Losing an argument about Lenin


“[Kelsall’s] face was ascetic-looking almost to sourness, but he had an unusually long forelock which – like Rupert Brooke’s – was brushed back above his ear. One other vestigial indication of his middle-class origin was his green sportscoat, shabby now with leather patches on the elbows but it had probably been expensive when bought and was the kind of thing worn by university aesthetes in the ‘twenties.” …

“Well, what exactly is the problem of yours that you want to talk about?”

Elsie was ready with the wording of her answer.

“Lately I’ve become a bit confused”’, she used the apologetic phrase customary with Party members when they wanted to express inability to accept official policy completely – “about the theoretical line that the Party seems to have adopted since the war.”

Kelsall asked almost snappishly,

“Why do you say seems?”

“I mean I’m not altogether clear about it. Apparently it is different in some ways from the line that Lenin laid down in State and Revolution.” …

“What grounds have you for supposing that the Party has departed from Lenin at all?”

She wasn’t prepared for this, Alan knew. She hadn’t really doubted Kelsall would admit that the leadership had modified Lenin’s theory, and she had expected him to defend the modification with reason which would either convince her – and she was she sure she was willing and even eager to be convinced – or which if she found them inadequate, as she suspected they might be, she could demolish and thereby set going in his mind a process that would end by his being persuaded, and in turn persuading the rest of the leadership, that the Party’s theoretical line was wrong. Before she could think how to answer him, he added.

“If you had taken the trouble to read Party publications over the last year you would be less likely to come out with such half-baked assertions”

“Does it occur to you as you sit nattering there, that you are criticizing comrades who not only have more experience politically than most of us but who have international contacts?” …

“What did Lenin think of the line taken by Parvus and Trotsky about the 1905 revolution?”

“I don’t remember what line they took. I suppose it was leftist. Did they want the Social Democrats to aim at setting up a workers’ government and not a bourgeois democratic one?”

“You don’t remember”, Kelsall said, with a surprise that was quite crudely sarcastic, though he didn’t say she was wrong. “I advise you to go and read Lenin’s two articles on the subject which were published in the thirteenth and fourteenth numbers of Vperiod.” Elsie’s face was beginning to show a glumness recognizable to Alan as a sign that she had taken deep offence and would not soon get over it. Kelsall went on: “I suggest that you too study what Lenin said and wrote in 1917 during the period between the overthrow of the Tsar and the start of the October revolution. I think this might help you to see that there’s no departure from Lenin in our Party’s present policy”

from E. Upward, The Rotten Elements (1969)


Kelsall is a composite. His closest historical counterpart is probably Rajani Palme Dutt who edited the Communist party’s A5-sized theoretical journal Labour Monthly for about four decades from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, complete each issue with a ‘Notes of the Month’ taking up the first half-dozen paes, offering a retrospective analysis of the latest developments in world politics, incorporating them always to the latest twists or turns of the policies coming out of the Stalinist high command in Moscow.

Duncan Hallas describes Dutt’s role well: “Month by month, his Notes of the Month arrived from Brussels, like papal encyclicals, expounding and defending every twist and turn of the Stalinist line with never a backward glance or explanation. It supported the rightist line of the CPGB in the run up to and during the 1926 general strike, the turn to lunatic ultra-leftism in 1928-29 (which met with strong resistance at first in the British party) and then the abandonment of class politics altogether with the popular front.”

Dutt’s response to Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech, admitting only the most heinous of Stalin’s crimes, was as follows: “That there should be spots on the sun would only startle an inveterate Mithras worshipper”. He retired on a pension paid for by Moscow, finally donating to the British Library a collection of his carefully cut-and-pasted articles for the various publications of the Communist Party, which he no doubt assumed would receive the full “Collected Works” treatment previously reserved for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. They have never in fact been published; who, today, would read them?

Green sportscoats fell out of fashion among Oxford undergraduates before the end of the 1930s. By the early 1970s, it seems, they had been replaced on the clothes pegs of  university aesthetes by leather jackets in brown.

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