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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club

In January 1936, the publisher, Victor Gollancz, the writer, John Strachey and Harold Laski, the Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, creating the Left Book Club. The main aim was to spread socialist ideas and to resist the rise of fascism in Britain. Gollancz announced: "The aim of the Left Book Club is a simple one. It is to help in the terribly urgent struggle for world peace and against fascism, by giving, to all who are willing to take part in that struggle, such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency."

Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued: "The basic scheme of the Club was simple. For 2s 6d members received a Left Book of the Month, chosen by the Selection Committee - which consisted of Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski. Left-wing books could be guaranteed a high circulation without risk to the publisher, while members received them at a greatly reduced rate."

Victor Gollancz had hoped to recruit 10,000 members in the first year. In fact, he achieved over 45,000. By the end of the first year the Left Book Club had had 730 local discussion groups, and it estimated that these were attended by an average total of 12,000 people every fortnight. As Ben Pimlott pointed out: "In April 1937 Gollancz launched the Left Book Club Theatre Guild with a full-time organiser; nine months later 200 theatre groups had been established, and 45 had already performed plays. Sporting activities and recreations were also catered for." As The Tribune newspaper pointed out, "walks, tennis, golf and swimming are quite different when your campanions... are... comrades of the left". By March 1938, membership of the Left Book Club had reached 58,000.

Would the idea work today?

Monday, 19 April 2010

The General Election: A Time for Real Change

Since the split in the Liberal Party during the First World War the UK has been a two-party state. The “first past the post” electoral system has reinforced this idea and the Conservative-Labour Pact has meant that they could maintain this very unfair system. It has been impossible for other parties to gain ground has it has always been said that to vote for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or any of the Socialist parties is to “waste your vote”.

The Liberal Democrats were the only major party which was totally opposed to the invasion of Iraq. It is also the only one of the three main parties that believed in a total reform of our electoral system, an introduction of a redistributive tax system and cancelling the Trident nuclear missile program. Therefore, since the invasion I have voted for the Liberal Democrats (up until then I had always voted Labour).

A couple of months ago Gordon Brown agreed that the next General Election should have three televised debates between the leaders of the Labour-Conservative-Liberal Democrats. The first debate took place last Thursday. The sight of the three party leaders together had a dramatic impact on the electorate. For the first time, the voting public saw the three men as potential prime ministers. The polls showed that as far as this debate was concerned, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats was the clear winner.

The latest poll on intended General Election voting shows that the 32% intended to vote for the Liberal Democrats whereas the Conservatives are on 31% with Labour on 28%. These polls are changing the consciousness of the electorate. They no longer see voting Liberal Democrats as wasting their vote. I believe these polls will convince more people to vote for the Liberals. A large percentage of the electorate intended to abstain because they were so disillusioned with the behaviour of the two main parties. Now they can vote in a positive way to punish the established parties.

The General Election result will also illustrate just how unfair our electoral system is. This is how the experts are saying that the latest polls will be reflected by seats in the House of Commons: Lib Dems: 32% = 120 seats; Conservative: 31% = 230 seats; Labour: 28% = 268 seats. If this is the result, will Gordon Brown have a mandate to govern?

The result of the election may well do something to undermine the power of Rupert Murdoch. Here is an interesting article by David Yelland, the former editor of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Reality of the First World War

In the early stages of the First World War local newspapers published letters from soldiers serving on the Western Front. Some of these letters were highly critical of the way the war was being fought. Others suggested that the nature of trench-war meant that the conflict would go on for many years. This was hugely embarrassing as the government was suggesting that it would be over in a few weeks. This was one of the reasons that so many young men had joined up.

The government reacted by establishing the British War Propaganda Bureau (WPB). Lloyd George, appointed the successful writer and fellow Liberal MP, Charles Masterman as head of the organization. On 2nd September, 1914, Masterman invited twenty-five leading British authors to Wellington House, the headquarters of the War Propaganda Bureau, to discuss ways of best promoting Britain's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells.

All the writers present at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. Several of the men who attending the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's view of the situation. The bureau got commercial companies to print and publish the material. This included Hodder & Stoughton, Methuen, Oxford University Press, John Murray, Macmillan and Thomas Nelson.

As a result of the Defence of the Realm Act that was passed in 1914, all letters that the men wrote had to be read and censored by junior officers. This was a major task as twelve and a half million letters were sent from the Western Front every week.

The government realized that it was also important to control visual images of the war. Only two photographers, both army officers, were allowed to take pictures of the Western Front. The penalty for anyone else caught taking a photograph of the war was the firing squad. The official photographers were told not to take pictures of dead soldiers. That is why the only photographs of dead bodies during the First World War were taken by non-British photographers.

In May 1916 Masterman recruited the artist, Muirhead Bone. He was sent to France and by October had produced 150 drawings of the war. When Bone returned to England he was replaced by his brother-in-law, Francis Dodd, who had been working for the Manchester Guardian. In 1917 arrangements were made to send other artists abroad including Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson and William Rothenstein. Masterman also recruited John Lavery to paint pictures of the home front. When people like Nevinson painted pictures that revealed the true horrors of the war, they were not displayed in Britain. However, an exception was made of William Orpen’s painting as it was entitled, “Dead Germans in a Trench”

The general public only discovered the true horrors of the First World War after the Armistice in 1918. This was mainly via the poems of people like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney. However, this work only found a small minority audience.It was not until the publication of Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That" in 1929, that an autobiography attempted to tell the truth about the conditions endured by the men in the trenches. The book was also an attack on the way the senior officers treated the lower ranks. This was followed by books by other junior officers who supported the claims made by Graves.

The most shocking book about the war was Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier's A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930). There is a good chance you have never heard of this book. It is rarely quoted by historians who have written about the war. It sold few copies and was never reprinted. The book not only told of what the British soldiers had to endure on the Western Front, it also revealed details of the atrocities carried out by the men. The tone of the book was also disturbing. Crozier was not critical of the men's behaviour, he argued that these acts were inevitable when you put men in such conditions.

Crozier writes of how British soldiers routinely killed German prisoners. He also tells of how soldiers sexually abused French and Belgium young women. He casually talks of how junior officers shot dead their men if they refused to attack the enemy trenches. He also tells of how he arranged the execution of Private James Crozier, of the Royal Irish Rifles, for desertion.

Later, an officer, Rochdale by name, who once went to Amiens for ten days on private business, is sitting in the redan dugout at 2 a.m. with his company commander. I enter. They show me a peculiar German rifle grenade and say it is of new design. As Rochdale understands bombs I suggest he takes it down and examines it when we come out to rest. He agrees. The big trench mortars then start. Everything is shaken, including Rochdale's nerves. We are short of subalterns. Rochdale has been sent out earlier to put a notice on the German wire, by order of Corps headquarters, a propagandic move to inform the front line men that their families are starving at home. Now the trench mortaring is too much for him. He rises, rushes past me, and bolts down the trench in front of his men as fast as he can go. After daylight he is discovered in a disused French dugout behind the lines, asleep - apparently a deserter, as absence and evasion of duty are the two chief factors which go to constitute the offence. There is the additional fact that he has shown apparent cowardice in action, in front of his men. It is just as futile to be half a mile away from the duty point as sixty kilometres. I have already a private soldier absent. He will no doubt be caught and tried. What about this officer? I see him and put him back for trial by court martial for cowardice and desertion. He is tried and found guilty of one charge or both. Meanwhile the private - Crocker - is caught by the military police, a long way back. He too is tried. I sign the charge sheet of both these men. Promulgation, where death sentences occur, is a long and painful job. One day we received a wire. Rochdale is to be "released from arrest and all consequences." They try to send him back to duty but I refuse to receive him. I am asked my opinion as to whether sentence of death should be carried out on Crocker. In view of certain circumstances I recommend the shooting be carried out. At last I receive the orders and documents relative to the execution. We leave the line for four days' rest at Mailly-Mailly.

In the afternoon of the first day out we parade in hollow square. The prisoner - Crocker - is produced. Cap off he is marched by the sergeant-major to the centre. The adjutant reads the name, number, charge, finding, sentence and confirmation by Sir Douglas Haig. Crocker stands erect. He does not flinch. Perhaps he is dazed: who would not be? The prisoner is marched away by the regimental police while I, placing myself at the head of the battalion, behind the band, march back to billets. The drums strike up, the men catch step. We all feel bad but we carry out our war-time pose. Crocker didn't flinch, why should we? After tea the padre comes to see me. "Might I see Crocker?" he asks. "Of course, Padre, but don't be too long-winded," I say seriously, "after you have done anything you can for him tell his company commander. But I don't think his people should be told. He can go into the died return. War is all pot-luck, some get a hero's halo, others a coward's cross. But this man volunteered in 1914. His heart was in the right place then, even if his feet are cold in 1916. What do you say?' "I quite agree," answers the good man, much too overcome to say more.

Now, in peace time, I and the rest of us would have been very upset indeed at having to shoot a colleague, comrade, call him what you will, at dawn on the morrow. We would not, in ordinary circumstances, have slept. Now the men don't like it but they have to put up with it. They face their ordeal magnificently. I supervise the preliminary arrangements myself. We put the prisoner in a comfortable warm place. A few yards away we drive in a post, in a back garden, such as exists with any villa residence. I send for a certain junior officer and show him all. "You will be in charge of the firing party," I say, "the men will be cold, nervous and excited, they may miss their mark. You are to have your revolver ready, loaded and cocked; if the medical officer tells you life is not extinct you are to walk up to the victim, place the muzzle of the revolver to his heart and press the trigger. Do you understand?" "Yes Sir," came the quick reply. "Right," I add, "dine with me at my mess to-night." I want to keep this young fellow engaged under my own supervision until late at night, so as to minimise the chance of his flying to the bottle for support. As for Crocker, he leaves this earth, in so far as knowing anything of his surroundings is concerned, by midnight, for I arrange that enough spirituous liquor is left beside him to sink a ship. In the morning, at dawn, the snow being on the ground, the battalion forms up on the public road. Inside the little garden on the other side of the wall, not ten yards distant from the centre of the line, the victim is carried to the stake. He is far too drunk to walk. He is out of view save from myself, as I stand on a mound near the wall. As he is produced I see he is practically lifeless and quite unconscious. He has already been bound with ropes. There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher's shop. His eyes are bandaged - not that it really matters, for he is already blind. The men of the firing party pick up their rifles, one of which is unloaded, on a given sign. On another sign they come to the Present and, on the lowering of a handkerchief by the officer, they fire - a volley rings out - a nervous ragged volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct. We march back to breakfast while the men of a certain company pay the last tribute at the graveside of an unfortunate comrade. This is war.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The American Communist Party and the Soviet Union

The right-wing leadership of the Socialist Party of America opposed the Russian Revolution. However, those members who disagreed with this policy formed the Communist Propaganda League.

In February 1919, Jay Lovestone, Bertram Wolfe, John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow created a left-wing faction that advocated the policies of the Bolsheviks in Russia. On 24th May 1919 the leadership expelled 20,000 members who supported this faction. The process continued and by the beginning of July two-thirds of the party had been suspended or expelled. In September 1919, Jay Lovestone, Earl Browder, John Reed, James Cannon, Bertram Wolfe, William Bross Lloyd, Benjamin Gitlow, Charles Ruthenberg, William Dunne, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Louis Fraina, Ella Reeve Bloor, Rose Pastor Stokes, Claude McKay, Michael Gold and Robert Minor, decided to form the Communist Party of the United States.

The American Communist Party was therefore a product of the Russian Revolution. It also received a considerable amount of funding via the Comintern. William Z. Foster, went on record as saying, "I am for the Comintern from start to finish. I want to work with the Comintern, and if the Comintern finds itself criss-cross with my opinions, there is only one thing to do and that is to change my opinions to fit the policy of the Comintern".

The party was divided between the views of Foster and those of Charles Ruthenberg who favoured independence. The Comintern eventually accepted the leadership of Charles Ruthenberg. As Theodore Draper pointed out in American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960): "After the Comintern's verdict in favor of Ruthenberg as party leader, the factional storm gradually subsided... At the Seventh Plenum at the end of 1926, the Comintern, for the first time in five years, found it unnecessary to appoint an American Commission to deal with an American factional struggle.... "

On the death of Charles Ruthenberg in 1927 Jay Lovestone became the party's national secretary. James Cannon, the chairman of the American Communist Party, attended the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928. While in the Soviet Union he was given a document written by Leon Trotsky on the rule of Joseph Stalin. Convinced by what he read, when he returned to the United States he criticized the Soviet government. As a result of his actions, Cannon and his followers were expelled from the party. Cannon now joined with other Trotskyists to form the Communist League of America.

In 1929 Nikolay Bukharin was deprived of the chairmanship of the Comintern and expelled from the Politburo by Stalin. He was worried that Bukharin had a strong following in the American Communist Party, and at a meeting of the Presidium in Moscow on 14th May he demanded that the party came under the control of the Comintern. He admitted that Jay Lovestone was "a capable and talented comrade," but immediately accused him of employing his capabilities "in factional scandal-mongering, in factional intrigue." Benjamin Gitlow and Ella Reeve Bloor defended Lovestone. This angered Stalin and according to Bertram Wolfe, he got to his feet and shouted: "Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you? When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except your wives." Stalin then went onto warn the Americans that the Russians knew how to handle troublemakers: "There is plenty of room in our cemeteries."

Jay Lovestone realised that he would now be expelled from the American Communist Party. On 15th May, 1929 he sent a cable to Robert Minor and Jacob Stachel and asked them to take control over the party's property and other assets. However, as Theodore Draper has pointed out in American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960): "The Comintern beat him to the punch. On May 17, even before the Comintern's Address could reach the United States, the Political Secretariat in Moscow decided to remove Lovestone, Gitlow, and Wolfe from all their leading positions, to purge the Political Committee of all members who refused to submit to the Comintern's decisions, and to warn Lovestone that it would be a gross violation of Comintern discipline to attempt to leave Russia."

William Foster now took over as leader of the American Communist Party. It was now a completely loyal to the dicatates of Joseph Stalin.

The CIA and the American Communist Party

A lot has been written about the FBI and the American Communist Party. However, it is not very well-known that the CIA turned several members of the party.

Bertram D. Wolfe had been one of the founders of the Communist Party of the United States in 1919. He remained a loyal member of the party until Nikolay Bukharin was deprived of the chairmanship of the Comintern and expelled from the Politburo by Stalin in 1929. Attempts were now made to purge foreign communist parties who had previously supported Bukharin. Representatives from Stalin arrived in the United States and several members including Wolfe, Jay Lovestone and Ben Gitlow were expelled. They then formed the Communist Party (Majority Group). Later it changed its name to the Communist Party (Opposition), the Independent Communist Labor League and finally, in 1938, the Independent Labor League of America. The group was disbanded in 1940.

After the war these individuals came under the control of the CIA. Ben Gitlow gave evidence against the American Communist Party before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies of Texas. The following year he published his autobiography, I Confess: The Truth About American Communism. His second volume of autobiography, The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America, was published in 1948. In the 1960s Gitlow was closely associated with another fanatical anti-communist, Billy James Hargis, a man who has been linked to the assassination of JFK.

Wolfe worked as an advisor to the State Department's International Broadcasting Office which was in charge of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. He also wrote anti-communist books such as Three who Made a Revolution (1956), The Marxism (1965), Strange Communists I have Known (1966), The Bridge and the Abyss (1967) and An Ideology in Power: Reflections on the Russian Revolution (1969).

Probably, the most interesting of the three is Jay Lovestone, who had been party secretary of the American Communist Party between 1927-29. After leaving the party Lovestone went to work for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). After the war he was active in the American Institute for Free Labor Development, an organization sponsored by the American Federation of Labor. Later it also received secret payments from the CIA. This began a long-term friendship with James Jesus Angleton, Director of Operations for Counter-Intelligence.

In 1963 Lovestone became director of the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department (IAD), which arranged for millions of dollars from the CIA to aid anti-communist activities internationally, particularly in Latin America. The AFL-CIO president George Meany discovered in 1964 that Lovestone was involved with the CIA and instructed him to break-off contact with James Jesus Angleton. Lovestone agreed to do this but when Meany discovered in 1974 that he was still working with Angleton he forced him from office.