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.