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International Socialism, Winter 1967/68


Editorial 2

The Communist Party


From International Socialism (1st series), No.31, Winter 1967/68, pp.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Despite belief, the Government continues to declare particularly resistant workers Communist whenever it suits its purpose. This should be of less note than the Communist Party’s reaction to such accusations – self-righteous indignation that so grave a libel should be perpetrated. The response contrasts with the Party’s now very distant Bolshevik past – would Lenin, claimed by the Party as one of its important political ancestors, have pretended to such conservative patriotism, or would he have replied by denouncing the Government’s collaboration with private capital and declaring his determination to promote as much industrial disruption as proved necessary for .workers to win their minimum demands?

The response of the CP is neither new nor isolated, but follows from a long history of seeking respectability, of subordinating rank-and-file industrial militancy to the aims of securing parliamentary power. The latest revision of the British Road to Socialism only places this trend in an immediate context. Peaceful coexistence, it says, is to be extended from the realm of international politics to the arena of class warfare – indeed, class warfare is at an end. Accordingly, a revolution is not required – or rather, ‘revolution’ takes on that anodyne sense which makes it mean no more than ‘change.’ Parliament is elevated to the centre of all important political questions, and elections take precedence over the mundane tasks associated with working-class struggle. Of course, this does not mean breaking the links with supporters, but it does mean that what rank-and-file struggle there is, is no more than a decorative embellishment on the central pursuit of Commons’ seats; thus, the Morning Star encourages sentimental readers with the titbit that a recent Communist by-election candidate ‘took time off from the campaign to take part in early morning picketing at the Roberts Arundel factory.’ [1] It is not that the candidate will be the Roberts Arundel delegate to the Commons, but his part at Roberts Arundel is the Communist answer to candidates kissing babies down the street.

Thus, the politics of the CP are nationally defined by what is acceptable to the ‘broad Left’ floating voter, including ‘anti-imperialist’ Liberals and Christians. Thus, the Party avoids open commitment to the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, or even to the slogan, ‘US, get out of Vietnam NOW,’ in favour of pious demands for ‘peace.’ At home, the Party demands that the arms bill be ‘cut in half’ (why so modest?), and that the police be subject to close control by ‘elected local authorities.’ [2]

Again, none of this is new. Indeed, it was Stalin himself who laid down the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ for the British party after the second World War, and once parliament is accepted as the sole target of political action, then certain political tactics become inevitable. However, while international Communism remained united, and Washington sustained a barrage of criticism, the illusion that the CP was a revolutionary party could be sustained.

Now, with the Sino-Soviet dispute and the Soviet-American détente, the illusion is revealed. Indeed, the trend of the British Party towards a social democratic position has only been obscured for as long as it has because the Party has been so signally unimportant in the parliamentary context: in France and Italy, the myth of revolution was much less successfully sustained.

However, once the illusion evaporates, then the links which have bound industrial militants to the Party grow progressively weaker. For the divergence of interest grows insupportable – the Party attempts to win positions in the trade-union hierarchy, even if this attempt means damping down rank-and-file militancy. Thus, recently, the building workers have been told to tone down their militancy because it is jeopardising the prospects for the Party in the building trade unions. Winning positions ‘of influence,’ copying the tactics of the opponent at the expense of rank-and-file support, is pursuing the epaulettes of power without the shoulders to bear them – and such tactics can be easily defeated by the same tactics on the other side, as was shown in the case of the ETU. More generally, in the battle over incomes policy, the response of the CP has been too little and too late, for the Party wants to fight on the electoral soap-box, where nobody is frightened of it, not in the factories where it could be a threat.

This is part of the current crisis in the Party. There have been earlier crises – from the Moscow purges to the Hungarian revolution and the 20th Party Congress. But in each case, the Party has been able to safeguard its roots by offering the authoritative version of events faraway. It has been the intellectuals who have left the Party, and with them went part of the possibility of a clear theoretical perspective for the Party, taking its starting point in the Party’s history in Britain. But the industrial base has tended to remain loyal. The current crisis takes its source from the Party’s role in Britain, not from what happens in Moscow, and its nature touches every working-class activist who finds his Party loyalty in conflict with the demands of the shopfloor. Formerly, the great strength of the CP in the eyes of many of its industrial militants has been that it provided the necessary bridge between workers in different industries and factories – the political link without which they were isolated. Today, the links are not being used in a coherent way because of the Party’s terror that it might be branded as ‘Red plotters.’ The weakness of solidarity actions arises in part because the CP is not using the resources it has. Thus the Party refused to advise dockers to give open support to the Barbican strikers lest this be used against the CP.

Competing on the same terms with the other political parties, the CP has nothing to offer except a slightly eccentric attitude to the Soviet Union. This is part of the reason why the CP has signally failed to make membership gains in a period of considerable opportunity for the non-Labour Left. As a purely political party, what distinguishes it? The mass of its membership is inactive (with certain exceptions); attendance at branch-meetings is nearly as bad as that at Labour Party ward meetings, and the smaller branches do not meet at all; the degree of commitment and political education is at a similar level. Indeed, political activity within the Party tends to come from those middle-class branches where revolt was formerly generated – where ‘ideology’ is all, and direct factory experience absent. There are still good industrial branches, but they tend to be good insofar as they operate on their own, insofar as they seek to represent genuine rank-and-file militancy rather than the priorities of Party policy. At this level, co-operation with socialists outside the Party to further common immediate aims can become more important than co-operation with other units of the Party.

After the disappearance of the working class as an active factor in British history after 1926, it was certainly the CP which kept alive at least some form of socialist commitment and tradition among working-class militants. Through the Party, a network of partly political, partly industrial, links, overlapping the boundaries of factory, union and housing estates were maintained. In the absence of any meaningful and realistic alternative, it was within the Party that some vestiges of the revolutionary tradition were maintained. But the isolation of the Party, its dependence upon the vagaries of Soviet domestic and foreign policy, made its central focus, its direction, increasingly unclear. The source of its perspective came from abroad, and was only imperfectly related to the needs of working-class action in Britain. But at least there was some perspective, even if it was a wrong one, one which sacrificed the interests of British workers to those of the Soviet leadership. With the end of that perspective, the Party has almost no coherent rationale at all, no theoretical framework which relates its own existence to certain specific historical purposes, which indicates consistent courses of action, which separates the trivial from the important.

It is this loss of any distinctive perspective which has precipitated the growing number of critics within and without the CP to see it as beyond reform. Indeed, the only cement holding together the CP seems to be the belief among its members that ‘there is nothing else.’ The stream of refugees from the Party start almost fresh to examine the world and turn in many different directions. Some look to Maoism, the ‘great helmsman’s living thoughts,’ as a substitute for concrete analysis of the here and now. Others seek to set up yet another True Marxist Party, while yet more find solace in the passivity of pub socialism. All are dead ends without both a re-examination of what socialists are seeking to achieve and how this relates to the immediate concrete problems facing workers in Britain today, and a new commitment to the activist heart of Marxism, rooted in the real day-to-day battles of ordinary people. The attack on working-class living standards is well underway, so that the urgency of such a reappraisal cannot be overemphasised. Only with both a theoretical perspective and a derived strategy for action can the long slow task of rebuilding a labour movement be undertaken.



1. 28 August 1967.

2. British Road to Socialism, p.22.

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