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International Socialism, September 1977



The Crisis in the British Communist Party


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, pp.15-17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On July 17 1977 Sid French, secretary of the Surrey District of the Communist Party, announced the formation of the New Communist Party. The breakaway by the longstanding leader of the Stalinist opposition within the Communist Party marked the most serious crisis in the CP since 1956 when the Russian invasion of Hungary caused at least 7,000 members, many of them workers, to resign in disgust.

The new British Road to Socialism

Ostensibly the split was provoked by the publication in February of the new draft of The British Road to Socialism, the CP programme. The French group denounced the draft on the grounds that it

“revises Marxism-Leninism by dropping the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In fact it ignores the need for the working class to take state power unto itself to crush the resistance of the displaced exploiters and to win to its side the majority of the people for the creative task of building a socialist Britain.”

They concluded:

“If the draft is endorsed by Congress, the party remains Communist in name only. In actuality it becomes a left social-democratic party with a left social-democratic programme.” [1]

But the new draft is no different from previous editions of The British Road to Socialism in its commitment to a parliamentary and reformist version of socialism. The first edition, issued in 1951 with Stalin’s approval, was quite explicit:

“The enemies of Communism accuse the Communist Party of aiming to introduce Soviet power in Britain and abolish Parliament. This is a slanderous misrepresentation ... British Communists declare that the people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real People’s Democracy, transforming Parliament, the product of Britain’s historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of her people.” [2]

The same strategy is contained in the new draft, as passages like the following make clear:

“Socialist revolution can be carried through in Britain in conditions in which world war can be prevented, and without civil war, by a combination of mass struggles outside Parliament and the election of a parliamentary majority and government determined to implement a socialist programme.” [3]

In their critique of the new draft the Frenchites make it clear that they support the same strategy of parliamentary socialism:

“A peaceful road is infinitely preferable to a violent road and must be striven for.” [4]

What, then, are the differences that have caused the split?

The new British Road marks another stage in the transformation of the Communist Party into a left reformist party. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the CP was not a mass party like the Labour Party or the French and Italian CPs. Nor was it a revolutionary party pledged ‘to the armed overthrow of capitalism. It was a Stalinist party whose programme and activities were subordinated to the interests of the Russian bureaucracy. However, it possessed a significant working-class base that made it the focus for left-wing militants in industry. It was able to mobilise workers independently of the Labour Party leadership and the trade union bureaucracy, for example, over unemployment and anti-fascism in the 1930s.

Today the CP is no longer a Stalinist party. Like the other Western European CPs it has participated in the long process that, since the death of Stalin and with the emergence of the USSR as a superpower able to deal with the Western capitalist bloc directly rather than through the pressure of the Comintern, has made them effectively independent of Moscow. [5] But the same process has also transformed the CP into a reformist party closely allied to the left-wing of the trade union bureaucracy.

Over the last ten years in particular the CP has ceased to operate independently of the trade union leadership. The Broad Left caucuses it operates with Labour Party members in unions like the AUEW are election machines committed to replacing right-wing full-time officials with left-wingers. CP officials are entrenched in unions like TASS, ASTMS and NUPE where full-timers are appointed not elected. The CP-dominated Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), which led major unofficial strikes against Labour and Tory anti-union legislation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has been far less active of late.

The result was that the CP, despite the considerable influence it still retains, was able to mount no effective opposition to the surrender to Labour’s wage controls in 1975-77 by leading “lefts” like Scanlon and Jones. CP trade union officials denounced the SWP for taking the sort of unofficial initiatives against unemployment for which Communists were witchunted by the bureaucracy in the 1930s. The remaining obstacle to the CP’s integration in the official leadership of the trade union movement lies in the memory of its Stalinist past. One main aim of the new draft is to exorcise that past. Hence the promise “that a left government will stand down if it is defeated in an election.” [6] Moreover, the draft stresses the subordination of the CP to the Labour Party: it will be “a new kind of Labour government” that will initiate the transition to socialism, while the CP is seen, not as an alternative to the Labour Party, but as a pressure group pushing it leftwards. Even so this does not go far enough for some. John Webster, a CP organiser, writes:

“One weakness in the draft is that I believe we should declare our long term perspective of affiliation to the LP [Labour Party] as a Communist Party, and therefore seek to build the LP as the federal (electoral) umbrella of the working-class movement.” [7]

Closely linked to the subordination of the CP to the Labour Party in the draft is the powerful injection of gradualism which it brings to the CP’s strategy. Previous editions of the British Road to Socialism envisaged that the transition to socialism would be, although peaceful, fairly rapid and that a socialist government would proceed once elected to introduce a series of measures that would destroy the economic and political power of the capitalist class. In the new draft the transition to socialism becomes a drawn-out process embracing a series of “left, and eventually Socialist governments.” [8] According to the draft, “it is impossible to proceed overnight from Labour Governments which in effect manage capitalism, to a government which introduces socialism.” [9] The next step is a “new type of Labour government” which implement the “alternative economic strategy” - import controls, state direction of investment, economic expansion -advocated by the Tribune group and trade union “lefts” like Alan Fisher. This government

“would not be a socialist government carrying out a socialist revolution, but one which, in the closest relationship with the movement outside Parliament, would begin to carry out a major democratic transformation of British society.” [10]

The “alternative economic strategy” now occupies the bulk of the CP’s propaganda, even though, on the admission of Bert Ramelson, the CP industrial organiser, it represents a solution “far short of socialism”. [11] The British Road to Socialism is now no longer simply a peaceful and parliamentary road; it must now pass through a separate “democratic” stage before socialism can be introduced. No wonder that Irene Brennan, a member of the CP Political Committee, can write:

“The Fabians are often criticised for their ‘gradualism’. In my view, too much emphasis is placed on that.” [12]

The new right wing

The intellectual powerhouse for these changes has come, not from the leadership, but from a new right-wing current within the Communist Party. The leading figures in this group are a number of young intellectuals drawn mainly from the students and academics who have joined the CP in recent years. The debate on the new British Road had encouraged the right wing to become much more assertive. Jon Bloomfield, the first of the group to be appointed to a full-time position within the party, first as student organiser and then as secretary of Birmingham City CP, recently wrote that the real debate was not with the Frenchites or the revolutionary left but “between the present leadership and what can best be termed a revolutionary, democratic current within the party.” [13] The differences between the leadership and the right wing appear to centre around industrial strategy. Not that the right wing oppose the strategy of alliances with “left” officials. Their objection is more fundamental: they challenge the central emphasis given by the CP to industrial strategy since the party’s foundation in 1920. So Bloomfield bewails “the frequent economism of our party. Too often we see political change coming through the trade union movment.” [14] The right wing see socialist revolution not as a struggle for political power but as a battle for ideological “hegemony” to be fought, not so much on the factory floor, as in community groups, campaigns against environmental pollution and “the women’s movement”.

The growth of this group’s influence and self-confidence within the Communist Party reflects the decline in the CP’s base among manual workers and the growing number of its members who are drawn from sections of the intelligentsia, for example, college lecturers. The most successful activity organised today by a party which once prided itself on its overwhelmingly proletarian composition is putting on events like the Communist University of London, which seeks to rival established universities in its detailed academic courses.

The old Stalinists

The French group represented a very different current within the CP. They appealed to the traditions of the Communist Party, above all to its Stalinist past. Their main objection to the new draft was to its attempt to exorcise this past. Sid French told a rally called in London on June 9 to defend the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat is what exists in the Soviet Union.”

These words bring out very clearly what the split is about. The French group was not a revolutionary or left opposition. What it dislikes about the current CP leadership is the break with the past represented by the criticisms of the Soviet Union that now appear in the party’s publications. The debate about the dictatorship of the proletariat was nothing to do with revolutionary strategy in Britain: the Frenchites were defending, not the violent establishment of working-class power on the ruins of the capitalist state, but the bureaucratic dictatorship of Stalin and Brezhnev. This is quite consistent with the history of the Frenchites. The first stirrings of Stalinist opposition to the present leadership of the Communist Party occurred in 1961 when the Daily Worker became the Morning Star in the hope that more sales would be attracted (they weren’t). But the Frenchites only crystallised as an organised current in 1968 after the leadership had denounced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia (hence their nickname – tankies). Their main activity subsequently was to defend the Soviet Union from the leadership’s criticisms, moving resolutions to that effect (for example at the 1975 Congress – they were unsuccessful).

One can only speculate about Moscow’s role in precipitating the split. The Russians have not scrupled to split CPs that were too critical of them in the past – for example, they set up a dissident pro-Moscow Spanish Communist Party after Santiago Carrillo’s leadership had denounced the invasion of Czechoslovakia. No doubt French would welcome Russian support, since the CP receives a large subsidy in the form of the sales of the Morning Star in the USSR and Eastern Europe. But there is some evidence that Moscow opposed the split perhaps for diplomatic reasons – it might antagonise the more conciliatory of the big Eurocommunist parties, most notably the Italian and French CPs. French’s main appeal was to older members who joined the party at a time when loyalty to the Soviet Union was the cement holding the CP together. The Frenchites claimed also to have carried off most of the moribund Young Communist League with them. Even so, their private claim for their membership was 650, a small proportion even of the CP’s active membership, estimated by French at 6,000-8,000.

In any case, French did not succeed in persuading the whole of the pro-Moscow faction from splitting. A group of his former supporters, led by Fergus Nicholson, ex-student organiser, refused to leave and called their own rally – against the draft but for the Communist Party for September 2. Moreover, French was unable to persuade any of the leading workers traditionally identified with the opposition to join his new party. For example, Kevin Halpin, chairman of the LCDTU, and a member of the CP executive committee until he was bumped off in 1975 for supporting the Frenchites, stayed in with the Nicholson group. The tradition of loyalty to the CP, particularly among the working-class members, proved stronger than French’s appeals in many cases. Also the Frenchites may have been forced to split earlier than they had intended by the decision of the CP executive in July to initiate disciplinary action against them.

One of the working-class veterans who refused to leave with French was Charlie Doyle. He produced a pamphlet attacking the draft British Road (it was promptly banned by the leadership). It included passages like the following:

There can be no socialist revolution within the structures of bourgeois democratic institutions.” [15]


“We need less talk of mass action ‘outside parliament’ in the distant future and more to initiate class struggles now.” [16]

Doyle, as can be seen, went further than the Frenchites in his critique of the draft, perhaps as far as it is possible to go without questioning the Stalinist heritage of the CP. This Doyle refused to do: the pamphlet strongly defends the Soviet Union from the leadership’s criticisms. The debate on the new draft of The British Road to Socialism, and with it the crisis in the Communist Party, is far from over. The decision on the draft will be taken by a Congress in November. The signs are that there are many CP members who are critical of the draft, as well as the current policies of the leadership and its sectarianism towards the SWP, but who do not share the Frenchites’ affection for the Russian dictatorship. There may well be more resignations, and perhaps even expulsions, in the coming months.

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1. Comment, April 30 1977, p.146.

2. The British Road to Socialism (hereinafter BRS), London 1952, p.12.

3. BRS Draft, lines 19-22.

4. Comment, op. cit.

5. See I. Birchall, Workers against the Monolith, London 1974.

6. BRS Draft, lines 1484-5.

7. Comment, op. cit., p.148.

8. BRS Draft, lines 1082-3.

9. Ibid., lines 1126-7.

10. Ibid., lines 1380-2.

11. B. Ramelson, Bury the Social Contract, London 1977, p.34.

12. I. Brennan, Some Problems of Revolutionary Strategy, Marxism Today, June 1977, p.165.

13. Comment, July 9 1977, p.239.

14. Ibid.

15. C. Doyle, The British Road to Socialism Draft: Revolutionary path or diversion?, London 1977, p.3. Italics in original.

16. Ibid., p.11.

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