1980s >> 1987 >> no-989-january-1987

The Communist Party: A Premature Obituary

The bad news is that the Communist Party is not yet dead; the good news is that all the signs are that it is on its way out. fatally wounded after years of tearing itself to pieces. Why the harsh words? The Communist Party has for over six decades existed as a monument to a gross distortion of socialist ideas. Rarely in history has a body of such a small size in relation to the overall population done so much to confuse workers about the vital issues of the day, to utilise the tactics of dishonesty and hypocrisy in the cause of giving workers a lead, to employ the rhetoric of liberation in defence of the most disgusting dictatorships. The Communist Party is an anti-communist party and has added nothing but difficulty to the work of real communists (or socialists: like Marx and Engels we use the words socialism and communism to mean the same thing) in the Socialist Party.

 

The Birth of British Leninism
In October 1917 the Bolshevik revolution in Russia shook the parties and sects of the Left in Britain — indeed, throughout Europe — more than any single event since the death of Marx. In 1871 Marxists had looked towards the Commune in Paris, not without a few illusions. and saw there the hope for socialism. Then in the 1880s all eyes were on Germany where a mass socialist movement seemed to be developing and doing so with the approval of Engels, the most eminent Marxist in the last years of the nineteenth century. As the present century commenced leftist hope was invested in the Second International. a collection of “socialist” organisations from throughout Europe and beyond to which even the Socialist Party of Great Britain, when it was formed in June 1904, sent delegates. But the Second International was a reformist body and the parties which constituted it fell into the rut of scheming to run capitalism, even going so far as to accept a resolution from Karl Kautsky which defended the idea of Ministers taking posts in capitalist governments. The Socialist Party of Great Britain saw the reformism of the Second International and, recognising that it was beyond repair, left it in accordance with revolutionary principle.

 

In 1914, when the capitalist gangsters of Europe commenced their infamous imperialist war, the so-called socialists of the misnamed International urged workers to support their respective masters’ interests. The few principled socialists in Europe who opposed the war were isolated; in 1915 The Socialist Standard was the only journal in Britain to publish the anti-war statement of Maximovitch, a Bolshevik living in London later to become better known as Maxim Litvinoff, the Bolshevik Foreign Minister. In Britain the Socialist Party of Great Britain stood alone as the only party to unitedly oppose the war. In Russia the Bolsheviks were alone in stating the same opposition.

 

What was the condition of the British Left in 1917 when the news from Russia arrived? The first Marxist party in Britain was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) (although it was arguably less “Marxist” than is often claimed) later to become the British Socialist Party (BSP). Its attitude to the war betrayed its lack of principles. Its main leaders, including H. M. Hyndman, supported British war chauvinism and went as far as to report anti-war activists to the police. In 1916 a minority left the BSP and formed the National Socialist Party, an organisation which combined the mouthing of Marxist dogmas with support for British imperialism. The remainder of the BSP refused to oppose the war outright but instead indulged in a futile campaign to urge the collapsed Second International to revive itself and call for peace in Europe. The other leftist party with claims to being Marxist was the Socialist Labour Party, which equivocated about its attitude to the war. Of course, the Labour Party and the ILP made peace-loving noises, but at the same time their leaders spoke and wrote in favour of conscription and Lansbury’s Labour Leader refused to publish any anti-war articles.

 

These political parties were only one part of what was going on in the British Left in 1917. The years before the war had seen a rise in popularity for syndicalist theories which argued that political action was of no use to the working class and that capitalism could be brought down by means of concerted trade-union militancy, culminating in a revolutionary general strike. In the pre-war years several leftists — formerly rivals — sank their differences and formed rank and file shop stewards’ committees. (See Bob Holton’s British Syndicalism, 1900-14 for a reasonable account of this period). Without a doubt, the pre-war years was a period of intense union militancy and, without exaggerating, we might comment retrospectively that it was in many ways a period of increasing class-consciousness.

 

The whipped-up hysteria of war-time national chauvinism put a stop to that. When a spontaneous revolution broke out in Russia in February 1917 the British Left was unqualified in its support. In fact, the revolution led only to the formation of a capitalist provisional government which continued to support the war. In October the Bolsheviks seized power more as a result of popular contempt for the provisional government than mass support for Bolshevik policies, as was shown by the results of the election for the Constituent Assembly in 1918 when the Bolsheviks won fewer votes than the peasant reform party. Nevertheless, myths linger on when they are the cause of hope and in 1917 the British Left was united in its admiration for Lenin and his merry band of revolution-makers. For the syndicalists, the success of non-parliamentary Bolshevism proved the validity of their case; for the BSP and the SLP the success of Lenin meant that new tactics must be adopted in Britain. The Socialist Party of Great Britain stood alone — uncomfortably alone it must have been at the time — in declaring that the Bolshevik coup was not a socialist revolution, that all that could come out of it was a new form of capitalism.

 

In 1919 the Bolsheviks formed the Third International (the Comintern). In April it invited forty organisations throughout the world to affiliate, among which were the British ones — the BSP and the SLP. The Comintern was clear that a single Communist Party should be formed in each country. The first bid for the British franchise was made by Sylvia Pankhurst of the Workers’ Socialist Federation. So eager was she to win the blessing of Lenin that she fed him with false information about the size of her group. But the Comintern was clear about the terms on which a British Communist Party must unite. Firstly, it must work with the BSP. This condition was probably the result of the fact that Rothstein, the Bolsheviks’ man in London, was an Executive Committee member of the BSP and exaggerated its significance — for example, he claimed that it would take 10,000 members into the CP, a figure which we shall soon see to have been totally false. Secondly, the CP must affiliate to the Labour Party — an act of opportunism emphatically advocated by the unprincipled Lenin, despite the protestation of the SLPers like Jack Murphy and Willie Gallacher. Pankhurst’s WSF refused to affiliate to Labour or support electoral politics of any kind and formed the Communist Party — British Section of the Third International, the party which has the distinction of being the first splinter group from the CP before it was even formed. The BSP majority accepted the Comintern’s conditions and went into the CP. as did a substantial section of the SLP (the Communist Unity Group) and a few other bodies, including the syndicalist South Wales Socialist Society. The inaugural conference voted by a slim majority (100 to 85) in favour of affiliating to the Labour Party. The latter would not let them in and from that day to this (with a brief period when the CP accused the Labour Party of being fascists) the CP has persistently knocked at the door of the Broad Church and the Labourites have just as persistently slammed it in their face.

 

What sort of party was the CP. formed first in August 1920 and then again in January 1921? Firstly, it was hardly a mass party. At its formation it had 3,000 members, according to the official CP history written by James Klugmann and. according to that same history. one in three of those had left the CP by mid-1922, presumably tired of the initial Bolshevik adventurism. Tom Bell, who was around at the time, states in his history of the CP that the initial membership was under 2,500. So much for Rothstein’s promise to Lenin that the BSP alone would bring 10,000 workers into the new party. The only Communist MP in those early days was Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil John L’Estrange Malone who was elected as a Liberal in 1918, but defected to the CP in 1919 after going on a trip to Russia. CP historians rarely report that their first MP was a Lieutenant-Colonel who was deeply patriotic. In Bethnal Green a Communist Mayor was elected — he looked lovely in his robes and chain — and two of the CP councillors. Edgar Lansbury and A. A. Watts, were so keen to serve the ratepayers (and win more votes) that they actually voted for a 10 per cent cut in Poor Relief and wage cuts for local authority workers. What party of the working class with a scrap of principle could allow Lieutenant-Colonels to sit for it in Parliament, Mayors to represent it and councillors to be elected only to make

 

poverty even worse for the working class?

 

Meanwhile the CP indulged in plenty of revolutionary talk — talk which belonged to centuries gone, to the age of Blanqui and Babeuf. They advocated armed insurrection. Harry Pollitt. the leader of the CP. declared that “only through armed insurrection can the workers gain power” (Manchester Guardian, 2 December 1929). The CP even went as far as to organise military training in Epping Forest, preparing the workers for “the moment”. What led them to believe that workers who would not even vote for communism would die fighting for it was a matter of faith rather than logic. As Leninists, the CP rejected the view that the workers as a majority could understand and want socialism. Instead the poor fools must be led, offered reforms, and finally involved in a battle against the forces of the state which were bound to defeat them. The Socialist Party quite rightly viewed the new party with utter contempt and hostility.

 

The Party of Stalinism
The foul dictatorship of Stalin was not an aberration, as modern Trotskyists would like to believe. Stalinism followed Leninism like night follows day. Long before Stalin was omnipotent controller of Russian state capitalism the country had become a dictatorship. But under Stalin the sickness of the new regime — the dictatorship over the proletariat became clear for all to see. All, that is, but the Communist Parties of the world which turned a blind eye to the Stalinist reign of terror. When The Socialist Standard exposed the atrocities of the Moscow Trials we were accused of making up lies about “The Soviet Fatherland”. When our branch in West Ham invited the local CPers to debate, the reply came to say that The Socialist Party “have consistently poured vile slanders on Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party . .  . and are in short agents of Fascism in Great Britain. The CPGB refuses with disgust to deal with such renegades. We treat them as vipers to be destroyed”. Indeed, this was no idle threat: CPers did attempt to smash up Socialist Party meetings, calling us fascists for pointing out the anti-working class nature of the fascistic regime in Russia. The purges in which hundreds of thousands of Russian workers were murdered began with the show trial of sixteen old Bolsheviks in August 1936. Such was the combination of gullibility and callousness of some CPers that one French Stalinist wrote a poem beginning with the verse:

 

We thank thee. Stalin!
Sixteen scoundrels.
Sixteen butchers of the Fatherland
Have been gathered to their ancestors! .  . .
Today the sky looks blue.
Thou hast repaid us for the sorrows of many years!
But why only sixteen?
Give us forty.
Give us hundreds.
Thousands . . .

 

And so it goes on: a sick dedication to a sick ideology. And the tragedy was that, bad as the poetry was, thousands were killed. Although the Socialist Party had first predicted. and then exposed these dictatorial barbarities most workers did not differentiate between the true socialism advocated by the small party which was not taken in by the Stalinist myth and “Communism”. Even today millions of workers react with hostility to what they fear as “communism” when they first encounter socialist propaganda.

 

If the CP’s defence of the purges was not enough to convince the observer of its function as a border guard for Stalinist Russia the policy switches at the outbreak of the Second World War confirmed the party’s role. First the CP would not specifically condemn fascism. arguing that all social-democratic parties were fascists. Then they changed policy, on orders from Moscow, and supported the “war against fascism”. Later, when the Nazis signed their pact with Moscow, the CP opposed the war against Germany. Finally, when those unreliable old Nazis broke their treaty with Russia, orders came to support the war. This went as far as strike-breaking (“we mustn’t disrupt the war effort”) and urging workers to vote for any candidate fully committed to the war. including Tories in some areas. In fact, the war proved to be a good time for CP recruitment and after 1945 it had a brief period — the only one in its history — of being in with a minor chance of power within British capitalism. Why was this? Firstly, the war changed popular attitudes to Russia. During the war collections were taken for tanks for Russia, the achievements of “the great Red Army” were celebrated in columns of newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, and Stalin — the “democratic ally” of Churchill and Roosevelt — had a good press. Many workers felt a sense of gratitude towards the Russian workers for their great efforts and suffering during the war and supporting the CP was a kind of pay-off. Secondly, reform was in the air in 1945 and workers were not prepared to be given petty crumbs after their years of wartime deprivation.

 

Alas, instead of rejecting crumbs altogether and opting for the abolition of the wages system, the movement was towards bigger crumbs and so it was that in 1945 the CP had two MPs elected. It was not only increased membership and minor electoral success that the CP gained in the post-war years. By far its most enduring gain at this time was in the trade unions — so much so that years later Ramelson, the Industrial Organiser of the CP, could boast that the party had a member — at least one but often more — on the EC of every trade union of significance affiliated to the TUC. Indeed, that remained the case until the early 1970s. The C.P played no small part in formulating TUC policy and in influencing certain elements in the Labour Party on matters relating to foreign policy. Without giving credence to myths about CND being a Moscow front, there is no doubt that several major CNDers are motivated by little more than Stalinist sympathies. The consequence of this has been to weaken public confidence in the so-called peace movement, with many workers concluding — not unreasonably — that those who are so vociferous in their condemnation of the NATO murder gang are conspicuously silent about the military atrocities of the Russian imperialists.

 

The Decline and Fall of the Communist Party
In 1948 the CP reached its peak membership. Since then it has been going down. The Trotskyist dissidents were the first to leave the sinking ship, with Reg Groves and the so-called Balham Group opting for Leninism minus Stalinism. The Revolutionary Communist Party of the late 1940s attracted a substantial number of ex-CPers who wanted the fantasy of a return to old Bolshevik methods but refused to face up to the inevitable consequences of Bolshevism. By 1950 the RCP had collapsed. Since then it would be fair to say that firstly, the Trotskyist movement has existed in Britain only as a fragmented and theoretically ultra-confused tendency and secondly, young leftists who would have previously opted for Stalinism and joined the CP. are tending to join the Trotskyist “vanguards”. Parties like the SWP and WRP, as well as the Militant Tendency, have benefited greatly from the decline of CP credibility, while the Young Communist League is now virtually defunct merely a play area for the gullible kids of old CPers.

 

In 1956 Krushchev denounced Stalin. The psychological blow which this inflicted on British CPers was enormous. Imagine: here were many sincere, militant, class-minded workers who had fought in strikes, accepted unpopularity, expended energy in denying “lies” about “Comrade Stalin” and in trying to sustain the Stalinist myth in the face of what they had genuinely believed to be a conspiracy of distortion. They had been forced to change policies, to make unsubstantiated claims, to support a nation which, they were told, was “socialism in one country”. And then along comes Krushchev not a minor official, but the successor to Joseph Stalin — and he confirms the truth of the anti-Stalinist case. What could be more disconcerting? One still encounters today ex-CPers whose bitterness over the revelations of that period has had a profound effect on their personalities: some of them are now Labour hacks, others are Tories as a response to being “conned by Communism”, others are apathetic. This is the price to be paid in historical terms when so many people are taken in by so great a myth. Once Stalin was exposed other doubts set in and doubt is the one characteristic which cannot co-exist with dogma: once the dogmatic Stalinists began to question one part of Stalinism, other parts were open to question too.

 

In 1956 the workers of Hungary made moves against totalitarianism. It was not a socialist uprising, but it was motivated by a rejection of the power of the CP ruling class. The British CP’s correspondent in Budapest reported the uprising, but the CP’s Daily Worker refused to carry the story. So he resigned from the CP and published his account in a remarkable work of modem history (Hungarian Tragedy by Peter Fryer). About a third of the staff of The Daily Worker resigned. Large numbers of CPers resigned from the party in protest over the party’s refusal to condemn the brutality of Russian imperialism against the Hungarian workers; others allowed their membership to lapse. In Scotland and South Wales CPers organised demonstrations calling for the resignations of the CP leaders. The Oxford University Communist Club met in 1956 and passed a resolution to dissolve itself. By 1960 the CP’s membership was around half the 1948 figure. In 1968 the Russian tanks rolled into Prague and CPers who had been rejoicing about the increased radicalism of European students and young workers were told by The Daily Worker to condemn the Czech activists. After a row, the CP did murmur some disapproval about the Russian actions.

 

By the late 1960s the CP was beginning to split apart. Prominent theoreticians such as Monty Johnstone developed a position of supporting “socialism” in Russia with reservations. By the mid-1970s this line dominated the CPs in Italy and Spain and was labelled Eurocommunism. Efforts were made to move the CPs closer to the larger leftist reform parties and to throw out old Leninist notions like ‘soviet rule’ and the dictatorship of the proletariat’. The British CP decided that it was time to clean up its act. to make a few token attacks on Russia and to present itself as a respectable reformist party. In 1976 its policy statement, The British Road to Socialism, was re-written. For the old-guard Stalinists this was heretical behaviour. They attempted to oppose the new programme but found themselves in a minority in a party which had no tradition of listening to minorities. In 1977 the majority of the old Stalinists resigned and formed The New Communist Party — a rabidly pro-Russian outfit which is still going today. The NCP split was not the first: in the 1960s there had been a split over China, out of which came a couple of Maoist CPs but it was the 1977 split which spelt the beginning of the end for the CP.

 

The CP has spent most of its energy for nearly ten years fighting over how far it is prepared to depart from Stalinism. Its leadership is now in the hands of Eurocommunists; its newspaper, the Morning Star, which owes its daily existence to Russian subsidy, is opposed to the leadership line and in the hands of CPers whom the leadership has tried to expel from the party. Indeed, over forty have been thrown out. The old “theoretical” journal of the CP, Marxism Today, is now a trendy intellectual journal which has all but given up any attempt to present a Marxist outlook. Indeed, even the CP leaders are worried about its attitudes, pushing ideas such as the insignificance of class (gender, race and sexuality are what matter now) and the need for an anti-Thatcher alliance at the next election, perhaps including the SDP and some Tory Wets. As is so often the case in disputes both sides are right in what they say about the other. The Stalinists are right to point out that the MT crowd are clueless about Marxism and have abandoned even the notion of class-struggle politics. The MT trendies are right to state that the old Stalinists are a dead force and that nobody these days is going to be taken in by pro-Russian propaganda.

 

Meanwhile CP membership is down to 10,876 and of that figure only about one in four are in any way active. Both factions could join the Labour Party: the MT crowd could find a home in the new trendy sections of the London Labour Party where intellectual shallowness is the latest fashion, while the Stalinists could join the old pro-Russian fellow travellers who have been at home in Labour circles for years. Of course, neither side is likely to desert the CP en bloc and so what can be predicted is a period of intensified in-fighting until finally the CP consumes itself in its own fire. This obituary may be premature, but only just.

 

Socialists will shed no tears when the CP funeral does take place. Years ago CPers would ridicule The Socialist Party of Great Britain and tell us that our “pure and simple” case for socialism was destined for the dustbin of history. Our case has stood the test of time while it looks much more likely that the party which wasted workers’ hopes predicting the imminent collapse of capitalism will itself soon collapse.

 

Steve Coleman