Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


The Communist Party of Great Britain

James Eaden and David Renton,
The Communist Party of Great Britain Since 1920,
Palgrave, Basingstoke 2002, pp. 220, £40.00

JAMES Eaden and David Renton are professional historians and socialist activists whose work on fascism will be well known to many readers of this journal. Turning their attention to new fields, they have set out to write a rigorous introductory text on British Communism, ‘a committed socialist history of the party sympathetic to the views of the founders, critical of the husk that the Communist Party became’ (p. xvi). While their sampling of documentary sources in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) archive and the Public Record Office are sprinkled through the book, it is substantially based on a critical synthesis of secondary sources. The authors acknowledge its limitations: in the less than 190 pages that constitute the corpus of the text, many aspects of party life must perforce go unexamined. Nonetheless, Eaden and Renton have largely achieved their objectives. For this reviewer, their book supersedes relatively recent work – Willie Thompson’s The Good Old Cause (1992), Francis Beckett’s Enemy Within (1995) and Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy’s Under the Red Flag (1999) – as an accessible but scholarly one-volume history of the CPGB.

The fundamental argument, scarcely novel but recently questioned by academics, is that the political development of the CPGB was inextricably bound up with the fate of 1917. Founded at a time when a vigorous, healthy workers’ revolution acted as the beacon to the world’s working class, the CPGB degenerated as Stalinism developed from 1924 and cumulatively consolidated its hold over the Russian party, the Soviet state and the Comintern into the 1930s. For Eaden and Renton, the Russian dimension is decisive; overwhelmingly negative, it moulded the party’s development into the 1970s. Thus they take issue with the dominant trend in recent writing on the CPGB. This trend embodies what is essentially a ‘Little Englander’ historiography. As such, it systematically deflates the Russian dimension, inflates the CPGB’s autonomy, and at best relegates Stalinism to the sidelines. One of the most prominent purveyors of this ‘Rule Britannia’ brand of Communist history, Nina Fishman, is taken to task with terse but convincing restraint: ‘She underestimates the continued influence of the foreign policy concerns of the Soviet state, the Comintern and the British party leadership on the political culture of Communist activists.’ (p. xiv) Andrew Thorpe’s Anglo-centric assertion that the CPGB significantly determined its own political positions is demolished simply by putting the straightforward question which revisionists have never been able to answer: if that is so, why did not just the British CPGB but every Communist party across the globe change its policies on the United Front, the Third Period, the Popular Front, the Second World War and the Cold War almost simultaneously? (See page. xix.) Kevin Morgan’s very British belief that, at least in the first 20 years of the CPGB, the Russian dimension was a subsidiary element in the lives of rank-and-file party members is compellingly answered by the authors’ summation of their own studies: ‘Support and admiration of the Soviet Union and everything Soviet ran like a thick red thread through the entire being of the British Communist Party.’ (p. 82)

This verdict is substantiated by Eaden and Renton’s highly readable, amply peopled, typically sharp and occasionally wry analysis. They confirm incontrovertibly and elegantly that every strategic phase of the CPGB’s policy originated in Moscow and was adopted in Britain. In distinction to revisionists, who claim that important aspects of the Third Period had an English provenance, they conclude succinctly: ‘Whatever the popularity of Class Against Class among some younger Communists, the fact remains that the introduction of the policy was decided by external factors … This Third Period line became policy across every Communist Party in the world.’ (p. 33) The same went for the introduction of the Popular Front phase of Stalinism in 1934–35: ‘The policy may have reflected pressures from national sections of the Comintern but such demands were secondary in the minds of those who formulated it.’ (pp. xv, 50–2)

Well aware of the futility of the sectarianism and ultra-leftism which they had embraced only a few short years earlier, CPGB leaders were frantically seeking an escape route from extinction. As Trotsky pointed out, the Comintern’s national affiliates faced national pressures to adapt to their national polities and to make concessions to national reformism. After the locust years of isolation and revolutionary posturing, such pressures were particularly intense. They were not the crucial explanatory factor: the CPGB could only change course when Stalin gave his consigliere Dimitrov the thumbs-up to change course. Eaden and Renton are particularly good on the Popular Front. They cite Hugh Macdiarmid’s visceral class dismissal of the metropolitan bourgeois littérateurs who briefly embraced Stalinism. They join with Orwell in condemnation of ‘the nauseous spectacle of bishops, Communists, cocoa-magnates, publishers, duchesses and Labour MPs marching arm in arm to the tune of Rule Britannia’ (p. 55), not to say Liberals and ‘progressive’ Tories.

The book emphasises how after 1934 the opportunism, nationalism and reformism inherent in a strategy based on Stalin’s self-interested and supple anti-fascism and ‘socialism in one country’ permanently entered the soul of the CPGB. It blossomed after 1941, coexisted with Cold War leftism after 1947, and burgeoned once again in the pages of Marxism Today from the late 1970s, not to say in the partisan predilections of recent historians of the party. Unlike some of these authors, Eaden and Renton refuse to construct a sanitised, decontextualised English picture of the Popular Front based on uncomplicated anti-fascism, economic struggle in the factories, Merrie England, John Ball, Wat Tyler, and, in direct descent, Harry Pollitt as your stereotypical British trade unionist. Their account is integrated in world politics, in Stalin’s diplomatic manoeuvres, in opportunism towards Hitlerism, in the terrible terrain of ‘Midnight in the Century’, and in the physical and political dissolution of Bolshevism. The Moscow Trials and Stalin’s legalised murders as well as the approbation cordially accorded them by such CPGB leaders as Robin Page Arnot, Walter Holmes, Ivor Montagu and Pollitt himself – ‘a new triumph in the history of progress’ – are carefully and vividly recorded.

While the first 25 years of the CPGB have attracted most attention from historians, a strength of this text is that it stays the sometimes exhausting pace. Eaden and Renton acknowledge that once the ‘Uncle Joe levy’ and those who had joined the CPGB largely on the basis of Russia’s war effort had peeled away and British workers had, in 1945, decisively rejected a grand coalition of the CPGB, Labour and assorted Tory ‘progressives’ – a coalition in which Pollitt stood to the right of Attlee – for the CPGB the game was up. Nonetheless, they attend carefully to the Cold War, Hungary, the party’s rôle in the resurgence of industrial militancy from 1968, and finally to the ignominious collapse of the CPGB in 1991. As the great miners’ strike of 1984–85 demonstrated, whatever its strength on paper, the party staggered towards its quietus as a squabbling, impotent sect incapable of influencing the class struggle except, arguably, in justifying working-class retreat in both the unions and the Labour Party. Eaden and Renton’s material on industrial politics and the activities of CPGB members in the trade unions from the 1950s to the 1980s is extremely useful, if over-reliant on the press of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at the expense of more rigorous assessments.

Transcending ‘on the one hand’ and then ‘on the other hand’ accounts, over here is a credit while over there is a debit approaches, historians need to engage with the difficult task of producing total histories which connect the CPGB’s support for class struggle with its advocacy of Russian dictatorship, its members’ support for the fight in workplace and union with the subordination of their party to politics based on the material interests of the rulers of Russia. Eaden and Renton powerfully evoke the power and élan of the CPGB’s involvement in anti-fascist struggles, the campaign over Spain, the fight in the unions and the mobilisation of the unemployed. They provide us with an understanding of why the CPGB attracted so many class-conscious militants. And at times they integrate the struggles of these militants with Stalinist politics. It was once fashionable to distance the CPGB from Stalinist Popular Frontism and terror in Spain on the grounds that the leadership of the small British party was not involved or did not know what was going on, while, even if some leaders had an inkling, the rank-and-file members remained ignorant. Today, work such as James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire has extended our view of what happened. While it presents an over-rigid division between heroic rank-and-filers and Stalinist leaders, it suggests that more CPGB activists than many have conceived were involved and knew, or certainly had the means to know what was going on. As Eaden and Renton conclude about the International Brigades in Spain: ‘Yet for all the spirit of the volunteers, theirs was a tarnished cause.’ (p61) Similarly, over time anti-fascism in Britain was facilitated or restricted by Stalinist policies. From 1929 to 1933, unemployed struggles bore the marks of the ‘social fascism’, self-imposed isolation from the labour movement, and the crude leftism which held that the jobless were tout court more radical than the factory worker and the other debris of the Third Period. Similarly with industrial politics: if the London busmen’s strikes of the 1930s are to be placed in the credit column (p. xix), they have to be related to the subsequent antagonism of the CPGB to rank-and-file movements (p. 56).

Inevitably this wide-ranging survey provokes some disagreements of emphasis and interpretation. For example, I would question the extent to which the period between 1920 and 1924, when Stalinism commenced its grim march, was a golden age of British Communism. The extent and influence of the formative cadre of trade unionists should not be exaggerated, while crucially, as Eaden and Renton point out, trade unionism commenced from 1921 a deep, progressive, if contested, decline. The CPGB’s fortunes in the unions nearly always followed the general trend of trade unionism: the party’s influence, whatever its quality, was stronger after 1934 in workplace and union than it was in the early 1920s. Moreover, after 1920, McManus, Murphy, Bell, Gallacher and Pollitt were all out of the industrial struggle. Without exception, they evolved rapidly into functionaries and mould-setting subordinates of Moscow. While the relationship between the CPGB and the Comintern in the early 1920s was more open and democratic than it was later – as might be expected with both feeling their way in a novel situation – the willed political subservience of British Communists was there almost from the start. Eaden and Renton’s perfunctory attempt to suggest some political reciprocity and their assertion that Murphy ‘shaped’ Comintern decisions (p. 21) are unconvincing. His rôle in the Comintern was always subsidiary and subordinate.

I also have problems with the authors’ interpretation of CPGB politics before and during the General Strike. It is correct to attribute the CPGB’s move to the right in 1925–26 and their sycophancy towards the TUC General Council left-wingers as a response to the party leaders’ perception of Russian interests, with which they identified their own. Its provenance lay in Moscow’s collapse of the United Front into politicking with the left-wing union leaders around the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee. However, in the run-up to the General Strike, the advice from Moscow was that the union lefts would betray the workers and therefore should be criticised: it was the CPGB and not the Comintern which soft-pedalled. In the aftermath of the strike, Stalin took the position that full-blooded criticism of ‘the left traitors’ was necessary even if this led the British union leaders to withdraw from the committee. Of course, this was related to the Russian Opposition’s critique of the committee, and the committee itself was a without question a disorienting factor. But from the spring of 1926, Russian advice was intended, against CPGB resistance, to take the party to the left, and not to the right (see L.T. Lih, et al., Stalin’s Letters to Molotov).

Some students have found Eaden and Renton’s account of the birth of British Trotskyism (p. 45) confusing. This is partly because it was! As so often, the seeds of discontent in the oppositional Balham group were sown by the inability of the CPGB, armed with the new Third Period line, to make any progress, while, at least in the case of Reg Groves, there was concern that the party was deviating from the pure milk of Comintern ultra-leftism by countenancing work in ‘the lower organs’ of the unions as well as the workplace. However, the group’s position soon evolved into a critique of ‘Class Against Class’ centred on the necessity of the United Front, particularly in relation to Germany. British Trotskyism thus emerged in reaction to domestic and international issues, but ultimately in a critical response to the ultra-leftism of the Comintern. The expulsion of oppositional groups from the Trotskyists in the 1930s to the Maoists in the 1960s and the enduring prohibition of faction draws attention to the CPGB’s internal regime: despite its significance, the party’s pervasive bureaucratic centralism is scarcely mentioned in this book. Moreover, the SWP, whose regime as well as its politics are far from above criticism, is unobtrusively present in the text, implicitly contrasted with the CPGB as the exemplar of the healthy revolutionary party. In a volume devoted to a CPGB scarred by Stalinism, it is unfair, lacking in proportion and sometimes downright diversionary to demand a critique of the Trotskyist tradition. Any broader assessment of revolutionary politics in Britain must vigorously engage with its debilities.

A number of small errors are scattered through the book. It was Palme Dutt not Pollitt who took charge of the Workers’ Weekly in 1923 (p. 17). Pollitt never studied or worked at the Lenin School (p. 21). The United Clothing Workers did not expire when its leader Sam Elsbury was expelled from the CPGB in 1929, but lingered on until 1935 (p. 37). The CPGB breakaway in mining was the United Mineworkers of Scotland (p. 38). John Saville was not ‘an adult education teacher’, but a lecturer in the history department at Hull University (p. 122). It was Alex Moffat, not his brother Abe, who left the CPGB in 1956, while Bert Wynn was not a CPGB member in 1959 (p. 126). Reg Groves wrote The Balham Group, not Harry Wicks (p. 195). There are far too many typographical errors and misspellings for a work of this quality. Nonetheless, that quality makes it an indispensable text for readers of Revolutionary History.

John McIlroy

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011