Rewriting the past

Lawerence Parker reviews: Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley Revolutionary communist at work: a political biography of Bert Ramelson Lawrence and Wishart, 2012, pp414,

Bert Ramelson, right, shares a pint with NUM general secretary Lawrence Daly

Although the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has been attempting to colonise the ‘official’ CPGB’s history in its own interests, the results have been less than riveting thus far. We have been promised an in-depth exploration of the history of the CPGB covering the period after World War II - a project that is under the stewardship of the organisation’s general secretary, Robert Griffiths. Meanwhile, the Communist Party History Group, a formation convened by the CPB (although apparently not limited to its members), is, at the time of writing, set to issue its first pamphlets.

However, this political biography of leading CPGB member Bert Ramelson - who was, among other things, the party’s national industrial organiser from 1965 to 1977 - is a much more effective contribution by CPB supporters. Although its evangelising tone on behalf of Ramelson is somewhat wearing, this study is worth reading because it does attempt to engage with Ramelson’s critics: a feature that puts it somewhat at odds with the more general culture of the CPB, where serious debate around its fragile orthodoxies is thought of as a relative luxury.

And this is very much a CPB-friendly study. Leaving aside Griffiths’ own welcome for the book in a Morning Star review,[1] the remarks in its conclusion are unequivocal:

Whilst [Ramelson] was opposed to the split in communist ranks when it occurred, the Communist Party of Britain has tried to continue with a Ramelsonesque set of policies and strategies, and by and large adopted the British road to socialism that he did much to fashion over four decades. While all trace of the neo-Gramscians as an organised force has gone ... the Morning Star, the paper that they battled bitterly and unsuccessfully to control, remains as a daily expression of the political tradition that they tried to destroy (p350).

Some points need to be made in relation to the above quotation. First, it makes no bones about referring to the CPB “split” from the CPGB in 1988. This also reflects the thoughts of leading CPB activists such as Graham Stevenson and, more broadly, a growing feeling in CPB ranks that the breakaway’s inauspicious launch was not, in any sense, the natural ‘reconstitution’ or ‘continuation’ of the CPGB, but precisely a split, and a fairly low-level one at that. This stance, in itself, reflects the thinking of Ramelson and a group of activists who, while backing the continuation of the Morning Star, looked at its ‘party’ formation (ie, the CPB) as something of an abortion.

For example, veteran Frank Watters, although generally supportive of Morning Star editor Tony Chater in his initial rebellion against the CPGB, put his views about the CPB split in relation to a disciplinary he was on the receiving end of in 1985:

... they [the Yorkshire District Committee] thought people [such as] Ken Gill, Ken Brett, Arthur Utting, Terry Marsland, Frank Watters and others would join the Labour Party or fling their weight behind the Communist Campaign Group - a front set up to prepare for another breakaway, the Communist Party of Britain. None of these, to my knowledge, did so, as they had sufficient labour movement experience to understand that such splits in the communist movements in other countries were disastrous and played into the hands of the Euros.[2]

Similarly, Ramelson argued that “the worse thing at the moment is to allow ourselves to be provoked into a split” (p296). According to Seifert and Sibley, “Ramelson was less than happy about some of the actions of the [Morning Star] management committee and Chater. He thought that ... the description of the CP as an ‘outside’ body by [Mick] Costello had been politically inept as well as inaccurate, except in the narrowest. literalist way” (p278).

‘Transitional’ BRS

The London launch meeting of this book was peppered with references (including from its authors) to the so-called “ultra-left” critics of Ramelson, the CPGB’s leadership and, implicitly, the Morning Star’s CPB. In the lexicon of the CPB, ‘ultra-left’, to the extent it has any meaning beyond being mere verbal diarrhoea, means people or groups to its left that are critical of it. Usually that includes the various brands and sub-brands of Trotskyism, groups from a Maoist background, along with the publishers of this paper, of course. Laughably, I have even heard CPB members (sans alcohol) refer to the decrepit New Communist Party as “ultra-left”, which suggests that such terminology has about as much scientific veracity as that used in a medieval witch trial.

However, all this guff around the ‘ultra-left’ masks a deeper amalgamation of Trotskyism and ‘official’ communism around key strategic tasks. This is brought out clearly by Seifert and Sibley in relation to Ramelson, who argued in 1977 that the British road to socialism (BRS) was in fact a “transitional programme”. He said:

It must be a programme the implementation of which challenges the ruling class and the only way it can be implemented is to mobilise the people who see the credibility, the practicality and the need for that immediate programme to realise their expectations. It is in the course of that sort of challenge and counter-challenge that the political consciousness and understanding of workers is raised so that they are prepared to take the next step. This is what the first stage of the transitional programme envisaged in the British road to socialism really is (p99).

For those of us familiar with the explanations of comrades from a Trotskyist background regarding the methodology of Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme, the similarity is particularly striking. Seifert and Sibley reinforce the point further on in relation to Ramelson’s interpretation of the CPGB’s Alternative Economic Strategy (AES):

The AES, by addressing immediate concerns in a way which weakened the power of the big international monopolies, provided a bridge from the present towards the socialist future ... So radical advances could be won within capitalism, but such progress could only be secured and guaranteed by a socialist revolution (p104).

It is perfectly true that the workers, who start off in this analysis only wanting to challenge the ruling class or encroach on its power, cannot in fact secure gains without a socialist revolution. However, in the practice of the ‘official’ CPGB and its Trotskyist imitators, the bridge is everything and the strategy nothing. Therefore, the “bridge” or the ‘immediate programme’ remains little more than a confidence trick, resting as it does on a reactionary and incremental view of working class consciousness that degrades ideological struggle and the party itself, leaving ‘people’ as cannon fodder for the machinations of bureaucratic sects.

CPGB crisis

A glaring omission in this work is its inability to come to terms with the fact that the CPGB was in a state of crisis for much of its post-World War II existence (and not just in the 1980s after the Eurocommunists had come into alliance with a section of the party’s right-centrist bureaucracy to take the ‘official’ CPGB into its final death spiral). We do get the occasional nudge that things were not exactly hunky dory when Ramelson was at the height of his powers in the party. For example, in relation to the CPGB’s 1972 congress, Seifert and Sibley note:

The frustration was palpable: [the party had] a clear and unifying line, [there was] a reactionary government, a dithering rightwing leadership in the Labour Party, uplifting struggles and victories abroad, some outstanding fights by the British trade unions, and an upsurge in progressive ideas and actions throughout the country - yet the CP, a key mover in much of this, was unable to make the necessary political breakthrough, either in terms of mass membership growth or electorally. Why this should happen and what could be done eluded the leadership, despite some forcefully brutal self-analysis and the willingness to change with the times, new and old (p197).

The subtext of this passage is self-delusional on the part of the authors. The party’s strategy could not have been that “clear” and “unifying” if, in the last analysis, the CPGB was still struggling to make an impact.

Much of this crisis was due to the toxic reformist perspectives of the various iterations of the BRS, with its disregard for the leading role of a revolutionary party in favour of a reliance on the Labour Party to deliver socialism. Ramelson, much like the authors of his biography, was blind to such judgement. For example, in 1971-72, Marxism Today, the CPGB’s theoretical journal, held an open debate between party members on the ‘Strategy of socialist revolution in Britain’. Among a general critique from the left, Bill Warren raised some more direct points:

In discussing the BRS as a strategy of revolution in Britain ... how are we to reconcile the decline in the already miserable communist vote with the alleged success and correctness of our strategy over a period of no less than 20 years? These cannot be rhetorical questions, since a bold, determined leadership is stated to be crucial to the success of the broad popular alliance, so that the continued failure of the working class to follow communist leadership must necessarily imply that the central link of the entire strategic chain is missing.[3]

Seifert and Sibley characterise Ramelson as an “outstanding leader who contributed much to the labour movement in a period of industrial unrest and political uncertainty” - although they insist that “his achievement belonged mainly to the work of the CPGB” (p14). And that was the problem: Ramelson shared the familiar blind spot of the CPGB’s leaders when they were asked basic questions about the inability of the party’s strategy to furnish a political breakthrough for the party.

In reply to Warren, Ramelson, ignoring the methodology of the BRS and its apparent suitability for ‘unique’ British conditions, suggested that communist parties in France, Japan and Italy were doing rather well with a similar strategy; and that anti-BRS parties to the CPGB’s left were not prospering in parliamentary or union elections (unsurprising really, as the CPGB was a strategic roadblock that the sects had no strategy to overcome). He continued his rather evasive reply in the following vein:

Is Bill Warren aware that the Labour Party conference and EC, and, as a consequence, the parliamentary Labour Party, has voted against the Industrial Relations Act, against the present proposals for entry to the [European Economic Community], against the Housing Finance Bill, is pledged to unconditional repeal of the Industrial Relations Act, has changed its policy on Vietnam and supported the [Upper Clyde Shipbuilders]? It’s far from a revolutionary position, but to fail to see it as a shift to the left, and above all the forces and the movement which brought it about, shows Bill Warren’s total inability to understand the strategy of the BRS.[4]

It is true in one sense that the CPGB left did not understand the “strategy”, given that the party had been in decline for years and was obviously entering a terminal crisis, despite the alleged genius of the BRS. Power worker and CPGB member Charlie Doyle replied to the above passage: “How the above proves the revolutionary strategy outlined in the BRS escapes me, despite the importance of what [Ramelson] says.”[5]

Union view

What of the CPGB and the trade unions? Surely there was no crisis in this particular realm under Ramelson’s stewardship, given that the party was proving itself to be an important section of the leading part of the British working class? But the surface obscures a deeper prostration of the CPGB before the trade unions. The practical organisation of the party through the likes of factory and workplace groups had been in decline throughout the post-war period and Ramelson’s tenure as industrial organiser had done little or nothing to reverse this tendency.

What the CPGB was left with in the trade unions was something much more politically tenuous. In the words of John McIlroy: “The picture suggested [from CPGB reports] was not a national community of political branches, but rather a shallower, personalised network of trade union militants - individuals or handfuls - largely concerned with industrial issues, sometimes with limited attachment to the CP ...”[6]

The networks that Ramelson carefully built and maintained were therefore not magically absolved from the CPGB’s broader political crisis: they were part of it. Trade unionism was judged to be a significant vehicle for change in and of itself and it was this constituency in the party that the likes of Tony Chater sought to represent, only partially successfully, in the 1980s, by reducing communist politics to a simple reformist idea of tailing the trade union movement. Unsurprising then that, in such an environment, the theory and practice of communist politics atrophied.

Despite this study being a well-researched and interesting read, it is ultimately hobbled by the necessity of abstracting its subject from its crisis-ridden backdrop in the cause of providing a timeless recipe for CPB practice. In the words of a recent contributor to the Morning Star, Ramelson apparently “gave us a model which even today has relevance in the reconstruction of a communist and socialist movement”.[7] This means that the authors are often left with the cumbersome and self-serving myths that ‘official’ communism wove around itself in years gone by.

Notes

1 . R Griffiths, ‘Revolutionary tale of an enemy within’ Morning Star January 11 2012.

2 . F Watters Being Frank: the memoirs of Frank Watters Doncaster 1992, p162.

3 . B Warren, ‘Discussion: strategy of socialist revolution in Britain’ Marxism Today August 1972.

4 . B Ramelson, ‘Discussion: strategy of socialist revolution in Britain’ Marxism Today October 1972.

5 . C Doyle, ‘Discussion: strategy of socialist revolution in Britain’ Marxism Today December 1972.

6 . J McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and industrial politics’ in J McIlroy, N Fishman, A Campbell British trade unions and industrial politics: the high tide of trade unionism, 1964-79 Aldershot 1999, p222.

7 . B Williams, ‘A kaleidoscope of forcesMorning Star April 27 2012.

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