Book Review: The Party was for turning

The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45 by Nina Fishman (Scholar Press. 594 pages. £45.)


At the beginning of the period covered by this book, the Communist Party was committed to what amounted to an anti-trade union position; the “reformist” trade unions were denounced for betraying the workers who were urged to struggle for better conditions under the “independent leadership” of the Communist Party. In fact the Communist Party saw itself as a rival to the established trade unions and even to unofficial, rank-and-file ginger groups which they themselves did not control; they even set up two or three breakaway “red” unions. Needless to say. they made no headway with this policy.


According to Fishman, the Communist Party leaders Harry Pollitt and J.R. Campbell never really accepted this line and as soon as it was toned down by the Comintern in 1934 they pursued the policy of getting their members to work within and through the existing unions. CPers were urged to get themselves elected to union posts at all levels. As a result, by the time the war broke out they were well-established within the official unions as branch officers, shop stewards and full-time officials.


It is not too difficult to understand Fishman’s claim that “by 1938 any young man or woman whose shop floor experience impelled them towards militancy was attracted to the CP”. Nor is there any reason to doubt that CP shop stewards and union branch officers were not loyal trade unionists who really did want to fight the bosses and get a better deal for their fellow workers (even if they did have bizarre—very bizarre—ideas about Russia under Stalin being a workers’ paradise).


What is more difficult to understand is why anyone initially attracted to the Communist Party by its trade union militancy would have stayed in it for any length of time, especially in view of what was to come: the notorious double U-turn on the war (first supporting it. then, on instructions from Moscow, opposing it. then, after the German invasion of Russia, supporting it again) and collaboration with employers in “joint-production committees” to reduce absenteeism, oppose strikes and get workers to work harder.


It remains true that the best Communist is an ex-Communist, at least one who continues to think in terms of furthering the interests of the working class and once they realised they had been duped about Russia. In fact quite a few of our past and present members came from such a background.


Adam Buick