Witch Hunt Under The Counter

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 15 1949


Witch Hunt Under The Counter

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 15 1949


Witch Hunt Under The Counter


MANY TIMES I have described Britain as a laboratory of civilization. Perhaps more than any other people the British are able to keep their heads no matter how domestic events may harass them or the crosscurrents of outside influence beset them. In fact it is still true, as the late Woolcott Gibbs remarked, that at any moment of crisis the British are apt to fly into a deep calm.

Just now this island laboratory is involved in an ideological experiment which all nations, both East and West, will watch with interest. We are trying to find out how far it is possible to oppose Communism without debasing the coinage of free speech and impair the dignity of our democratic institutions.

For many months there has been a growing uneasiness which came to a head with the arrest of Gerhard Eisler when his ship from America put in at Southampton. We knew Eisler as a German who opposed the Nazi regime and also as a Communist agitator after the war in the United States.

He got away from the U. S. by making false statements in his exit form, and when Washington heard of his escape it wired to London asking that Eisler should be arrested and taken off the ship before it continued its journey to the Continent.

Accordingly the police went on board and, as hEisler resisted, they carried him ashore and îr9cked him up.

1,1 Many of us felt uncomfortable about it and I took the opportunity of discussing the whole affair with Lord Simon, who was in a special position to explain the matter as he served in his time both as home secretary and lord chancellor in other words as the minister charged with the maintenance of order and as the head of the law.

“There is nothing unusual,” he said, “in a friendly country requesting another country to detain one of its nationals or residents as in Eisler’s case. In fact it would be an unfriendly act not to comply with such a request. Eisler will appear before the Bow Street magistrate who will then decide Continued on page 26 whether he has committed an extraditable offense.”

I asked Lord Simon how far the magistrate would be advised or influenced by the Government. “Not at all,” said Simon. “He will take his own decision based upon the law of the realm. He will consult no one.”

Accordingly Eisler was taken to Bow Street where he put his case. He had filled in false facts to get out of the II. S. and, if you like, he had committed perjury. The magistrate did not hesitate. Obviously Eisler as a resident had broken the American law, but perjury, or giving false information, does not come under the category of extraditable crime. Therefore, the decision of the court was that he should go free.

Naturally our Communists went wild with delight and Eisler was escorted from Bow Street like a conqueror.

But let me add that the whole nation felt a deep sense of relief. Did not Magna Carta lay down that in this island kingdom justice would be denied to none and sold to none?

Economically Britain is still dependent upon the American dollar and, knowing the attitude of Americans against Communists in their midst, it would have been a tactful thing to send this unimportant creature back to answer for his offenses. But British justice was not for sale or to be bartered in the hope of favors to come.

1 am glad to report that no protest came from the U. S. Government. Washington may have been angry but made no sign. The incident came to an end when Home Secretary Chuter Ede gave Eisler permission to leave Britain for any destination he desired. Thus ended one of those moments when a nation’s dignity is enriched for all time.

Yet hardly had the Eisler episode passed from our minds when there was another shock to the public conscience. One of the biggest departmental stores in London is the John Lewis partner-

ship. The founder, Mr. John Lewis, is a Conservative, a capitalist and a good employer. He has contributed by his writings and his methods to the new conception of responsible capitalism embracing mutual partnership between management and employees.

He had set up in his own establishment a central council of workers and executives to further the interests of all engaged in the enterprise, and to help in making the business successful. Perhaps I might explain that the John Lewis Partnership controls 20 stores across the country, as well as 40 shops, farms and factories employing more than 12,000 workers.

This Dreadful Investigation

The central council met this week in an atmosphere of considerable excitement. A month ago they had startled the country by declaring that there would be a purge of all Communists employed by the partnership. The whole community was disturbed and there was considerable criticism even from quarters where Communism is heartily detested.

It was bad enough for Mr. Attlee to purge the Civil Service, but at least he could defend that on high policy. But what did it matter whether a shoe salesman was a Communist, a Plymouth Brethren or a Republican?

The central council was told that 226 regular customers had written threatening to withdraw their custom. Mr. E. J. Crofts, the partnership councilor, made an impassioned speech of protest. “If the company carries out this dreadful investigation,” he said, “it will be based on backstairs gossip, private spying and remarks dropped in the canteen ... It will depend on the associates a man has, the sort of club he belongs to, the kind of books he buys, whose daughter his wife is. In a short time not only the totalitarians but every partner will feel himself isolated in a hostile throng.”

That speech had a profound effect, but Mr. A. E. Porter, director of personnel, made a sturdy reply. “Communists,” he said, “are dangerous to Continued on page 28 Continued from pafte 2G the success of our partnership. They come in with the intention of disrupting it and will in due course use it as a weapon in the political struggle.”

An official spokesman for the management told the council that its verdict would be accepted, whatever it was. If the banning of totalitarians was confirmed then those in the employ of the partnership would be told to go within three months, and there would probably be a test for new entrants.

After a long discussion a vote was taken and by a majority of only one it was decided that the ban on Communists alone should be withdrawn. Three hours later, after a long and vigorous debate, it was decided by a vote of 60 to 41 that a new ban should be brought into force against Communists, Fascists and any other form of totalitarianists.

It was also agreed that the department of personnel should have printed on its stationery some such words as: “The partnership is democratic in the true British sense of the word. Any advantages are not for totalitarians of any kind.”

As soon as the news was made known the Daily Express, despite the fact that John Lewis is one of its biggest advertisers, described the decision as lamentable.

“Here,” declared the Express, “is political intolerance spreading from the Government and the Civil Service into business life. Where will it end? Today the hunt may be confined to one or two unpopular political parties. But how quickly it can spread to the petty persecution of unpopular religious and racial groups!”

There the issue confronts us with stark simplicity. Can we suppress a minority opinion, no matter bow offensive it may be, and at the same time maintain freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of worship? Can we restrict the liberty of the individual without restricting the liberty of the whole community?

The Power of the Public

There is not only a logical case for suppression but tragic proof in Europe that totalitarians have used their liberty to plan the subjugation of their fellow citizens. In the years before the war we treated Germany and Italy as if they were democracies like Britain, France and the U. S., instead of branding them as enemies of peace. Even under the last Czars revolutionary writers were allowed to undermine the existing order and prepare the way for the Communist tyranny.

In short, why pretend that by treating a tiger with kindness it will become a harmless, overgrown cat?

In the House of Commons in 1940 I reluctantly urged the suppression of the Communist Daily Worker newspaper because we were at war and because that paper (Russia had joined Germany as a noncombatant partner) was damaging the nation’s war effort. I hated to do it, for the freedom of the press is in my very blood, but war is totalitarian in itself and democracy becomes impossible in any country when it is being waged. The Daily Worker was duly suppressed and rightly so.

Now the same paper is in full blast again and doing as much damage as lies within its power. Every unofficial strike has its enthusiastic and automatic support. Any bullet fired against a British soldier in Malaya is from the rifle of a patriot. In its columns every employer is a cruel exploiter and every shareholder a drone.

Then would I again urge its suppression? Frankly, I would not. With equal frankness let me admit that 1

would unhesitatingly ban the Daily Worker if there was a general strike, fomented by Communists, to paralyze tbe life of the nation.

The answer to Communism is neither suppression nor arrests. There I think the British are handling the problem better than the Americans. The Dean of Canterbury is a Red propagandist, but although the Anglican Church is officially allied to the State no one suggests defrocking the old boy.

At least 50 Communists will run for Parliament at the next election. Three of them may be elected, but it is equally probable that only one will be successful. In the various council elections held in May more than 200 Communists ran and were almost completely wiped out with a contemptuous trickle of votes.

There you see the real weapon which Communism cannot meet — public opinion. It is far better for the people to reject the Communists at the poll than for the police to arrest them or for John Lewis to dismiss them.

To Choose Right Weapons

Nor will our universities imitate the University of Washington which, in January of this year, dismissed three professors who were accused of past or present membership in the Communist Party.

You might then ask why the western world is uniting and arming if Communism is not to be fought with physical strength. Such a question would only show how confused we have become through propaganda. The West is not arming against Communism— for bullets have never yet killed an idea—but against Russian expansionism which is using Communism asa disrupting process to prepare the way for the Red Army.

We must be ready to meet and destroy the Red Army if it overflows its frontiers, but if we had a million atomic bombs we could not destroy the virus of Communism.

So I come back to the laboratory experiment of the British. Rightly or wrongly we believe that Communism can only be conquered by the creation and development of a way of life which gains the approval of the vast majority of the people. In other words, Communism is a foul growth that needs the damp and the dark. It cannot exist in the sunlight.

What made Communism possible? Not the capitalist system which is inherently democratic but the abuses of capitalism which caused the extremes of poverty and wealth. If the Conservatives win the next election in Britain we shall strive to move steadily toward a way of life in which these extremes will not be possible, where there will be rewards for talent and enterprise but where the main impulse will be the steady raising of the standard of living for the majority.

On earth peace, good will to men . . . those words ring out across the centuries and show us the only way. The war of Christendom against atheism, of freedom against slavery, of democracy against totalitarianism cannot be won by adopting the very methods which we denounce.

I am glad that Eisler was discharged from Bow Street a free man and I deplore the actions of the John Lewis Partnership for instituting a witch hunt among its employees.

Let us create a fair and full life for our people, let all nations of good will combine for peace, let us kill intolerance in our owTi hearts—and Communism will pale and disappear like the blackness of night at the approach of dawn. ★