Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


The Good Old Cause

Willie Thompson,
The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991,
Pluto Press, London, 1992, pp. 258, £12.95

INTERESTED readers who wondered why Pluto Press failed to keep its undertaking to reprint Sam Bornstein’s and my Against the Stream have received their answer in this book, which has all the appearance of having been syndicated to celebrate the launching of the ‘Democratic Left’. The main critique of the Communist Party of Great Britain sustained in it seems to be the contention that it was not founded in conformity with the conditions of the British labour movement, a mistake the Democratic Left presumably intends to rectify. The author, the editor of its history journal and a lecturer in Glasgow Polytechnic, claims to have used original source material in the Gallacher and Marx Memorial Libraries, but a glance at the footnotes shows all the marks of polytechnic Labour History teaching, heavily dependent at second hand upon the researches of others.

By ‘others’, we mean of course some others. For whilst mentioning standard non-Communist texts like Henry Pelling and Walter Kendall (which would appear on any college reading list) could not be avoided, anything written by anybody at all to the left of the CPGB drops into oblivion (pp. 12–4), including full-length books by Hugo Dewar, Joe Jacobs, Robin Blick and others. Party myths about the writing of its history are assiduously maintained, such as when he attributes the withdrawal of Tom Bell’s book, The British Communist Party: A Short History to its ‘meandering style and numerous factual errors’ (p. 220, n16), and the fact that ‘the party was trying to attract the widest possible sympathy’ (p. 12), whereas the truth of the matter is that it fell victim to a successful libel action by Sam Elsbury, the clothing workers’ leader, whose gross betrayal by the CPGB is rather coyly alluded to on page 48 (cf. A.B. Elsbury, Stalinist Corruption Exposed, Fight, May 1938; S.W. Lerner, Breakaway Unions and the Small Trade Union, pp. 102–36). Thompson’s sole and frequently praised (pp. 13, 238, n27) source of information on the Trotskyist movement is the work of John Callaghan, which makes his treatment of it quite laughable.

When it comes to dealing with the Russian influence, the author – who admits to joining the CPGB from the Labour Party and CND in the early 1960s ‘because it seemed to me at the time the only consistently revolutionary force in British society’ (p. 14) – is so staggeringly naive as to be almost beyond belief. ‘It would appear that by the mid-1930s direct Comintern subsidies had ceased and guidance and control had been much reduced’, he writes (p. 58), that ‘with Stalin’s death and the liquidation of the Cominform any remnants of direct Soviet supervision of the CPGB’s affairs came to an end’ (p. 10), and that after 1956 ‘there is no evidence that the subventions affected CPGB policy on other than minor matters’ (p. 112). Regarding the upper-class spies recruited to Soviet intelligence whilst at Cambridge by the policy of the Popular Front, ‘there is no evidence that the CP was in any way connected with their activities’ (p. 52). When dealing with the launching of the Daily Worker, it is noted that its editor had ‘virtually no journalistic experience’ (p. 50), but his real qualifications for the post are nowhere even hinted at, that he had already proved himself to be an unashamed liar in the service of the Soviet government as long ago as 1924, when he claimed that 700,000 workers and peasants in the Soviet Young Communist League had ‘unanimously’ condemned Trotsky’s political line (Workers Weekly, 12 December 1924). The ‘heroic effort and sacrifice’ of the British Communists that enabled the paper to appear receive due mention (p. 50), but not the rather more significant contributions of their Russian brethren, willing or otherwise. The curious will find an amusing account of what must have been nearer the true state of affairs here from the famous Chapter 22 of Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night, but they will have to go to the Canadian version for it, for Pollitt managed to get that section largely suppressed by a lawsuit during the Second World War when ‘our heroic Soviet allies’ were doing their bit against Hitler.

A similar ingenuousness flows through the narrative when it comes to dealing with any ideological conflict in which the CPGB became embroiled. A fifth of the book is solely devoted to the low level factional squabbles of these latter years (pp. 170–217) whilst the party’s involvement in the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky receives one sentence and a footnote (p. 43, p. 225, n6). Again, we search in vain for any explanation, that it was precisely because of the party’s low theoretical level, and the absence of any significant political differences within it, that the CPGB was selected to be the instrument for Stalin’s purge of Trotsky and his supporters from the Executive Committee of the Communist International (cf. Against the Stream, p. 21). For the British leaders were a by-word in the Comintern for being ‘inept and stupid’ (H.M. Wicks, Eclipse of October, p. 135), their contributions at the plenums not infrequently being received by the other participants with their mouths behind their hands. And some of their starry-eyed attitude towards all things Russian appears to linger with our present writer. ‘Not even the collapse of the regime has fully resolved the question’ of the ‘purpose and motivation’ of the purges, he concludes, refusing even to commit himself about the assassination of Kirov, ‘whether or not engineered by Stalin’ (pp. 58–9). We are even reminded of their bare-faced cheek when confronted with the obvious fraud of the confessions, for footnote 53 on page 228 – ‘it is worth recollecting that individuals accused of terrorism in Britain in the 1970s were receiving life sentences on evidence no stronger than that adduced in the Moscow Trials’ – surely takes the biscuit here.

On the whole, however, the writer is a good deal harder on Soviet myths than he is upon the myths of his own party. Thus he explains Wal Hannington’s surviving the purge of the leadership at the Eleventh Congress in 1929 by ‘his great popularity as a mass leader of the unemployed’ (p. 45), apparently unaware that it was a recognised technique of the Comintern during the ‘Third Period’ to use the unemployed to attack the trade unions, apart from the fact that with its lumpenised and Bohemian clientele this was all the politics that was still open to the CPGB at the time. Joe Jacobs’ Out of the Ghetto is obviously not yet on respectable reading lists of Labour History studies, for Thompson can still repeat the story that ‘the Communist Party counter-attacked fiercely in 1936 and organised “the Battle of Cable Street”’ (p. 54). A little extra reading on the Spanish Civil War would also seem to be required, for the Soviet Union’s intervention there in favour of ‘a democratically elected, socially reforming republican government’ (p. 54) provided ‘the most reliable barrier against any further extension of Fascism’ (p. 58). He inverts the arguments of the CPGB and the Labour Party when he explains that the latter refused to accept the Popular Front because ‘its leaders were all too conscious that success required a far-reaching extension of Labour voting strength beyond its working-class base’. Anybody who has read Labour Monthly (e.g. July 1938, p. 417) and Herbert Morrison’s speeches at this time (cf. Conference Report, 1937, p. 163) can see that this is the reverse of the truth. He accepts on Noreen Branson’s authority that it was the CPGB which during the Blitz ‘assumed the lead in the campaign and direct action to have the London Underground stations used as bomb shelters’ (p. 70), whereas documentary evidence exists that this initiative came from the Trotskyist Workers International League. The Communists’ campaign against the Labour Party in 1945 in favour of another Churchill coalition government ‘could not be said to have been in any sense unprincipled’ (p. 73), and as far the electricians’ union ballot-rigging scandal is concerned, ‘the strong balance of probability is that the ETU officials acted independently of the CP leaders, who were not privy to their actions’ (p. 127).

Along with this ritual recital of hoary old falsehoods, we have some amazing feats of what can only be described as the historical equivalent of a case of waiter’s eyeballs. The pronounced and deliberate scabbing of the CPGB during 1941–45, which was so notorious that it inspired members of the Independent Labour Party to write scurrilous poems about it, is passed over in silence. No one would ever know that World News and Views had ever published the names of the leading Trotskyist entrists in the Labour Party so that Transport House would know whom to expel. The challenge of anyone to the left of the CPGB, or of any split-off from it to the left, is not even admitted until the 1960s. Not only are the original Balham Group and Eric Heffer’s opposition in the 1940s nowhere to be seen, but the narrative even manages to avoid mentioning that a substantial split from the CPGB after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 joined the Trotskyist movement. There is no effort to inform us that the reason all the Trotskyists were on the first Aldermaston March, but that the CPGB was absent and denounced it as ultra-leftist, was that the CPGB was supporting the Rapacki plan at the time. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that it is finally admitted that the CPGB only swung fully behind CND in 1960.

The main thesis of the book appears to be that the CPGB has always been a marginal organisation in this country, artificially founded due to events elsewhere, and that its history has been one of a slow realisation of the fact that its aims, objectives and actions had little in common with the traditions of the labour movement, until it happily came to terms with them with the formation of the present Democratic Left. There is a germ of truth in this, since the CPGB is, has been, and always was a sect, a term the writer is happy to apply to other organisations (pp. 165, 178), but denies with regard to his own (p. 15). This is all too evident when we turn to other factors not considered here, that for a very long time most members of the CPGB were born and not recruited into it, that its cadre have been for some years aging and aged, are overwhelmingly middle class, employ peculiar party language (‘progressives’, ‘the battle for peace’, ‘unstable elements’, etc.), and seem desperately anxious for respectability. But to attribute this from the start to Russian influence is to my mind mistaken. The sectarian character of the CPGB is shared by much of the rest of the Socialist thinking left in this country, which has no such record of standing to attention every time someone broke wind in the Kremlin, and is the authentic expression of the traditions of sectarian ‘Marxism’ in Britain going all the way back to the Social Democratic Federation, epitomised by the survival of the Socialist Party of Great Britain up to our own times. It is no more than the natural result of the domination of a mighty labour movement by the worst, the most myopic, the most unthinking and the most cowardly reformist leadership it is possible to imagine, proud of its insularity, its vulgarity, and its ignorance. But it was none other than Lenin who pointed the only way out of this impasse, of working for the creation of a revolutionary party by orienting towards the Labour Party. In this sense the British CPGB was not a ‘good old cause’ at all – it was a rotten effect.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011