A thorough analysis of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) requires a pamphlet in its own right. Here we shall only draw attention to tendencies existing in the Party long before the added option of ’The British Road to Socialism’, and make a few comments on the completely revisionist CPGB of today.(3)
Whilst defending the revolutionary role and achievements of the CPGB in the 1920’s and 1930’s, we make the main aspect of our analysis is one of criticism. This should not be misunderstood as a dismissal of a whole period of revolutionary leadership in Britain or as the CUA (M-L) placing itself above historical experience, from which we are able to learn. But this is absolutely necessary in order that we learn where the CPGB went wrong and the full significance of its strong points.
The CPGB was formed after the First World War when the betrayal of the working class by the parties of the Second International, the experience of the imperialist war, the victory of the great October revolution led by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party and the post-war economic crisis – all combined to produce a revolutionary upsurge in Britain as well as in other parts of the world. In Britain, this was reflected in the emergence of the Shop Stewards’ Movement, the final removal of the social-chauvinist leader of the British Socialist Party, Hyndman, and, the formation of a revolutionary wing of the Independent Labour Party. The CPGB was formed in 1920 after long discussions which were characterised by the participants’ unity on questions of opposition to reformism and support for the Soviet system and the dictatorship of- the proletariat and their disunity on tactical questions such as attitudes to Parliament and the Labour Party.
The formation of a single revolutionary communist party although itself a great step forward, marked only the beginning. The struggle to bolshevise the Party, build an organisation of professional revolutionaries and eradicate the social-democratic traditions inherited by it, was a life and death struggle for the future of the Party. Throughout the 1920’s, the struggle inside the CPGB against these social-democratic traditions and dogma raged. The criticisms of Lenin and the Comintern had a great influence in strengthening the hand of those struggling against opportunism. But this strong influence could only be the condition of change. What is always decisive is the internal struggle and the strength and political maturity of those sections fighting opportunism. This becomes even clearer when it is understood that the most artful opportunist is, and was, capable of presenting himself as the strongest supporter of Comintern decisions whilst sabotaging their application to the concrete conditions of Britain, or, in the name of applying them to Britain, distorting and destroying their revolutionary essence.
Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt pursued a struggle against the Central Committee at the 4th Congress on the organisation of the Party. Feeling was so strong on this question that the membership demanded that it be studied by a commission from outside the Central Committee. The commission’s report presented at the 5th Congress recommended the abolition of the federal form of appointment to the Central Committee, reorganisation of the Party press and the amendment of the constitution in line with the principles laid down by the Comintern. This report was accepted unanimously and Pollitt and Dutt were elected to the Central Committee.
This did not amount to the complete bolshevisation of the Party. Nor did it mean that the Leninist principles of party organisation had been firmly grasped. A super-centralist interpretation was put on the principle of democratic centralism which, by making local branches dependent on the Central Committee for such things as leaflets and posters and in some cases the analysis of local conditions, dampened initiative and inhibited the application of the Party’s general line to local conditions. Also despite the fact that the constitution stipulated that members should take an active part in a Party organisation and complete a period of candidacy, members were enrolled at public meetings and even on the streets. So, super-centralism and looseness of organisation co-existed.
Furthermore, the CPGB was only weakly, if at all discriminatory against non-proletarian classes. The damage that this caused was at least doubled by having a relatively uncommitted working class membership. Why? Because the influence which petty-bourgeois strata were able to bring to bear on the organisation was assisted by the greater time available to them, their better education and a greater ability to express a point of view. The petty-bourgeoisie allied itself with labour aristocrats inside the CPGB. In London, sections of the middle class were particularly attracted to the Communist Party because of its militant anti-fascism. This undoubtedly caused a strong petty-bourgeois influence on King Street and consequently on the policy of the leading sections of the Party who were ideologically incapable of controlling these elements.
The social-democratic traditions of the CPGB led to mistakes in understanding the relationship between the economic and political struggle. The production of a programme concretely applying Marxism-Leninism to British conditions could have guided the whole Party in criticising the social-democratic attitude of reducing everything to the economic struggle. No-where does this tendency come out in such sharp relief at the 11th Congress in 1929 which, In response to the criticism of the line of the 10th Congress (1928/1929) from the Comintern, adopted a line of militant struggle against the Labour Party and detailed support for colonial struggles. But at the same Congress a resolution was circulated which stressed the political character of the workers’ economic struggle. This discussion was apparently triggered off by the criticising that there was, insufficient linking of the economic struggle with the political struggle.
There was an important question of principle involved here. In essence the resolution put forward the line that the economic “struggle and the political struggle” were one, by virtue of the political character of economic struggles against the government in times of crisis. But this line neglected the-fact that such political struggles remain restricted to reformist trade union politics not revolutionary politics. In times of crisis, possibilities are increased for drawing workers into the political struggle. This means, taking the workers’ out of the narrow sphere of the economic struggle and involving them in political meetings and demonstrations. But this is not what is meant when the political character of economic struggles is stressed. In practice, this means restriction to the economic struggle on the grounds that this itself is political and will spontaneously raise the, consciousness of the workers.
The CPGB did not grasp dialectics and the Marxist-Leninist method of analysis. This is particularly revealed by its failure to understand Lenin’s advice with regard to the Labour Party. Lenin recommended both affiliations to the Labour Party and support for it in elections. But this did not mean abandoning, or even relaxing, the struggle against the social-chauvinists. It was part of the struggle against the Labour Party. Lenin explained in detail the conditions for supporting affiliation (freedom to criticise and, expose Labour’s treacherous policies and to explain the need for revolution), and for supporting Labour in elections (the fact that, the workers had not yet experienced a Labour government). He also explained how the communists could gain from the Labour Party either accepting their affiliation or rejecting it. But the social-democratic traditions CPGB led to illusions about the Labour Party, a one-sided emphasis on unity and consequently a failure to carry out a consistent struggle against opportunism and social-chauvinism. And, as Lenin has said, a struggle against imperialism without a consistent struggle against opportunism is a myth.
How much of the CPGB’s struggle against imperialism was a myth is shown by a review of its line on the colonial question. The CPGB failed to grasp Lenin’s thesis that communists in the imperialist heartland must put the struggle against social-chauvinism first and render the colonial struggles direct assistance, which was a general failing in Western imperialist countries. Today our understanding of the colonial question has been greatly assisted by the contribution of Mao Tsetung and the Communist Party of China and the struggle against modern revisionism.
In the first ten years of the CPGB’s existence, there was a healthy tendency, which needed to be developed, to publish articles on the struggles in the colonies and against intervention in China. However, the Party’s understanding of the colonial question in the era of imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, was still largely based on old social-democratic concepts. This was the heart of the Party’s inability to carry out a consistent struggle against national chauvinism and opportunism.
At the 7th Congress, a thesis was presented on the colonial question. This thesis attached conditions to the CPGB’s support for national liberation struggles; it was only expressed for “honest sections within the dominions” and asserted that the colonies could only be liberated by a revolution throughout the British Empire. This diametrically opposed Lenin’s insistence on the need for mutual cooperation between communist parties in the colonies and metropolitan capitalist countries. It replaced proletarian internationalism with what is essentially a big-power chauvinist position.
At the same time, the link between opportunism and the super-profits of imperialism was side-tracked by a statement to the effect that the development of native capitalism and the growing revolt among the exploited countries was bringing about “a decline in the privileged position of the workers in Great Britain.” Note that the labour aristocracy is not singled out here. We can now see that this sweeping statement, although generally true, has too much of a note of inevitability. Imperialism is actively devising methods of increasing its plunder of the third world. Not least among these is the increased impoverishment and starvation existing in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Huge super-profits are still rolling in and serving as the economic basis of opportunism.
Within the CPGB there were those who argued strongly that the struggle against the Labour Party should be linked with winning support for the colonies struggling against British imperialism. But they were met by base, chauvinist arguments which counterposed the developing of links with colonial liberation movements to the building of a base in the British working class.
The subsequent development of the Party’s line on the colonial question was a process of trimming, except for a interval in 1939 following the outbreak of the Second World War when Harry Pollitt was forces to resign and make a self-criticism for supporting the then imperialist war. The two most important stages in this trimming process were the document, ’For a Soviet Britain’, published in 1935, which introduced the question, “Can Britain feed herself?” and the l5th Congress which limited the whole question to a demand for “full democratic rights for the colonial people including trades unions”, plainly implying this to be possible within the British Empire.
The extent to which opportunism was making leading members of the CPGB fear the consequences of self determination for the colonies, which the bourgeoisie argued would mean a loss of markets and unemployment Britain, is clearly revealed. The following quote, showing a complete failure to understand imperialism, is the result.
The British engineering industry under workers’ control will be able to propose co-operation with the colonial peoples, who will be able at last to build their own economy and develop their own industry and transport. They can get the iron and steel and machinery they require from Britain and other such countries in exchange for foodstuffs...and raw materials.(4)
The nominal independence of third world countries since, the war has proved that the imperialists are not averse to such a relationship of ’mutual cooperation’.
However, as pointed out above the outbreak of the Second World War stemmed this degeneration. Harry Pollitt’s call for support for the war against Germany in 1939 when it was purely an imperialist war clearly revealed Pollitt as an opportunist and the architect of revisionism in the CPGB. He: had undoubtedly, in the years prior to 1939, been preparing opinion in the Party for the support of British imperialism against German (fascist) imperialism on the basis of supporting democracy against fascism. In the 14th Congress report of 1937 on ’The Fight for Peace’, the language of opposition to British imperialism and the national government is expressed in a condemnation of the “national government’s shameful betrayal of the people of Abyssinia”. What can we conclude from such talk? Is it that Britain should have despatched troops to defend Abyssinia from annexation by the Italians? But Britain is an imperialist power. Wouldn’t despatching troops amount to a contest for annexation? Not according to Harry Pollitt’s revisionist leadership because British imperialism can be forced to allow the ’full democratic rights for the colonial-people.’ It is to the credit of the majority of the CPGB members, many of whom took part in the struggle against social-chauvinism in the First World War that Harry Pollitt was made to resign and make a self-criticism. This clear break with Pollitt’s pro-imperialist line gave the CPGB a new lease of life. A vigorous struggle against the Labour Party followed.
This reorientation, as must be expected, was met by a vicious reaction from the Labour Party and the TUC. This period was a great test for the Party. Social democracy conspiracy with the police and the courts to silence ’The Daily Worker’ and to create public opinion to have it banned. The general secretary of the TUC, Sir Walter Citrine, and others brought a libel-action against the publisher of ’The Daily Worker’ in 1940. And, of course they won. Subsequently ’The Daily Worker’ was banned.
The invasion of the Soviet-Union and the formation of the international united front against fascism and in defence of the Soviet Union undoubtedly altered the situation by making the main aspect the war between socialism and imperialism. It was necessary to call upon workers to defend socialism and smash fascism and capitalism. However, Britain had its own imperialist in the war which had to be exposed. But this was seriously lost sight of.
Unfortunately, the political immaturity of the Party, its inability to grasp dialectics and combine legal and illegal work, made it possible for opportunists to take advantage of the fast-changing events. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Party, was thrown into confusion and Pollitt was able to present himself as the man who was right all along. He regained his position of leadership of the Party. This must be understood as a great victory for revisionism in the Party since Pollitt was now much more securely in the driving seat. Under his leadership, the CPGB, in supporting the war effort, abandoned any real opposition to British imperialism.
From the period of the war on, the CPGB steadily degenerated into complete and irreversible opportunism. Policies applicable to the united front against Hitlerite fascism was continued when they were nothing but complete class collaboration in the new situation. Successive redraftings of the party’s programme, ’The British Road to Socialism’, were progressively more revisionist, abandoning all the revolutionary essence of Marxism. The Party became totally committed to reformism and Parliamentarism, and welcomed with great relief the degeneration of the Soviet party and government into revisionism.
Many comrades discuss the question of revisionism entirely in terms of the development of Soviet revisionism. This is an immensely important question. How could the party of Lenin and Stalin, the great Bolshevik party which led the first successful proletarian revolution, become a revisionist party? The complete betrayal of Marxism led by Khrushchev and his successor, Brezhnev, and the restoration of capitalism and imperialism to power in disguised form in the Soviet Union was a tremendous set-back for the world proletarian revolution. The lessons of this must be learned, and the method of mobilising the working class to defend socialism and defeat the restoration of capitalism under conditions of the proletarian dictatorship firmly gasped by all revolutionaries. On this question, the experience of the Chinese Communist Party and masses in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, led by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, is of immense importance to us.
However, the degeneration of the Westerns parties like the CPGB can in no way be explained in terms of the development of Soviet Revisionism. The internal contradictions within the British Party and British society are the principal basis for the success or failure of any revolutionary force in Britain. It is extremely un-dialectical and incorrect to attempt to explain British Revisionism in terms of Soviet Revisionism. It can be pointed out that the Soviet party and state were at one stage an extremely valuable ideological influence for revolution, and today they have become an extremely counter-revolutionary influence. However, an external influence can neither create nor destroy a real revolutionary movement. This is why, in all our discussions of British Revisionism, we concentrate on the conditions of imperialist British society and on the internal history of the CPGB.
In attempting to summarise the weaknesses of the CPGB, which had their roots in social-democratic traditions and the influence of imperialism in corrupting revolutionary leadership, we can say that although the Party had close ties with the masses it never really understood Lenin’s advice regarding tactics for exposing the Labour Party. It hardly attempted to appreciate the constantly developing role of the Labour Party as a party of imperialism. It frequently lapsed into its own subjective assessments of the Labour Party and had to be constantly corrected by the-more objective analysis of the Comintern. The latter was hardly able to do all the CPGB’s thinking for it. Although the young CPGB had a grasp of Marxism-Leninism and showed some successes in its, early work, it cannot be argued that its political and ideological level was very high or that it showed much ability in analysing and utilising British condition when pursuing its work. Much of its failure can be ascribed to its inability to analyse British imperialism and the social conditions which British imperialism creates. On the international front, the CPGB was noticeably weak. The struggle in Ireland was not taken up by the CPGB in any meaningful way. On the question of the colonies, the CPGB slipped innocently into rehashing great-power chauvinist solutions to the question of workers’ power in Britain, as shown in the earlier quote from ‘For a Soviet Britain’.
The most important failure on the part of the CPGB however was the failure to oppose social-imperialism as represented by the Labour Party. The continuation of social-democratic traditions in the CPGB led eventually to the triumph of revisionism. ’The British Road to Socialism’ was the culmination of this basic erroneous tendency. Every call for unity with the Labour Party based only upon Lenin’s tactical advice in 1920 was seen in a completely one-sided way.