Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


History of the CPGB (1941–1951)

Noreen Branson
History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941–1951
Lawrence and Wishart, London 1997, pp. 262

THE Communist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1920 for the explicit purpose of overthrowing capitalism and instituting Socialism. Even of late, when its political programme was openly reformist, it still called for the Socialist transformation of Britain. So it is an irony of history that the CPGB considered its finest hour to be during the Second World War, or at least the period after the Soviet Union joined the fighting in June 1941. This was the time when it stood closest to the ruling class, opposing working-class militancy, and supporting a coalition government led by the arch-Tory Winston Churchill. This book, the fourth volume of the history of the CPGB, covers the period when Stalin became a national hero in Britain, and the party bathed in his reflected glory. It also covers the gloomy years of the Cold War, when Stalin became the devil incarnate, and the CPGB was obliged to operate in the shadow of his infamy.

Noreen Branson presents a superficial and sanitised account. She is economical with the truth. It’s not that she tells porkies à la the History of the CPSU(b) (Short Course) or James Klugmann’s From Trotsky to Tito, but many issues are only lightly touched upon or are glossed over altogether.

We cannot find in this volume any evidence of the CPGB’s vindictiveness towards left-wingers who refused to obey the strictures of the wartime union sacrée. Perhaps Branson feels that others have given sufficient publicity to, say, William Wainwright’s Clear Out Hitler’s Agents that she need not raise the matter. It’s not a minor issue, as the CPGB spent a lot of effort harassing recalcitrant Socialists, and in other parts of Europe this sort of mentality actually led to the Stalinists killing their left-wing rivals.

As for another embarrassing episode during the war, Branson does rather sheepishly admit that the Daily Worker ‘went so far as to suggest’ that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima ‘would expedite Japanese surrender and thus save “valuable lives”’ (pp. 99–100). The actual words of the Daily Worker on 7 August 1945 were: ‘The employment of the new weapon on a substantial scale should expedite the surrender of Japan.’ Not one or two, but their ‘substantial’ use; which represents a substantial distortion on the part of Branson.

The unsuspecting reader will not gather from this account that the CPGB maintained its hostility to working-class militancy for two whole years after the Second World War finished. It’s interesting what a little research will reveal. Coming up against a few contrary delegates, General Secretary Harry Pollitt warned the party’s 1945 congress:

‘You are either in favour or not of the line that has been expounded here of mass strikes as the only way to realise the workers’ demands, and if you are, I warn you you are playing with fire that can help to lose the peace and reduce this country to ashes ... You can get a strike in the coalfields tomorrow if you want it. Will it advance the working-class movement of this country, or the perspective of our nation being a first-rate nation in the family of united nations?’ (World News and Views, 8 December 1945)

True to their leader’s proclamation, the Stalinists who ran the Scottish region of the miners’ union made no protest when the Minister of Fuel and Power shut down Fauldhouse pit in April 1946 after an unofficial strike, putting 370 miners on the dole. A strike in Grimethorpe led to the whole of Yorkshire coming out in the summer of 1947. Arthur Horner, a CPGB Executive Committee member and the miners’ union General Secretary, said that the strikers were ‘holding the country to ransom’ (The Times, 9 September 1947). Shortly before, on 7 May, the Daily Worker delicately referred to ‘substitute winders’ during a winders’ strike in Durham and Lancashire. Such was the spirit of cooperation of the Stalinists in the miners’ union leadership that they continued to work closely with the National Coal Board and the government after the CPGB belatedly turned to support workers’ militancy when Moscow called for a harder line in late 1947.

Branson takes many of the party’s contemporary rationalisations at face value, betraying either naiveté or disguised disingenuousness. Are we really to assume that Pollitt did not recognise the reactionary nature of Clement Attlee’s government until 1948 (p. 157), or was it Moscow’s harder stance in late 1947 that made him think again? And as with the CPGB at the time, Branson makes much of the voting figures at the TUC and Labour Party conferences, as if these block votes wielded by union bureaucrats are anything but the vaguest reflections of working-class sentiments. She talks of the ‘hundreds of millions’ of people who signed the Stalinists’ international peace appeal during 1950, forgetting to add that every adult in the Soviet bloc was a signatory, showing, as Fernando Claudín put it, ‘the same impressive efficiency and unanimity with which they voted for the single lists at elections’ (The Communist Movement, p. 578).

Branson devotes a few pages to the CPGB’s anti-racist work, but she refrains from mentioning her party’s attitude to the German people, who, in an imitation of Hitlerite racial stereotyping, were held en bloc responsible for the Nazis. The Daily Worker said on 3 August 1945 that reparations, which hit the German workers more than any other class, were fair: ‘The German people have to pay for their support of the Nazi plunderers.’ Nor does Branson mention her party’s campaign against Poles in Britain. Horner’s pamphlet The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis warned: ‘We will not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines.’ And as he fulminated against his members’ legitimate – and necessarily unofficial – action over pay and conditions, he threatened the government with a strike over foreigners, saying that it ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’ (The Times, 24 February 1947). The Stalinist-controlled Civil Service Clerical Association barred Poles from membership.

This chauvinism was accompanied by increasingly fierce manifestations of British nationalism as the 1940s drew to a close. Britain was seen as a mere colony of the USA, and the CPGB’s main gripe against the British bourgeoisie and the labour movement leaders was that they were unpatriotic. On 12 September 1949, the Daily Worker howled: ‘Britain and the Empire is to be sold piecemeal to the American money-lenders.’ In his subtly-titled pamphlet Get Out!, party historian Leslie Morton complained that US troops were spreading ‘corruption and moral degradation among our young people’. He condemned the influence of American comics and films, he demanded policies that would ‘put Britain first’, and called for the defence of ‘our cultural heritage’ and for ‘the protection of our children from the spread of these alien and disgusting attacks on their moral welfare’.

The CPGB’s aggrieved patriotism, of course, could not prevent it from coming under heavy fire during the Cold War, and Branson spends a fair amount of space describing the witch-hunts of the late 1940s, which ranged from party members being sacked from jobs and removed from union posts to the Cabinet discussions over whether to try the Daily Worker for treason – a capital offence – during the Korean War. This, it should be remembered, was under a Labour government! Whilst condemning these attacks, we should not forget that the Stalinists pulled the roof down on their own heads by defending the appalling conduct of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Branson’s half-hearted efforts at explaining her party’s apologies for Stalin’s actions add nothing to what her colleagues have said elsewhere.

Branson makes much of the attempts by the CPGB to appear as a British party rather than a British section of an international conglomerate, a task that was formally made more easy by the dissolution of the Communist International in 1943. I say ‘formally’, as few observers were fooled. It made no real difference, and the CPGB continued dutifully to follow Moscow’s twists and turns until at least the mid-1950s.

The CPGB was a product of the great wave of working-class radicalism that erupted at the end of the First World War. Formed in the wake of the Russian Revolution, it failed to recognise that the Bolshevik experience was to go sour, and that the regime they supported in Moscow was a cruel caricature of Socialism, ruled by an anti-working-class élite. British Stalinism’s ‘finest hour’, when its membership topped 50,000 for the only time and when its influence was at its zenith, was also when it most clearly failed in the fundamental duty of any Socialist organisation – the promotion of the independent interests of the working class – and this failure was rooted in its fealty to Moscow. Whilst it is a caricature to see British Stalinists purely as ‘agents of Moscow’, the CPGB nonetheless followed the Moscow line on all the major issues. Its most fondly remembered time was when the Soviet bureaucracy was aligned with the British ruling class, which is why the CPGB considered that the interests of the working class were synonymous with those of the bourgeoisie. The Stalinists did not understand this at the time, and, judging by this book, they are still unable to do so.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011