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Pic: Emile Burns in 1945
Born Emile Vivian Burns in 1889, as a young man during the First World War he sat on a committee of inquiry into poverty in Britain that was established by Eleanor Rathbone, a stalwart of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which led to the Family Endowment Committee. In 1917, this published Equal Pay and the Family: A Proposal for the National Endowment of Motherhood. Essentially, this was the start of the notion of child benefits.
From later claims it appears as if Burn probably first joined the Communist Party at the point of its establishment in 1920; it was, of course, a matter of great honour to be known as a foundation member of the Party. Although this appears to conflict with details of the length of his Party membership noted in the 1950s in relation to his EC nomination; it should, however, be noted that the information on the dates of his Party membership, which Party centre recorded as dating from 1923, would have been in response to a questionnaire in which he would have been asked for date of continuous Party membership. Either there was a short break at some point between 1920 and 1923, or he actually first joined in 1923.
It is possible that the explanation for this discrepancy is that he held dual membership of both the Labour Party, or one of its affiliates, as well as the Communist Party, and the three-year loss possibly arose from Emile being associated with the leaving of a block of initial members, forced to choose between Labour Party and Communist Party membership. He was certainly sympathetic to many of those who had been initially attracted to the Party but who felt that they could not remain loyal to it if the price was to be forced to leave the wider labour movement – even though he himself did not in the final analysis accept their position.
The presumption here that Burns was in fact a founding member of the Party. It may be that the conflict as to when Burns joined the Party arises because the records are simply confused but it is suspected that some `authorities’ were confused by the importance within Party culture of strictly continuous membership and the nuances of how this might be defined! We believe that Burns was a founding member in 1920 but also had broken membership that only enabled him to strictly claim continuous membership from 1923 when it came to submitting himself to the Party Congress for election, when strict accuracy would be required. In the course of normal Party life, it would not be inappropriate to claim foundation status. Actually, none of the foregoing is very important! Save for the fact that it may touch on an obviously significant feature of Burns’ political position – he was throughout his life in the Party noted for being firmly congnisant of the importance of the links with the wider labour movement.
Either way, he served on the Communist Party Executive Committee (or Central Committee before that) for very many years and was a prolific writer and educator for the Party. His wife, (Margaret) Elinor, joined the Party in 1923, served it in a variety of official positions and was an active Co-operator.
The couple were to have one daughter, later well-known in some circles as the geneticist, Dr Marca Burns (born 4 January 1916 died 29 April 2008). Marca retained links with the refounded Communist Party, despite her advanced age she wrote a piece on Engels, food and the environment in Communist Review in 1991 that would have greatly interested her father.
Emile was involved with St Pancras Strike Committee during the General Strike of 1926 and more famously produced a major report on the work of Trades Councils in this event.
In 1932, Burns found himself heavily involved in the organisation of Party groups amongst London bus workers after he held a number of education classes for them. He was the subsequent author of a large number of Marxist education syllabi but the main consequence was the Burns ended up being the editor of a rank and file journal started mainly by Communist bus workers, called the Busman’s Punch. This was so popular in the 1930s that it reached a circulation of 30,000 copies.
Emile Burns was a key behind the scenes figure, working with Harry Pollitt, in developing the Left Book Club with Victor Gollancz from 1936. Emile Burns played a major role in bringing forward a huge number of books which were specifically aimed at British audiences.
Indeed, Burns was always closely associated with Harry Pollitt’s leadership, as became clear during the debates over the character of the war in 1939. Before Pollitt voluntarily relinquished his responsibilities as General Secretary he had been backed by Burns in the Political Bureau along with Willie Gallacher, JR Campbell, and Ted Bramley. Burns was especially critical in the Central Committee of Raji Palme Dutt’s handling of the whole matter.
During the Second World War both Elinor and Emile, considered by the first biographer of Eleanor Rathbone to be "both good feminists", joined up with the pioneer suffrage campaigner to once again investigate women’s pay and the family wage. The final report touched on the question of equal pay for equal work’, especially regarding the struggle of women bus conductors for this. Clearly, Emile had not lost his old contacts! The case for direct provision for the family was illustrated "with statistics assembled under the expert guidance of Emile Burns". From this there emerged a concrete scheme for the payment by the State to all mothers of the scale of allowances then in force for the wives of Service men.
In the immediate post war period, Kwame Nkrumah, who was to become the first leader of an independent Ghana in 1957, was close to Burns, after he arrived in London in May 1945 intending to study at the LSE. In his autobiograhy, written much later, Nkrumah refers to Burns as a "close friend" and it is clear the relationship was both long-lasting and of political significance. Burns was the Presient’s guest at the independence celebrations. This close and enduring friendship was not excluded to a handful of potential leaders. In the late 1940s Emile Burns, was holding classes on Marxism for over forty West African students in London.
From 1947 Emile Burns chaired the Communist Party’s National Cultural Committee. Some commentators on this period, which was one that led to sharp internal differences, have drawn Burns’ role as NCC chair rather negatively. It may surprise some that Emile had been strongly supportive of the Popular Front, critical of the Party swinging behind the Soviet line in 1939, personally supportive of anti-imperialist leaders from black Africa, and was highly regarded by Britain’s left wing and liberal intelligentsia as a creative Marxist. None of this adds up to the picture of a Stalinist bureaucrat painted by ultra-leftist and revisionist critics of Burns.
He was editor of the Party’s theoretical magazine from 1948 to about 1955 and edited the Marxist Quarterly from about 1954. This had been Modern Quarterly, published by Lawrence & Wishart but unambiguously a Party publication and it had been edited by John Lewis. Some dissatisfaction arose amongst many of the Party’s intellectuals about the quality of debate within in and, in 1954 it became the Marxist Quarterly, edited by Emile Burns. Contributions from serious Marxist intellectuals, Party and non-Party, including Bernal, Burhop, Berger, Dobb, Hobsbawm, Hill and others were attracted to write for it but the events of 1956 somewhat dented the project. Nonetheless, by this stage, Emile was more or less in complete charge of the Party’s education, propaganda, and publications, with James Klugmann as his deputy. It was in fact around this time that Emile reached retirement age and Klugman succeeded to a role more or less carved out by his predecessor as the Party’s main full-time intellectual.
Pic: A flyer advertising a meeting at Oxford University addressed by Emile Burns
Emile Burns' real memorial is the fact that his Introduction to Marxism still serves today as a basic text for new members of the Communist Party. He died in 1972 and the following details most of his known, many published works:
1927 Imperialism - an outline course for students and study circles
1922 Modern Finance (World of To-day)
1926 The General Strike May 1926: Trades Councils in action (LRD)
1927 Agriculture (with H. B. Pointing)
1930 A Certain Jesus: The Gospel According to Thomas by Ivan Naschiwin (as translator)
1930 Herr Eugen Duhring's revolution in science (Anti-Duhring) by Frederick Engels (as translator)
1930 Russia's productive system
1931 The 2 classes in 1931
1932 The only way out
1933 Capitalism, Communism, and the Transition
1933 What is the Communist Party?
1934 Karl Liebknecht (with Karl Paul August Friedrich Liebknecht)
1934 The Roosevelt illusion - with F M Roy (LRD)
1935 Abyssinia and Italy
1935 A handbook of Marxism
1935 The people's front
1936 Difficulties facing peace
1936 France Today and the People's Front (with Maurice Thorez)
1936 The case for affiliation
1937 Money - the New People's Library Vol I
1939 (also reprinted 1943, 1952) What is Marxism?
1940 Mr Keynes Answered
1940 The Soviet Union and Finland
1942 Labour’s way forward
1944 Jobs, homes, security: post-war Britain and the way to socialism -
syllabus based on a book by Harry Pollitt
1946 The future of the family
1944 Winning the Peace
1946 The story of capitalism
1948 The triumph of Communism – speech on the centenary of the `Communist
Manifesto’ to the 20th congress of the Communist Party
1949 Some aspects of Lenin's contribution
1950 The Meaning of Socialism
1950 The Soviet Transition from Socialism to Communism
1951 People's democracy - Britain's path to socialism
1952 Theories of Surplus Value: Selections from Marx (with G A Bonner)
1953 Social democracy or Marxism
1953 The new stage in the fight for peace
1953 Vigilance to win peace
1957 An Introduction to Marxism (reprinted 1962)
1961 Right Wing Labour: Its Theory and Practice
1968 Money and inflation