By Ian Birchall
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Brian Pearce 1915-2008: Historian of the rank and file

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Brian Pearce, who died recently, was a socialist intellectual and activist over eight decades, having joined the Communist Party (CP) in 1934.
Issue 2133

Brian Pearce, who died recently, was a socialist intellectual and activist over eight decades, having joined the Communist Party (CP) in 1934.

I visited him shortly before he died. At 93, he was frail, but his commitment and curiosity were undimmed. He gleefully showed me a cartoon of Karl Marx laughing at the current economic crisis and quizzed me about Wikipedia and its implications for the democratic control of knowledge.

Brian was both historian and translator (from French and Russian). Only three years ago he worked with SWP member Pete Glatter on a volume about the 1905 revolution in Russia. Here I want to draw particular attention to some of his historical essays.

Brian left the Communist Party in 1957 (and was expelled soon thereafter!). Shortly before he had been involved in a commission set up to write the Party history. He found that the Party bureaucrats didn’t want to recall the many twists and turns the Party had gone through. After his expulsion he published a series of articles on the history of the CP in the Trotskyist journal Labour Review.

Brian’s articles broke new ground. Such historical material as had emerged from within the CP presented the party as infallible. Meanwhile the party’s Cold War critics saw it as a Moscow-controlled conspiracy.

Brian’s work was more balanced. He was particularly interested in the early years of the Party, when, though small, it had been a genuine revolutionary organisation.

In 1926 the Party had faced its biggest challenge in the General Strike. Millions of workers were pitted against a ruthless government determined to break trade-union organisation. Despite the commitment and courage of its members, the Communist Party failed to respond adequately because its bosses in Moscow were more interested in maintaining an alliance with the left trade-union leaders.

A particularly interesting article is “Some Past Rank-and-File movements”, in which Brian examines the experience of rank-and-file movements before World War II. Working-class action independent of the bureaucracy is as important today as it ever was, so there are many lessons for militants.

Brian shows the origins of rank-and-file organisation before the birth of the CP. Faced with the growth of a union bureaucracy, syndicalist activists aimed at “limiting the power of officials to go against the will of the rank and file, and subjecting these officials to more effective control from below”. Rank-and-file organisation developed during the First World War, with bodies like the Clyde Workers’ Committee.

This tradition of rank-and-file organisation led in the 1920s to the Minority Movement. This was inspired by the CP, but extended far wider than CP membership. Though some of the figures quoted are rather optimistic, it involved hundreds of thousands of workers. Revolutionaries faced the twin dangers of sectarianism and opportunism. They had to learn to build the broadest unity, but also to hold firm to their principles.

The Minority Movement did not aim to split the unions but to strengthen them – the slogan was “back to the unions”, urging workers who had dropped out to rejoin.

As Brian summed it up, “the task of the Minority Movement was to make the unity of the trade union movement a real one, to build up the shop and local organization which should be able to control from below this great mass machine, to fight at every step the apostles of ‘civil peace’” and thus prevent further industrial defeats like Black Friday in 1921.

It didn’t happen. After the General Strike the CP effectively destroyed the Minority Movement to “to avoid open warfare with the TUC”. There was then a stupid attempt to create “red unions”. Nonetheless an impressive bus workers’ rank-and-file movement developed in the 1930s.

Brian’s articles were a pioneering effort. Since then much has been written on the CP’s early years. Sometimes it’s necessary to revise Brian’s judgements.

But his articles have one great merit which make them still worth reading. For Brian was there. He stayed in the CP for over twenty years, despite reservations, because he knew that it brought together many of the best working-class militants of the time. Yet he had also seen at first hand the cynicism and dishonesty of many of the party’s leaders. His testimony remains of great value and deserves careful study.

Brian’s articles on the CP are available at » Some of them were republished in the volume Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse, A History of Communism in Britain (Bookmarks 1995). For some fascinating material on Brian’s dispute with the CP in 1956-7, see Revolutionary History Vol 9 No 3 (2006).


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