End of the Road
The Hungarian uprising of 1956 is generally considered to mark a watershed in the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although the CPGB lost about one quarter of its members—from 33,095 in February 1956 to 26,742 by February 1957—a decline had been evident from the early 1950’s as a result of the “cold war” and the waning of the comparative popularity which had been achieved during the Second World War as anti-fascists.
Like all other minor parties, the CPGB had difficulty making progress within the British electoral system which favours the two major parties. But in the 1966 election the Communist Party candidates could only obtain 3 per cent of the votes in the seats they contested compared with 1945 when they obtained two MP’s (Willie Gallagher and Phil Piratin) and Harry Pollitt, their general secretary, nearly unseated the sitting MP at Rhondda East
In 1956 when Pollitt retired, the CPGB had to come to terms not only with the Hungarian uprising but also with Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the “Cult of personality” and the growing conflict between Russia and China. Its 1977 programme sought an alliance of all sorts of reformist groups and sectional interests including consumer groups and Scottish and Welsh nationalists. This new strategy, coupled with the end of uncritical support for Russia, came to be known as “Eurocommunism”.
In the mid-1970’s the CPGB started to show divisions within its ranks over trade union strategy. In a pamphlet entitled Advanced Capitalism and Backward Socialism Bill Warren and Mike Prior demonstrated their ignorance of Marxist theory by arguing that inflation was related to wage militancy. The arguments raged over the next few years: the hardliners who had remained within the Party to fight for a return to traditional methods, and the Eurocommunists disagreed violently over trade union strategy. When Tony Lane wrote an article in Marxism Today (the Party’s theoretical journal founded in 1957 which adopted a more and more trendy stance after the appointment of Martin Jacques as editor in 1978) criticising shop stewards, Mick Costello, the CPGB’s industrial organiser, was incensed and replied with an article in the Morning Star (as the Daily Worker had been renamed in 1966), for which he was sacked and replaced by Peter Carter, a former official of UCATT, the building workers union.
During the 1985 miners’ strike the gulf between the different wings of the CPGB widened. For the first time the Party actually lost members during a campaign. Criticism of the miners’ strike, and Arthur Scargill’s leadership in particular, came from Marxism Today and Peter Carter wrote a deeply critical pamphlet of Scargill’s leadership which was suppressed for the sake of unity. Scargill, a former member of the YCL national committee in the late 1950’s, was deeply resentful of the “line” taken by Marxism Today and accused Carter of compromising with the class enemy and vilifying the NUM.
The group around the Morning Star has been in conflict with the CPGB since 1981 when the conference criticised the paper for failing to give sufficient prominence to the 1977 programme. This group sees the traditional emphasis on the working class and industrial strength in the trade unions as the correct way forward. Eurocommunism is seen as a liberal fad which should be dropped.
In 1983 the 38th congress of the CPGB voted to dismiss Tony Chater, the editor and David Whitfield, the assistant editor, by 155 votes to 92. They refused to relinquish their posts. In June of the following year the paper’s shareholders voted to support Chater and Whitfield in defiance of the Eurocommunist leadership. The Morning Star is not owned by the CPGB. When its forerunner, the Daily Worker was founded in 1930, an independent co-operative, the People’s Press Printing Society, was set up to avoid accusations that the paper was simply a mouthpiece for Communist Party policy. Now this strategy rebounded with a vengeance.
Following the special congress in May 1985 the Eurocommunist leadership carried out a systematic purge of borough committees, branches and industrial organisations. In less than two years 3,000 members were expelled or left because they were demoralised. Industrial stalwarts such as Ken Gill, president of TASS (now joint general secretary of MSF), Bert Ramelson and Mick Costello, former CPGB industrial organisers, and Derek Robinson, the shop steward who made news after he was sacked by Michael Edwardes at British Leyland’s Longbridge plant, were all expelled.
It is rather surprising that with all the purges and demoralisation the Morning Star group did not break away and form the Communist Party of Britain until 1988. This party is centred around the Morning Star, with Mike Hicks, an executive member of Sogat, as its general secretary and Derek Robinson as its industrial organiser. It rejects Stalinism but supports Russia, though not unconditionally. Chater had criticised the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Last year the CPGB still had about 6,000 members but its bases in the trade unions had been badly damaged. In addition Marxism Today, with a circulation of 10,000 is likely to be sold off soon. In January 1990 Nina Temple had the unenviable job of taking over from Gordon McLennan as general secretary of the CPGB. She soon stated the CPGB might be disbanded and form a club within the Labour Party. Last month the Party’s executive committee announced the end of the Communist Party and its transformation into an amorphous group to be known as the “Democratic Left”.
Disbandment was the only course open to the CPGB. It had lost all credibility. From a party of 46,000 members and two MP’s in its heyday and 60 full time workers—a much higher ratio than either the Labour or Conservative parties—it had shrunk to a rump of an organisation that only polled 0.8 per cent of the votes in each constituency that it contested.
Historians may lament the demise of the CPGB but workers should not. The CPGB has stood for every shabby compromise, has mislead generations of sincere workers, has been vanguardist, conspiratorial, undemocratic and dishonest. It has purported to oppose capitalism whilst supporting state capitalism. It has criticised imperialism whilst condoning and defending Russian imperialism. It has supported nationalism and at times even xenophobia. And, worst of all, by posing as Marxist it set back the cause of socialism by several decades.