Maurice Dobb 1940

What the Communist Party has meant to me

Written: 1940;
First Published: The Labour Monthly, August 1940, pp. 445-446;
Transcribed: by Joaquin Arriola.

Foundation-Secretary, later Chairman, of Cambridge University Labour Club, 1920-22; joined I.L.P. in 1919 and Communist Party in 1922; for many years Executive Committee member of Labour Research Department, and for a short period an editor of The Plebs magazine; Lecturer in Economics at Cambridge University and member of the Association of University Teachers; Chairman of the Faculty of Economics at Marx House; author of books on U.S.S.R. and on economic questions.

MY FIRST CONTACT with Communists and with the newly-formed C.P.G.B. was toward the close of my student days. This was in the years of the first phase of the post-war economic crisis, when there was still a great deal of militant temper in the working-class movement, bent on “changing for good the old conditions” and putting the working class in power as had been done in Russia. But at this time there was still a great deal of confusion of thought and of organisation and tactics in the labour movement: primitive confusion about the political strategy of the struggle for power, about the State, etc.; and on the one hand a number of Left-wing sects devoted mainly to theoretical discussion or to purely general propaganda about Socialism, and on the other hand keen militant workers with influence in mass organisations but still thinking exclusively in terms of the old forms of organisation and time-honoured methods of activity. Although my contacts with the labour movement were still slender – participation via a student labour club in local Labour Party election work, and in London some part in the work of an I.L.P. branch – these were sufficient to make me realise, when I first met the work of the C.P., what an enormous difference there was between the old types of political party and the outlook, organisation and activity of this “party of a new type.” This latter was designed to lead the working class in action, and this meant taking a leading part, in a disciplined and organised manner, in the everyday struggles of the workers. It became increasingly clear, when one started to think of the struggle against capitalism in a concrete and realistic way, that without the leadership of such a party of this type it would be impossible for the working class to achieve socialism. There was another thing that struck me forcibly in those days about the C.P.: it was the only body that really had a sense, and gave one a sense, of participating in a world movement, and thinking of world events in realistic and up-to-date terms. True, in the I.L.P. and elsewhere there had been a great deal of “internationalism” preached, and there had been widespread enthusiasm, much of it over-romantic in character, about the Russian Revolution; but this kind of sentiment was in general rather abstract, and when it came down to brass tacks, the real outlook was surprisingly insular. I still have a vivid memory of a student meeting of hardly more than a dozen (some time before the C.P.G.B. was forme d) to which the present editor of the LABOUR MONTHLY reported on an international student conference to which he had been a delegate in 1919. The onus of his report, as I remember it, was that the conference had shown how far the British movement was behind the level of the international movement, and behind the urgent needs of the class struggle which was transforming and dominating Europe on an international scale. In face of this our whole outlook and activity needed to be reorientated. It was precisely this re-orientation of the whole movement which I later realised that the C.P. was designed and destined to effect. Later still, when 1 visited U.S.S.R., and studied the history of the Russian Revolution, it became clear to me how unthinkable the whole story would be without the leading role of the party that Lenin had given his life to build. Space does not allow one to explain in detail how leading events in the “twenties, such as the General Strike and the two Labour Governments, drove home to many of us the lesson that, while it was vitally necessary to revive the initiative and self-activity of existing working-class organisations, militants must abandon the conception of mere “ginger-group” tactics, operating exclusively through the traditional forms of organisation, in favour of an entirely new political leadership to the whole movement; and in emphasising this continually the LABOUR MONTHLY played a very important role.

In the period of the ‘twenties, student circles and professional workers (with whom my own work brought me most closely in contact), even when they called themselves Socialists, were in the main separated from the working-class movement and politics. But the economic crisis of 1930, bringing middle-class unemployment and insecurity of tenure in its train, effected a radical change in such circles. Economic questions of a trade union type, social questions concerning their status and function in society, thrust themselves under the nose of students and professional workers for the first time. Later, the rise of Fascism close to their own doorstep and the gathering clouds of the coming war forced such people to think politically, and increasing numbers of them to act politically. The triumph of socialist construction in U.S.S.R., with the success of the Five-Year Plans, and events in France and Spain laid their imprint on such persons in quick succession. Not only did they come to realise, not merely “in their heads” but through the touch of their own experiences, that capitalism was rotten and must go; increasing numbers of them gravitated towards the working-class movement, and a significant number of them towards Communism, because they saw in it the only power capable of revolutionising and reconstructing society.

Only too many of them, of course, retained the individualism, the aloofness, of their previous isolated and privileged position, more especially those who were furthest removed from any kind of “factory” basis to their profession. At the same time many of them, as they acquired concrete political experience, came to see in the C.P. the kind of organisation, combining discussion with discipline and a tradition of political theory with realistic thinking in face of changing situations, that offered the political leadership for which they had been groping, and the practical possibility of leading society out of contemporary chaos. While they came to appreciate that the strength of Communism lay in its roots in the working class, they saw that it held an appeal for the professional and middle class as well. And in the coming weeks and months this appreciation is likely to broaden and deepen; for while many of such people (not alone) have been bewildered, some politically unhinged, by the rush of events since last August, events since May, especially events in France, with their sharply delineated class features, are already stamping their political lesson even on the least politically- minded among them.