Walter Kendall 2001

The Communist Party of Great Britain

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no 1, 2001. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

John McIlroy’s canonical demonstration of the shoddy methodology and tawdry misuse of facts by the present-day apologists for the late unlamented, now self-dissolved Communist Party of Great Britain, formerly the British Section of the Communist International, is greatly to be welcomed. However, it immediately raises a further question: should the CPGB and the Comintern have ever been founded at all? Was it not all a tragic mistake on an historic scale, one which did near-irreparable damage to the working class and the social revolutionary movement?

John McIlroy argued that the Communist Party was not sufficiently independent of Moscow, which he considers a vice. The apologists argue that the party was more independent than McIlroy suggests, which they find a virtue. Thus both disputants stand on the same ground: both agree that the founding of a British Section of the Comintern was correct, but that the CPGB would have been a better party and would have better served the working-class movement had it acted more independently. This surely is a contradiction in terms. One could serve either cause well, but only at the cost of serving the other cause badly.

The CPGB was in fact a model Communist Party, which is why in the person of JT Murphy it was chosen out of some 60 other Comintern sections to have the singular honour of moving the expulsion of Trotsky from the Communist International. Within four years of its foundation, the party was completely reorganised on the principal of Democratic Centralism. Within seven years, it had formed a permanent cadre of leaders which would last it almost a whole generation. In Harry Pollitt it had a popular and very able mass leader, whose tenure in office was amongst the longest in the whole Communist movement, some 30 years in all. In Palme Dutt it had a highly influential Oxford-trained journalist-cum-theoretician and highly skilled apologist, who could very convincingly prove the earth was flat, round, square, or oval and upside down, according to Moscow’s need. The party cadre never split or raised any significant opposition to the ECCI, and invariably carried out its orders to the best of its ability. This was true whether the Comintern was led nominally by Lenin, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Dimitrov or by the all-powerful Stalin himself behind the scenes. Thus, it was precisely because the CPGB was such a model party that it did so much harm to the British working class and social revolutionary movement. We would assuredly have been much better off had there been no Communist Party at all. Looked at in retrospect, the idea of a single world party led by the Russian leadership, which always had itself alone a numerical majority of the membership, carrying out an identical policy and tactics in 60 or more vastly different territories spread around the five continents of the globe, was an innately absurd proposition from the very start.

But was not the ‘Revolution’ and with it the Comintern, the Communist Party in Britain and the other parties throughout the world ‘betrayed'? Not at all. Frederick Engels dealt with this long ago. [1] The worm was in the apple from the beginning. Socialism is a libertarian doctrine, or it is nothing. Economic democracy is impossible without political democracy, for without political democracy the working class cannot express and exercise its will over society. Ends and means are inseparable. One cannot introduce, as the Bolshevik experience amply proves, a new moral world by resorting to limitless force and violence. [2] I endeavoured, to the best of my ability, to sum up my considered judgement on this matter in the concluding passage of my Revolutionary Movement in Britain (London, 1969). This reads as follows:

The Communist Party, far from representing a culmination of a previous development, represented instead a clear break with all its principles and an attempt to divert the course of history by a bureaucratic manoeuvre. Put to the test of practice the foundation now appears as an historic error on the grand scale. Marx himself had too much knowledge and experience of the socialist movement not to be aware that such things were possible. Thus in 1868, in a letter to JB Schweitzer, he wrote that the party of Lassalle in Germany had committed grave mistakes. Lassalle gave to his agitation a religious sectarian character from the start – like every man who claims he has got a panacea for the sufferings of the masses in his pocket. In fact every sect is religious. He made the same mistake as Proudhon, not to seek the true basis of his agitation from among the real elements of the class movement, but wanted to prescribe the course of the process according to a certain doctrinaire recipe. ‘The sect’, Marx continued, ‘looks for its “raison d'Ítre” in its “point d'honneur,” not in what it has in common with the movement, but in the special shibboleth that separates it from it.’ [3] The Communist Party, established to show ‘that the only road to the successful achievement of socialism was the revolutionary road, through the struggle of the working people led... by a new revolutionary Communist Party’, succeeded not in uniting the class with a new revolutionary leadership as intended, but only in isolating that leadership from the class it was supposed to lead and thus perhaps in setting back the course of the labour movement by a generation.

Now 32 years later, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, [4] the collapse of the economy of ‘Actually Existing Socialism’ into a form of semi-collective kleptocracy, markedly inferior to modern industrial capitalism, and on which after 70 years of ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ the actually existing working class has proved unable to exercise its own will, we can see that not one but nearer three generations have gone for the locust. [5] The Communist Party in Britain has dissolved itself. The Communist parties in the rest of the world are in a process of disintegration, often transforming themselves into what they euphemistically title ‘Parties of Democratic Socialism’.

Surely the time has come to write off the whole Comintern and Communist Party experience as a search for an El Dorado which has ended in the desert. Ought we not now to begin to rewrite socialist historiography from this point of view, re-examine in a fresh light the work of those who stood for libertarian socialism during those dark Stalinist years, and also to reappraise the democratic strivings of our own native pre-Bolshevik socialist movement, as has recently been done in regard to the Social Democratic Federation and other organisations? [6]


1. ‘When you inquire into the causes of the counter-revolutionary successes, there you are met on every hand with the ready reply that it was Mr This or Citizen That who “betrayed the people.” Which reply may be very true or not, according to circumstances, but under no circumstances does it explain anything – not even how it came to pass that the “people” allowed themselves to be thus betrayed. And what poor chance stands a political party whose entire stock-in-trade consists in the knowledge of the solitary fact Citizen So-and-So is not to be trusted.’ (Frederick Engels, Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution (London, 1936), p 10)

2. For an expressly Bolshevik view, see Leon Trotsky’s In Defence of Terrorism.

3. Karl Marx, Letter to JB Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, Die Neue Zeit, 1897, Volume 1, p 3.

4. I use the word ‘Soviet’ in an Aesopian sense of course.

5. I am indebted to Jim Higgins for this phrase.

6. For one example, see Logie Barrow and Ian Bullock, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement 1880-1914 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996).