November 20, 2015

GRAHAM STEVENSON REVIEWS A PARTY HISTORY "The real history of the post 1950 period of the Communist Party remains to be written, this is not it."



“The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920” by James Eaden and David Renton
Published by Palgrave (2002)
[not available through Palgrave.com in the US / Canada.

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Here’s yet another one!


This is yet another book to offer a full history of the Communist Party. (Klugmann and Branson collectively take the story only up to 1951 in four volumes.) [James Klugmann “History of the Communist Party of Great Britain” Volumes I and II; Noreen Branson “History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941,Lawrence and Wishart (1985); Noreen Branson “History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951,Lawrence and Wishart (1997)] The first single volume history, by Willie Thompson, was biased towards a Eurocommunist perspective and somewhat cynical. [Willie Thompson “The Good Old Cause – British Communism 1920-1991” Pluto Press (1992)] The next to follow, by Francis Beckett [Francis Beckett “”The Enemy Within: the Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party” John Murray (1995)] was hostile, ill informed and read like an extended magazine article. Then, Laybourn and Murphy [Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy “Under the Red Flag: a History of Communism in Britain” Sutton publishing (1999)] meandered unfocused across the terrain. In some ways this is much better than the other single volume works. But then it benefits from a massive body of previously published work, with articles, position papers and memoirs all adding the body of knowledge.

Eaden and Renton have produced a mostly well-written and lucid account. However, its mere 187 pages of text don’t really add much that is new, even if they reflect a wide reading of the now voluminous  historiography of British Communism. The Labour History Museum at Manchester is now virtually the site of a new industry for authors ranging from cut and paste merchants to deeply perceptive analysts. It can be a cut-throat business! (Witness John Saville’s recent (correct) savaging of the Keith Laybourn effort in Socialist History.)

In this effort, the authors have drawn on encouragement “particularly from members of the Socialist Workers Party” [vii] and associate their work with an earlier one [Brian Pearce and M Woodhouse “A History of Communism in Britain (1995)], which they identify as written by “non-Communist socialists” [xiii], Trotskyists to the rest of us!; although, admittedly they are labelled as such later in the text. Eaden and Renton say they are “sympathetic to the views of the founders, critical of the husk that the Communist Party became”. [xvi]

Few readers of Communist Review would argue with the estimate that “the Communist Party of 1920 was a lively revolutionary party, while the organisation of 1990-91 was little more than a shell”. [xvii] It is in the conflation of the two ends of this temporal spectrum that the problem with this book lies. Essentially, it treats the Party as a continuum. There may well be a debate about precisely when the Communist Party ceased to be revolutionary, or hold the potential to be so: 1977, 1979, 1984,1988 or even 1991??!! But the authors are not part of that debate. For them, although this is never voiced, the break with Trotsky is the beginning of the end. Whereas at the outset it is said that Comintern pressure is “one key factor”, which explains all [xiv], the book homes in on this as the explanation.

Despite the protestations of initial sympathy, I found little evidence of this. It is said, denigrating the founders of the Communist Party that few had more than a “nodding acquaintance with the writings of Marx”. [p16] This ignores the many publishing projects of the SLP, that’s the 1903-20 one not the Scargill group! One amongst many was the treatment of the state, written by Willie Paul some time before Lenin, which had a remarkably similar analysis. Indeed, for me the authors diminish the SLP by saying that “it never recruited more than a few hundred members”. [p4] But the denigration also fails to give credit to the Marxists of the period for the difficulties they had of actually accessing the writings. The poor quality and level of translations of Marx at the time were only later rectified after state power in the Soviet Union provided the intellectual and publishing resources to do so. 

It’s all the Comintern’s fault

Eaden and Renton see the Comintern as an “organisation whose primary purpose was to direct foreign Communist Parties to operate in ways which would be of assistance to the Soviet State”. This influence was “overwhelmingly negative” and displayed in the frequent “shifts in line urged by Moscow on the British Communist Party”. Even so, they concede its “significant role in the history of the British left” and are genuine in their estimate of the sterling qualities and achievements in struggle of the Communist Party.

But, in saying that they see it a significant that the collapse of the USSR and the Communist Party coincided with the “demise of the left” within the Labour Party [x-xii], the authors display the fact that they have a real problem with understanding cause and effect. In fact, this demise dates more solidly to the victory of the Kinnockites over sectarian and administrative based putschist style takeovers, which lacked contact with the masses. Such a victory was used to isolate the wider left, in an atmosphere of defeat – underscored by the results of the miners’ strike of 1984-5; some years before the collapse of the USSR and its allies.

The overall emphasis of the book, however, is decidedly on the pre-war period, reflecting the focus of the bulk of the published literature. The first three chapters cover the first 25 years of the Party’s history over 92 pages, the next three chapters cover almost double that period in considerably less pages. The first eight years are covered in roughly the same depth as the last 23 years. Obsession with proving that the Party failed by becoming a tool of the Comintern is central to this book and anything that tends to diminish this central thesis is pushed to one side.

Noreen Branson’s earlier work is dismissed, in that focusing on the experiences of ordinary Party members she “underplays” the role of the Comintern in shaping policy. She “misses the centrality of the Russian experience to every aspect of life in the CP”. [xix] This is assuredly the most certain `overplaying’ of an estimate from those who can never know or empathise with Party life in the 20th century.

Andrew Thorpe’s recent essay on the relationship between the Communist Party and the USSR up to the mid-war period has concluded that Moscow rarely controlled the Party. [Andrew Thorpe “Comintern `Control’ of the Communist Party of Great Britain”, English Historical Review, 63 (452), pp610-636] The relationship was more of a partnership, albeit an unequal one. The authors plaintively seek to rebut Thorpe, conceding his point that communications were difficult. But, somehow, they just can’t seem to get out of the Cold War mindset. “Why did Communist Parties change their politics, in each country, at the same time?” they ask, darkly. [xix] Surely, as Trotskyist advocates of world revolution, they can see that politics are international, that a world crisis of capitalism produces synergetic responses? Phones, e-mail and faxes did not exist but thought processes could still be synchronised!

Errors by the bucket load

There’s a hint of cut and paste about the book and it’s a little slipshod at times. I don’t think it’s been proof read, I found 19 spelling and typographical errors – and that was without searching the fine print of the source notes. At £45 (although Bookmarks is offering it at a reduced price already!) this is clearly not acceptable. Sadly, the book is also littered with factual errors and misunderstandings by the bucket load. 

Let’s take one minor sweeping comment, unimportant in itself, which seems revealing. The authors say that, with the onset of war and the controversies that flowed from this, Victor Gollancz, the celebrated publisher of the salmon-coloured Left Book Club, “left the Party”. [p63] There is no source of this assertion, which came as something of a surprise to me, since I was unaware he was ever a member. Beckett says that he was in the Labour Party [Francis Beckett “The Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party”, John Murray (1995) p66]. Thompson implies it. [Willie Thompson “The Good Old Cause – British Communism 1920-1991” Pluto Press (1992) p55] Callaghan regards him as an “independent”. [John Callaghan “Rajani Palme Dutt: a Study in British Stalinism”, Lawrence and Wishart (1993) p168] As long ago as 1976, John Mahon wrote in his biography of Harry Pollitt of the strictly non-communist, but friendly, relations between Gollancz and the Party leader. [John Mahon “Harry Pollitt – a biography” Lawrence and Wishart (1976) pp 234-6]

So did Gollancz hold a card? Received wisdom in the Party’s history always suggested to me that the whole point of the alliance with Gollancz was that he was not actually a member. I’m not myself certain of the fact, unfortunately not having read Gollancz’s biography or the history of the Left Book Club and it’s possible that he was a secret member. However, the truth seems to lie with Fishman, who speaks of Gollancz’s “break with the Party”. [Nina Fishman “The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945” Scolar Press (1995) p256] I don’t want to make too much of this minor point, but I suspect that the authors’ reading of this last phrase confused them into thinking he did have a card. It is suggestive of a lack of insight into the ways of the Party. A simple, careful reading of the sources, as distinct from an instinctive relish in finding seemingly damaging evidence against the Party might have made prevented this one accuracy.

But there are far too many of these points. It is said that outstanding Scottish Marxist, John MacLean, did not join in at the foundation because he refused to believe that “the new party would take Lenin’s advice seriously”, with regard to the Labour Party. [p9] No other explanation is given, which rather underplays the personal and political factors involved in MacLean’s decision to stand aloof, not the least his insistence on a separate Scottish organisation. He had already broken with the BSP in 1919 and backed the rump of the SLP, which remained aloof from the unity process and hostile to Lenin’s advice, in an abortive attempt to establish a purely Scottish party.

Albert Inkpin is variously the “national organiser” [p16] and the “party secretary” [p23]. Charitably, I can’t decide if this is sloppy journalism or lack of familiarity with the nuances of the changing nature of Party organisational terminology. Whilst there is a dreadful mistake in replicating a quote from Morgan [Kevin Morgan “Harry Pollitt” Manchester University Press (1993)], which results in making socialist culture “produce” rather than “predate” the First World War! [p17] That’s leaving aside a stupid typographical error leaving “the” and “that” side by side. There’s a lot of this.

Here’s another one: the Shop Assistants’ Union of 1940 is not “now known” as USDAW. A merger involving the former body (actually the NAUSAW&C) with NUDAW, produced the union `now known as USDAW’’ in 1947A piddling point, maybe; nonetheless one is entitled to conclude that this sloppy phrase is based on the author’s thin knowledge of the labour movement. [p80]  

There’s something of a syndrome of slightly missed targets common in this book, which may lie with its essential nature that fundamentally it is “anchored in a critical reading of the published secondary material” [xii]. There is only a general bibliography, but a `critical reading’ of the source notes suggests that the only original research was a couple of interviews with old Party members (with tiny use of selected quotes) and a scanning of a few reels of information in the Manchester archives of the Communist Party and the Public Record Office. About 10% - or 60 - of the individually sourced references are from these two archives. Conversely, there are lots of references directly from Trotskyist journals or writers, although this will not be immediately obvious to the casual reader. It’s a highly partisan work, there’s a couple of dozen references sourced from the IS or SWP theoretical journals, aside from a fair few books by writers of this ilk.

A lack of grasp about the Labour Party

It is inaccurately said that, in 1937, the “CP wanted to affiliate to Labour, presumably dissolving itself in the process”. [p54] This presumption isn’t substantiated anywhere, nor could it be. For the Party’s strategy was always based on the concept of the federated labour movement. The authors’ own belief that the Labour Party is unsalvageable for left politics informs their critique of the Communist Party. The veritable catalogue of factual errors outlined above seems indistinguishable from their uncertain political judgement. Their assessment that “affiliation was dead as a tactic” [p9] by Labour’s 1922 conference is a doubly wrong statement. Neither was it dead (there were later, quite serious further attempts). Nor was it a tactic. Unlike the authors, ever since the foundation of the Party, it understood the special nature of the electoral alliance of broad forces that is the Labour Party.

Nowhere do we get a meaningful discussion of the fundamental differences between the Labour Party and the continental social democratic parties. One moment of insight seems to escape the authors, having made the point almost in passing: “The largest CPs began as major factions within reformist parties … In Britain, unity was achieved by bringing together the already-divided left.” [p7] This was in a sense the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the Communist Party, then and now, and it is the nature of the Labour Party that will always colour the Party’s fortunes. The Unity Convention didn’t unify too much. Mainstream social democracy and the ILP remained largely aloof. Only revolutionaries were united and Britain’s reformists were largely rooted inside Labour, which was never really a socialist party (despite Clause 4).

There are important lessons here, all rooted in the character of the Labour Party. Obviously, at the present moment, calling for electoral support for Labour it is not always an easy position to hold, when it is deeply unpopular amongst its traditional supporters. Yet the organic link with the trade unions poses special problems for Marxist analysis. The game is clearly not up. Is the nature of the New Labour government that different from the MacDonald administration before the creation of the 1931 National Government? After the disastrous election of October 1931, did not the trade unions rescue Labour, nurturing it for future resurgence? But the Socialist Alliance/SWP has a different view to Communists on such matters.

No sense of the past

I was uneasy with the feel the authors had for what it was like to be in the Party. I was reminded of a comment in Fred Westacott’s newly published book. In remarking on the popularity for academics of writing on the history of the Communist Party, he confessed to “being irritated by the trash that so many of them write”. In so doing, he quoted the experience of historian, W G Hoskins: “the more sceptical one becomes about the truth embodied in books … the more one comes to realise that history is about people, and they are escaping our net if we merely fish in muniment rooms (archives) and libraries”! [Fred Westacott “Shaking the Chains”, Joe Clark, Chesterfield (2000) p xi] Historians who never lived in the times, or who have never been in the Party, fail to grasp subtleties in their drive to establish a new or defining proposition.

It’s a mark of a truly perceptive historian to be able to put yourself in the mindset of those who you are writing about. I got little sense of that capacity in the authors. There’s a definite anachronistic feel to much of the pre-war commentary, basically they don’t seem to know much about Party life. Yet there’s a wealth of autobiography to provide this now. Rather, they seek to position what is now a well-worn tale of CP “zig-zags” to their preconceptions.

As Eric Hobsbawm recently wrote: “Like everyone else, historians are best at being wise after the event.” [Eric Hobsbawm “Interesting Times – a Twentieth-Century Life” Allen Lane (2000) p222] Does it never occur to those who criticise Communists for a facility for left and right turns that not only was the USSR responding to world events, so were Communists across the globe? The impact of the 1929-31 capitalist crisis was international, as was the response to its spawn, the virus of fascism. These authors say that it is implausible that every CP changed line at same time, as it were by magic. [p33] This sets bureaucratic instructions against organic mutual experience, much akin to the rather human habit of always suspecting a conspiracy when a perfectly adequate cock-up will do! As with the description of the British Party’s “willingness to take orders” [p20], an image a little at odds with Manuilsky phrase that it was a “society of good friends”, hardly the image of a tightly disciplined party, even if that was the hoped for ideal.

Concurrently reading Hobsbawm’s more literate, if weary, memoirs, I was struck by the assessment of a semi-detached member of the Communist Party whose ideological role was famously revisionist. With the eye of a historian specialising in the broad sweep of global politics, he specifically concludes that the world’s Communist Party’s “were neither `monolithic’ in the Stalinist phrase, nor simple executive agents of CPSU policy”. [Eric Hobsbawm “Interesting Times – a Twentieth-Century Life” Allen Lane (2000) p203] An old critic of `Stalinism’ such as he has surely little to gain in exonerating the old Communist Parties of the charge of being slavish to the Soviet line? I don’t suppose Eaden and Renton will agree!

1926 and all that

Throughout Eaden’s and Renton’s book a weak web of intrigue is spun, implying that the Communist Party was in error from the moment of Trotsky’s downfall by always blindly following Moscow. This starts with their treatment of the 1926 General Strike, which proceeds from the standard Trotskyist presumption that the Party threw away the chance of moving to a revolutionary situation because it was following the Soviet Union’s line of backing the Labour and trade union leadership because they favoured a policy of trade with that country. The arrest of the 12 Communist leaders in October 1925 is cited as of little more significance than a series of `red scares’, in the ambition of the right to exploit Labour’s weak spot of being part of the same broad movement. Yet its purpose was to deny that movement of an extraordinarily high calibre of individuals. 

I felt moved to defend even Ernie Bevin, when I read the authors’ quoting of his contemporary observation that some workers were uneasy of leaving work during the General Strike because of its effect on their pensions. [p27] It’s a true rendition of Bevin’s observation. But the selective use of the fact – to diminish the man – obscures the full picture. If you know that few workers had occupational pensions but that municipal tram workers did and this “superannuation” was highly valued, especially given the low pay that applied in this sector; that it was service related and subject to loss where breach of contract arose, you begin to see Bevin’s point. This was that, despite such worries, T&G transport workers came out in droves to back the miners.   Bevin’s orders calling out 90% (the relevant work groups) of the union’s members were adhered to almost totally; “no other union was so deeply involved … and none responded with greater loyalty”. [Alan Bullock “The life and times of Ernest Bevin: Volume 1 1881-1940”, Heinemann (1960) p317] 

Bevin was hardly the villain of the piece in 1926. That `honour’ certainly belongs to Jimmy Thomas of the NUR. As for Bevin, he was unambiguously and deeply committed to the strike, saying: “If every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared (to strike) rather than see the miners driven down like slaves.” [John Murray “The General Strike of 1926 – a history”, Lawrence and Wishart (1951) p94] But it was a traumatic experience. Spending on the Strike bankrupted the TGWU, an experience that arguably pushed Bevin from the centre to the right. The union still bases its financial planning on the need to retain enough liquid assets to maintain a year’s worth of stoppages without contribution income!

But Communists are retrospectively – and wrongly - harangued for their `failings’, too. The accusation that the “CP was caught off guard when the strike ended” [p28] fails to recognise that the Party immediately led a coal embargo campaign and does not sit easily with the fact of the urgent and loud early warnings in the Party press to the movement to prepare for the end of the subsidy period when the crunch would come. Is it really the case that “(t)he party saw no danger that the lefts too could sell out”? [p28] Having too much faith in the steadfastness of left socialists is an altogether different quality to never seeing the possibility. In any case, people like Bevin were actually pretty left wing before the Strike, his turn to the right was out of fear of the consequences that could have been, whilst others reached different conclusions. Was it inevitable that he did so?

A clash of ideas over trade union bureaucracy

Clearly, the SWP holds divergent views on trade unions to Communists and this is evident throughout the text. British Communists apparently did not assimilate “the full lessons of the Bolshevik theory of union bureaucracy” [p11] Presumably the SWP has! Their well-worn view emerges here - that union bureaucrats inevitably sell out. This view is a function of a pseudo-scientific, sociological conception, which has been contracted onto some intemperate remarks of Trotsky. A theorist who never displayed a very firm grasp of what trades unionism was in Russia, let alone comprehending the subtleties of the beast in its original homeland.

In contrast, British Communists have a long tradition of seeking to extract the best from our unique labour movement. The role of the official movement and the unofficial movement can be mutually beneficial, developing the right sort of creative tension between these two elements is critical to unleashing rising militancy. The authors of this book see things differently. For example, the Minority Movement, they say, was seen by Communist Party as an “alliance between workers and left wing trade union bureaucrats”. [p22] But the fundamental truth is that their unspoken historical dispute with Communists is really over Socialism in One Country, this informs the entirety of this treatment.

So the failure of the General Strike has its causes in the Party’s error in relying on those on the TUC General Council “with a temporary sympathy for the RussianState”. [p25] Like the “how many angels can dance on a pinhead” type rows between various ultra-leftists over precisely when the Soviet Union ceased to become a workers’ state, or whether it was `degenerate’ or `deformed’, an unspoken debate exists here as to when the Communist Party failed. By this account, the Party was still a “workers party” at the end of the 1920s, but was a “deformed” workers party during the Popular Front phase. [p35, p57] Ultimately, for Eaden andRenton, “(t)he party failed” [xxi] and the entire thrust of the book is summed up in one phrase: “Of course, there was a choice…” [xx], Trotskyism, of course.

The `problem’ of Class against Class

But, in considering `Class against Class’, the authors have a problem. They make too much of the effect the “suicidal politics” [p1] of the new line had on membership in their endeavour to prove that this left turn was an error because it was ordered by the Comintern, even accusing the Party of ultra-leftism! Yet, their concern about the left turn was that it was not their particular left turn. Almost by accepted convention, this policy is deprecated by historians and commentators. This book seeks to continue the contention that the line alienated the Party from the masses. 

Yet an examination of Party membership figures in the context of political developments suggests that it may not have been that problematic. The high point of Party membership in the 1920s was around the General Strike and the massive losses sustained thereafter merely reflected the despondency that arose from its betrayal. Indeed, the Third Period was as much a militant response to the victories of the newly aggressive capitalist class, fuelled by almost incoherent rage at the duplicitous role played by the social democratic leaders almost everywhere in the world at this time. Indeed, the word `period’ has real meaning. Membership fell from 4,000 in 1920 to 2,500 the year later, when by this account the Party was still presumably revolutionary! By 1928 the Party had climbed to 7,000 members, largely as a result of its sterling role in the General Strike, but this fell to 3,000 the following year and dropped by another 500 the next. No doubt the authors would blame Class against Class for this, reasoning that it was the start of the rot, because Moscow was now calling the shots. This, despite the reality of the numbing effect of victimisation and climbing unemployment that saw a huge proportion of Communists made jobless. Yet, by the end of 1931, Communist Party membership had climbed up again to 6,263. The plain fact is, that from when the strategy was first adopted to its formal end in 1935, the Party trebled in size! The sheer violence of the social democratic response towards independent working class action during this new period in capitalism, contrasted with the unbending solidarity of Communists, must have deeply impressed itself on many forward thinking activists.

Events and quotes are all too frequently twisted to suit their case. Walter Citrine is approvingly quoted in criticising the Party, apparently and strangely, “from the left”. [54] I fail to see how this can be so, since his words were actually sarcastically denouncing the Party for wanting to affiliate after what he saw as a record of attacks on Labour’s leaders. A record not from 1929 but since 1925, note – that’s to say over their performance over the General Strike. But the new line did demand some pretty robust attitudes to social democratic trade unions. The authors overstate the degree to which the British Party followed this course, however, in saying that its “leadership now demanded the formation of new unions” [p34]. There is little evidence given here – and nothing new at all - that “championing break-away red unions” was seriously entertained. This is surely implicit in the observations that the only two examples “both failed”. [p36] Both were something of an accident. One, a textile breakaway, arose out of a strike that had been repudiated by the official union, which also provocatively sacked the organiser concerned.

Only weeks before this Pollitt was urging the “importance of work inside the existing unions” at the January 1929, 10th Party Congress, despite the new line, whilst he had rejoined the Party Secretariat by May 1929. The other breakaway, the United Mineworkers of Scotland was a reaction to local election fraud and a previous, unhealed, split. There was, at the very least, an early return to pragmatism, arguably this had been less a left turn than a wobble. Considerable latitude had in any case been exercised. For the Comintern, the Third Period was more of a “curve or bend which veered between the centre and the extreme left according to varying circumstances”. [Nina Fishman “The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945” Scolar Press (1995) p35] By the spring of 1930 the Comintern had begun a clear tactical withdrawal from extremes. Whilst the British Party never “gave up” on attempts to form left unions [p50], since it had never truly sought to do. The enormously impressive achievement, almost exclusively of Communists, in building an organisation of 50,000 dues paying members in the National Unemployed Workers Movement is glided over gently. Yet it is never actually stated just how fierce was the Labour Party’s hostility to the NUWM. 

The heavy involvement of Communists in unemployed struggles did surely tend to insulate them from the wider Labour Movement. However, I would query the view that intense involvement in worker related cultural activities in the 1930s, sports, theatre etc., by Communists meant that they could “sustain themselves without needing to test their politics in the outside world”. [p38] Or, more profoundly, that by 1930 the Party was at its “nadir” and this is somehow directly inked with the fact that strikes were at the lowest levels ever recorded [p39] Or that what was attractive to young activists about the Kinder Scout mass trespass was that it was “away from the world of work” [p40], which was frankly in a mess! It is stated, contradictorily, it seems to me, such “communist campaigns fitted with the politics of the Third Period” [p40] since relying on young workers and the unemployed insulated the Party from ultra-leftism! If the party had been the “puppet of Cold War mythology” it could not have intervened with the creativity it did.

Contemporary views on the new line were arguably rather more sanguine than these or other commentators suggest. The enthusiasm for the line displayed by the Party’s sole MP at the time, Shapurji Saklatvala, is at least accepted here, as is its popularity amongst younger activists. [pp32-3] But this line was as much a reaction to events in Britain as it was adherence to the general position of the Comintern. Even before the first pressure from the Comintern to adopt a new line, in October 1927, there had been a shifting of opinion about the Labour Party. From 1925 onwards an increasingly critical view of the Labour Party was being accepted inside the CP. The events of the General Strike accelerated this process. Early in 1927, the CP had reached the conclusion that the approximately 20% of its members who were individual members of the Labour Party would not now be properly accepted as dual members. The Party had also taken the view that it should stand parliamentary candidates against Labour, in view of the moves to “making the Labour Movement safe for capitalism”. In early 1928, Saklatvala, also a member of the EC, proposed standing 50 such candidates. The adoption of the new line was not “an instantaneous process”, just ushered in by the 1929 congress, it was the product of a slow maturing of frustration with the hope that Labour could be saved as a workers’ party. [pp212-7 “Saklatvala: a political biography” Mike Squires, Lawrence and Wishart (1990)]

United Front or Popular Front – a false dichotomy 

Like the many Trotskyists who they quote to the effect that the supposed failure to create a revolutionary party allowed the Labour Party to restore its influence over the workers, the authors minimise the truly powerful grip that reformism historically has over the British working class movement. Yet the CP is criticised for the harsh, but possibly partly accurate, statement that social democracy was the “main socialprop of the bourgeoisie”. [p52 – my emphasis] The early 1930s was clearly, at the very least, a period of great confusion in working class politics. The MacDonaldite treachery might have well have been a mere blip by this account. The Labour Party’s slump in the 1931 general election to a mere 45 MPs, due to a loss of 2 million votes is not mentioned, but the supposedly “very weak” results for the CP is. [p47] Actually, the CP’s 26 candidates got 74,826 votes in 1931, compared with 50,632 for 25 candidates two years before. It did not replace Labour by any means, but the Party’s average vote improved and the impressive support in the Rhondda and in Fife that was kept for decades was first cemented. [Mike Squires “Saklatvala: a political biography”, Lawrence and Wishart (1990) p217]

It is simplification to the point of distortion to say that the CP called the ILP a “fascist party”, however distressing the `social fascist’ tag is in retrospect. [p51] Was Palme Dutt’s suspicion in 1929 that the Left Wing Movement, the left in the Labour Party in the 1920s, was about to set up as a new party really a “strange illusion”? [p32] After all, within a year, the then left Labour figure Oswald Moseley was to begin the process of leading activists into the New Party (not mentioned here at all), before he rapidly took it sharp right. By the next year, 1931, the ILP had split from Labour. Strange? More strange is the lack of comment on this secession.

Extraordinarily, supposedly “the party’s sympathy for industrial work waned” after 1935. [p35] The evidence for this seems to be, firstly, the low level of strikes in South Wales after the election of Arthur Horner in 1936. [p57] Whereas, such an election transformed the quality of official union support for effective negotiation of grievances. Secondly, that at the 1938 Congress no report on industrial work was given. But this was held just after the Austrian Anschluss and actually during the Czechoslovakian crisis that led to Chamberlain’s Munich deal with Hitler. The nation seemed on the edge of war and minds, no doubt, would have been focused elsewhere. The previous Congress, in 1937, had in any case dealt extensively with trade union work in a 3,500 word resolution, calling on Party members and sympathisers to “intensify their daily work in building up the unions, in organising the unorganised, in being the foremost in performing that voluntary unpaid service without which an effective trade union movement will not be possible”. Some waning! [“It can be done: Report of the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party” Communist Party Sept 1937, p291]

Along with the expected wheeling out of all this supposed evidence of a fading of revolutionary zeal, there is also the tired retreading of an old line. That the attitude of the German Communists to their Social Democrats “effectively paved the way for the rise of Aldolf Hitler”. [p31] This rehashing of the standard, ultra-left and right wing account is not even mediated with the provision of supporting evidence. What really happened?

Leaving aside the earlier history of the German Social Democratic Party repeatedly collaborating with the right in violent suppression of the revolutionary left, it had followed its own conception of `popular frontism’ with a policy of “toleration” for the leader of the Catholic party, Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor from 1930. [Ian Kershaw “Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris” Penguin Books (1998) p335-6] This was despite his strategy of overriding parliamentary government by recourse to presidential decree as a means to meeting Germany’s severe economic and political crisis. By 1932, close on half of the workforce was either fully or partially unemployed. Working class confidence was “eaten away … by the SPD’s perceived failure to look after working-class interests”. The Social Democrats now joined with the Catholics (who also produced another, even more right wing Chancellor, von Papen) to support the arch-conservative doyen of the military caste, Hindenberg, in the election for the Presidency, leaving the Communists out on their own. It was particularly the actions of these two men – and arguably those that propped them up - that paved the way for Hitler.

In no less than five sets of elections in the single year of 1932, there was no evidence of either the Social Democrats looking to unity with the KPD. On the contrary, it had followed “one unholy compromise after another in its attempts to uphold its legalistic traditions whilst … hoping to fend off the worst”. [[Ian Kershaw “Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris” Penguin Books (1998) p476] Towards the end, the KPD was independently “flourishing”, a government report concluded, any political leader outside of their ranks would be welcomed. [Ian Kershaw “Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris” Penguin Books (1998) p404-6] Now, clearly a critique of the KPD can be made; that it acted in a sectarian way, due to its underestimation of the viciousness of the right and overestimation of its own support. But such a critique is not made in this book – or to my knowledge anywhere else with any great effect - and in any case would sound very weak coming from these authors. The standard Trotskyite attack on German Communists does not wash, would they – did any leftist critic of the KPD - have seriously found it easy to unite with the SDP? Does the SPD bear no responsibility?

Clearly, the sneering use of the phrase `social fascist’ had been injudicious, stupid even. But it is retrospective horror at the mass murderous actions of Nazism that makes this reflex seem so absolutely wrong. Nonetheless, the tension with social democrats had been sharp. Yet many Communist Parties, especially the German and French, actually increased their influence by fighting for the sharper line. Even so, it is evident that there was a deep under-estimation of the strength of this new development of real fascism.

These writers approve of the Party’s pursuance of the united front between the period of class against class and the popular front. Contrary to both cold war warriors and Trotskyists, who always seem to meet up on the other side of that great sweeping arc that is called hindsight, the move to Popular Frontism was not ordered by Moscow. It now seems clear that idea of stretching the united front strategy, bringing together those from the socialist tradition, to all those who considered themselves as anti-fascist, as the best means of combating the seemingly irresistible rise of fascism, actually originated in Paris from 1934 rather than Moscow. Moreover, that such broad unity was not a replacement for socialist unity, but an addition to it. The authors have little sympathy for anything so perverse as working with any one outside of the socialist tradition. Indeed, the socialist tradition excuses all.         

It’s impossible of course to even mention the Spanish Civil War without hearing that it was all the fault of Communists who seemed obsessed with winning the war against fascism instead of engaging in intriguing but impractical social experiments. A throwaway remark about the conflict between the ultra leftist POUM and their allies, the Anarchists, with the Government of the Spanish Republic implies that Franco’s victory was a consequence of that government’s actions. [p61]

Like most non-communist left commentators, the authors ignore the huge and disastrous influence of Anarchism in pre-fascist Spain for the more romantic image of the POUM’s pseudo-Trotskyists. The Comintern is accused of (falsely?) describing its militia as consisting of those already expelled from regular forces for disruption and prone to swindling and theft and deserting their troops in times of difficulty. Perhaps a strong exaggeration, rather than a complete untruth, there is however little evidence of POUM’s militia covering itself in glory in fighting with the Fascists and much that indicates its forces were mostly composed of accidental volunteers. The Aragon Front, manned by Anarchists and Poumists, was marked by its inactivity.

The authors are prone to the easy casting out of offensive remarks based on glib summaries of complex situations. It is said that, because the British Party was committed to a “rival Popular Front demonstration” two days before the actions in Cable Street, the Party was initially slow to move. Condescendingly, the authors suggest that it was more concerned with people dying in Spain than the fascist threat in London. [p58] This take on these events is originally derived from standard SWP analysis. However, it might have been worth looking at Joe Jacobs’ memoirs, although there is no sign of Eaden and Renton having done so. [Joe Jacobs “Out of the Ghetto: My Youth in the East End, Communism and Fascism 1913-1939”, (1978) Janet Simon, pp235-246]

An East End anti-fascist activist, Jacobs holds a special distinction of being expelled from the Communist Party twice! In the 1930s, he was at odds with the Party for favouring the tactic of using special bodies of tough activists to forcibly break up BUF meetings in Stepney, whereas the local leadership felt that this vanguardist approach detracted from the very real mass electoral support it was gaining in the borough. So there was a political debate for these authors to exploit, had they been inclined to be less polemical. Despite Jacobs’ own critical views, his lengthy, if one-sided, account covers this very real tactical controversy, as well as the sense of events unfolding daily, shedding a different light on the offensive remark of these authors.

Equally, no one who has read Phil Piratin’s, albeit briefer and more diplomatic, account of this narrow point can be under any illusions that the situation was indeed complex. Perhaps there was less a conflict between `Popular Frontism’ and `United Frontism’ and much more a tussle over logistics. Both Piratin and Jacobs make clear that a major Youth Rally (a YCL event to collect funds for Spain, not a Popular Front demo as such) had been pre-booked for Trafalgar Square on October 4th 1936, when Mosley’s fascists then announced their intention of marching through the East End. Not two days before but the same day and clearly there was no sense of the YCL event being a `rival’ demo to Cable Street. (Although there was a local anti-fascist demo two days before.) Whilst, initially, the London District CP leadership was doubtful that a significant community response could be mounted in the short time necessary, there was clearly some concern that a small-scale local event would merely end up being violent.

Piratin says that the London District Committee of the Party “gave immediate consideration to the development of anti-fascist action and was concerned as to whether (the) Youth Rally … could continue to be held”. It was initially suggested that the two events be held consecutively, but the local Party sensed the community reaction building up in favour solely of a local counter-demonstration. Over the next day or two, whilst the London District Committee was discussing what to do about the situation with the Stepney branch, Piratin says that the “propaganda against the fascists had `caught on’ in East London”. Jacobs says that the Party Centre weighed in with political support for the Stepney view. So, the YCL leaflet was overprinted with an alteration, switching the assembly point from Trafalgar Square to Aldgate. Piratin records that “it was decided to ask the youth to call off their meeting” and that the effect of this was to ensure the application of unparalleled resources and preparation. The rest is history. [“Our Flag Stays Red” Phil Piratin Lawrence and Wishart (1978) p19-20]

Moving on to a wider stage, according to the authors, Popular Front politics were characterised by concepts of national unity and pacifism, promoted by doctrinaire intellectuals obsessed with the uniting of all classes. [p65] I felt a moment or two of unreality as I wondered where, in my tattered copy of the Party’s programme from these times, “For a Soviet Britain”, I might read of this. Since Party membership trebled in four years from 1935, in the wake of its sterling anti-fascist role, the authors have to inure themselves from too much sympathy by creating the very clear, but quite erroneous, impression that the influx was dominated by less committed, middle-class types. [p62]

Moreover, to suggest that the Popular Front was more about linking up with Tories and Liberal is to miss the point. The Labour leadership was against the Popular Front too. Events in Spain unmoved them and they supported the Tory policy of non-intervention. The nearest any of its leaders came to endorsing the Popular Front was Attlee, who said he would not rule it out “in the event of … world crisis”. [Michael Foot “Aneurin Bevan – a biography” Volume 1 1897-1945 MacKibbon and Kee (1963) p249] Retrospectively, as ultra-leftists, it is necessary for the authors to demonstrate a theoretical wedge between the wider left and Communists, to the latter’s disadvantage. But the evidence of practical disassociation amounts to assertion. Barbara Castle, in her memoirs, talks warmly of her experience of Pollitt from these times, despite accepting that she and her close comrades were more interested in socialist unity than a wider anti-fascist unity. Indeed, posing one against the other is meaningless, for left unity was at the heart of the popular front, the goodwill of no amount of Duchesses and writers would have been of value without the strength of it. The 1936 Labour Party conference not only rejected affiliation but also forbade its members any association with Communists, even appearing on a platform. In defiance of this, in January 1937, the Unity campaign between the CP, the ILP and the Socialist League was launched. Labour’s NEC disaffiliated the SL that month and by May it had voluntarily disbanded. Yet Bevan and other were expelled in 1939 for their refusal to bow down to Labour’s bi-partisanship on foreign policies with the establishment.


The Communist Party at the start of the Second World War

It is said that the proud record of Communists in speaking for victims of “imperialist aggression” was compromised by their support for the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. [pp 67-8] Such a phrase does not convey the complexity of the times, irrespective of the injustice of the invasion in retrospect. The nature of the Soviet concern is not explained. At the time it seemed just a question of when, who by and how, rather than if, the Soviet Union would be attacked. Leningrad was only 20 miles from the border and Finland overlooked the narrow Baltic Sea and the northern Arctic Sea supply routes, extensive use of the latter by the British merchant marine from 1942 proving just how significant this was. Mannerheim, the pro-Nazi commander of the Finnish army, had suppressed a local revolutionary uprising in 1918, massacring 15,000 men, women and children. He also had led a brutal invasion of Soviet Russia and, now, negotiations over mutual security of disputed territory degenerated in border skirmishes before a full-scale Soviet invasion took place.

Fred Westacott was interviewed by the authors for their book and is quoted, explaining that the `phoney war’ against Germany was outshone by Chamberlain’s sudden outburst of action against the Soviet Union. However, in his own book, but not in this one, Fred goes on to point out that the character of the larger war still unfolding was still very unclear. Incredibly, Mussolini and Franco had been approached to support the Anglo-French invasion force about to be sent to Finland when the short Soviet-Finnish conflict ended. [Fred Westacott “Shaking the Chains” Joe Clark, Chesterfield (2000) p129]

Fred’s account, replete with a clear description of the complexity of analysis required at the time makes nonsense of the claim that only a “handful” of Party members had a “Leninist conception of imperialism”. This unnecessarily minimises the theoretical capacity of the times as well as contradicts their own positive assessment of Communists’ record on imperialism. This twisting, born of a desire not to understand but to condemn, impels the authors to undertake a survey of the terminology used by the Daily Worker to describe the Third Reich during August and September of 1939. Such an analysis is worthy of the worst kind of 1960s journalistic Kremlinology, in its desperation to extract all meaning from the most inconsequential of nuances.    

The generalised, uncertain grasp of detail, made cloudier by a desire to stick mud, has the authors describing Harry Pollitt as being “removed” from the General Secretaryship of the Party in 1939, in the controversy of whether the newly declared war was imperialist or anti-fascist, on one page. By the top of the next page he has “resigned”, whilst they speak again of his “removal” by the bottom of the page. [pp71-2] Which is it? Monty Johnson in his introduction to the verbatim Central Committee debate on this issue says that if the party was to accept the new line “Pollitt preferred that responsibility for this should be taken by the three members of the leadership who agreed with it”. [About Turn - The Communist Party and the Outbreak of the Second World War: The Verbatim Record of the Central Committee Meetings, 1939”, ed Francis King and George Matthews, Lawrence and Wishart (1990) pp28-9] In other words if he lost such a vital political argument, Pollitt himself did not think he should lead.

By now, very clear, first-hand evidence has emerged to rebut the standard non-communist account of the switch in line on the war in 1939. Essentially, most Party members adopted the `imperialist war’ line easily and comfortably. It gelled with the gut feeling of most of them, even if the message did come from Moscow, it was not vitally necessary for it to do so. The cursory coverage of the 1940 Peoples’ Convention here minimises just how popular the stance adopted by the Party was. Whilst the evidence claimed to indicate serious internal opposition to the new line is unconvincing and minimal, virtually anecdotal in one case. [p74]

More damagingly, one single (local?) Special Branch report (sourced at the Public Records Office) is quoted as claiming that CP advice on how to respond to an invasion was to adopt non-resistance. [p81] This is plainly ridiculous, given that the line the French Party adopted was to resist the moment invasion took place and the Communist Party was taking much of its analysis from it nearest sister party at this necessarily insular time. But the purpose of the writers is to paint of mounting picture of degeneracy and the facts should not stand in the way of a `good’ story. The idea here is to convince us that the Communist Party was loosing its rebellious instincts. I, for one, do not buy this story and I have personal knowledge from several now deceased Party functionaries that military training in remote country areas was given to some Party units, albeit in rather laughable Home Guardish fashion, and that serious preparations for guerrilla style, underground parallel leadership structures and cells were made. Clearly, Special Branch hadn’t got enough spies in the right places!

The Cold War

Having increasingly become colder towards the image of the Party, as the authors hit the Cold War they become pretty hostile. Although they date this as starting with the June 1950 Korean demarcation line conflict, I would have thought that the chauvinist hostility felt by the Communist Party following the Amethyst incident in 1947 would have been a firmer starting point. Contrasting the Party’s attitude to production, in the pre and post 1947 periods, is disingenuous. It enables the authors to pose it as being duplicitous when what clearly changed was the political situation. The potential for anti-capitalist hegemony in 1945 was self-evidently high. The offensive by the employers and the state in the late 1940s, that sought to redress this, was as sharp on the domestic front as it was in foreign policy. Little wonder then that production (for war) was seen as a “bosses’ trick” by 1947. [p104]

They claim that the Communist Party was cut off from the rest of the left following the rift with Yugoslaviabut “whatever its faults, the CP did not follow the Labour Left’s abdication to British imperialism”. [p115] Even so, the Party’s opposition in the 1950s to US domination of Britain is illustrated by quoting its call on “true patriots to defend British national interests”. This is described as “unpleasant chauvinism”, a characterisation that takes no account of the fact that this was a mere six years away from the war. Opposition to a new influx of lurid US comics is “bad socialism”, whatever that may be, and the whole approach was “right-wing popularism”. There a good deal of this sort of stuff, so much so that the writers feel disposed to comment that “it would be absurd to suggest that the party got everything wrong”. Although this comes after a section of 13 pages of solidly slagging off the Communist Party! [p107]

Continuing the earlier dealt with theme of the authors displaying a lack of depth in their chosen theme, the following statement is suspect: “Eight members of the T&G executive were sacked”, arising out of the introduction of bans and proscriptions on the holding of office in the trade union movement. [pp104-5] Firstly, “sacked” is an inappropriate expression, since these General Executive Council (the proper expression) members were not full time employees but elected lay members. They were not `sacked’ from these positions but disqualified from standing in the next biennial electoral period. Later in the book, adverse comparison is made between the resignations from the CP of some high profile union activists with this misquoted, but very real, sacrifice of those in 1950 (the authors say 1948). [p155] “Bert Papworth and eight other members of the TGWU executive were barred from their positions.” Was it eight or nine, was it officers or lay members. They don’t know! Some confusion on this subject often arises because a similar number (nine) of full-timers, one of them a national official (my indirect predecessor!), did loose their jobs.

Post war trades unionism

On mining, the authors display a thin grasp of detail. Summing up the periods when NUM General Secretary had been a Communist (Horner and Paynter), the authors not only fail to acknowledge where the real power in the union lay, the Presidency, which was firmly in the grip of the Right, but also heap the responsibility for the post war stagnation of miners’ wages on these two. There were times when they were obliged to deliver speeches, which they did not agree with, written by the Right. Even so, both men had strongly pushed for the NUM’s 1966 National Power Loading Agreement (NPLA), specifically to boost lower pay rates. This is described as “equalising down pay rates, by ending locally negotiated bonuses”. [p153] Yet the political consequences of allowing free range for local bonuses is clear to see in the way that the Nottinghamshire coalfield became increasingly marginalized from the rest of the union from the mid 1970s in particular.

The organisation of rank-and-file activity in Yorkshire is dated at 1967 [p154], when in fact it should really be at least May 1955, when the Doncaster Panel, led by Communists, backed action by the Armthorpe branch, which was rapidly spread by the earliest use of `flying pickets’. This was the immediate consequence of a campaign from 1953, led by the Party, initiated by Pollitt himself, to turn a coalfield “rife with rank and file militancy” into a more focused and politically effective direction. As a result of this struggle, Yorkshireminers “saw the need to step up the fight in all coalfields” for the NPLA. “That was the corner stone that led to the 1972 strike”. More importantly, a point completely lost on Eaden and Renton, it was the creation of unity between the rank and file and official movement in the Yorkshire NUM (Scotland and Wales, too, for that matter) that made the union such a dynamic and politically decisive force. [Frank Watters, “Being Frank”, privately published, Doncaster (1992) pp23-27]

The supposed move, in the 1960s, by the CP away from “workplace orientation towards a Broad Left strategy” is both arguably not so stark as suggested and, if it did exist, need not have been contradictory. It was more the case, surely, that the Cold War inhibited effective and broad alliances with the trade union and Labour left. Also, possibly the question of resources was at issue here, whilst it is certainly the case (to my mind) that from 1979 it was a matter of politics.

The theoretical difference between Trotskyists and Communists over the relationship between the official and unofficial movements within trade unions is not elaborated. However, this tension is apparent in the many instances where the supposed outrageous `moderacy’ of Communists is quoted, without elaborating on these differences. For example, the refusal of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, the role of which was to struggle for the independence from state interference of the unions, to engage in internal controversies over the rightness or otherwise of particular unofficial disputes. (A 1972 dock strike.) [p156] And the claim that, in the 1972 building workers’ strike, the Morning Star invited the “moderate leader of UCATT” to uncritically report “`back to work’ deals which had the effect of breaking the unity of the strike”. [157] When in point of fact, by my personal recollection (as a participant) is that it was the union’s strategy to break the employers’ association solidarity by this tactic.

A memo from the Industrial Department, reminding AEU comrades that “it is already policy of our union to support the Morning Star … so no mention is necessary”, is misunderstood as containing deep meaning and misinterpreted in the worst way as an example of the reticence of Communists to advertise their affiliations. [174] In truth it is almost certainly a case of advice not to put a motion to conference on something already won, in case the right wing knocked it down! If we have won a policy it makes no sense to test it in an increasingly hostile situation. The authors’ minimal experience in the hurly burly of trade union life is well illustrated here.

The oft-recycled account of “a 1000 London dockers” marching in support of Enoch Powell not only exaggerates the numbers but also the importance of the event. This is a pretty standard slur, what grates is the snide comment that it was easier to win resolutions in union meetings than to take on “an argument at the dock gate”. [p166] Apparently Jack Dash and others left this to a sole Trotskyist docker who put out a leaflet! This is petty stuff, distorting the true nature of these events. It is not history. 

In contrast with the militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period 1974-79 was to see the beginnings of difficult period for the Party. It is rather opaquely suggested that the failure of the Party to exploit this inheritance of class-consciousness was somehow linked to an inability to “analyse and engage”. Whilst, admittedly, the tenor of the book now takes on a more confident tone, perhaps reflecting some personal familiarity with the period?

The anti-communist journal, IRIS, which regularly tipped off who not to vote for in union elections is briefly mentioned. [p131] The authors could have pointed out that the recently released Macmillan cabinet papers now reveal IRIS to have been initiated and funded by the security forces. (My recollection of IRIS is that most tit bits were merely reprints of publicly available sources, usually the Morning Star!)

Their account of the position within British Leyland is contentious and in accord with the stance of the SWP at the time. According to this, Derek Robinson saw his role as winning support for “job losses and speed ups on the production line”, through the Ryder Plan, and this resulted in a gap between workers and a “bureaucratised layer of full time stewards”. I’m pretty sure that he would have a different take on this. Needless to say, the authors didn’t interview Derek, nor have they sourced recent interviews given by him explaining the strategy being followed by the Joint Shop Stewards Committee. At root is a perennial difference between orthodox doctrinal Trotskyists and traditional Communists, whereby the former latch on to any manifestations of militancy, however sectional; failing to grasp the dynamics of how to manage the transition from sectional consciousness, through class consciousness to revolutionary understanding.

Symptomatic of this is the citing of the 1977 tool room strike as an example of good militancy, when in fact the motivation was elitist and the outcome predictably divisive. The opposition of the union – the AEU - and Communists within it is described as the ending of traditions of solidarity. Most outrageously, this period of the Ryder Plan is conflated with Thatcher’s assault on trades unionism – the first of many – that began with Derek Robinson’s sacking. There is no discussion of the roots of this, which are based on the campaign – led only by Communists – for the retention of volume car building in this country. A campaign resoundingly lost, for no such industry currently exists! Aping the popular media version of this history, the authors talk of Edwardes’ “survival plan” as being the issue. The reason for Robinson’s sacking, the publishing of a pamphlet that genuinely dealt with survival instead of managed decline of manufacturing leading to an assembly mode, is not given. “The union” – actually the AEU – is quoted as ordering the workers back; to its credit the T&G – at the time at least as big as the AEU and subsequently larger – backed Robinson to the hilt. History need not - and should not - be written like this.    [p164-5]

Revisionism or Marxism?

The relish with which the authors’ deal with the post Hungary, post Stalin period, is perhaps understandable; whilst the issue of how far the Communist Party `thawed out’ predominates. We are never far from the idea that King Street is firmly situated in a suburb of Moscow. It seems that “(b)eing a `good Communist’ … meant obeying orders – before they were given”. [p104] Such a throwaway line – completely unsubstantiated by the way – means that Communists just can’t win! There’s no room here for the possibility of commonly held understanding producing common goals. Yet the Communist Party wasn’t a “hardened, revolutionary Leninist organisation” [p81], despite an earlier claim that it always agreed withMoscow. The import of Manuilsky’s exasperated depiction of the Party as a “society of great friends” just doesn’t sink in.

Their treatment of the handling of the case of the publication of the factional journal, the `Reasoner’, is fairly standard. It was “ordered to be shut down”. The Party’s view that producing such a document was an unfair exercise in internal debate is not even mentioned. This is aside from the matter of how democratic centralism should operate – and the authors do not engage in a discussion over the concept. The argument of the Party that it gave intellectuals, with their university trained fluency and easy access to typewriters and duplicators, advantages that others did not have in the days before increasing access to tertiary education and the wider possession of personal computers and e-mail, is not even mentioned. (Come to think of it, the argument still has validity!) 

The fundamental political weakness of the book is now apparent, that it views a continuity between the Party of 1951-1979 and the final years as taken. The book does not give credit for the inner-party factional conflict as the root cause for the massive reduction of organised communism in Britain. Additionally, there is not a sufficient acceptance of the conspiratorial coup that seized the leadership of the Party for a faction that followed non-communist ideas, cementing its authority by a cynical use of democratic centralism. Their version of the essential political line of the Communist Party not only distorts this question of continuity; the impression of this line itself is twisted. Seemingly, “the political method of (the) party was to argue for Popular Front alliances with the mythical progressive bourgeoisie”. [p116] I looked vainly for the evidence for this, along with the claim that, in the 1951 BRS, the Party no longer sought to call itself revolutionary and that this was also a “rejection of the party’s earlier theory of the state”. A footnote sourcing this links the 1951 edition to a 1990 personal revisionist work rejecting Leninism, a typical approach.

Unlike the authors, I’m not sure that I would concede the victory of Eurocommunism at the 1977 Congress, although it is clear that the `centrist’ bureaucracy had so allied themselves with the `Young Turks’, led by Dave Cook, Martin Jacques, Nina Temple and Co. that they no longer had room for manoeuvre. Even so, the actual text of the final version of that edition of the BRS faced both ways on the issue of the Broad Democratic Alliance and the anti-monopoly alliance, in different sections. It was not a clean sweep in policy terms by any means and it was still possible to argue that the Party still saw the labour movement at the core. I well recall the ability of Eurocommunists to exploit the ambiguity by saying that this was an erroneous `concentric’ version of the BDA, at odds with their multi-faceted, equal status approach to the `new social forces’. (The term `Eurocommunist’, may seem unclear for those who did not politically live through the period, suffice to say that it was a trendy name for revisionism!)

Nonetheless, the authors have generally completed a good survey of the Eurocommunist project. Although they underplay how it was thought by those in thrall to this that `Thatcherism’ was a decisively new concept, so much so that it somehow was to permanently extinguish the possibilities of the labour movement contributing to the forward progress of history. The centrality of theoretical confusion over the causes of inflation, the nature of `economism’ (a distorted use of a term of Lenin’s, sneeringly applied to trade union activism within the Party) and the character of the Social Contract between the unions and the Labour Government are all correctly identified as being at the heart of an ideological conflict that now began to shake the Communist Party. It was the failure of the Government to deliver its share of the bargain, an extension of collective bargaining to the level of the state, that saw it revealed as the Social Con-trick. The authors define this phase as a period of “ambiguity of Communists to the Social Contract”. [p163] I cannot recall this as a serious summary of the formal policy position of the Communist Party.

Even so, highly placed revisionists now began to sew the seeds of confusion by sleight of handThis was a relatively subtle operation, and confined to a tiny minority of (mostly) intellectual activists, few `industrial’ comrades would have recognised our position as ambiguous.  It is claimed that “contrary to some assumptions it was often Communist trades unionists” who supported these revisionist ideas. [p165]. But such `assumptions’ are correct. There will have been some revisionists who were members of trade unions, for all Communists were supposed to be trade union members and there were functionaries who personally held union cards who ploughed new furrows. It cannot be truthfully said that many genuine `industrial comrades’ in the Party fell for it. The vast majority of the Communist Party’s industrial advisories were hostile to the revisionist project.

The relative success of the SWP via the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s is dealt with briefly. I’m not sure that I agree that the CP’s adherence to an `aristocracy of labour’ theory inhibited it from tapping into youthful predilection to anti-racism. It was much more a question of saying and being in the right place at the right time. The Party was already frozen in ideological controversy following the 1977 congress and the YCL was already in dizzy freefall towards extinction. But it suits the authors’ ideological position to figure differently. 

Aside from these objections, the account of the revisionist offensive is pretty good, compared to most efforts. But I am bewildered at the suggestion that arising from the theoretical crisis over the Social Contract “many from … the traditionalist trade union wing of the party” adopted the analysis of Marxism Today, as we approach the “rise and fall of Bennism”! p172] True, the success of the left inside Labour did become a problem for the Party. But not in the way suggested here. As the `Bennites’ seemingly swept all before them from 1979-81, and within the Communist Party revisionism began to rear its ugly head, many left the Party for something more exciting. However, I would hesitate to say that the Party’s “trade union base withered” at this moment. [173] The period 1984-1985 is a better moment to choose. For it was the administratively focused factional war – with the leadership as the pre-eminent faction – on the revolutionary tradition within the Party, best exemplified by trade union activism and support for the Morning Star, and the Communist Party’s prone stance on the Miners’ Strike that virtually killed off its remaining industrial base.   Nor did membership “dwindle alarmingly” until this moment. [174] Especially as thousands were expelled, excluded, ostracised or shunned, a process not described.

The Party’s demise was quickened in pace by a vicious circle of despair and cynicism. Despite being lauded by the leadership, Marxism Today was never a success, other than in the sense of winning approval from non-Communists, especially in the media and mainstream politics, for those who wished to follow the line that the October Revolution and all of its consequences were a mistake. The authors remind us that, without a £50,000 a year subsidy from the Party, the journal would have folded almost as soon as it began to follow such a theoretical line. [181] Ironically, the main gravedigger of the Communist Party could not have shifted a spoonful of metaphorical earth without the Party having paid it to do so. The outcome of the revisionist project, having sullied the name of the Communist Party, was to turn the shell into Democratic Left, which rapidly shrank to only a couple of hundred adherents. Then it slimmed down further, numerically and structurally speaking, into New Times, no longer envisioned as a political party but a `network for new politics’, which turns out to mean the production of inchoate rationalisations for New Labour. These projects only brought to life by a careful use of the estimated £4 million of the Communist Party’s assets liquefied into cash by the remaining revisionist rump. Most of the individuals responsible for this mutilation of the Communist tradition have scattered to the four corners of the world, many occupying cosy berths in media, with a sprinkling in politics. A tiny group, with no tradition within the organisation, has pinched the title “Communist Party” for its ultra-leftist antics, which mostly consists of being a faction within the SocialistAlliance. At least the book mentions (in one sentence!) the continuity expressed in the form of the CPB, unlike almost all of the massive number of biographies, monographs and histories published in the last ten years. [179]

Even so, the authors follow most commentators in accepting an image of the complete collapse of the Communist tradition, referring as evidence only to the French and Italian parties. The “fragments of the former Communist Party of Great Britain will play little if any direct role” in future left development. But the Socialist Alliance is another matter it seems. Such suspect confidence appears to be based on what the authors themselves call “recent modest election successes of the Scottish Socialist Party and the SocialistAlliance”. [183] I must admit to never having quite fathomed exactly why it is that the Socialist Alliance’s involvement in electoral politics is so fundamentally different from the history of the Communist Party’s “dogged and flawed” attempts. [186] 

But is Communism really dead? Aside from decidedly poor electoral results, with 150,000 members the PCF has the largest individual membership of any party in its country. Whilst Communists in Italy are far from extinct, and the vitality of Communist Parties in India, Japan, South Africa and the Czech Republic – just to name four, there are very many more parties doing very well – belies this assumption. Thinking of the present and the future, the authors are too sweeping in their generalisations. They speak of the “re-birth of radical political activism on a world-wide scale”. Had it really died? They write of the “collapse of the Communist parties in most countries”, are they really all gone? [184]

In the end, the BRS, the BDA, Eurocommunism and New Times are seen as a continuum, in that “moderation would open up a space for a radical left government”. [186] This is the authors’ fundamental political error. The key conceptions in the BRS did not – does not! - trade off militancy for influence. It is an understanding of the completeness of the British labour movement, its organic relationship with the class and the potency that comes from a determination to act. Engels once illustrated his understanding of this by the analogy of the sleeping giant, frustratingly dim in its stupor but terrifyingly dominant when aroused and angry.   The Communist Party for most of its life grasped this concept, as today does the CPB – the true heir to the tradition of Pollitt and the BRS. Eaden and Renton, in common with the SWP and the rest of the ultra-left, cannot even begin to empathise with such an understanding. The real history of the post 1950 period of the Communist Party remains to be written, this is not it.

Graham Stevenson



Bibliography
Francis Beckett “Enemy Within” (1995)
Alan Bullock “The life and times of Ernest Bevin” Vol 1 1881-1940” Heinemann (1960) 
John Callaghan “Rajani Palme Dutt: a Study in British Stalinism”, Lawrence and Wishart (1993)
Barbara Castle “Fighting All the Way” MacMillan 1993
Communist Party “It can be done: Report of the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party”, Communist Party, Sept 1937
Nina Fishman “The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945” Scolar Press (1995)
Michael Foot “Aneurin Bevan – a biography” Vol 1 1897-1945 MacKibbon and Kee (1963)]  
Eric Hobsbawm “Interesting Times – a Twentieth-Century Life” Allen Lane (2000)  
Ian Kershaw “Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris” Penguin Books (1998) p404-6
Francis King and George Matthews (editors), About Turn - The Communist Party and the Outbreak of the Second World War: The Verbatim Record of the Central Committee Meetings, 1939, Lawrence and Wishart (1990)
Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy “Under the Red Flag: a History of Communism inBritain” Sutton Publishing (1999)
John Mahon “Harry Pollitt – a biography” Lawrence and Wishart (1976) 
Kevin Morgan “Harry Pollitt” ManchesterUniversity Press (1993)
John Murray “The General Strike of 1926 – a history”, Lawrence and Wishart (1951)
Mike Squires “Saklatvala: a political biography”, Lawrence and Wishart (1990)
Willie Thompson “The Good Old Cause – British Communism 1920-1991” Pluto Press (1992)
Andrew Thorpe “Comintern `Control’ of the Communist Party of Great Britain”, English Historical Review, 63 (452), pp610-636
Fred Westacott “Shaking the Chains” Joe Clark, Chesterfield (2000)


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