Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

The Legacy of the ‘Fellow Travellers’ and the Present-day Left.

with 3 comments

Few Western Fellow-Travellers Today?

David Caute’s The Fellow-Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment, (1973) is one of those books you have to read and re-read.

It’s the history of those individuals who were not willing to become Communists but were attracted by the socialist systems of the Soviet Union, the Popular Democracies, and Communist China.

Caute distinguished those who became members of the European (German, French and British) and US Communist parties from those who more than ‘attracted’ but actively supported the Soviet Union (and later China and the Eastern bloc).

The term Fellow Traveller originates from Russian,попутчик, poputchik (literally: “one who travels the same path”)

It was used after the Russian Revolution for intellectuals who went along with the Bolshevik ‘Soviet’  power, but did not join the Party. It became internationally known (it’s generally accepted) when Trotsky used it,

Between bourgeois art, which is wasting away either in repetitions or in silences, and the new art which is as yet unborn, there is being created a transitional art which is more or less organically connected with the Revolution, but which is not at the same time the art of the Revolution. Boris PilnyakVsevolod IvanovNicolai Tikhonov, the “Serapion Fraternity”Yesenin and his group of Imagists and, to some extent, Kliuev – all of them were impossible without the Revolution, either as a group, or separately. … They are not the artists of the proletarian Revolution, but her artist “fellow-travellers”, in the sense in which this word was used by the old Socialists. … As regards a “fellow-traveller”, the question always comes up – how far will he go? This question cannot be answered in advance, not even approximately. The solution of it depends not so much on the personal qualities of this or that “fellow-traveller”, but mainly on the objective trend of things during the coming decade. 1924 Literature and Revolution.

Caute lists some European calques, Mitläufer, compagnon de route compañero de viaje (or ruta), as well as the English.

The history of those who admired the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period is deeply saddening.

The book stands on its own, but two aspects of Caute’s analysis struck me to the quick.

They are relevant to anybody trying to explain how callously some on the Left reacted to the Kenyan shopping centre bombings.

The first is that the fellow travellers – even during the Moscow Trails – remained committed to Western ‘bourgeois’ democratic forms – in their own countries. They were indeed often specialists in the defence of civil liberties.  D. N. Pritt, the most outrageous apologist for the Moscow Trials, was a British barrister and a member of the Labour Party (expelled during the Second World War). Amongst many cases, he successfully  stopped the deportation of Ho Cho Minh from France in 1931.

To continue, “In 1934 he successfully defended the veteran socialist Tom Mann, on trial for sedition with Harry Pollitt in 1934, and the same year won damages against the police for the organizers of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Pritt also worked for the recently formed National Council for Civil Liberties. In August 1936 he attended the first Moscow show trial. His account, published as The Zinoviev Trial, gave support to the attempt by Joseph Stalin to purge his political opponents. Margaret Cole pointed out that Pritt had “fallen in love” with Soviet socialism.” Spartacus.

Fellow Travellers like Pritt thought that bourgeois democracy was not suitable for the Soviet Union. They accused critics of the regime of not understanding what today is called The Other.

Secondly, the Fellow Travellers, thought that people were determined by their environment. They could be ‘made’ better once that was changed. So better that the Soviet Union had created a ‘New Man’ and ‘New Woman’. Caute says this is their Enlightenment legacy – though perhaps the less  rose tinted attitude towards human nature of Lumières  like  Denis Diderot not bear out that claim.

To look at the reaction of some of the European left to the Kenyan bombings is to see that some of these attitudes remain.

There are those (that is the SWP)  who claim that the Somalian Islamists at least established ‘order’ and even ‘law’.

As the SWP put it,

“After the invasion by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops in 2011 it said that it supported the ideas of Al Qaida. Even Rob Wise of the US Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank comments that it was “a relatively moderate Islamist organisation”, which was driven towards Al Qaida by invasion.

He added that since 2008 al Shabaab has “increasingly embraced transnational terrorism and attempted to portray itself as part of the Al Qaida-led global war on the West.”

The killers, then are the product of ‘imperialism’. This  environment has made them. Only changing these conditions can stop their terrorism.

Above all we have to be wary of ‘Islamopbia’.

We should not ‘impose’ Western standards on Muslims.

Thus in the recent SWP Socialist Review  Talat Ahmed argues,

Faced with Islamophobia the response of some Muslims has been to go on the defensive – a form of “quietism” or retreat whereby people withdraw from society in the hope of avoiding its worst excesses. This level of disengagement can lead to identify with overt Islamic “symbolism” – adopting a certain type of dress code, not eating pork, abstaining from alcohol, having traditional marriages and observing certain religious ceremonies.

Though understandable, this approach lends itself to a certain form of “lifestyleism”. This dovetails with an electoral politics that seeks to represent distinct “Muslim interests” within existing institutions. The main weakness with this approach is that it can safely incorporate genuine concerns and grievances of all Muslims in a strategy of reform, rather than challenging the roots of Islamophobia.

Those who criticise these ‘lifestyles’ and ‘traditions’ should no doubt be very wary of attacking the Other, and, indeed risk ‘Islamophobia’.

There is absolutely no idea of the need for a democratic left-wing political struggle against Islamism.

At least we can be thankful there are few mass murdering Islamist regimes around for large numbers of Western Fellow travellers to marvel at.

The dictatorships that there are, from Sudan on wards, don’t seem to have attracted more than fellow Islamists.

Even the worst elements of the SWP and British left would not go so far as to praise  them directly.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 28, 2013 at 11:35 am

3 Responses

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  1. I’d add to Caute’s book Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims (OUP, 1981) and (at the risk of impertinently blowing my own trumpet) The New Civilisation, (details here), which also look into the basis of fellow-travelling.

    To move on to the SWP’s response to the Kenya attack, I think that what we have is a very reductionist analysis of the rise of Islamism. Now I do think that people are determined in their thoughts and actions by their environment; it is no accident that the most austere forms of Islam are rooted in the most inhospitable areas of the ‘Islamic world’, and that fundamentalist ideas gain traction in such devastated places as Somalia where society has collapsed. It’s the same in Iraq and, if we’re not careful, a similar situation could arise in Syria.

    However, I agree with the general idea of your piece that the SWP goes from accepting this as a fact to accepting this as an inexorable process and one which we effectively have to live with. This parallels the idea common amongst fellow-travellers that the harsh conditions of Stalinism suited the crude and primitive Slavs, but were not suitable or necessary for we sophisticated Westerners. Caute notes this, and I also noted it in many of the works of the 1930s that I read.

    But there is a crucial difference: the fellow-travellers were looking at something they thought was progressive, forcefully bringing a backward country into a condition of civilisation; this can’t be said at all about fundamentalist Islam, which — mobile telephones apart — seeks solace in an ideology suited to primitive/ancient conditions. There is a dim recognition of this from Talat Ahmed, but what she omits is how this can be overcome. I agree with her that Western policies have led to today’s grave situation in Africa and the Middle East, but there seems to be an acceptance of this situation, and — yes — it seems that any challenging of this, including a challenge from the left, is somehow to engage in the unjustifiable behaviour of Islamophobia.

    In that sense, the position of the SWP is in fact worse than the reluctance of the fellow-travellers to criticise the negative features of Stalinism. I accept that it is difficult for progressive elements in parts of the world plagued by Islamism to promote a modernising course, not least because certain ‘modernisers’ combine social and cultural reforms with neo-liberal economic policies which hurt the poorer ends of the population and thus allow Islamists to conflate modernisation with impoverishment. Nevertheless, this needs to be done. As in the Cold War, where we had to criticise Stalinism separately from the anti-communists, we have to criticise Islamism separately from the pro-Western ‘modernisers’. The SWP, despite its erroneous theory of state capitalism, managed to do the former; it has failed in the latter task.

    Dr Paul

    September 28, 2013 at 2:39 pm

  2. […] against the evil Satan of the USA (some examples from the Soviet era and after can be found here: https://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/…/the-legacy-of-the-…/). In the case of Northern Ireland, the evil was the ‘British State’ so there were […]

  3. […] The historian David Caute wrote a brilliantly revealing, though stingingly critical account of the European and American fellow travellers. He described them as men and women who were not members of any European communist party, but who […]


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