Reason in revolt

Lawrence Parker reviews: Paul Flewers and John McIlroy (editors) 1956: John Saville, EP Thompson and The Reasoner Merlin Press, 2016, pp450, £20.

Nikita Khrushchev: unleashed a storm

The events of 1956 still have the power to strike fear into the hearts of Stalinists - or what this publication generally calls ‘official communists’.

The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has a small history group that was due, last year, to deliver an analysis of the impact of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 on the old ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain. Alas, for those who enjoy these happy anniversaries, the CPB tells us that this epic tome “has been very roughly completed for some time, but is now held back”.1 We can well imagine why the CPB would wish to avoid exploring this particular episode, since it is split between those unreconstructed types who probably still pine for the thought of Soviet tanks storming down Charing Cross Road; and others of a more agnostic stripe, who realise that holding on to the Stalinist tropes of the past is merely a signpost to everlasting obscurity. Luckily, we are not likely to miss the CPB’s musings much, given the arrival of this excellent work of scholarship at the back end of 2016.

Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956 denounced Joseph Stalin’s criminal role in the mass purges of the 1930s and criticised the “cult of personality” surrounding his former leader. These revelations were enough to send ‘official communism’ spinning into crisis, given that this was the movement that had deified Stalin across the world. The Soviet Union’s military crushing of a nationwide revolt against Stalinist rule in Hungary compacted this crisis further, as the movement then had to come to terms with a brand of ‘socialism’ that required the brutal suppression of the masses.

Britain was no different to the general rule and a section of the CPGB went into rebellion against its leadership, with some of this opposition being funnelled through the open publication of a dissident journal, The Reasoner, led by two socialist historians: John Saville and EP Thompson. This volume includes the text of all three issues of The Reasoner alongside other relevant CPGB materials and also offers two essays by John McIlroy (an introductory essay and another on John Saville); and one by Paul Flewers (on EP Thompson). In general, I agree with the editors’ conclusion about Thompson and Saville, which is that, ultimately, neither was able to completely break with Stalinism or shed their illusions about periods of CPGB history such as popular frontism. The Reasoner was the start of a revolt, but it was thus unable to move beyond appearances and analyse Stalinism’s ‘laws of motion’, so to speak.


This point can be well illustrated by The Reasoner’s attitude to factions and factionalism. There are some rather good passages that flesh out the need for rebellion, including, of course, open criticism and debate, and the production of journals outside the parameters of the bureaucratic centralist rules being determinedly upheld by the CPGB’s sclerotic leadership:

We believe [wrote the editors of The Reasoner in the first issue] that the self-imposed restrictions upon controversy, the ‘guiding’ of discussions along approved lines, the actual suppression of sharp criticism - all these have led to a gradual blurring of theoretical clarity, and to the encouragement among some communists of attitudes akin to intellectual cynicism, when it has been easier to allow this or that false proposition to go by than to embark upon the tedious and frustrating business of engaging with bureaucratic editorial habits and general theoretical inertia (p137).

There was an open debate going on in the CPGB’s official publications in 1956, in line with its general practice down the years. However, as figures such as Thompson found in 1956, debates were subject to an arbitrary guillotine and any controversy was always likely to be framed by ‘authoritative’ introductions and conclusions by leading figures. This was not a level playing field and the CPGB’s journals and its bureaucratic centralism were weapons wielded by the leadership faction. I do not have space to go into the origins of this culture here, but it is obviously the offspring of the early Comintern, where, even in the process of ‘Bolshevisation’ in the mid-1920s, aspirations to a militarised ‘ideological unanimity’ among its national sections were partially offset by limited notions of ‘freedom of criticism’ and ideas of ‘mass’ communist parties.

Thompson and Saville found a neat solution to this problem of ‘openness with restrictions’ by publishing independently of the CPGB leadership and thus making the ideological playing field much more level. As one might expect, very little of the dour Stalinist cant emanating from the likes of Harry Pollitt, George Matthews and Rajani Palme Dutt kept its credibility for very long in the more robust critique emerging in the pages of The Reasoner.

Thompson’s and Saville’s behaviour was factional (it was understood as such by the CPGB bureaucracy) and it was a serious one in the sense that a scheme was evolved to pass down the baton of editorship to other sets of party members, as the inevitable disciplinary processes set in. However, The Reasoner denied it was a faction or a factional organ. Some of this was clearly defensive, such as when Saville and Thompson went up before the CPGB’s political committee on August 31 1956 and denied they were engaged in factional activity, as this involved a difference in policy and approach that the two editors claimed - somewhat strangely - not to have (p249). For its part, the CPGB had always banned factions and disciplined those who took part in them. By not establishing a clear intellectual case for the right of factions to exist, all that The Reasoner really did was to partially empower the permanent leadership faction that sat atop the CPGB. This was another ‘official communist’ inheritance in its inability to advance beyond the immediate, or anecdotal.

Unfortunately, such an inheritance has lived on into today’s left. After the Socialist Workers Party’s recent travails in 2013, we had the bizarre spectacle of comrades who had organised a bitter factional struggle inside that organisation, and who had been on the receiving end from their own permanent leadership faction, talking about … the evils of permanent factionalism. Quite how rank-and-file comrades are meant to defend themselves against bullies such as ‘comrade Delta’, the unlamented product of a long-term culture of organised contempt for the membership, is never quite explained by these wiseacres.

McIlroy’s first essay - ‘Communist intellectuals and 1956: John Saville, Edward Thompson and The Reasoner’ (pp1-49) - is particularly good at knocking down some of the more ridiculous theories that have grown up around CPGB intellectuals in the post-war era. According to one apparently serious historian, the party “emerged from the Second World War with a thriving intellectual life” and showed “evidence of a sort of pluralism, and certainly of critical thought, that most subversive of things”.2 This, as you might guess, was emphatically not the estimation of the comrades grouped around The Reasoner. In fact, as McIlroy explains, much of the intellectual work of the CPGB in the immediate post-war period was more about the exegesis of existing texts and ideas than in formulating theories to explain and intervene in the outside world (a culture that persisted into the 1960s and 1970s, according to people educated by the CPGB in that era). Occasional debate there certainly was, particularly in the cultural sphere, but this material nearly always has a certain dry quality to it, which is usually evidence of a formalistic approach. And, of course, the parameters of such debate were tight. Any bright sparks who wanted to, say, investigate the political economy of the Soviet Union or analyse the CPGB’s evolving attitude to the Labour Party would be given short shrift by the leadership.

However, one thing that McIlroy perhaps misses is some of the peculiarity of intellectual life inside the CPGB in the post-war period. For example, a few years ago I investigated the ‘Caudwell controversy’ of 1950-51, a public debate that the CPGB conducted around the work of writer and cultural theorist Christopher Caudwell (1907-37).3 In this debate, party writers used some of the crude cultural theories of Soviet leader Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948) to seemingly express much more immediate political concerns in what was a divided and disaggregating party. In one sense that meant the Soviet ideology was somewhat weakened, in that it was being used to express something not directly related to it (in other words, this material was not being written for the love, if there could be such a thing, of Zhdanov); on the other, it was given more power as a suffocating blanket, through which inner-party debate had to be immediately filtered, so as to gain currency in the world of ‘official communism’. But in either sense the use of these Soviet theories does have a brittle quality and a certain air of unreality.

Maoism and Trotskyism

I do have issues with some of the formulations that Paul Flewers uses in his otherwise excellent essay on ‘EP Thompson and the Soviet experience’. First, I think that calling Maoism “merely the ideological expression of a rival Stalinist state, another form of Stalinism, another form of state-worship” (p411) is just silly and reductive, even as an admittedly small aside. That kind of labelling may be more pertinent to some of the oddities that had evolved by the 1970s and 1980s, but British ‘Maoism’, as it emerged inside the CPGB in the 1960s, seems to me to be using the Sino-China dispute in order to make sense of the ‘anti-revisionist’ struggle inside its own ‘revisionist’ host. These ‘anti-revisionists’ made some illuminating criticisms of the CPGB’s development in the post-war period. Certainly, these groups had a ruinous ideological inheritance from Chinese and other sources (the so-called ‘two-line struggle’ and so on) that I have detailed elsewhere,4 but there is a pronounced similarity between their emergence and development with that of The Reasoner.

While The Reasoner had at least begun to unravel some of the threads of Stalinism and what had gone wrong in the Soviet Union, there seems to have been little real attempt to understand how that had spread downwards into the more prosaic day-to-day activity of the CPGB. Early ‘anti-revisionist’ groups offered the same predicament in reverse: groups such as the Committee to Defeat Revisionism, For Communist Unity did make a good analysis of the CPGB’s programme, The British road to socialism, and of the failures of the CPGB’s trade union work. However, no attempt was made to understand the emergence of Stalinism and, worse, Stalin, in line with Chinese predilections, became a totem of ‘anti-revisionism’. But reducing this to a simple rubric of ‘Stalinism’ is not much help in analysing groups that had critiqued some of the practical forms that Stalinism had taken in Britain. These opposites really should not hold any conceptual terrors for Marxists.

Flewers’ analysis does raise a question of why more CPGB members did not join up with the Trotskyists in 1956 and why figures such as Thompson did not gravitate to the movement. Flewers is incorrect, I think, when he suggests that this could be because of a perceived difference between Trotskyism and Trotskyists (p414). This appears to suggest that Trotskyismis a sound body of ideas for prosecuting the class struggle and analysing Stalinism, but the Trotskyistgroups and individuals who carry those ideas are posturing, anti-democratic, morbid souls incapable of becoming a true pole of attraction.

I would draw a different distinction between the works and actions of Trotsky himself and Trotskyism as a movement. Trotsky, in his best moments, was a font of creativity, supple intellectual thoughts, brilliant writing and breathtaking feats of leadership. Unfortunately, very little of this culture passed over into the movement that took Trotsky’s name and I do not believe Trotskyism should be equated with Trotsky at all. Trotskyism, in general, is merely the works and actions of Trotsky frozen into dogma. In fact, perhaps the only thing that Trotskyism really achieved was to keep the name and writings of Trotsky open to future generations (an unambiguously good thing).

From talking to activists from the left of the ‘official’ CPGB in its last three decades who had became involved in The Leninist and other similar groupings it is clear to me that this line of demarcation had some force: there was a relative openness to Trotsky as a historical figure (many of the calumnies of the 1930s had been replaced by simple curiosity), but Trotskyism was seen to be extremely flawed, weighed down with fixed categories and with ‘party’ regimes even worse than that of the old CPGB. This went beyond sceptical thoughts about the behaviour of Healyites.

Sometimes this point is not well understood by modern-day Trotskyists. Critical members of the crisis-ridden CPGB in the 1950s, 1960s and later did not look on British Trotskyism as any kind of lifejacket. but, perhaps unconsciously, as another marker of crisis.


1. CPB executive committee Report of work to the 54th Congress November 2016.

2. J Callaghan Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism London 1993, p264.

3. L Parker, ‘Arts and minds: reconsidering the Caudwell controversy’ Socialist History No47, London 2015, pp45-63.

4. L Parker, ‘Opposition in slow motion: the CPGB’s “anti-revisionists” in the 1960s and 1970s’ in E Smith and M Worley (eds) Against the grain: the British far left from 1956 Manchester 2014, pp98-114.