Hidden from history
Lawrence Parker, The kick inside - revolutionary opposition in the CPGB 1960-1991 2007, £4.00 (+ £1.15 postage), pp75
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"Organic produce" is how comrade Lawrence Parker characterises the constant birth and rebirth of oppositional anti-revisionist tendencies within the 'official' communist movement - "the one inspired by the Soviet Union" (p3).
Although his well documented study focuses on developments from 1960 - the year I joined the Young Communist League, incidentally - his 'Early doors' chapter very usefully outlines earlier oppositions as a necessary background, including drawing on Edward Upward's semi-autobiographical The rotten elements - a phrase once used to denigrate "those poor souls unwise enough to counter or doubt 'the line'. But the real rot was trade union economism", Parker correctly observes (p28).
His main criticism of the party's revolutionary oppositionists is "simply that they failed" (p3). The manner of their failure to reverse the rightward degeneration of the Communist Party of Great Britain and prevent its eventual organisational liquidation in 1991 should provide an object lesson not only for the 'official communists' of the Communist Party of Britain (the party of the Morning Star and Andrew Murray), but also for revolutionary oppositionists in today's crisis-ridden Socialist Workers Party in Britain - and in bureaucratic centralist organisations around the world, whether Trotskyist, Stalinist or Maoist. Democracy is key in the struggle for working class rule, and a thoroughgoing democracy in our own organisations is a precondition. Against bureaucratic restrictions communists must rebel. Submitting to them guarantees defeat.
The suffocating anti-democratic regime in the CPGB made it near impossible (but not inevitable, Parker insists) for resistance to the rightward moving "reformist, Labourite and nationalist politics of the British road to socialism" (p3) to develop into an adequate, rounded critique. In fact the opposition groups mostly reproduced a form of the very bureaucratic regime that was silencing them and hiding them from each other, often being very reluctant to accept the necessity of organising outside the party as well as inside.
The Maoist group around the Forum discussion journal in the mid-1960s grappled with this dilemma. Leaving the party would mean leaving the international communist movement and abandoning those left behind to the revisionists, it believed; but striving to remain inside at all costs would inevitably mean being forced to compromise on principle.
The CPGB was a "hybrid of revolution and reform" (p6) with its origins in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The early 'hard' revolutionaries had been swamped by the 'softs' - "starry-eyed progressives with a minimal education in Marxism" (p5) who flooded into the party in the 1935-39 popular front period and during the Soviet alliance with Britain in World War II (1941-45). The revolutionary current, however, was never extinguished. It was constantly reborn, but was "slow to mature, and always a matter of individuals and small groupings" (p7). Parker asks why, having formalised the shift away from revolutionary politics with the 1951 adoption of the parliamentary road to socialism, the party continued to produce revolutionaries.
Just as the Soviet bureaucracy called itself Marxist-Leninist right up to Gorbachev in the 1980s, so the CPGB leadership claimed Leninist orthodoxy, "making Leninist rods for their reformist backs" (p7). So new comrades would study Marx, Engels and Lenin (but not Trotsky, of course) and a fresh critique of the leadership's opportunism would begin. As Eric Heffer, who was expelled after challenging the leadership's opportunism at the 1946 congress, put it in his 1991 autobiography, "We in Hertford and Welwyn challenged the leadership on the question of the character of the capitalist state, and the way socialism would be achieved. We had drunk long and deep at the Leninist well" (Never a yes man: the life in politics of an adopted Liverpudlian London 1991, p35).
Revisionism was seen as a British sin against the Soviet god in which we all believed. And, like the division of a church, the 1960s split between Soviet and Chinese bureaucratic communism offered believers a choice of saviours. It is not that comrades chose on the basis of a deep understanding - they knew even less about real developments in China than in the USSR. They certainly knew nothing of the bureaucratically induced famine which afflicted the whole of China from 1959 to 1961, starving millions to death, nor of the later perverse horrors of the so-called cultural revolution from1966 to Mao's death in 1976. But when the CP of China denounced the CP of the Soviet Union "from what seemed like an explicitly revolutionary standpoint", the splintering of authority in the international communist movement, says comrade Parker, "offered a window of opportunity to those opposing the CPGB's reformism" (p13).
Parker shows that rather than Maoist groups arising within the party as a result of the Sino-Soviet split on the international level, opposition tendencies simply took on Maoist clothing.
The Committee to Defeat Revisionism For Communist Unity (CDRFCU), for example, formed in November 1963 after Tufnell branch secretary and CPGB economic sub-committee member Michael McCreery was expelled. This was "more than a British cadaver for the CPC or its Albanian ally "¦ there was a clear effort being made in [its newspaper] Vanguard to develop an indigenous appeal to the British labour movement and CPGB members through, for example, its industrial coverage and lively cultural pages, which went beyond merely dealing with the faults of the CPGB". Unfortunately McCreery's untimely death from cancer in April 1965 at the age of 36 left his project floundering and fragmenting.
A more substantial challenge was presented by Reg Birch, "one of the party's leading trade unionists" (p19), who eventually left in 1967 to form the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Parker shows clearly that "his departure "¦ can be explained by his disgruntlement at the decision of the party to withdraw support for him in the 1967 AEU presidential election in favour of [ex-CPGB member] Hugh Scanlon". If you agree with this story, argues Parker, "his Maoist politics become little more than a sub-plot" (p28). Parker examines and rejects the alternative story told by Will Podmore (Reg Birch: engineer, trade unionist, communist London 2004) that comrade Birch was a long-standing opponent of revisionism and the BRS, and that the founding of the CPB(M-L) was the culmination of his long, principled struggle.
The Achilles heel of the non-Maoist opposition was often its "strident pro-Sovietism" (p47), which produced "a consistently deformed critique of 'official' communism" (p49). This afflicted, for example, the 1971 Appeal Group as well as the Proletarian group of the 1980s, which could not have survived the demise of its Soviet god, had it not already splintered out of existence in 1988.
When The Leninist, forerunner of the Weekly Worker, started publishing in November 1981, it still lacked a consistent democratic approach - something which "marked all of [the CPGB's] opposition factions without exception" (p74), but the group had "absorbed lessons from past CPGB oppositions" (p55). Although it designated the USSR as the world's revolutionary centre, its "licence to criticise "¦ was stressed as being the most healthy form of proletarian internationalism" (p59).
Stopping at the dissolution of the party in 1991, comrade Parker leaves until another day the transformation of the Leninist faction into the Provisional Central Committee and the tortuous struggle for revolutionary unity in a reforged party, amid the continuing decay of the old left.