Jim Higgins

Morning Star

(April 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 36, April–May 1969, pp. 40–41.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Vol. 1 Formation and Early Years 1919–1924
James Klugman
Lawrence and Wishart, 63s.

The Communist Party is a strange organisation. In the face of all the evidence it maintained for years an image of super efficiency and political industrial militancy. Since the early 1920’s its consistency has only been shown in a dreadful succession of mistakes and unprincipled political manoeuvres. From its policy in the General Strike; through loyal adherence to Stalin’s “third period social fascism”, into the sickening phase of the Popular front, support for the Molotov-Hitler pact, rapidly succeeded by hysterical support for the Churchill coalition, on to the post-war quietism, a brief burst of cold-war induced militancy to end up, reduced in numbers irreparably damaged in spirit by Hungary, the Sino-Soviet dispute and now Czechoslovakia, in the present mad scramble for respectability and the appearance of independent thought.

It was not always like this. The early CP was a small organisation but it contained most of the best elements of the British Marxist movement. It carried with it the reflected prestige of the October revolution and it was born into a period of large scale radicalisation of working-class people. That it bore the sectarian weaknesses, in some measure, of its constituent organisations, is true; but organisations do not grow out of thin air and will inevitably contain elements of past associations. The trick in any unification is to set the programmatic framework in which the sectarian weaknesses can be seen and overcome. The infant CP had the framework – the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism – and it had the nucleus of working class militants and intellectuals that would have enabled them to build a revolutionary party. That it did not happen is one of the tragedies of the British socialist movement.

To grow and develop a revolutionary organisation must make its own mistakes and learn from the difficulties it experiences through the pursuit of its policies. The CPGB in compounding the errors of the Comintern Bureaucracy denied itself any possibility of meaningful interaction with the British working-class experience. The very real insight into the nature of the TU bureaucrats, both ‘left and right’ varieties, that the pre-war syndicalists had popularised was ignored in favour of the Russian directed policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee – a policy that had no relevance to British struggle but a great relevance to the supposed interests of Russian foreign policy. The net result was a quite un-Leninist handing over of the initiative to the general Council of the TUC. A revolutionary party will frequently make all sorts of agreements and accommodations with other working-class organisations but it cannot hold such agreements to be more important than interests of the working-class. The slogan of “All Power to the General Council” except as the practical application of Soviet diplomacy can never be correct for a serious Communist Party and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the trade union leadership.

The fatuity of the Anglo Russian committee policy was to be multiplied one hundred-fold in the later shifts and turns dictated by the Russian apparatus but it is perhaps in this fundamental error that the seeds of the future destruction were sown. None of this, of course, comes out in James Klugman’s book on the early years of the CP. Official histories are usually dull and this is no exception. The problem writing about the youth of the party from the very heart of its senility is one that Klugman cannot overcome. The present day preoccupation with elections means that a quite unreal emphasis is given to a minor feature of the party’s activity in the early years. It is of course a matter of some pleasure to note that Philips Price increased his vote in 1923 by 3.25% over his vote in 1922 and it is even more intriguing to find in a footnote that Philips Price was, “not fully Communist in 1922”. I have a mental picture of the faceless 3.25% holding back until Philips Price takes the plunge and becomes “fully Communist”. It would be however unfair to say that Klugman maintains the standard of untruthfulness that makes his earlier work, From Trotsky to Tito, one of the outstandingly nauseating examples of Stalinist falsification. In so far as one can judge without looking up a load of obscure references , the story is told with reasonable respect for historical fact and this is perhaps because the years 1919 to 1924 contain less to cover up than any subsequent five years of party history. Indeed it is interesting to note that the fiction, maintained for years, that Willie Gallagher was the first Communist MP has now been abandoned for the simple truth that Walton Newbold beat Gallagher to this distinction by a good thirteen years and so became an unperson for thirty-five years while Gallagher grew old and feeble in strict time with the party until the day of his death.

One of the more interesting and significant of Communist activity of the early years was the formation of the minority movement but in Klugman’s scale of historical value this merits only the sketchiest exposition of its programme and influence while the labour party merits page after page of fairly tedious detailing of its (The Labour Party) relations with the CP. Despite the strong impression that Klugman wrote the book with the blunt end of a bread pudding occasionally the real life of the movement breaks through. It has been a long time since any CP paper has printed anything like the Open letter to the Fighting Forces by J.R. Campbell:

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen ... the Communist Party calls on you to begin the task of not only organising passive resistance when war is declared, or when an industrial dispute involves you but to definitely and categorically let it be known that, neither in the class war, nor a military war will you turn your guns on your fellow workers, but instead will line up with your fellow workers in attack upon the exploiters and capitalists, and will use your arms on the side of your own class ... form Committees in every barracks, aerodrome and ship ... refuse to shoot down your fellow workers.

Refuse to fight for profits.

Turn your weapons on your oppressors.

As a direct result of the Labour Government’s decision not to prosecute Campbell for this splendidly seditious piece the Liberals withdrew their support for labour and the Government fell. This was the first and – if present indications are any guide – the last Government the CPGB will bring down even by accident.

The book contains several new pictures of the vintage years. I am particularly pleased to report that there is a picture of Albert Inkpin (General Secretary from the formation to 1929), a man I had despaired of ever seeing even in a photograph. There is also a very fine picture of the delegates to the Leeds conference of the party. All the comrades are gathered in their serried ranks, both male and female, in front of a butchers shop. In the window of the shop is a notice bearing the legend “These prime bullocks and heifers”. Could it be that the photographer was some kind of premature Trotsky-Fascist. Well there it is the pictures are good, there are no jokes at all, the election results are if out of date comprehensive and the price is three guineas. I know it’s a lot of money but where else would you get such a fine likeness of Albert Inkpin.

Last updated on 26 O ctober 2020