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