J. T. Murphy

Book Review

Forty Years Hard — For What?

Source: The New Reasoner, Winter 1958-9, No. 7
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

J. T. Murphy, the author of this review, was a prominent leader of the Shop Stewards movement during the First World War. A foundation member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he visited Russia shortly after the Revolution, and played an active part in the first years of the Third International. He was one of the twelve leading Communists jailed before the General Strike, and remained on the C.P. Executive until his resignation from the Party in 1932 following upon his denunciation for the crime of advocating British credits to Russia as a remedy for unemployment at home.

The later chapters of Henry Pelling’s History will be the subject of further editorial discussion in our next number.

This profile history of the British Communist Party[1] is to be welcomed if for no other reason than that it is the only one to have appeared so far. The C.P. itself has not produced even a ‘profile’ of its forty years travail, and nobody else has been sufficiently interested until Mr. Pelling. Considering the difficulties under which he laboured he has produced a readable and authentic ‘profile’.

Of course, one might question some of his interpretations and some of his facts. He is not always as careful about his sources as he might be. For example, I notice a footnote on page 24 (quoting Draper’s Roots of American Communism), giving Fraina’s testimony at his interrogation by the F.B.I. in 1949 where he alleges that out of $50,000 which he received from the Comintern in 1920 he passed $20,000 on to me. Well, that’s not only the first time I have seen such a statement, but it’s real news to me. I can only assume that as far as Fraina was concerned it was a good story which the F.B.I. couldn’t check even if they were interested in checking. But is it worth denying allegations like this if the result is to start an argument about which person is lying while diverting attention from the important fact — the flow of cash from the Comintern to its subsidiaries in these early years? Whether Fraina or I are telling the truth doesn’t matter a damn either way in relation to this fact — had the Communist Party not received big financial shots in the arm it would have been reduced and have probably gone out of existence within a year or two of formation, just as Sylvia Pankhurst’s organisation and its paper died when they got no money from external sources. The attempt to ‘Bolshevise’ the Socialists who formed the C.P. reduced its membership, even when it received these injections, from 10,000 to 1,500 in less than two years.

Whatever views one holds of the author’s explanations of this and that, the fact that we have this ‘profile’ should be appreciated. For it enables us to see the C.P.G.B. in perspective. This is especially valuable for those readers of the New Reasoner who are ex-C.P. members. Fortunately or unfortunately, according to one’s point of view, I also belong to this fraternity, with this difference — I became an ex-member, renegade and all that, plus, early in the second decade of its history and some of you in the fourth. Nevertheless, the C.P. of my day of departure from its ranks used the same epithets of personal and political classification for me as for you. As the Stalinist pundits say, ‘It is no accident that it should be so’. And in this case it isn’t. You got out and so did I, for exactly the same reason, namely, man is a thinking being as well as a social being, and we objected to the oligarchy of the party deciding how we should think, what we should think, and also the premises of our thinking. So we have much in common.

Take a swift glance across the years. Mr. Pelling rightly says that all the small parties which came together in 1920 and formed the C.P.G.B. were Marxist. I don’t know what Charlie Marx would have said about us had he been there to give us a greeting, but good, bad or indifferent, we were the banner-bearers of ‘Scientific Socialism’. Leninism we regarded as a development of Marxism in the epoch of Imperialism, the final stage of capitalism. It is now nearly the end of 1958. No-one can deny that the members, leaders and led, have worked and striven with fanatical devotion, performed feats of endurance and sacrifice, displayed such energy that membership in any other party appeared dull and pedestrian. Have what grievances one may against the leaders and damn them for their authoritarianism and all the rest of it, there were no passengers, no parasites among them. Damn it, a spell in Wandsworth was a ‘rest cure’. Yet, despite all this terrific energy, financial injections, heavy doses of indoctrination from the elect of Moscow, after twenty years the C.P.G.B. was no more than a sect and further away from its objective than when it started its travail in 1920. For a few brief years during the war, when it ceased to be a ‘class war’ party and Stalin and Churchill were toasting each other as buddies in a common cause, it almost became a ‘mass party’. Then, when Stalin turned on to the ‘class war front’, the party did also. This reversion to normalcy has brought the party back to the strength of pre-war days and it appears in the body politic, as a rival to Jehovah’s witnesses.

Plain commonsense puts the question — why is this the fate of the party of ‘Scientific Socialism’? No-one can say ‘history’ has been unkind to the C.P. in presenting it with ‘unfavourable conditions’. In the first twenty years of its history there was unemployment on a mass scale, two Labour governments, a miners’ lock-out of seven months, a General Strike. Then came the rise of Fascism in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, threats of more war, political crises and economic crises galore. All the doctor ordered. What more could communists ask for as the recruiting ground for the ‘party of insurrection’? Yet look at it after twenty years! There it was, snapping at the heels of the socialist movement and unable to ‘take the leaders of the Labour Party by the hand’ and no prospects whatever of ‘taking them by the throat’ or pulling the hangman’s noose of history tight around their necks. Why?

Can it be that all of us, right from the outset, not only had an erroneous mode of thinking, but also the premises from which our thinking stemmed were wrong? All thought develops from assumptions which become the substance of faith. The difference between the scientific mode of thinking and all other modes lies basically in the supremacy of reason over all assumptions whether primary or otherwise. The religionist simply refuses to question the foundations of his belief or primary assumptions.

We British Marxists who witnessed the 1917 Russian Revolution had more religion than reason in our mode of thinking. Our knowledge of Marxism had led us to a number of assumptions, which we accepted as articles of faith. Among these were a crude assertion of the primacy of ‘matter’ (whose artificial separation from ‘mind’ belongs to the period before the revolution in modern science, to the language of Newtonian rather than of nuclear physics): a doctrinaire picture of the class-struggle which gave us a view of capitalist society in which two classes only remained to fight it out — the capitalist class, owning the means of production, and the class without property, the proletariat: and the expectation that capitalist society was nearing its death agonies as the result of its own inner economic contradictions and the ‘expropriators would be expropriated’. So what was the use of Socialists blethering about a new society idealistically arranged according to their ‘petit-bourgeois’ dreams when the economic laws ‘operating irrespectively of our wills’ showed that the system could not be reformed? The thing was to develop the ‘class consciousness’ of the workers and prepare them for the great day when the capitalist class got what was coming to them as the economic laws inevitably brought their system to its doom.

But, before 1917, the revolutionary socialist parties ‘preparing for the day’ were not conceived as parties of insurrection. Rather did we conceive ourselves (James Connolly said), as ‘John the Baptists of the New Redemption’.

Such were the assumptions of the Marxists before the Russian Revolution drew them together to form the Communist Party. Leaving aside for the moment the scientific validity of ‘Scientific Socialism’, did we who became adherents of Marxism think about these theories scientifically? Not at all. We were disciples, advocates, expounders, missionaries of the ‘Cause’. These theories became the substance of our Faith, containing all we hoped for, enabling us to see what we wished to see. We were subordinating our reasoning to belief as all religionists do, transforming theories into doctrines, interpreting the social transformation taking place before our eyes as the ‘disintegration of capitalism’ despite the fact that life was flouting the basic tenets of our doctrines. Suddenly, the whole Marxist thesis of capitalism bursting itself asunder in the most highly developed and industrialised countries first was knocked sky high, for behold the ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ were declared by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to be the opening days of the ‘World Proletarian Revolution’. Did we stop in our tracks, ask why we had been forestalled by our new god ‘history’ and query whether the Russian Revolution could be what its leaders claimed it to be? Not at all. We were missionaries of a faith and cared not two hoots whether it was Peter or Paul who led the Proletarian hosts or whether the Revolution began in Jerusalem or Rome.

And that was the condition of Marxism and such was our mode of thinking when we responded to the call of Lenin to form the Communist International. Worry about who started the World Proletarian Revolution? Not on your life! We were in the same state of religious intoxication as the new recruit to the Salvation Army, who, sure that he had been saved from eternal damnation, proclaimed to the thrilled gathering of those already ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb’, ‘I feel so happy I could burst the bloody drum’.

The sequel was the formation of the C.P.G.B. in 1920, on the premise that the World Proletarian Revolution is On, and we must recast our ideas about the nature and role of Revolutionary Socialist Parties. The Communist International was urgently necessary, to function as the general staff of the world revolution. As the revolution swept around the world, producing conditions of civil war and colonial wars of national liberation, Communist Parties must be formed in every country as parties of insurrection. These premises, upon which the Communist International was founded, explain the haste to ‘Bolshevise’ the Marxists of Britain. If you doubt this, read the Manifestos of the 2nd Congress of the C.I., the Conditions of Affiliation, the Resolutions on the formation of Soviets, the role of the Communist Parties and their structure, the resolution on Parliamentarism, etc.

The premise of the ‘World Proletarian Revolution’ was accepted as a political fact and remains so in Communist thinking to this day. Actually, it became the substance of our faith. It appeared to us to be so, and therefore it was so, and all the stirring social upheavals fitted into the pattern of our thinking. When the revolutionary wave subsided to the frontiers of Soviet Russia, did that raise any doubts? Not at all. There will be wave on wave, we said. Meanwhile, we are in a ‘period of partial stabilisation of capitalism’. ‘We’ve got a breathing space,’ said Lenin, in which to consolidate our gains and prepare for the next advance — which simply did not come. Instead, Fascism raised its head. With that fading out of the apparent ‘fact’ of the World Proletarian Revolution, it didn’t fade out of our faith. The General Staff of the Parties ‘On the Road to Insurrection’ still believed they were travelling that road, but ceased to call on the workers of all lands to take arms in hand and overthrow their toppling governments and changed its line in keeping with the ebb tide of World Revolution. The Soviets switched on to the line of ‘Socialism in One Country’, ‘Hands Off Russia’, ‘Defend the Soviet Union’, ‘Collective Security’, ‘United Front from Below’, ‘People’s Front’ and so on — all orchestrated by the General Staff of the Parties of Insurrection.

But the Bolshevisation of the C.P.G.B. went on apace to remodel the party on the principles of democratic centralism, which are principles of a military, insurrectionary party with militaristic and insurrectionary aims. Centralisation of authority is common to all military organisation and is to be tolerated if there is a war on. But if there isn’t a war on, doesn’t that centralisation become transformed into pompous bureaucracy and Blimpian stupidity?

Isn’t the strange history of the C.P.G.B. in its first twenty years, to be explained by the artificiality of its existence, and its illusions rather than its mendacity? The premises for the existence of a party of insurrection did not exist. Lenin’s ‘World Proletarian Revolution’ existed only as the article of faith of the C.I. and its sections. Does not the artificiality of the party’s existence also explain the fantastic record of its relations with the Labour and Socialist movement? At one moment the C.P. wants to ‘take the leaders by the hand as a preliminary to seizing them by the throat’. At the next it wanted affiliation and then it didn’t. We built a Left Movement of fellow travellers in the Labour Party and then we destroyed it. We built a Minority Movement in the trade unions and then liquidated it. Then the Labour Party ‘is in ruins’ and the day of the Mass Communist Party has arrived! That was just after a general election in which the Labour Party polled seven million votes and the Communist Party had polled seventy thousand votes and lost its deposits in almost every constituency it contested. Some ruins! Some mass party! Some clarity! The leadership (still thinking the World Proletarian Revolution was on), was scared of the idea of ‘aiding capitalism to recover’ — the crime of which I myself was accused when proposing that Soviet Russia should be granted credits for the purpose of buying machinery from British engineering factories where masses of engineering workers were unemployed. Instead, therefore, of the Communist Party becoming a party leading a class it became a party of ideologues, interpreting the course of history according to doctrine, and concerned more with loyalty to doctrine than to the living realities of social transformation. It is not subservience to Stalin (though that was bad enough), which accounts for the fantastic gyrations of the C.P.G.B., but the fact that it was beating the air with a false interpretation of the social process and turning itself into a little party of romantic ideologues.

There is no evidence either in this outline of the Communist Party’s history, nor in any of their publications, that the C.P. realised, when it flung itself on the side of Churchill and the Coalition in the course of the war, that by doing so it had changed the premises of its existence from the ‘class war’ to that of social co-operation of all classes. There is not the slightest indication that any of them realised that the theoretical premises of Marxism and Leninism were being flouted by life. With the same religious fervour which had marked it from its inception it plunged into the war of survival, ready and willing to fight in fields, factories and workshops and swim furiously with the tide of life; but cherishing still the hope that after survival they could carry their harvest of recruits into the holy church of the ‘World Proletarian Revolution’. Stalin had this idea too. He proclaimed at the beginning of the war that it was a National Patriotic War, not only for survival but also for the liberation of the nations from the grip of Hitlerism. Once survival had been secured, he proceeded from defence to attack and transformed the final stages of the war into a war of imperial conquest in the name of extending the socialist revolution, in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Roumania.

While the war of survival was on, the C.P. locked its Bibles of the revolution, in the archives of faith and succeeded in recruiting many thousands to its ranks. As soon as the war was over, did the party of ‘Scientific Socialism’ scientifically examine either its articles of faith or the meaning of its travail up to 1939, or the realities of the great social transformation which the war itself had engendered? No; the scientific mode of thinking is not up their street. They thought only with the doctrines which formed the stuff of their faith, and switched again into the social philosophy euphemistically defined as the ‘class war front’ — when war of any kind can no longer function as the modus vivendi of social living.

That is the key to the loss of membership after the war. It is also the key to the confusion of Khruschev on succeeding Stalin, and the bewilderment he created in the ranks of Communism everywhere. His confusion was created by an attempt to make a fundamental change in policy which living reality demanded, and pattern it within the framework of the social war philosophy of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Because he could not move a foot in the new direction with Stalin’s heritage of terror on his back, he denounced Stalin, and resurrected Lenin in order to read the transformed world of life through the lenses of outmoded myth. That is the meaning the bewilderment of post-war history everywhere. It is certainly the explanation of the gyrations of Khruschev and the forty years fruitless waste and misdirection of sacrificial energy of the C.P.G.B. It has its origin in the split thinking which divides life into matter and spirit, when in reality it cannot be so divided. This it is which turns social life into social conflict, and turns all men into Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes. With this split in the premises of thought is the subordination of reason to faith and belief. ‘Come reason together freely’, says the commonsense of man, and examine anew the foundations of your faith. For faith which reason does not control breeds stupidity and fanaticism. ‘Socialism’ must free itself from its ‘ism’ characteristics, and stand revealed as a way of life which reason shows to be governed by the principle of social co-operation of all people in social well-being.

J. T. Murphy



1. Henry Pelling, The British Communist Party: a Historical Profile (A. and C. Black, 18s.).