewers and John McIlroy (editors) 1956: John Saville, EP Thompson and The Reasoner Merlin Press, 2016, pp450, £20.

  1. Thanks for reviewing our book. There are two points I’d like to make.

    Firstly, we decided to republish the three issues of The Reasoner in 2016 because it was the sixtieth anniversary of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the Hungarian Uprising and the publication of The Reasoner, which came about because of the ructions within the CPGB and the Stalinist movement worldwide caused by the ‘Secret Speech’ and subsequently by the events in Hungary. We were both surprised that only fragments of what was an important journal had ever been republished, and felt that all three issues should be republished in full, along with selected related documents and retrospective appraisals. That the many admirers of Thompson’s writings did not themselves take on this task over the those 60 years is an interesting question.

    Secondly, your assertion that we ‘largely provide Thompson and Saville with a pseudo-left cover for their anti-Marxist positions’ is misplaced. In our three pieces, we make it clear that neither Saville nor Thompson broke cleanly from Stalinism and that they both continued to adhere to classic aspects of Stalinism, most notably popular frontism, as can be seen especially in Thompson’s anti-nuclear-weapon campaigning. In my essay on Thompson and Stalinism, I noted both his inability to present a coherent analysis of Stalinism, and his hostility to Trotskyism that he inherited from his Stalinist days.

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