From Socialist Review, No.156, September 1992, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991
The Communist Party is dead. Its Democratic Left successor recently reported less than 1,600 members (the CP claimed 7,615 in 1989), it has no perspective save ‘dialogue’ and ‘realignment’ and no future of any significance.
It used to be a very different matter. It is impossible to understand the history of the left in Britain from the early 1920s onwards without understanding the CP’s role and influence in various periods. Its influence was vastly greater than its membership-a claimed 56,000 in 1942 and 30,000 as late as 1973.
Willie Thompson’s interesting account is the only one to attempt to cover the party’s whole history. However, his political approach is deeply ambivalent.
Thompson’s treatment of the 1920s is brief. Above all he fails to recognise the fundamental change of policy in 1929. The lunacies of ‘social fascism’ (applied to the Labour Party and the now dominant union right), ‘left social fascism’ (applied to the ILP and any left winger unwilling to accept the new line), and the idea of an ‘ascending revolutionary wave’ were disastrous - nowhere more so than in Germany where the CP (unwittingly) facilitated Hitler’s rise to power.
The Comintern parties were transformed by the imposition and implementation of the Third Period, just as the USSR was socially transformed by the first five year plan with which it largely coincided.
In Britain it required two congresses and a new leadership to enforce the new line. Those newly promoted and those who survived became tools of Stalin’s despotism. The new line also required a new membership ‘untainted’ by recollections of past experiences and disputes. In 1927 the CP claimed 7,377 members. By 1930 the figure was down to 2,555 - the majority of them new.
The ‘essential character’ of the CP had fundamentally changed. The left and often ultra-left rhetoric remained - but it was to prove expendable with the next turn.
This is not to idealise the pre-Stalinist party which had plenty of faults. But it was still a genuine revolutionary party with a dedicated membership and, as Thompson freely concedes, “a significant presence in diverse fields of struggle, assets which had considerable potential for growth ...” This was all lost.
Then, by fits and starts from 1934, and in full swing by 1935, came the right turn which eventually took the CP to the right of the Labour leadership.
Certainly the party grew - 17,750 members were claimed by 1939. But on what basis? The Popular Front line was essentially an attempt to build a block of working class and ‘progressive bourgeois’ organisations to pressure the rulers of France, Britain, the US and lesser powers into a diplomatic and military alliance with the USSR against Germany, Japan and Italy.
In Britain the centrepiece of the policy was the proposal of a Lib-Lab electoral pact (with some seats allocated to the CP). This could only be achieved on the political platform of the Liberal Party - as right wing Labour Party leaders gleefully pointed out.
The Popular Front coincided with the height of Stalin’s terror in the USSR. The CPGB vigorously defended or denied the horrors. And yet the party still grew. How?
The world slump, mass unemployment working class defeats and the advances of fascism led many to believe that the Soviet Union offered the only reliable bulwark against such threats. In Britain CP militants took part in the fight against fascism and by the late 1930s had significant success in rebuilding its industrial base. The impact of slump and fascism also produced a wave of middle class leftism from which the party profited considerably. The CP reached its peak membership of 56,000 in the Second World War. The rest of the story is, in retrospect, a long drawn out anti-climax.
At the end of the war the CP was, in formal political terms, in a right wing social democratic position.
Yet ideologically and organisationally it was Stalinist. With the onset of the Cold War it reverted to its Stalinist reflexes - strident defence of Stalin’s regime and its satellites combined with selective industrial militancy.
It could not last. There was a slow erosion, more important than the nominal membership figures, of significant industrial cadre (such as Eric Heifer and Hugh Scanlon) and of various CP intellectuals. And the contradictions between a left social democratic programme and the Stalinist heritage exploded in 1956. Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ in early 1956 and the Hungarian Revolution later in the same year shattered the Stalinist myth for many of its devotees.
In Britain the party lost around 10,000 members. These were not just intellectuals as is commonly assumed but a substantial part of its working class cadre and union ‘influentials.’
When the party made a limited recovery of membership in the 1960s it was on a different basis. The activists became a smaller and smaller proportion of the membership and its ageing industrial base became more and more cautious.
The visible conservatism of the party became more obvious. Most strikingly in the 1960s the CP opposed the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign - which mobilised tens of thousands of young people against the US war against Vietnam.
Willie Thompson honestly and candidly charts the CP’s sorry decline in the last half of his book and for this reason it can be recommended.
Stalinism was a disaster not only in the USSR but internationally. The future of the left belongs to those who always rejected it.
Last updated on 25.11.2003