Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Kevin Morgan, Against Fascism and War: Ruptures and Continuities in British Communist Politics 1935-41, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1989, pp328, £40
For an organisation that has for over four decades paraded its patriotic virtues, the Communist Party of Great Britain must find the period of October 1939 to June 1941, when, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Augus 1939, it opposed the Second World War somewhat embarrassing to recall Morgan’s detailed account of the CP’s activities and propaganda during those 21 months is, therefore, welcome, not least because it demolishes the commonplace myth that the CP reverted to a long forgotten Leninist orthodoxy during the anti-war period, and shows that it continued with a Popular Front approach, notwithstanding the dramatic policy changes
Although the classic Popular Front that the party was attempting to construct the late 1930s fragmented when the people attracted to it on a narrow anti-Fascist, patriotic basis split away when the switched to oppose the war, the party did not dispense with the Popular Front approach. Throughout this period, the CP called for a “people’s government”, although just what this represented and how it was to be achieved were never explicitly or consistently explained. Nor did it stop appealing to the usual Popular Front types, notwithstanding its reduced attraction to them. Morgan shows that in doing this, the CP often adapted to pacifism, and CP members downplayed their politics, protesting about the harsh consequences of the war, rather than making much propaganda about the war itself.
From mid-1940 the party’s main activity was promoting the People’s Convention. The Daily Worker carried statements of support from “engineers, railwaymen, academics, clergymen, pacifists, disenchanted supporters of the Conservative and Liberal Parties” as well as Labour Party activists and Communists, not to mention bandleaders, composers, sculptors, actors and actresses, a “well-known wrestler” and a bloke who could “do anything with a piano accordion” (pp.209-10).
The People’s Convention was held on 12 January 1941, and attracted 2,234 delegates reputedly representing 1.2 million people from 1,304 organisations. Its populist programme called vaguely for higher wages, the defence of democratic rights, emergency powers to take over the banks and large industries, ‘friendship’ with the Soviet Union, freedom for India, a ‘people’s government’ and a ‘people’s peace’, and made no direct reference to the imperialist nature of the war. And as Morgan notes, “the People’s Convention came at last to rest its hopes on the formation of a patriotic opposition within Parliament” (p.225), calling in May 1941 on MPs of all parties to rally behind its banner.
Any serious study of a Communist party must take into account the domestic pressures upon it, its own relationship with Moscow and the relationship between its nation state and the Kremlin. Morgan correctly states that “if the CP was unquestionably a genuine British working class party responsive to the British political situation, it was also, from another aspect, an ‘agent’ of Soviet foreign policy”, and adds that “possibly the main problem in writing Communist Party history (s to comprehend the sometimes complex relationship between the two” (pp.116-7). Moreover, he admits that “the broad lines of Communist policy were determined not by a rational appraisal of what was possible in British conditions but by the erratic directives of the distant heads of world Communism who could not have cared less about the fate of the British working class, nor of the British Communist Party for that matter” (p.51).
And yet in his introduction Morgan aims some sharp barbs at Trotskyist historians of the CP, complaining that their studies treat the party “as the disembodied incarnation of a political ‘line’ ... formulated in Moscow”, leading “inevitably to the conclusion that the paramount question posed by a study of the CP – of any CP – was to ascertain how the Soviet leadership arrived at a particular policy” (p.7), and that “an intelligent appreciation of the changing political environment – the objective framework – in which the CP operated is thus ruled out” (p.5).
Accusing ̵ and by no means fairly – the Trotskyists of ignoring the domestic influences upon the CP, Morgan, whatever his calls for a balanced appraisal, accentuates those influences almost to the exclusion of the general control of the Soviet bureaucracy over the official Communist movement, which leads him into adopting a one-sided approach, overestimating the domestic pressures upon the CP during both the Popular Front and the anti-war periods.
As a description of Communist policies and activities, Against Fascism and War is well worth reading, and is superior to anything produced by the party’s own historians. However, I cannot accept Morgan’s arguments, comparing the CP's ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric with its non-revolutionary practice, which he considers to be a sensible, albeit unconscious, recognition that conditions in prewar and wartime Britain were unlikely to develop into a revolutionary situation, and that its programme was, in fact, utopian.
Morgan’s conception of a peculiarly British brand of Communism does not stand up to the facts. The course of the British party, and the increasing nationalism and moderation during the Popular Front period, were common to the movement as a whole – even where class conflict was approaching a revolutionary level (as in France and Spain) – as were the ensuing twists and turns during the war. Differences between Communist parties were minor local variations on policies handed down by the Soviet bureaucracy. The Communists’ downplaying of their politics was not an implicit recognition of British political realities, but good old-fashioned opportunism. Neither hawking Hitler’s –peace’ offers in their daily paper, nor having to put up with constant jibes about their sharp policy reverses, could have been conducive to political discourse in the workplace or street.
Finally, Morgan asks us to “consider the hunger marches, the growth of the shop stewards’ movement, the untiring campaigns against appeasement and on behalf of Spain, consider the Birmingham rent strike, consider even the People’s Convention”, and concludes that “the balance will be found rather in the CP’s favour than against it” (p.309).
Nobody can doubt the integrity of people who joined the CP, especially when many of the activities in which Communists were involved took a great deal of courage. But the CP, like all Communist parties, spent an inordinate amount of its time and energy defending Stalin’s terror, repeating all the slanders of the Moscow Trials, blind to the convincing refutations and counter-evidence issued by other political trends at the time. Nothing can excuse those in responsible positions in the CP for this, nor for the slanders and violence against others in the labour movement. By making the word Communism synonymous with ties, slander, duplicity, repression, labour camps and mass murder, the official Communist movement has done incalculable damage to the cause of human progress and freedom. The ‘balance’ is not “in the CP’s favour” here.
Morgan’s attack on Trotskyist historians doesn’t stop at their “parody” of a Marxist approach. He says that Brian Pearce “deliberately misleads the reader into thinking that the CP” during the Popular Front period “opposed strikes ‘as inimical to the true interests of the working class’”. Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, “with similar intent”, are condemned for devoting a mere 11 lines to the CP’s industrial activities between 1935 and 1941, compared to 36 pages on its opposition to strikes in the latter part of the Second World War (p.7).
A look at Essays on the History of Communism in Britain (p.205) shows that Pearce is referring to the Communist movement as a whole, not just Britain, and points to the moderating influence of the French Communist Party during the stormy times of the late 1930s. As for Bornstein and Richardson’s Two Steps Back, to quote from page ix: “this little book is not, and has no pretensions to be, a history of the Communist Party”, but is intended to look at it as part of the background for their two books on the history of British Trotskyism. The clash between Trotskyism and Stalinism on the industrial front only took off after June 1941, when the CP refused to back strikes, and the Trotskyists took a leading role in supporting the working class against the Churchill government. Prior to then, their main points of conflict with the CP were on other issues.
Morgan is naturally entitled to his opinions, but to say that Pearce, Bornstein and Richardson “deliberately” mislead their readers is quite unacceptable, and puts a question mark over Morgan’s own intentions and integrity.
Morgan’s claim that the CP continued with a Popular Front approach during its anti-war period is rather contentious, although perhaps not to readers of this journal. The evidence that he has presented is very useful for anyone studying the history of the CP. But, however much they may endear him to the Stalinist academics who seem to run the British labour movement history industry, his analysis and conclusions and, especially, his intemperate attacks upon other historians will not enhance his reputation amongst serious students of British working class history.
Updated by ETOL: 21.7.2003