Monty Johnstone and Trotskyism


I’ve been intending for a while to write a little about Monty Johnstone, due mainly to a guilty conscience. After the CPGB dissolved, Monty fell off my radar, and I would occasionally wonder whatever had happened to him, or if he was still alive. And now he isn’t any longer.

I was in any case unable to write an obituary of Monty, since I barely knew the guy and big chunks of his biography were a mystery to me. I could have written about his gifts as an educator and speaker, but that would be about it. I am therefore obliged to Prof Hobsbawm for this nice obit in the Guardian, and I look forward to the tribute promised by Monty’s colleagues at the Lipman-Miliband Trust.

There is one rather important thing that Eric leaves out, which is that Monty had been a youthful Trotskyist during the war, when he was still a pupil at Rugby. According to Bill Hunter, who had been in the Brum RCP at the time and was in a position to know, Monty managed to combine his affiliation to the RCP with still being a member of the YCL. How that worked, where his loyalties really lay and what lay behind his break with the RCP, are questions I’d love to have answered.

There were a couple of consequences flowing from this. One was that Monty ended up as the CP’s expert on Trotskyism, and, being a genuine expert, his writings – even the slanderous ones – had a depth and subtlety that you wouldn’t often associate with the CPGB’s sectbusters. Monty knew his Trotsky exceedingly well, better than most Trots, and more than one Trot ended up looking like an idiot after trying to debate him.

The other consequence was that, oddly for a prominent member of a Stalinist party, Monty had an abiding concern with questions of socialist democracy. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that he was one of the many CP intellectuals who took a strong anti-Stalinist stance during the Hungarian Revolution. But he stood out among those for his loyalty to the party. Most of the dissidents dropped out of politics altogether or swung over to Cold War Labourism. A few – Cliff Slaughter springs to mind – went over to Trotskyism. Of course, Monty had burned his bridges there, and I somehow doubt that the Trotskyist movement, which at that time meant Gerry Healy, would have had him back.

Thus it was that Monty ended up in the CPGB’s equivalent of Siberia, only being partially rehabilitated by the Gollan leadership after Prague. Even so, his position was a singular one. Although the Euros drew on him for ammo to use against the tankies, as Eric points out he was never really in sympathy with the Marxism Today hard right, and didn’t flip over into liberalism as most of them did. It speaks well of Monty that he remained a communist, at least by his own lights. Whatever dodgy turnings he may have taken, he was still one of us at that fundamental level.


  1. ejh said,

    September 6, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I saw him debate the Spanish Civil War once, the audience, it is fair to say, not being favourable to the CP line on this one. He did make the curious argument that they had been proven right in the end because fascism had finally been defeated, but I couldn’t tell you how he’d come to that conclusion (or even if he was taking the piss).

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 6, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    He did tend, didn’t he, to come down to an argument from big historic forces. On Trotsky he did have this disarming habit of saying that, yes, Trotsky was right about lots of things, but you have to consider the achievements of the SU.

  3. ejh said,

    September 6, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    I quite like arguments about big historical forces: I’ve always liked the broad sweep (probably because I have no head for detail – plays havoc with my chess) and I’d sure I’d like, for instance, Braudel if I were ever to actually read him.

    If Johnstone were saying something like “yes, all sorts of critcisms of the CPSU were right, but you have to have something better than critciism, you have to have a viable alternative” then that’s not such a bad point provided it is interpreted generously. I think it’s important to say that many people we might call Stalinists did think that way – they weren’t the boneheaded apologists of totalitarianism of repute. (Hobsbawn himself would be a good example.) I think this is particularly important to say given how common it is for the aggressive centre/Decents/PD-types/what you will to just treat Communists as no better than fascists. Historically it’s a lie, not least (though not only) because of everything it leaves out.

    (It’s probably overdoing it, but I shall do it anyway, to point out that there must still be a lot of anti-fascist bones buried within a few kilometres of where I’m sitting – and damned few of them belonged to right-of-centre supporters of private capital and foreign intervention.)

  4. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 6, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Johnstone was pretty great really. I’d very much agree with you ejh, there’s far too great a tendency by all to look at the membership card for individuals in left organisations and short circuit any greater enquiry as to what their actual politics is.

    Mind you, true internationalists weren’t that shy of foreign intervention, were they?

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 6, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Of course, hearing Mick O’Riordan on Spain was a whole other kettle of fish…

  6. Red Squirrel said,

    September 6, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    On Trotsky he did have this disarming habit of saying that, yes, Trotsky was right about lots of things, but you have to consider the achievements of the SU.

    That wouldn’t be a very good argument. The achievements of the USSR could very well, from a Trotskyist standpoint, be attributed to the states’ remaining socialist elements, and its working class character, something which Trotsky always supported, unlike Third Campists and “Third” Camp theorists.

  7. Red Squirrel said,

    September 6, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    I meant State Capitalism theorists.

  8. Dr Paul said,

    September 6, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    I always got on well with Monty Johnstone. He was a CPGB member with whom one could discuss Trotsky and Trotskyism in a civil and well-informed manner.

    He also got me a press ticket for the CPGB congress in 1987, which was real fun, not least when the Euros used pure Stalinist methods against the Tankies. Further details available on request.

    I don’t know why Monty was in the old RCP, perhaps he was doing an entry job. It’s often overlooked that the Stalinists were the most successful entryists in the British labour movement. They did a very effective entry job in the Independent Labour Party in the mid-1930s and in the Labour Party itself shortly afterwards. In the latter-day RCP (of which I was a supporter), we had a young lad who had been prominent in the YCL, I knew him as a real down-the-line RCPer. He suddenly disappeared, and, lo and behold, he reappears in the YCL. Weird.

    It’s an interesting coincidence that the CPGB disappeared in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union crashed. There was in the CPSU three main factions: the Ligachev wing, which wanted to keep as much as the old SU going as possible; the Yeltsin wing, which wanted to go full-pelt to the market; and the Gorbachev wing, which wanted to keep something positive out of the wreckage. Mutatis mutandis, there were three corresponding factions in the CPGB; the remaining Tankies, the out-and-out Euros of the Democratic Left, and a ‘Gorbachev’ faction, in whose ranks I would place Monty Johnstone.

    Dr Paul

  9. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 7, 2007 at 8:23 am

    I only met Monty Johnstone once. I fell in beside him when he was carrying one pole of the (real) CPGB banner at the big protest in Soho after the Tianenmen Square massacre in 1989. He told me that he’d been a fraternal delegate at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956. While Khrushchev gave his ‘Secret Speech’, Johnstone was taken on a visit to a factory, where he talked to a group of workers who’d formed a study circle to read and discuss the works of Bakunin.

    Yes, Bakunin. The original anti-Marxist anarchist. I don’t have a clue what this means (unless it was some kind of ruse by the Soviet authorities, to give an impression of liberalism) but I thought it worth passing on.

  10. John said,

    September 7, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Am i wrong in saying that he ended up with the alliance of Green Socialism which again, in terms of broad sweeps, seems to have attracted varous elements of old labour, stalinists, disilusioned trots, leftist greens and those who came to the conclusion that the decades of in fighting within the left had left all of the various factions impotent.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 7, 2007 at 11:11 am

    No, you’d be right about that.

  12. Ciarán said,

    September 7, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Of course, hearing Mick O’Riordan on Spain was a whole other kettle of fish…

    Yeah, apparently he couldn’t get through a showing of Loach’s Land and Freedom without shaking his walking stick at the screen.

    And it seems, from the eulogies at least, that his analysis of the Soviet Union was that bad socialism was still better than any kind of capitalism.

  13. old pal of Monty said,

    September 22, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Ken MacLeod is mixing up George Matthews’ account of the 20th CPSU congress, where he was indeed taken off to see a factory when Khrushchev was making his “secret” speech, and Monty’s account of his first visit to the USSR the next year, where he met some Russian worker in a back street who was part of an underground anarchist circle.

    As for Monty’s flirtation with Trotskyism, this was back in 1946 or 1947, when the CPGB was still following its “Crimea” line. Monty had read his Lenin, he knew it could not be squared with the line at that time, and he was friendly with someone from the old RCP at that time. Once the CPGB abandoned the Crimea line, Monty returned to the fold. Simple as that, really.

    But the “great historic forces” point is spot on. Lots of us remained in the mainstream communist movement because Trotskyism just offered a bewildering array of squabbling sects with no significant influence on anything, whereas communist parties were able to take power occasionally, inflict defeats on US imperialism and so on. And it was possible to be a dissident within the CPGB.

  14. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 22, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    old pal, it’s interesting you should say that about the CPGB. MacLeod has said much the same of his own experience of that much later, and in fairness my experience in the Irish WP was that it was a much broader church than the glib ‘Stalinist’ gibe makes out – I knew a couple of people who were most enamoured of Trotsky. Not broad enough, though. Not broad enough…

  15. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 22, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    Malachy McGurran springs to mind… but then, you had the notorious “Provo-Trot” articles in the United Irishman, just to show that you had all sorts in OSF/WP.

  16. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 22, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    Was McGurran a Trotskyite? And incidentally whatever happened to him?

  17. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 22, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    I never knew him myself, but Gerry Foley reckoned he had sympathies in that direction. Gerry was the US SWP’s expert on Ireland, and he had fairly close contact with McGurran. I know McGurran died quite young, IIRC in the late 70s.

  18. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 23, 2007 at 9:52 am

    I think it was 1979 or 1980, but I could well be wrong.

  19. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 23, 2007 at 11:17 am

    old pal of Monty: that makes a bit more sense! I must have conflated two anecdotes he told me during a noisy and fraught demonstration.

  20. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 23, 2007 at 11:44 am

    It would be fascinating to know about these underground workers’ anarchist circles, though.

    During my year in the Former Leningrad I lived on Bakunin Street, but I saw no other evidence of anarchist thinking in the New Russia.

  21. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 23, 2007 at 11:44 am

    I mean fascinating to ‘know more’ about these circles, of course.

  22. old pal of Monty said,

    September 23, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    So far as I recall Monty’s story on this, he met this Russian by chance in the street, got talking to him, and noticed that he was expressing classical anarchist ideas. So Monty asked the Russian outright – are you an anarchist? – to which the guy replied that he and a few friends had a study circle. The conversation went no further than that – after all, consorting with foreigners in the 1950s USSR was a good way to ensure that your underground study circle became a prison study circle. Monty used to cite this encounter to illustrate his point that, beneath the facade of 100% ideological conformity, the ideas that had been prevalent in the Russian Empire before 1917 had not gone away: they were all still there, in one form or another. In the post 1991 world, that seems a rather obvious point, but before it all collapsed, lots of communists liked to believe the Soviet fables that the party and people were one, etc.

  23. Gabriel said,

    September 27, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Ciarán said of Mick O’Riordan,
    ‘his analysis of the Soviet Union was that bad socialism was still better than any kind of capitalism.’
    Well I knew both Mick and Monty reasonably well and although Monty would have been much more trenchant in his criticisms of Soviet political life, I think it would be fair to say that both of them , like myself and most ‘sane’ Leftists would see the destruction of the USSR and what has emerged from its wreckage as a significant set-back for world progress.I don’t think that Mick or Monty, would have demurred from that key position. Many critics of members of the CPGB and the CPI make the mistake of thinking that we were in some way utterly blind to the many many defects in existing socialism, the reality was of course that most serious Communist Party members, (and most were certainly committed to the party), did think long and hard about these matters. However in the height of the Cold War of the 1980’s, when for example Reagan ordered the ‘bombing’ of Russia as a supposed off-air ‘joke’, it was clear that the forces of Capitalism and Imperialism had decided to go all out for the destruction of the heart of existing socialism, the USSR.

    Most of us, were aware that the stakes were indeed so high for the forces of progress in the world, that comrades rushed, in various ways and with differing emphases to defend socialism. In the case of people like Monty, to urge the rapid improvement of socialist democracy. In the case of people like Mick, perhaps, and indeed myself also, to rally behind existing socialism, warts and all, a position which in the exigencies of the Cold War became at best strategically driven, and at worst wilfully purblind.

    Both outlooks were however in my opinion rooted in a comprehension that the creation of the USSR had been such a reversal of capitalist global hegemony, that it would be infinitely preferable that it weather the storms and problems it undoubtedly faced. The state of the world since then, has perhaps most eloquently
    confirmed the essential common sense of these various positions of support.

    It is hard to envisage the Iraq war if the USSR had been on hand to stymie US belligerence, and a coming war against Iran by the US would be equally unlikely to be so freely and openly stoked by the likes of Bush, if the USSR was glaring disapprovingly from the East. I am certain that Monty and Mick would agree with me on this. I well recall Monty telling me on a tube journey in London that he believed that the USSR was still the most significant of all the political advances of the 20th century, in direct response to me saying that he was probably uber-critical of it. Perhaps true Trotskyists, and ex-Trotskyists such as the new life style ‘Trot-Lites’ of the AWL may reflect, that our often tedious and apparently stupidly stubborn defence of the USSR was always motivated by some chill inkling of how utterly debilitating a blow it would prove to be were it to be reclaimed for Capitalism. Sadly, that is precisely how it has proved to be.

  24. Robert Berridge said,

    October 4, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    I have just learnt of Monty´s passing and what I regret is that I spent so little time with him. We met 30 years ago meeting 3 times a year ,but for the last year not at all and before that just once. Due to the natural belief our friends will live for ever. Then suddenly they are gone. This is the lesson, enjoy those people around you who you can talk to and disagree with and learn from, while you can.
    Thank you Monty for being, with your warts and all

  25. robert berridge said,

    April 12, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    How the year goes by and the 1st year of Montys passing will be here, and of other comrades. It is a little early for him perhaps,but better early than never. And to all comrades I never met.

  26. ejh said,

    April 13, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    You might have missed that he joined the club of reccently-deceased leftists obituarised by Oliver Kamm. Even by Kamm’s standards it was an unpleasant piece. The first and last paragraphs in particular are models of nastiness.

  27. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 13, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Couldn’t agree more ejh. A disgraceful piece. And one which merely serves to point up OKs complete lack of understanding of the left and indeed of a certain lack of basic decency (ironically enough).

    BTW splintered, I was talking recently with them as do know and McGurran was indeed supposed to have such tendencies. More power to him.

  28. October 17, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    In the very unlikely event that anyone ever returns to this thread, I thought I just mention that the Spring 2008 issue of Communist History Network Newsletter reprints a long interview with Monty from 1999. It covers his personal political development from a schoolboy right up to the death throws of the post CPGB vehicle , the Democratic Left. He was, indeed, attracted to Trotskyism around 1945, but never quite succumbed.

    Click to access CHNN_22.pdf

    I remember him with fondness from my time in the same CPGB branch.He was a honest and honourable man.

  29. Bob Potter said,

    November 13, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    I guess I was never a ‘person friend’ of Monty, but I met and chatted with him regularly in the early 1950s. He was editor of ‘Challenge’ and as a ‘new recruit’ to both YCL and CP, I was a reasonably regular (?) contributor the YCL paper. I generally delivered my efforts to Farringdon Road and often ‘modification’ of the text would happen with Monty (or his colleague Graham Parfitt). Of course, like all ‘activists’, we met routinely and regularly at annual Congresses etc., etc.

    My belated response to this post was provoked by an almost accidental re-reading of Monty’s ‘Trotsky and the Peoples’ Front’, included in L&W ‘Britain Fascism and the Popular Front’. Looking at it earlier today made me shudder at Monty’s misrepresentations of Trotsky — and reading some of the above bits and pieces makes me wonder the extent to which the writers have simply chosen ‘never to speak ill of the dead’.

    If the reader is vaguely interested, take a look at p 107 of the L&W book, and then look at Monty’s quotations IN CONTEXT in ‘Spanish Revolution’ p 235. If Monty was REALLY such an expert on Trotsky, how explain this? Read the whole article — there are others!

    (Not particularly relevant to this discussion, but I left the CP in 1956 — with the entire branch! — a few months BEFORE Hungary, spent some time in the regular ‘Group’ meetings in Gerry Healy’s Streatham home, then to ‘Solidarity’ …. finally feeling the place where I was less in disagreement being ‘Freedom Press’. Ironically, so far as weekly/agitational publications go, ‘Weekly Worker’ stands head and shoulders above anything else, at the moment.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: