From the Spectator, 22 November 1975, p.661.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Communist Party of Great Britain has this week been holding its congress, an event which takes place every other year. In the sense that the content of the resolutions, not to mention the speeches, has a certain sameness from one meeting to another, it could be argued that two years is too frequent. But, like every other party with pretensions – and which of them has no pretensions – it is necessary at regular intervals to gather together the faithful, to enthuse them with a new understanding and vigour for the old line of policy.
A few things have changed, however, over the last few years. In the early years of the party it was one of the most slavish, if most unsuccessful, adherents to anything emanating from the Kremlin. No twist and turn of Stalin’s policy was enunciated without being greeted by the CPGB, as a work of consummate genius. That is until 1956, when jolly old Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and “the cult of the individual”. The subsequent turmoil in the international Communist movement was nowhere more damaging than in Britain. Thousands left the party in disgust. Worse – the old attitude of unswerving loyalty to party directives was lost. The monolith cracked and it has proved impossible to mend. Nowadays, with a proper and slightly apologetic politeness, the British comrades will occasionally criticise the Russians. In 1968 they criticised the invasion of Czechoslovakia, this year they criticise the treatment of the Russian dissidents. “Anti-marxist ideas”, they say, “should be handled by political debate and not by administrative measures.” Translated from the jargon this means people who disagree should not be put in jail.
Of course these genuflexions to the liberal conscience are not achieved unanimously. At each stage the residual Stalinists, led by Sid French of the Surrey District, attempt to remove all criticism of the Socialist motherland. They are always unsuccessful.
But these few high points of marginal disagreement do not seriously alter the well-disciplined course of CP congresses. The comrade delegates are not as young as they used to be, and age brings with it the compensation of lowered expectations. Without too much hope they wish to halt the decline in the circulation of the Morning Star (1,600 down since 1973), to increase party membership and best of all, please, to have a Communist MP or two. A far cry from the revolutionary hopes of 1926.
Of some interest this year, was to compare the performance of the new Gcneral Secretary, Gordon MacLennan, with that of his predecessor John Gollan. It can be said without fear of contradiction, that Mr MacLennan delivers his speeches much better than did Mr Gollan. In every other respect they are the same type of faceless bureaucrat. Those of us with memories of Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher can only conclude: they don’t make communists like that any more.
But to see the party as a collection of aging hacks without hope or a future would be a mistake. Industrially the Communists are still the most powerful organised force on the left. With some difficulty and some creaking of joints they can, when the occasion demands it, bring out the cadre for the big set piece demonstration, or organise a significant presence in union elections. In his report to the Congress Mr McLennan set out the perspective of a developing mass movement around the questions of unemployment, social service cuts, higher wages and pensions. On wages though there is a certain softening. The £6 limit received little attention in the pre-congress material, and little more in MacLennan’s speech The problem here is the difficulty of taking on such powerful figures as Jack Jones who, on most other questions is considered a bit of a left-winger. Communist policy for years has been to snuggle up close to the more successful Labour left trade union leaders. In terms of reciprocal tolerance for communists within these unions, the policy has not been without benefits for individual party members. In many unions the leading official’s use of some socialist rhetoric has been sufficient to still the most turbulent Communist on the executive council.
On the direct political questions the CP stands behind the Tribune group in Parliament. Import controls loom very large, further nationalisation, a prices and rents freeze. Interestingly enough in previous times the labour left used, in general, to take its political line from the Communist Party, today the situation is reversed. This political weakness is not accidental. Since 1951, when Joe Stalin approved the party programme. The Socialist Road for Britain, there has been a heavy emphasis on electoral politics. The notion of a Labour government, with a group of Communist MPs, has been the consummation they so devoutly wished for. Inevitably such a policy requires an element of tailing the left of the parliamentary Labour Party and a diminution of the industrial work where the main Communist strength lies. This contradiction is one that has never been resolved and the pre-occupation with elections has caused a fair amount of simmering discontent among the industrial members. That is a matter of some concern for the hierarchy. There exist revolutionary groups ready and willing to recruit the most militant CP workers.
Mr MacLennan has to perform a balancing act that maintains the democratic electoral image that makes possible united front activity with the Tribunite and trade union left-wingers. At the same time he must keep the industrial party members satisfied and avoid being outflanked on the left. Whether he is capable of this is a matter of some doubt. Failure now, when according to the Marxist canon “the objective conditions are ripe for revolutionary advance” will consign both him and his party to that great dustbin of history.
Last updated on 2.11.2003