obituary of brian pearce

by Terry Brotherstone, from The Guardian

Brian Pearce, who has died aged 93, was one of the most acute scholars of Russian history and British communism never to have held an academic post. Of the historians who broke with the Communist party of Great Britain (CPGB) after the Khrushchev “secret speech” and the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, he was the most insistent on the need for historical analysis of the party’s record.

A prodigious translator from both Russian and French, Pearce won the Scott-Moncrieff prize three times – in 1976 for Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin, in 1980 for Roland Mousnier’s The Institutions of French Monarchy Under Absolutism, and in 1991 for Paul Veyne’s Bread and Circuses. Literary translation was his main source of income after he stopped working for the CPGB, for which he did various journalistic, cultural relations and translation jobs after leaving the civil service in 1950.

Expelled from the party in 1957, he had continued to work as a teacher of English at the Soviet Embassy, but the next year Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s former general secretary, saw him there. “Soon my pupils … very embarrassed, made excuses for terminating their lessons,” Pearce recalled.

Born in Dorset of upwardly mobile parents, Pearce became interested in politics as a precocious student at the John Lyon school, Harrow, north-west London. The Communist parties in Germany and France, which he visited in the early 1930s, impressed him. Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, which seemed to point to Soviet-style planning as an answer to the “anarchy and waste” of capitalism in the 1930s, also, ironically, influenced his decision to join the CPGB in 1934 at University College London. As a student he learned the values of historical scholarship that he never forgot from, among others, Pieter Geyl and JE Neale.

Narrowly failing to get a first-class degree, he began research with Neale on Tudor history, but he abandoned the thesis with some relief when he volunteered for war service in the army, which took him to the north of England, Northern Ireland, and the far east.

Since the 1930s he had accommodated politically to the need for “mendacity” in defence of the Soviet Union. But his sharp mind logged many incidents that surfaced with retrospective significance when, in the 1950s, its ideological mystique was shattered by Khrushchev’s revelations.

Conscious of having accepted too much for too long, Pearce was determined to “swallow no more toads”. With Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker reporter whose despatches from Budapest blew the gaffe on the party line about Hungary, he joined Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist “Club”, which in 1959 became the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary party). But Healy’s substitution of political thuggery for Marxist politics drove them both away.

Pearce’s particular contribution lay in opening the books on the CPGB’s early years, when its policy zigzags saw it increasingly divorced from the reality of working-class struggle, and reliant on uncritical defence of the Stalin regime, and defensive struggles against unemployment and fascism. Only his mother’s serious illness had stopped Pearce from joining the International Brigades in Spain.

As a member of the short-lived history commission of the CPGB, in late 1956, Pearce was shocked by Pollitt’s cynicism when he explained “with his brutal frankness” that “you can’t produce a history of a Communist party until … [it] comes to power” – and even then the history had to be consistent with current Soviet policy. When its early leader, Béla Kun, who had been made the scapegoat for its mistakes, was unexpectedly rehabilitated by Moscow, the Hungarian party had had to pulp the entire run of a beautifully produced volume.

Pearce’s seminal essays on party history influenced many looking for a principled way forward, and are still studied in a book written with Michael Woodhouse, Essays on the History of British Communism (1976). Pearce wrote many other articles and reviews and a full-length study, How Haig Saved Lenin (1987). A meticulously translated and annotated five-volume edition of Trotsky’s Military Writings, now accessible online, was among his lasting achievements. His work on Soviet history was acknowledged by Aberdeen University, which now houses a Pearce archive, by an honorary research fellowship in history.

After leaving the Trotskyists, Pearce eschewed party affiliations, but he was generous with his knowledge to young political idealists, and to scholars – some very distinguished – happy to pick his fact-packed and endlessly inquiring brain. His anecdotes of “communist mendacity” and its absurdities will live on instructively in the minds of all who heard them.

He was three times married: at the outset of the war to Lilla Fox, with whom he had three children, Ruth, Margaret and Joseph, the marriage ending in divorce; in the 1950s to Fanny Greenspan, until their separation in the following decade; and, after Fanny’s death in the 1980s, to Margaret Medwin, who was his companion from the 1960s until she predeceased him by a few months. This left him bereft, but he was active in translation and writing until the end. His three children and eight grandchildren survive him.

• Brian Leonard Pearce, historian and translator, born May 9 1915; died November 25 2008

9 thoughts on “obituary of brian pearce

  1. Being a student of history i have long admired Brian Pearce and his works. He was a real champion. But as i have heard he was a very simple man. The news of his demise on this obituary website has saddened me a great deal.


  2. For another side of Brian Pearse read the following:

    The initial vehicle for the onslaught was the despicable Brian Pearce, an ex-member, famous translator from the Russian Trotsky’s works and one of the ‘old boy network’ of Pilling Slaughter and Peter Fryer (the first Editor of The Newsletter and a radical author), most of whom had joined from the CP in the late fifties. He had the racist, ‘Boys with the rosaries and armalites’ letter, sneering at the IRA and glorifying William of Orange printed in Workers Press on 17 January:
    “It appears that some members of the Workers Revolutionary Party are opposed to celebrating the events of 1688 in England because this might give offence to the boys with the rosaries and armalites… Thanks to the `Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 we had the agricultural revolution. The industrial revolution, the modem proletariat, trade unionism, Chartism and the whole 19th am 20th century development of the British labour movement … Nobody, I’m sure, in the WRP would be against celebrating the English revolution of the 1640sand 1650s. Yet, of course, James II, backed by Louis XIV of France, raised troops among the Irish Catholics to carry through his counter-revolution. If they were defeated at the battle of the Boyne, was that such a bad thing from the stand point of world history?”
    This was an appalling racist and chauvinist diatribe. Perhaps US Trotskyists should celebrate the defeat of the Red Indian Nation at the battle of Wounded Knee or South African Trotskyist celebrate the defeat of the African tribes in the Zulu Wars – from the stand-point of world history? It drew a strong reaction from many WRP members.
    This document by Whelan was never discussed in the WRP and leaders made strenuous efforts at preventing members obtaining it when the SLG handed it out. I also obtained copies of The Newsletter, the SLL newspaper. Those from August 1969 where the political line of the SLL on Ireland was spelled out, were particularly devastating. I was therefore in possession of quite extensive details of what the SLL/WRP was up to in Ireland in the past. It was just as well because Slaughter pressed home the counter attack in Workers Press of 24 January under the nom-de-plume of ‘J Upward’:
    “…One feature of Cde Downing’s article (I had written a review of David Reed’s ‘Ireland, the Key to the British Revolution’) puzzles me. From the Popular Front and the Civil War In Spain, he leaps 33 years to 1969-1970. What about the role of the IRA in the intervening years? How did the bourgeois nationalist movement confront World War II and the struggles of the post-war periods? (Brian Pearce was soon to give us the answer to that. Treason! GD] …Comrade Downing tells us that the ‘excellent’ Reed makes biting comments on the role of the British middle class left (including the Socialist Labour League, Workers Revolutionary Party under Healy). I believe Gerry Downing is member of the Central Committee of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Has he discussed and found agreement in that Committee that the SLL/WRP was part of the British middle class left or is he making this attack as an individual in the columns of the WRP’s paper? I defy him to show how the policies of the SLL on Ireland or on any other question were ‘middle class’. In 1969 the Workers Press, in front page lead articles, in editorials, in features and reports written by several comrades who went to the North and participated in the struggles, stood alone in fighting for the withdrawal of Brutish troops, (This is an old Ile. Both the Militant and the IMG opposed the sending in of troops and called for their withdrawal, as did the USec. GD) while the middle class left, including the Socialist Workers Party, welcomed those troops in as the ‘lesser evil’.
    In the years between 1975 and 1985 Healy’s policy of avoiding any clash with the British state produced the reactionary line in the WRP of outright condemnation of the IRA bomb attacks in Britain. That was a manifestation of the way Healy’s regime introduced middle class politics into a proletarian organisation, the SLL/WRP. In 1985 the process of degeneration involved in that was arrested and Healy and his allies defeated by the WRP.
    This dialectic Downing ignores preferring simply the label ‘British middle class’. He thereby slanders the work of hundreds of comrades who fought to build the proletarian revolutionary party (foremost of these was C Slaughter, no doubt, GD) always against that ‘British middle class left’. That light eventually had to be fought inside the WRP, against Healy, Redgrave and company. And we won. Don’t forget that”.
    The Post Script to the letter was even more disgraceful:
    “PS. The caption under a photograph accompanying Cde Downing’s article says: `Many of the heat lighters of the Communist Party perished in the Republican side in the Spanish Civil war. This group includes Frank Ryan. This may lead some readers to think Frank Ryan was killed in Spain. So far as l know he was taken prisoner and then taken to Germany. Perhaps Comrade Downing can tell us what happened to him subsequently?”
    This said in effect: ‘and wasn’t Frank Ryan a Nazi collaborator? This was a British Imperialist inspired smear against Ryan, a leading IRA activist and Socialist Republican. Captured in Spain, fighting for the Republic, he was spared the firing squad and died in Germany of his wounds and of TB. It was, of course, quite correct to seek arms from Hitler to fight British Imperialism. This, together with the question on what the IRA had been up to during World War 11, revealed the pro-imperialist attitude of Slaughter, which Is that of the English middle classes. It cannot be a coincidence dust what was hinted at so broadly by Slaughter in this letter was spelled out so explicitly by Pearce in the issue of the paper where my reply to the ‘J Upward’ letter also appeared, two weeks later on 7 February.
    I had not only been appalled at the WRP‘s chauvinism towards Ireland, so clearly repealed alter the split, but also at my own political cowardice in not fighting it. I vowed to myself that, as a Trotskyist and an Irishman, I would never again tolerate that chauvinism masquerading under the guise of Marxism or Trotskyism or in any other form. In the next issue, 24 January, I replied with a letter attacking the basic racism of Pearce:
    “Yes, I’m sure the WRP would be against celebrating the Cromwellian revolution of the 1640s and 1650s despite its great progressive nature. Cromwell may have cut the head off Charles 1 to popular acclaim but his butchery of the Irish nation and his suppression of the Diggers and Levellers (the left wing of his army) confirmed the bourgeois nature of the new order…History has transformed Puritanism from the revolutionary bourgeois ideology of the 17th century Into the racist, fascist expression of white Anglo Saxon Protestant supremacy from the north of Ireland to the Southern States of the USA to South Africa. It is sad to see a former Trotskyist, who has obviously become totally alienated from the struggles of working class people, giving credence. Even “from the stand-point of world history” to so repressive an ideology”
    In the same issue Brian Dempsey, from Scotland, also attracted Pearce:
    “lf Pearce wishes to contribute to our developing understanding of Irish issues and is concerned about the relationship between religion and the class struggle he should prepare a sober contribution on the subject. If, however, all he can do is produce cynical and bigoted remarks he would do well to keep them to himself”
    Simon Pirani, too, joined the attack, though respectfully:
    “We don’t need a fine Marxist scholar like Brian Pearce to tell us that the English bourgeois revolution was a great step forward for history… I never heard of anyone celebrating 1688, but every 12 July tens of thousands of Orangemen celebrate 1690. Does Brian Pearce think it strange that WRP members don’t participate?”
    In Workers Press, 31 January Aine Devlin’s reply to Pearce was short and sweet: “If Brian Pearce ever wants to visit Ireland we can fix it up for him to meet some people without rosaries”. Now, however, the issue was no longer Pearce but the reactionary letter from Slaughter. Not everybody knew, of course, that Upward was Slaughter. My reply was published on 7 February:
    “…In the Newsletter in 1965 an article from ‘a Dublin correspondent’ stated: `Nationalism is as poisonous to the Irish working class as racism is to the British working class… in issue 676 (15 August 1969) ‘our own correspondent’ wrote the lead article: ‘Spectre of Unity in Belfast Riots’ about what could happen if Catholic and Protestant workers united. But in issue 677, August 19, it had already happened. A lead story by David Maude reported that: “defence guards had been formed in the majority of Belfast districts and estates following Thursday’s bitter street fighting”. Similar moves involving both Catholic and Protestant workers are underway in Londonderry (sic). On Belfast’s Grosvenor Road tonight Republican elements (sic) tried to order Protestant families out of their homes… Workers quickly formed a mutual defence patrol”
    I can only say that no one else in the world noticed this. Whilst calling to “to withdraw troops from Northern Ireland (sic) now and ‘Unity of Catholic and Protestant workers’ issues 676. 677 and 678 put the perspective for the Irish Revolution: ‘For a Workers and Farmers Government breaking wlth Westminster posing unity of action immediately with the workers of the South (sic) and of Britain’. No doubt about what that means: a ‘two nations’ theory, under which a withdrawal of British troops would leave the Orange Order in control. As there was not even a call for the disbanding of the B-Specials (the Orange Order fascist reserve force then murdering and burning Nationalist homes at will, GD) it was clearly a Watkerite appeal to Protestant prejudices against nationalism – the ‘pure class’ line so brilliantly demolished by James Connolly in the ‘Connolly -Walker controversy. This chauvinist position was detailed by Dermot Whelan in: The SLL and Irish Marxism 1959-1973: A Disastrous Legacy. Together with branches in Belfast and Londonderry (sic)] we had a Dublin branch fighting to bring down the Tories. No amount of struggle and self-sacrifice, most of it ‘party building’ abstract from the real class struggle could save the Irish movement from extinction in the face of such wrong policies.”
    In that same Workers Press of 7 February Pearce now warmed to his task. Taking his cue from Slaughter, in a letter entitled, ‘The IRA and the Nazis’ Pearce let it all spew out. This is just some of it:
    “I was 1n the North as a soldier for a whole year during what was called in the Republic ‘The Emergency’. (An Interesting period that was. We could listen into Radio Athlone’s news bulletins. From North Africa they read both sides communiqués – the German came first, of course). From the Eastern Front they read only the German communiqués: no platform for atheistic communism. In the Summer of 1942 it became known that the Nazis were planning to invade the Republic in order to be able to invade Britain from that direction. At that time the IRA became hyperactive in the North, trying to steal arms and money, to commit acts of sabotage and above all to collect military information on behalf of the German Embassy in Dublin. (These were obviously dastardly acts of high treason to the British Empire, in Pearce’s view, GD). I said to one of their lads who had been caught on the job: `You people are always talking about freedom. How can you bring yourselves to help the Nazis who would enslave the world if they could? He replied, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland`s opportunity. In any conflict we take the side opposed to England. To which my rejoinder was ‘But isn’t that, in effect, letting England determine your policy? At which he gave me one of those ‘The English will never understand’ smiles before being led away.”
    He then got a good kicking, presumably, if he was not actually done to death, as is the good old tradition in the British army when dealing with Irish rebels. The sole objection raised by Pilling, the editor, to this drivel in a note at the end of the letter was to mention that the Workers Press does not use the name ‘Londonderry’ in normal circumstances (as Pearce did later in his letter). In a letter in the same issue, Geoff Barr, from Exeter, solidarised with the anti Pearce letters and pointed out that the National Front were the main organisers of the 1988 celebration of King Billy’s landing in the West Country in 1688.
    In the Issue of 21 February Dave Bruce weighed against Pete Fryer and ‘P Upward’ for their arrogance to members (Nora Wilde, Richard Goldstein and me) and defended our rights to our views: “For example Cde Downing was attacked in a recent letter from J Upward (he might adopt the nom-de-plume of Step Sideways) because he called the policies of the SLL on Ireland ‘middle class’. I chanced to read that letter at the same time as I read Cde Sara Hannnigan’s account of how Mickey Devine left the SLL because of its chauvinist line on Ireland only to die later in the 1981 Hunger Strikes. He also attacked Fryer for abusing his ‘Personal Column to attack Richard Goldstein and Norah Wilde. Norah Wilde defended my democratic rights too in that issue and pointed out that ‘Upward’ was attempting to halt all re-examination: “Since October 1985, freed from bureaucratic repression Workers Press and the WRP through its internal and public discussions have deepened and clarified our understanding of thepast, another dialectic with which J Upward appears to b unfamtliar.”
    Frank Fitzmaurice from Liverpool also denounced Pearce’s chauvinism. But Pearce was given two more bites at the cherry. On 14 March we had from from him:
    “… As for the matter of Londonderry you may prefer ‘Derry’ (why not, though, go all the way and write ‘Doire’) but it would have been ridiculous for me to avoid the form ‘Londonderry’ in the context of what I wrote. It was mainly owing to the Ulster Protestants that we were able to use the base in World War II, and they prefer the longer name. In saying which I do not forget the contribution to the crushing of Nazi Germany made by Irish Catholics from both sides of the Border, who volunteered to join the British armed forces regardless of the attitude of the government in Dublin – sorry Baile Ath Cliath. (Does not this sound like something you would hear from the Queen? GD). If Northern Ireland were to be annexed to the Republic this would mean that the majority community in the North would have imposed upon them not only the ideology of the Roman Catholic Church but also something which is alien to their culture, namely the Irish language.”
    Pearce can hardly have been ignorant of the fact that Derry returned a unionist majority at every election despite the fact that some 70% of the population were nationalist. Never mind what they wanted to call their own city. What’s a little gerrymandering among friends eh?
    This drew a barrage of letters from members. Sue Gwyer. Simon Pirani, Geoff Barr and Charlie Pottins attacked Pearce’s chauvinism in the next issue (2 l March). But some members did not wish to leave it at the level of attacking Pearce. On 4 April Paddy Winters, from the North London branch, attacked Pearce and also the decision of the Editor, Pilling, to publish these letters: “It is ironic that at this time, with talk of internationalism the Party in Britain would impede the possible progress of our Irish comrades, for such letters as those written by Pearce will certainly have such an effect. The ideas inherent in these letters, and by association the act of publishing them, come directly from a class position: they come from a petty bourgeois fear and hatred of oppressed peoples in struggle, which brings with it a philosophical bankruptcy. Only a charlatan would still hold to the backward ideas expounded in B Pearce’s writings. I feel that those who allow such garbage to be printed today will – philosophically speaking – have to sweep it up tomorrow or he buried by it”.
    That smoked Pilling out. In a footnote to Winter’s letter he says: • “Whatever our disagreements with Brian Pearce the stand-point of the above (unsigned) letter. (Winters had forgotten to sign the letter but quickly made it known that he was the author GD) must be rejected. Pearce has raised some issues of great importance for Marxism issues which are not settled by abuse. If Pearce’s letters stir some comrades into sending contributions which tackle these problems that would be splendid – Editor.”
    You could, of course, say that about ‘Mein Kampf.
    David Gorman from Liverpool, on 18 April wrote: “Cliff Slaughter has claimed that what North described as a nationalist and opportunist tendency was arrested and driven out of the Party with the expulsion of Healy in October 1985. The privileged position granted to Pearce’s odious national socialism in the letter pages of Workers Press raises a question mark.”
    Charlie Walsh also made clear, in a letter in that issue, that he totally supported Winters criticism of the Workers Press for publishing the letters. But the Paddy baiting was now reaching a climax. Again Pearce appeared in print in the very same issue of 18 April and spewed out yet more reaction. This letter contained three themes: (1) Support for Loyalists reaction in the north of Ireland and opposition to Irish unity: “Liberation is the work of the masses; it is not possible against them, writes Geoff Barr. Well the masses to Northern Ireland are predominantly Protestant, and strongly adverse to the aims of the IRA. What conclusion are we to draw from that fact? Perhaps they are not masses at all, but – wait for it – settlers’ (settlers still after 300 years and more])?” (2) Support for the partition of India by British Imperialism and (3) Condemnation of British war-time Trotskyists for sabotaging the ‘war effort’ by promoting strikes: “It was disgraceful of the Stalinists to call them (the Trotskyists) agents Hitler but might not Hitler have said about them: ‘with enemies like these. who needs friends‘?”
    Finally, the following week, 25 April, Pilling was forced to call a halt. But the basis on which the Editorial Board did so made it clear that they had no regrets for the outrageous insults offered to Irish people and to principled Trotskyists: “… In its apparent defence of the partition of India, and its suggestion that Trotskyist opposition to Imperialism in the last war helped Nazism we think the letter went beyond the bounds of socialist controversy. We do not regret our publication of Pearce’s previous letters. However much we may disagree with his position on Ireland Pearce raised a series of important issues. We feel in some cases these were answered with mere abuse. On further consideration, however, we think that last weeks contribution should not have been published. Workers Press Editorial Board”.
    That was the end of the affair, apart from a letter of support for Pearce and Pilling from another of the academics, lecturer Terry Brotherstone from Edinburgh. He referred approvingly to: “Pearce’s provocative and stimulating letters”. Both the Editorial Board statement and Brotherstone’s letters summed up for me the whole rotten essence of the WRP. They said, in effect, “What’s up with you blokes, what’s wrong with a bit of Paddy bashing anyway?” When Pearce started insulting war-time British Trotskyists and supporting the partition of India he had gone “beyond the bounds of socialist controversy”. He was, of course, free to use the pages of Workers Press and later the pages of ‘Marxist Forum’, the journal of the WRP’s loyal(ist) Irish co-thinkers, to support the partition of Ireland and spew out chauvinism towards the war- time IRA and racist insults at the Irish as long as he wished. The message to any principled internationalist could not be mistake: either swallow this crap or get lost.


  3. Amongst Irish catholics if the time James was known as ‘James the shite’. I think you exaggerate, the author is purely referring to narrow Irish nationalists of which there were and are plenty in the republican movement. But the minute you say so its like heresy. Before you brand me as anything my roots are as Irish as yours Gerry.


  4. No, that is a full-blown British chauvinist position by Pearce; the task of the IRA during WW2 was clearly to support the Empire in its just struggle against Hitler, British Trotskyists were assisting Hitler in striking in WW2 and the partition of India was a good thing, surely only from the standpoint of the Empire. Healy won Pearce from the CP in 1956 but clearly not even to his own distorted version of Trotskyism – he retained essential features of British chauvinism as mediated by the Stalinist CPGB.


  5. Brian was my Grand-father and after reading all that text I had to chuckle – our family had Irish roots.


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