Thursday November 29 2012

CPGB History: Illuminating the factional struggles of the CPGB

Mark Fischer welcomes the second edition of a book which uncovers some long-hidden history

General secretary Harry Pollitt and his master

It is a pleasure to recommend the second, expanded edition of Lawrence Parker’s The kick inside, which will be launched at a London meeting on December 8.

I do not agree with all of the author’s political conclusions or the emphasis he puts on particular trends or developments. These are quibbles, however. Comrade Parker has provided a service to the workers’ movement. He has raised to the surface something of the real history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, illustrating its life, colour and vitality in a way that the dull official histories do not.1 He has thrown light on the factional struggles that started to disaggregate the party, particularly from the 1950s onwards, and also - crucially - shown why they still matter and what lessons activists in the movement today can glean from them.

However, given the subject matter, I should really come clean from the outset. From the late 1970s I was an active soldier in the factional battles that eventually tore apart the CPGB and the Young Communist League. I became the national organiser of The Leninist faction some time in my early 20s (around 1984, so my wobbly, 50-year-old memory prompts me, probably unreliably). This is a position I have held, with some brief interruptions and evolutionary leaps in the name of the organisation, ever since.

It follows from this, and as the reader might expect, that I have a pretty firm set of opinions on the subject matter. For instance, in one of my very first articles for The Leninist, I concluded a survey of the dismal state of the YCL with a passage of which, nigh on 30 years later, I am still rather proud, in a slightly embarrassed, parental sort of way:

“Previous left-oppositional forces within the YCL have been flawed by their inability to challenge the descent into liquidation on a political rather than an organisational level,” I thundered. Then, more sotto voce, with resolve - and possibly with an 007-style raised eyebrow as I typed the words - I promised: “This time, it will be very different.”3

Well, actually, yes and no. Of course, history records that the rather intense, confident young things grouped in The Leninist faction actually failed to stop “the descent into liquidation” - the party was officially consigned to the history books in 1991. To be frank, we did not even come close. Parker is correct to write that we remained “a tiny group... confined to London and its immediate surrounds”.4 However, unlike those previous left-opposition groups in the CPGB (such as the forerunners of the New Communist Party and those around Straight Left), who tried to defeat “today’s reformist revisionism with yesterday’s reformist revisionism”,5 The Leninist comrades traced the degeneration far further back.

The author is spot on to describe us as a dialectical break and a continuation with the left party oppositions of the past:

“... The Leninist was the inheritor of previous revolutionary oppositions, in that it distilled positives and negatives of those groups and individuals into a strategy that avoided the sectarian wilderness inhabited by the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ sects, while not allowing its struggle to ... [to be] cooped up in the tiny space the CPGB allowed its dissidents.”6

This is an important point and underlines the fact that the comrade’s methodological approach to this aspect of the party’s history is the correct one. His declared aim is to explain why the CPGB “continually threw up revolutionary militants and ideas in a period in which it had formally ditched a revolutionary programme”. Comrade Parker treats these groups and individuals as “an organic product of the ‘official’ communist movement”,7 a point I have made about the nature of The Leninist faction on a number of occasions.

The tragedy was that almost all these oppositional trends worked within the sterile paradigm of Stalinism. In this they were, ironically, the mirror-image of the revolutionary sects and grouplets that worked outside the party, hampered by a rigidity of thought moulded by adherence to particular versions of ‘official’ Trotskyism.

Quite apart from the broader programmatic problems associated with the Trotskyist alternative, it was also posed with a tricky political conundrum when The Leninist emerged: how to characterise it? I recall a founding member of Workers Power (a comrade now sadly no longer with us) telling a me on a late-night Northern Line train in the capital, that he had never before encountered, in this country or internationally, an oppositional “Stalinist trend” such as The Leninist that had traced the political origins of the decay of ‘official’ communism as far back as we had.

I recall burbling something in reply that certainly did not convince him; hell, it did not sound all that plausible to me. In fact, if I could relive that moment again I would tell the comrade that this was not something that I found particularly challenging; but it was a development that should perhaps prompt him to thoroughly re-interrogate the notion of Stalinism that was offered to him by his version of Trotskyism. Again, as comrade Parker in part refers to, here were ‘Stalinists’ that:

  •   Rejected the ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’;8
  •   Critiqued the related opportunisms of both the ‘third period’ and the popular front;9
  •   Advocated a version of democratic centralism that was qualitatively more ‘permissive’ than our Trotskyist comrades thought    appropriate for their own organisations;
  •   Came - towards the end of the Soviet Union’s life - to call for a political revolution to establish genuine socialist democracy.10

Over the 10 years of its factional struggle, The Leninist was able to show incontrovertibly that the CPGB had been politically liquidated as a revolutionary vanguard long before the final coup de grâce was dealt by a special congress convened by the Eurocommunist-dominated leadership - “death by a thousand opportunist cuts”, as The Leninist dubbed it. This is something that the majority of the factions and groups that comrade Parker discusses would have been unable to admit.

This is one reason why I welcome The kick inside as a service to the whole workers’ movement: whatever its other intentions, it addresses a specific aspect of the contemporary left’s general philistinism - its ignorance of the genuine history and political dynamics of the most important working class organisation we have so far created in the UK. The CPGB was always small in comparison to the mass parties in Europe. It was, however, a genuine party of the class, with a real influence in the workers’ movement and wider society. A haughty refusal to properly engage with its history implies a frivolous, light-minded and stupidly sectarian attitude to the actual history of our class in the 20th century.

For example, the revolutionary left outside the party took an extremely passive, intensely insular and - initially - factually inaccurate view when large-scale factional war in the CPGB broke out openly in the 1980s. If I were feeling charitable, I might say that this was at least partially explained by the troglodyte existence of the oppositional trends - with the exception of The Leninist, of course. However, I think the real reason was the crude caricature of the CPGB and its internal life that most had lumbered themselves with. (The smarter soon got themselves up to speed courtesy of The Leninist and, with unseemly haste in some cases, dropped their view of the battle line being ‘tankies versus Euros’.)11

As comrade Parker shows, the reality was much more complex and multi-layered. Essentially, the 1980s saw a split in the right opportunists (associated with the party apparatus), as this trends stability “became increasingly tenuous to the point where ... it is disintegrating as it becomes polarised between centrism [the pro-Soviet left of the party - MF] and Eurocommunism over the Morning Star crisis”.12 The revolutionary left needs to be better informed about the history of the CPGB, even if in hindsight. More than that, it should have had an active, engaged interest in its internal battles at the time.

The crisis created fluidity and opened up possibilities for change. The Leninist faction issued ‘A call to all communists’, an editorial that explained the thinking behind the slogan that was to subsequently appear on the journal’s cover - ‘The place for all genuine communists is in the Communist Party of Great Britain’. (True, some of the revolutionary groups that ‘A call’ targeted were a tad obscure - for instance, does anyone know not simply what happened to the John MacLean Collective, but what on earth it was in the first place?)

The intention was clear, however. It was a message to the left that the crisis in the CPGB was not simply the proprietorial concern of its membership, but of vital importance for the whole advanced part of the class. It called for the revolutionary left to break “from their sectarianism” through “comradely discussion and debate” with the comrades of The Leninist and actually join the party as conscious fighters for revolutionary politics: “The revolutionary sectarian groups emphasise the importance of ‘ideological purity’ and point to the opportunism in our party today ... Merely pointing to a sin does not cure it, and in only doing this they commit the greatest sin for a revolutionary: that is, standing aloof from the workers’ movement.”13

That seems to me one of the core lessons to take from Lawrence Parker’s excellent book, especially for comrades who may find themselves in today’s revolutionary left - members of groups such as the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The demise of the CPGB was celebrated by many of the revolutionary sects, as they held that, with the party out of the way, the time had come for their group at last. In the 1990s generally, a similarly sanguine view was common: the death of the ‘official’ world communist movement was not an ideological victory for imperialism, but, rather, their particular brand of Trotskyism - who can forget Peter Taaffe and his truly stupid “red 90s”? (A gaffe that, in recent years, the comrade has taken to airbrushing out of history.)14

All profoundly misplaced. Stalinism reinvents itself. Having once performed a limited historical service in dark political times by at least maintaining formal links to the earlier, healthy traditions of Bolshevism, we now see sections of the revolutionary left promoting versions of the degenerate politics for which they once (quite rightly) blasted the CPGB. From most, the response to the global economic crisis has been essentially Keynesian, nation-centred ‘solutions’ - in effect a recapitulation of the CPGB’s Alternative Economic Strategy. We have had the SWP take popular frontism a step beyond Stalinism when it actually tried to form a popular front party with the Muslim Association of Britain! And, if anything, most groups have internal regimes more restrictive, more opaque and more bureaucratically suffocating than the CPGB of yesteryear.

Time to recycle the front-page headline from the first issue of The Leninist as a newspaper in April 1984; we told the CPGB membership of the time: ‘Comrades, rebel!’ We say the same thing today to comrades in the left groups that generally claim some sort of lineage from the Trotskyist tradition. We really could do with a few more rebels these days. Instead, a degenerate cultural norm has evolved which sees individuals or groups that develop differences with their comrades - be they serious or relatively trivial - simply leave and, if they set up yet another fragment, generally we see them presenting themselves as the product of some political immaculate conception, without history, antecedents or baggage.

At best, this is a frivolous attitude to the workers’ movement. Our call for CPGB members to rebel in 1984 was prompted by a loyal attitude to that important organisation in the movement. Today, we criticise the politics of the left; we call on comrades in the SWP, in Workers Power or SPEW to overthrow their organisations’ regimes of bureaucratic centralism; and we polemicise against this or that light-minded split.

We want the contradictions inherent in the contemporary revolutionary groups to be resolved positively: just as we did in the CPGB of yesteryear. And that means - when it is at all possible - staying in alongside your comrades and fighting to win. As comrade Parker puts it, as he surveys the admittedly peripheral, politically flawed, left-oppositional groups in the CPGB, his book “does not treat their struggles as inevitably doomed”.15
And quite right too, comrade.

L Parker The kick inside: revolutionary opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 November Publications, London 2012, pp118, £6


Notes

1. See, for example, J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1: Formation and early years, 1919-1924 London 1969; Vol 2: The General Strike 1925-1926 London 1969; and N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 London 1985. See also pp12-14 of The kick inside itself for a review of more recent CPGB histories.

2. The majority of the left sects that litter the political landscape in today’s Britain claim some sort of lineage from Trotsky, the arch-enemy of Stalinism. Yet, almost without exception, they have internal regimes that are worse than that of the Stalinist CPGB. In recent years, we have seen the SWP create a Legoland-scale popular front in the form of Respect; we have also had the unedifying spectacle of SPEW effectively adapting to national chauvinism via No2EU. In my opinion, we have even had a rerun of the Eurocommunists in the Counterfire split from the SWP. After tragedy and farce, what comes next?

3. T Wright, ‘YCL congress’ The Leninist No4, April 1983.

4. See p99 of The kick inside.

5. Ibid p90.

6. Ibid p98.

7. Ibid p11.

8. See J Conrad From October to August London 1992, pp20, 53-54.

9. ‘Open the fight against liquidationism on all fronts’ The Leninist No5, August 1983 - available online, along with all issues of TL, at www.cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/leninistpdf/The%20Leninist%20(5).pdf.

10. Parker quotes Jack Conrad on p101: “In our writings up to 1989 on the USSR, there was a lot of similarity between the orthodox Trotskyists and us.”

11. See pp13-14 of The kick inside for a more contemporary view of this misreading.

12. ‘Open the fight against liquidationism on all fronts’ (see note 9).

13. ‘A call to all communists’ The Leninist No3, September 1982.

14. See M Fischer, ‘Soviet “planning” and bolt-on democracyWeekly Worker November 12 2009.

15. See p11 of The kick inside.

Turn on JavaScript! Turn on JavaScript!