The Leninist: Before this there was that
Jack Conrad recalls the genesis of the CPGB’s Leninist faction and its enduring legacy
The 1000th edition of the Weekly Worker presents a useful opportunity to reminisce. Before the Weekly Worker there was The Leninist, a factional journal that upheld orthodox Marxism within the Communist Party of Great Britain. I was one of the four founders and had the privilege of serving as editor. Maybe a strange choice. My spelling verges on the dyslectic. However, I was determined to give the project my all and make it a success.
The Leninist had quite a long gestation. A story that perhaps can best be told through tracing my own political development.
I joined the Young Communist League in the late 1960s. Like not a few of my generation, I drew inspiration from contemporary events: Paris, May 1968; the Vietnamese national liberation struggle; Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara; the fight for women’s equality; Schools Action Union; the student occupation of LSE; militant trade unionism; etc. There was, of course, also what I knew, or thought I knew, about the October revolution, Karl Marx, the Levellers, the Chartist movement and the Spartacus slave revolt.
Suffice to say, I quickly found myself an oppositionist, both in the YCL and CPGB. The so-called Eurocommunists were on the march and the official leadership was wedded to the national-reformist British road to socialism programme. There was a craving for respectability, a refusal to countenance serious polemics, an unwillingness to criticise left Labourites, etc.
Opposition in the YCL and CPGB was considerable and well organised. I attended a couple of the week-long schools run by Fergus Nicholson in the Lake District - he was student organiser of the CPGB from 1963- 74 and in effect operated as the opposition’s putative general secretary. Later he adopted the nom de plume Harry Steel (‘Harry’ after Harry Pollitt, CPGB general secretary between 1929 and 1956, and ‘Steel’ after Stalin, the man of steel).
There was a parallel YCL leadership which met every month at his south west London house. I represented the South East Midlands district. Naturally, given the bureaucratic centralism of the official leadership, all this had to be kept as hush-hush as possible.
Inevitably, though, there were gossips, spies and turncoats. So, despite the precautions, 16 King Street, the CPGB’s headquarters, had a pretty good idea of what was going on. However, for its own reasons, it chose not to act.
The opposition was pro-Soviet and to one degree or another pro-Stalin. It should be emphasised that for many Stalin served as a totem. An expression of extreme anti-capitalism. Of course, theoretical poverty had to result. Not that political talent was entirely lacking. Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne were counted amongst the opposition’s cadre.
Personally, I found Nicholson’s perspectives dull, passive and unconvincing. Indeed I almost walked during one of his Lake District schools. Essentially the comrade banked on voting Labour, supporting trade union struggles and parroting whatever the Kremlin happened to be saying at the time. This, we were assured, added up to a winning formula ... eventually. Suitably distant dates were sometimes supplied as to when we would win a CPGB congress. But nothing came of his ‘master plan’ - except one crushing defeat after another. Not that I was then capable of formulating a viable alternative.
Doubtless due to a combination of youthful enthusiasm and mounting frustration, I was easily persuaded to join the Sid French split. In July 1977 some 700 CPGB members left to form the New Communist Party. A short while afterwards, maybe three or four months later, myself and 30 or 40 of my comrades joined them. A silly mistake.
Though a latecomer, and not privy to any foundational negotiations, I was elected to its central committee. Frankly, even to be considered for such a position came as a shock. I rated myself nothing more than a communist activist. However, my first central committee meeting forced me to rethink. Instead of political sophisticates, the central committee consisted of headless chickens. Well-meaning, naturally, but utterly confused. Failure to understand the past ensured a failure to understand the present.
As with most such splits, everyone knew what they were against. But the transition from opposition to leadership brought all latent divisions to the surface. Programmeless, politically naive, the NCP was also soft and flabby. Selling oneself to one or another state elite proved to be its main method of surviving.
In early 1979, Sid French, the general secretary, suddenly died. I was elected national organiser. Another shock ... not that I lasted long. The NCP was hopeless - and I knew it.
My original intention was to temporarily withdraw from active politics and set to work on a programmatic book. This was going to be undertaken with just one other comrade. The pen name he later used was Frank Grafton (the surname taken from one of Marx’s north London addresses). We were both painfully aware of our own theoretical weaknesses and political disorientation. So the intended book was to be both a blow against ‘official communism’ and a means of self-clarification.
However, I was in contact with leading members of the İşçinin Sesi wing of the Communist Party of Turkey. Reading Rüştü Yürükoğlu’s book Turkey - weak link of imperialism (first English edition, March 1979) had left me impressed. Compared with the usual stuff churned out by ‘official communism’, it constituted a breath of fresh air.
The TKP had almost from its origins been illegal. However, during the 1970s it underwent rapid growth. Two rival centres emerged: İşçinin Sesi (Workers’ Voice) in London and the ‘official’ Atılım wing in Berlin. Naturally, because of its militant revolutionism what interested me was İşçinin Sesi.
After meeting up in deepest Essex, we came to an agreement. Firstly, as I had a certain following, I had a duty to my comrades. I had to lead them the best I could. Secondly, the most serious should be won to join the TKP. Thirdly, we would constitute a definite group within the TKP, a group which would engage in intense study with the aim of eventually separating off in order to produce a polemical journal directed at and based in the CPGB.
We had already come up with a title - it was to be called The Leninist. In part the choice was dictated by the anti- Leninist offensive being conducted by the Eurocommunists around Marxism Today. However, our model was Lenin’s Iskra: ie, winning advanced workers to principled Marxist politics through an uncompromising polemical campaign directed against all forms of opportunism.
A deliberately short, sharp struggle in the NCP was planned and executed. Comrades, myself included, wrote individually addressed letters to every single member. The full membership list had, of course, already been secured. As expected, one expulsion followed another till we were all out. In total there were between 30 and 40 expulsions.
In all honesty, we expected most of them would quickly drift away from us. And they did. Not a few were simply looking for an exit door from the NCP ... but with honour. That we willingly supplied. There was no bitterness when comrades departed and went their own way. We wished them well and tried to remain friends with them. Nevertheless, within a matter of months we were down to six.
At the time Turkey was undergoing a massive upsurge in the class struggle. May Day demonstrations in Istanbul’s Taksim Square were amongst the biggest in the capitalist world. The size and frequency of economic and political strikes soared. Splits opened up in the state machine and numerous revolutionary groups, not least Kurdish left nationalists, turned to guerrilla warfare. Simultaneously, the secret state, with the full connivance of the US, unleashed a wave of righting terrorism. In jargon a ‘strategy of tension’. At least 5,000 people died.
A revolutionary situation appeared to be rapidly maturing. So the idea of joining the TKP made sense. We were internationalists and participating in a revolution first hand would have been an invaluable experience.
It was not to be. The National Security Council pre-emptively struck. The September 12 1980 coup saw mass round-ups. Between 1980 and 1983 500,000 politicos were arrested. Torture was endemic. Strikes were banned and over 1.5 million workers blacklisted. Newspapers of all kinds were closed and leftwing trade unions and organisations driven deep underground. Thousands fled abroad, many exiled comrades having their citizenship revoked. Even top establishment figures were subject to a lifetime ban from politics and only three approved parties were allowed to participate in the 1983 elections. In short, instead of the joys of revolution there came the horrors of counterrevolution.
Our little group kept meeting twice a week, but we agreed to a division of labour. Half of us worked in the illegal section of the TKP: making fake documents and exploiting the benefits of carrying a British passport. Meanwhile, the other half concentrated on building solidarity. I was secretary of the Committee for Defence of Democratic Rights in Turkey. A wide layer of Labour MPs, trade unionists and progressive intellectuals helped us expose the true nature of the September coup - welcomed by Nato, the US and the IMF. Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, Alan Sapper, Ray Buckton, Harold Pinter and Stan Newens come to mind.
Life in the TKP was a revelation. What struck me in particular was the extraordinarily high levels of commitment. There was also a commendable stress on political education and mastering technical skills. The CPGB had thousands of members, but a good half were card-carriers and nothing more. Such people might pay a few pounds in dues, but they hardly ever attended meetings, let alone worked in a disciplined fashion. Then there were the trade union office-holders. They were much admired, but in the main they operated as mere trade unionists. The CPGB’s executive committee was quite content with the situation, even though it dragged down the general level of activity and morale. The TKP was different - very different. We were sure that many organisational lessons could be drawn and with suitable modifications applied to Britain.
Lenin and Trotsky
I readily admit that my main priority was not the CDDRT. It was The Leninist.
Having gone through more or less everything Lenin wrote about peace in my TKP cell - we studied under the guidance of Bedir Aydemir (1947-88) - I began my own exploration of Lenin’s collected works.
Naturally, I concentrated on his Iskra articles and What is to be done? - his understanding of the role of theory, how it originates outside the sphere of employer-employee relations, his polemics against economism, the 1903 split with the Mensheviks, Lenin’s strategy and the 1905 revolution, the 1906-07 reunification with the Mensheviks and Lenin’s insistence on open struggle, his disciplined refusal to be cowed by fleeting Menshevik congress and central committee majorities, his struggle against left and right liquidationists, his 1912 alliance with pro-party Mensheviks, etc.
I also turned to Leon Trotsky. I had read a little of him before: eg, his History of the Russian Revolution. But now I bought everything I could get my hands on. Luckily I had a bookseller friend and got a substantial discount. I read, read and read again.
His speeches and articles in the 1920s were particularly important for me. Eg, The challenge of the Left Opposition. I liked his characterisation of the Stalin group as centrists. I also started to plough through the 12 volumes of his 1929-40 writings. Then there was The revolution betrayed. For a while I became convinced that his theory of the Soviet Union being a degenerated workers’ state represented a key insight. However, I never thought his attempt to launch a 4th International was correct. Understandable, of course, but real internationals consist of parties - substantial forces, not micro groups.
Nevertheless, though I have never called myself a Trotskyite, a Trotskyist or a Trotskyoid, Trotsky himself exerted a strong pull over my evolving ideas. Hence we had no compunction about rejecting the popular frontism, broad leftism and diplomatic internationalism promoted by Stalin and little Stalins the world over.
Draft articles were being readied and discussed. There was still a long way to go ... but a first edition was beginning to take shape. Then Yürükoğlu decided to let off his bomb. There would have to be a parting of the ways, he angrily told us. You lot have not kept to our agreement. As calmly as I could, I insisted that, on the contrary, our group was doing exactly what we said we would do. Presumably, he had not taken us seriously. He certainly had no faith in revolutions in advanced countries. He also tended to treat the TKP as his private fiefdom. So we suddenly found ourselves on our own. And, though we had recruited six comrades into the TKP, two of them decided to stay with Yürükoğlu. Not that they lasted long in the TKP ... which itself went into meltdown after the events of 1989-91.
I remember sitting in a nearby pub totally stunned. To begin with the four of us were just shell-shocked. Nevertheless, there was never any question of giving up. After a drink or three we agreed what to do next. All of us would apply to rejoin the CPGB. As things turned out, everyone got back in apart from myself. The ‘officials’ did not want me. No matter - our Leninist faction recognised my CPGB membership, and I have always striven to carry out my party duties and responsibilities to the full.
The following year saw us continuing to meet twice a week. And eventually the final articles were ready. However, The Leninist was not going to be an amateur publication. Presentation matters. It always does. A vital message is conveyed ... you are worthwhile thinking about, or you are a complete waste of time.
In those days every half-decent CPGB branch, left sect and trades council had a mimeograph machine: ie, a manual or electronic duplicator. We laboriously typed onto waxed-paper stencils, or used a stylus to draw. Typos and other mistakes were brushed over using Tipp-Ex correction fluid. The stencil was then carefully wrapped around the inked drum and - hey presto - you get a printed page ... of considerably varied quality. Overinking, underinking, crookedness and illegibility were commonplace. No, while our design was to be spare and simple, it would be professionally printed and have a reassuringly expensive glossy cover.
I vividly remember travelling down to Silvertown in east London to learn the basics of layout, point sizes, leading and typefaces from the TKP’s main print man, Migiriç Bailik (1943-2010). Thankfully, Morning Litho agreed to do the job at cost price. We also had the great advantage of being in the midst of a technological revolution. A revolution that would totally transform the whole of the publishing industry. So, instead of having to rely on hot metal typesetting - a technology dating back to the late 19th century - our journal could be produced using phototypesetting (itself rendered obsolete by the personal computer). This still involved the mess of cutting and pasting, but it saved us a small fortune.
Nevertheless, 5,000 copies would cost £1,100. We drew up a list of potential donors and I visited them one after another. I made clear that we would accept nothing less than £100 or above. We wanted to dramatise our seriousness. I came back with ... £100 from Tom May in Luton. So, no shadowy source of big finance. No sponsoring country. No sponsoring party. Three comrades simply, unhesitatingly and selflessly wrote cheques totalling £1,000.
There were just four articles in No1. My ‘Founding statement of The Leninist: the Communist Party, the crisis and its crisis’. A longish critique of Sam Aaronovich’s The road from Thatcherism (1981) and my ‘Ireland and the opportunists’. Besides that we reprinted Gus Hall’s ‘What’s happening in Poland?’ from Political Affairs. Despite being general secretary of the Communist Party of the United States of America, and having earned a reputation of slavish loyalty to the Soviet Union, Hall’s article had some real worth. Like us he refused to blame the Polish crisis on “foreign imperialist subversion”. More than that, Hall provided us with some camouflage. We did not want either the ‘official’ CPGB leadership or the CPGB’s old opposition to instantly pigeonhole us. We deliberately sought to give ourselves a certain air of mystery.
The Leninist No1 was launched in November 1981. A date chosen because it would enable us to sell outside the CPGB’s 37th Congress. I say ‘us’, but, given our CPGB membership and my profile, we decided to send a group of sympathisers to the Camden Centre instead.
The journal sold well ... more importantly it caused a real stir. Of course, there was some ridiculous speculation about the source of our finances. The German Democratic Republic! Cuba! The Communist Party of Turkey! How else could such a publication be produced? But what really infuriated the opportunists was our openness. The Leninist could be bought for £1 and, outrageously, was ‘washing our dirty linen in public’.
Method of struggle
Looking back over the first issue of The Leninist, I cannot but feel a little embarrassed. It is a bit like meeting one’s youthful self. The flaws, the clumsiness, the elementary errors are obvious. When we began we sort of knew this would happen. We knew that our callow efforts would be quoted against us in the future. That is why we took some two years before we committed ourselves to print. Nevertheless, the continuity can be seen too.
‘The founding statement of The Leninist’ needs to be put in context. At the time bureaucratic centralism was the norm. Oppositionists in the CPGB plotted in secret and in public felt obliged to repeat the official ‘line’. Of course, it was not just the CPGB. Almost every grouplet did the same. Most still do - the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Workers Power, etc. We were determined to overthrow all that.
Evidently, the CPGB was suffering from severe and prolonged decline. There were fewer and fewer functioning branches. Membership was dwindling too. In 1981 the figure was 18,458. That being a fall from 20,590 in 1979, 25,293 in 1977 and 28,519 in 1975. In short, down by a third in six years. There was a corresponding diminution in the circulation of the CPGB’s press. The overall influence of the party followed a similar trajectory.
Though The Leninist envisaged a “mass revolutionary party”, we were not obsessed by numbers. What counted, especially at this stage, was quality.
So, as we emphasised, the main problem in the CPGB was not organisational. The main problem was political. The CPGB contained a “seething mass of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideological tendencies”. Feminism, pacifism, economism, anti- Sovietism and nationalism were named. More than that, a prescient warning was issued. If these tendencies were not defeated it must lead to the CPGB being dissolved organisationally. Of course, this actually happened in 1991.
At first though, we stressed, this would take the form of “submerging” the party into the “broad movement”. In 1981 Bennism was riding high and naturally the opportunists were mesmerised by its success. Voices wanting to pursue the reformist road to ‘socialism’ through the Labour Party grew louder and louder. It was not only the far-right Eurocommunists. Fergus Nicholson launched a ‘broad labour movement’ paper called Straight Left in 1977. The title could have been chosen for anti-homosexual reasons - I don’t know. Anyway, his Straight Leftist faction advocated putting an end to standing CPGB election candidates. Instead there should be auto-Labourism. A line he repeatedly excused using an utterly bizarre misreading of the passage in the Communist manifesto where Marx and Engels say: “The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties.” As if Labour should not be defined as a bourgeois workers’ party. Revealingly, Straight Left’s liquidationism fooled some numbskulls into thinking that it was just a left Labour paper: eg, those who now call themselves the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
We drew an analogy with Lenin’s protracted struggle against the liquidationist plague that broke out following the defeat of the 1905 revolution. Lenin fought against those who advocated a broad, amorphous party, which would operate within the narrow bounds of tsarist law. We made the elementary point that Lenin demanded the “expulsion” of the liquidators. Towards this end the Bolsheviks were quite prepared to align themselves with the pro-party Mensheviks grouped around Georgi Plekhanov.
The Leninist announced that we too were quite prepared to do the same. We would join with those who favoured the continued existence of the CPGB and “stand for the purging of the liquidators”. However, conciliators would also have to be fought. Those who sought peace with the liquidators were roundly condemned as “anti-party”. “Our fight,” we emphatically declared, “needs to be irreconcilable, against both the liquidators and the conciliators.”
There were no illusions about winning through normal channels. That was more or less impossible. No, the Leninists would conduct an open struggle and defy all bureaucratic norms and restrictions. We knew this would lead to accusations of “breaking party discipline and unity”. Our response was entirely unapologetic. Those who make such an accusation against the Leninists were themselves manifesting a form of opportunism.
The CPGB could only be reforged through bringing in wave after wave of fresh, healthy forces, who alone could flush out all the “rotten, opportunist elements”. Without that, unity would be worthless, false and unprincipled. So through our “Leninist revolt” we were going to wage total war against the Straight Leftists, the McLennanites, the Morning Star loyalists and the Marxism Today Eurocommunists.
The Leninist began as a quarterly publication. In truth it was more of a ‘thirdly’. Between November 1981 and January 1984 there were six issues. Developments within the CPGB formed the main content. There were detailed reports of biannual congresses, shifting factional alignments and the rapidly developing Morning Star crisis.
Our journal became required reading. Not only did a wide variety of CPGB members buy what was forbidden fruit at the famous Collets bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road. So did many on the revolutionary left. You could tell, for example, who in Socialist Worker had been reading us and who had not. Journalists who lazily prattled on about ‘tankies’ and ‘Euros’ had quite clearly never happened upon The Leninist. On the other hand, most liked to display their knowledge. They listed off the numerous factions ... all uniquely analysed in our reports.
We deliberately limited our focus. Nevertheless, as part and parcel of our war against opportunism, there was coverage of strategically important questions. From issue one Frank Grafton began writing about crisis and crisis theory. Like many on the left in those days, he took it as axiomatic that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall explained what was going on. Over issue two and three a mass of statistics were provided, along with a detailed recapitulation of Marx’s arguments in Capital volume three. The main purpose of this was, of course, to savage the Keynesianism of the ‘official’ leadership’s Alternative Economic Strategy. Their big idea was that, if only a future Labour government summed up the courage to increase wages and thereby boost demand, a virtuous circle of growth would result. Needless to say, capitalism in the US and Britain was withdrawing from the sphere of production and making the shift to financialisation. A form of global parasitism that constituted an existential crisis for the welfare state and the forms of working class organisation normalised during the long post-World War II boom.
In April 1983 The Leninist devastatingly took on the ‘official communist’ shibboleth that a “decisive tilt in the balance of world forces” had taken place. We showed that this was empirically unfounded. The Soviet Union and its eastern European bloc were far weaker than the US and its close allies. Highly relevant factionally. Ever since Stalin, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had promoted the notion of a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism ... and that through a series of ‘progressive’ popular fronts between the working class and the petty bourgeois and even the bourgeoisie. Hence the CPGB’s British road to socialism. Supposedly such programmes had been made possible by the “decisive tilt”. But if there had been no “decisive tilt”, what we were actually dealing with was little more than bog-standard reformism. Hence my April 1983 article, ‘Some thoughts on the British road to socialism’ - enlarged later into the book, Which road?
The Leninist comprehensively showed that capitalism was spiralling towards ever greater difficulties. The post-World War II social democratic settlement had become a barrier to accumulation. Britain in particular was primed for a potentially decisive clash of class against class. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 had set the stage. In August 1983, my article, ‘Britain: before and after the election’, warned that the Tories were readying themselves to inflict a “strategic defeat” potentially on the scale of 1926. We argued for new forms of organisation to meet the challenge. Crucially we insisted upon the necessity of a reforged CPGB: “While it is dominated by Eurocommunist revisionism, there is no chance of the working class acting independently, charting its course to socialism.”
The journal highlighted a few key international questions too. Afghanistan and Poland in particular showed that what we still called the “socialist bloc” was in mortal danger. Capitalism could re-establish itself. Not that we imagined the Soviet Union stood on the edge of a precipice. Either way, we lambasted those in the CPGB who saw it as their duty to tail Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andrpov, Konstantin Chemenko, etc. When the working class masses in Poland flocked into Solidarność, clearly something fundamental had gone wrong. Denials and excuses were worse than useless. Radical, far-reaching, Marxist criticism was required ... and that is what we tried to supply.
Because of this sort of hard-hitting polemics, because of our striving to tell the truth, because of our intransigent commitment to communism, we won a considerable readership. Probably most readers thoroughly disliked our highly partisan style. Probably most doubted our dire warnings, probably most recoiled from our belligerent aim of thoroughly purging the CPGB of all forms of opportunism. Despite that, compared with the actual numbers directly involved, our press has always enjoyed a huge audience.
Moreover, we slowly began to recruit. There was never an ‘open door’ policy. Indeed, given the conditions of effective illegality forced upon us by the ‘official’ CPGB’s bureaucratic centralism, we were very careful about who we let in. Our first recruits came from the YCL. We actually arrived at a situation where we had three comrades sitting on its leadership. Shamefully, to put a stop to our growth, the Straight Leftists united with the Eurocommunists to begin a series of expulsions - a process that ended with the Metropolitan police being called to close down the Hackney YCL branch. Having dropped ‘democratic centralism’ with much fanfare, the leadership reimposed it in 1983 especially to deal with our comrades. Almost needless to say, in such hands the YCL was doomed to become an empty husk. The Eurocommunists formally liquidated it in 1988.
We made inroads into the ‘official’ CPGB’s leadership too. True, we never won any sitting members of its executive committee to our faction. However, friends were gained ... and I was continuously fed minutes and accounts of executive and political committee meetings. Such information was like gold and gave a considerable edge to our reports and analysis. In the end the ‘officials’ surrendered. They started to publish the material themselves. A stunning victory for The Leninist and our campaign to bring political differences out into the open. Similarly, because of the Weekly Worker, the Socialist Unity website and other such outlets the SWP now routinely publishes its Party Notes.