A short guide to Maoists in Britain

First Published: The Leveller, No.20, November 1978
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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An encounter with the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought [“we have undertaken the unprecedented task of building the first stable base area in the imperialist heartlands, in and around Brixton ...this has driven the British bourgeoisie up the wall”], truly the most lunatic of the lunatic fringe of left politics in Britain, can be an unsettling experience. Tiny in numbers and fanatical in zeal, carrying dogmatism, rhetoric and sectarianism to ever greater extremes, it is many people’s idea of a typical Maoist group.

Not so. Terry Ilott and John Dawes report that of the numerous Maoist groups, there are some which, though small and theoretically weak (unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world) we might take more seriously than we do.

As well as the mandatory suffix M-L, all Maoists share an admiration for China’s revolution and for Stalin (for all his faults). They despise the Soviet Union (the “more dangerous” of the superpowers) and the pro-soviet communist parties. Most believe that the national liberation movements of the third world are the main force in the struggle against imperialism and that the “second world” countries can and should be marshalled into some kind of opposition to the two super-powers.

Perhaps most characteristically they have adopted many of the ideological precepts found in Mao’s writings – which gives their ideas and attitudes a particular moral and intellectual flavour.

The genesis of Maoist groups in Britain, as elsewhere, falls naturally into two phases. In the early sixties there were those dissidents with the CPGB for whom the Sino-Soviet dispute provided the necessary political stimulus for a complete break with revisionism. Compared to the other European parties, the CPGB had always been fairly weak, both organisationally and theoretically, and, since the late thirties, had steadily drifted into the tame and sterile social-democratic mould which has dogged the British left for a hundred years. When the British Road to Socialism was adopted, many people dropped out of the party and left wing politics altogether. Within the party a group formed around the leadership of Michael McCreery. This small and weak faction left the CPGB in 1963 to form the first Marxist-Leninist organisation in Britain: the Committee to Defeat Revisionism and For Communist Unity (CDRCU).

The CDRCU published Vanguard, a paper in many ways superior to anything since published by M-L groups. It had branches in various parts of the country, some of which formed the basis of new organisations when the committee broke up following McCreery’s death in 1965. The Workers party of Scotland and the Working Peoples’ Party of England are two such descendants of the CDRCU.

The second phase began with the upsurge of interest in China aroused by the Cultural Revolution. This coincided with the birth of the “new left” in the west, many of whose recruits saw in China a model of socialist society. All the Maoist groups that emerged in Britain at this time were characterised by immaturity, extreme sectarianism and isolation from the workers. In these ways they were quite different from McCreery’s group.

(There is a third Maoist element; the M-L’s among the immigrant, especially Indian, workers. These are significant and very influential, but we cannot deal with them here.)

Today there are perhaps 400 Maoists, organised into as many as twenty groups – each of which has a complicated history of splits and realignments. There would be little purpose served in trying to account for all of these and developments in the last two years have anyway shuffled most of the M-L’s into the four largest groups. These are split between the pro-Albania, pro-Gang of Four groups and the pro-China, anti-Gang of Four groups, who are in turn divided into those who believe Britain is in the stage of socialist revolution and those, like the WPS, who believe the stage is one of fighting for “national independence” in the face of the Soviet menace.

First the worst:

The Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), (CPE M-L); a strange and slightly sinister crowd of students and middle class weirdos, who are well known for reciting the most extraordinarily long and complex slogans when on demos (though latterly not much in evidence), was founded in 1972 out of the English Communist Movement. This in turn was a development of the Internationalists – a group formed by Canadian Hardial Bains.

Shunned by other M-L’s, and suspected by some of being agents-provocateurs, they publish Workers Weekly, well known for such eye catching headlines as, “British monopoly capitalist class denies working class the right to uphold political beliefs of their choice” (I kid you not).

They have sided with Albania and now attack China as unthinkingly as they once supported it. They are declining in numbers and energy – a trend which is unlikely to be reversed.

The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), (CPB M-L), perhaps the largest and best known M-L group, was founded in 1968 by Reg Birch, a leading AUEW member, who only broke with the CPGB after it had backed Hugh Scanlon rather than himself for the AUEW presidency. The party is ultra-centralist (allowing no internal criticism whatsoever) and publishes The Worker – a dreary rag that gives space to Reggie’s often incomprehensible ramblings.

The CPB M-L’s membership and influence have declined as its autocratic chairman has led it on a more and more reactionary course (extreme hostility to the Provos, support for immigration controls “to defend the skills of the British working class” and an emphasis of trade union struggles to the exclusion of all else). They have also taken Albania to their hearts and vigorously denounce the Chinese as revisionists.

On the more positive side, are the Revolutionary Communist League of Britain, (RCLB) which was recently formed after the amalgamation of the Communist Federation of Britain (CFB) and the much smaller Communist Unity Association (CUA). It contains many of the more talented and experienced British M-Ls but is still hidebound by the humourless, unimaginative dogmatism and pompous hectoring style so common in small left groups.

The RCLB publishes a paper, Class Struggle, which contains worthy and rather bland political reports, and a theoretical journal, Revolution, They also have a bookshop, New Era Books, in London.

The RCLB is “struggling for unity” with the altogether more down to earth Communist Workers Movement (CWM), which was formed 18 months ago by a disenchanted faction of the decaying CPB M-L. The CWM is something of a breath of fresh air in the Maoist camp, being fairly undogmatic and non-sectarian. Their paper, New Age, is actually written in English, not Chinese, and makes an attempt at having a humorous and readable style.

They are more involved in trade union, anti-fascist and antiracist work than the other M-L’s. They have a bookshop in Liverpool, October Books (which stocks The Leveller), and have branches in various parts of the country. They are also responsible for the only serious attempt so far by an M-L group to take issue with the politics of the SWP in their book Why Paul Foot Should be a Socialist.

Both the RCLB and the CWM support the broad outlines of current Chinese policy and together represent the more serious side of Maoism in Britain. Should they unite, which is possible, then we would have a viable M-L outfit on the left which might begin to have some impact. In a way they are reminiscent of the original group led by McCreery, and are likely to remain when many of the “cultural revolution” groups have mercifully passed into oblivion.