At the end of this piece on the recent US-Russia spy swap there are some interesting comments by the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. What he says about his parents' guilt or innocence is probably not new, but I thought that it might be of interest here. Incidentally, I remember a discussion in the old CPGB in the 1970s about lapsing comrades who were inactive. Someone quoted a comment from a US comrade (?Williamson) who claimed that there were many attempts to lapse the Rosenbergs because they never attended branch meetings. It struck me at the time as an odd point to make in support of keeping inactive comrades in the party.
Not sure what point your making either Jeremy. Is the oddness the remark by the American comrade or the issue of retaining "inactive comrades". I'm putting aside the issue of the Rosenbergs for a moment because what struck me as odd overall was the comment from their son accepting that they had worked for the Sovs but not on the atom project as if this was so (ie that they were really secret agents who therefore accept arrest as an occupational hazard and know that all spies talk) then why didn't they admit it and accept the reprieve Eisenhower offered?
But coming back to "lapsing", while experiences in the CPGB invariably differ the question of not recarding "inactive comrades" never came up when I was an active member of the old Party in the 70s though it certainly did come up with comrades who had not paid their dues for the greater part of the previous year. Even then the procedure was to have a discussion with the individual to extract the back dues and continue in membership.
I would reckon that 80 per cent of the 200-plus comrades covered by my local area committee (three territorial branches and two factory branches) were "inactive" in the sense that they never attended any Party meetings though some were active in their union and would turn up to public meetings or bazaars. Party work and Star sales rested entirely on the "active" members, or the "regular attenders" as the Freemasons say, and they ran the branches. We were encouraged to sign up our parents and grand-parents and Star round readers who showed the slightest interest. It was, afterall, only an extra 5p a week etc...
Some comrades, usually of the Straight Left persuasion, did occassionally raise the issue -- comparing the demand for an activist party based on the principles of Lenin's "Party of a New Type" to the social-democratic reality that the only requirement of membership was to pay your stamps and take the Star. The answer from King Street biggies was that "no one should be denied the right to be a member of the communist party" usually followed by the claim (which was largely true) that card-carrying members could be at least be relied on to vote communist at the local and general elections. No one who volunteered was ever put off -- there was always plenty to be done but the general ethos of the Party's cadres was that there should never be undue pressure lest it drive people away from our ranks, frequently coupled with adverse comments on the frenetic drive of the Trots, which, it was said, led to an eventual "burn-out" and dropping out of all political activity. This was sometimes accompanied by the famous quote from Engels, which I only discovered, when i read the original some years into my CPGB apprenticeship, was actually relating to workers exhausted by their day-to-day physical work.
Of course the other motive was to bump up the individual branch membership to give the branch more delegates to district and national congresses and to enable the Party to claim that it towered over all the over left forces because it had a mass membership (around 30,000 on paper when I joined).
I think you're being a bit too schematic Kim, with your division into active and inactive members. There was always a continuum, from the hyperactive members who were the mainstays of any branch, all the way down to the useless ones who only reluctantly accepted a card and tried to avoid ever paying their dues. What's more, individuals moved along that continuum, depending on their personal/work/family circumstances. Then there were the members who retained their party card but saw their main area of work as the trade union, or CND, or some other campaign. They might turn out for major public meetings or Star sales but otherwise not bother. This is all perfectly natural. I'm sure many of us on this site are active members of one or two organisations and largely passive membership-holders of several others. I know I am. There's only a certain number of hours in the day, after all.
I thought it was odd because it seemed to imply "look, we thought they were doing nothing for the party but actually they were spying for the Soviet Union" - at a time when the party line was that the charges were trumped up and without any basis. I think that the comrade who was arguing this point was Dave Priscott, although at this gap of time I can't be sure. But the story came from Comrade Williamson, whose first name escapes me. He was deported from the US because he had a British passport I think.
Yes, that's the name. I heard him speak once: an impressive man. No mention of him on Graham Stevenson's biographies site, although John Williamson's wife Mae - who died in the 90s - is there. Is it possible John W is still alive?
Yes, it was I think during my student days (1961-66) or soon after. His son studied at Leeds University and overlapped with me a bit there. I think I heard him at a party school but it's possible that he was prepared to come to speak at Leeds because his son was there.
John Williamson wrote an autobiography entitled "Dangerous Scot", published by International Publishers in 1969. If you go to the AbeBooks site there are copies for sale, including one signed by Williamson, Henry Winston and Gus Hall for USD 95. This jogged my memory: I think that one of Williamson's stories involved Winston, who was I think a very tall African American. In spite of the fact that he was easy to spot because of his height, no-one gave him up when the FBI were looking for him. Williamson used this to point out that in spite of McCarthyism and red-scares, many communists enjoyed much grass-roots support.