Branson’s pickle

Noreen Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 Lawrence and Wishart, 2014, pp376, £17.99; and History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951 Lawrence and Wishart, 1997, pp262, £14.99

When the first book under review was originally published in 1984, the Soviet Union still existed, as did the Communist Party of Great Britain, even if both were in a parlous condition. The moribund Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, personified the economic stagnation and political paralysis in the USSR. The miners’ bitter strike here helped to bring the already nasty fight amongst the various factions in the CPGB to breaking point. By the time the second book appeared in 1997, both the Soviet Union and the CPGB had been dead for some years, having expired by exquisite coincidence within weeks of each other in late 1991.

Apart from two further volumes of official history taking the story up to 1991,1 quite an industry has evolved over the last couple of decades dealing with the CPGB: biographies of the party’s two most prominent figures, Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt, have appeared,2 as have a number of histories of the party,3 accounts of specific periods of its history and of its personalities and activities,4 and polemical exchanges on the historiography of the party.5 The opening of archives in Britain and Russia has greatly helped recent researchers. All this tends to overshadow the official history of the party and makes it look a little superficial in various respects; nevertheless, the republication of the first of these two volumes gives us an opportunity to show how the CPGB’s officially approved historians covered what were for party members some of their finest and worst years.

The first of Branson’s volumes commences in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926. The CPGB had been deeply involved in the strike, and, despite the arrest of many of its leading figures beforehand and many hundreds of members during the actual nine days, and despite the party’s rather soft attitude towards the labour movement leaders, it had made significant gains, not least with its membership increasing from 6,000 in April 1926 to 10,730 six months later. The united front organisations that the party had sponsored - the National Left Wing Movement and the Minority Movement - had been successful in coordinating leftwingers in the Labour Party and the trade unions respectively, and the National Unemployed Workers Movement had started carrying out effective work amongst the jobless.

Although the strike failed in its intention of assisting the miners in their fight against a lockout and wage cuts, it had shown the potential power of the organised working class. The Conservative government responded vengefully; the labour movement leaders were in full-scale retreat, and many of them took out their frustrations upon their main leftwing rival. The CPGB soon found itself under attack, and Branson describes the series of expulsions, proscriptions and restrictions that the Labour Party and union bureaucracies carried out against communists and those associating with them. However, the CPGB was not helped, or, rather, the labour bureaucrats were helped, by the ultra-radical stance that was being taken by the Communist International, as the 1920s drew to a close. This culminated in the ‘class against class’ line of the ‘third period’, with its imprecations against the “social-fascists”, as social democrats were described in the communist parties’ publications.

Although the CPGB’s leadership was rather slow in accepting the new orientation, and a majority report to the Comintern in early 1928 continued with the party’s support for and affiliation to the Labour Party, a minority report, produced by Pollitt and Dutt, reflected the burgeoning ultra-leftism, and, with the authority of the Comintern weighing upon them, the majority “retreated and agreed to a resolution which appeared on the surface to be a compromise, but which, in reality, supported the change in policy demanded by both the CI and the Dutt-Pollitt report” (p 26).

Some leading party trade unionists found the ultra-leftism problematic in their day-to-day work, but, with their marginalisation, the appointment in August 1929 of Pollitt as general secretary and the major changes in the composition of the central committee later that year, the Stalinisation of the CPGB was pretty much complete. Branson notes that “the approach of those at Comintern headquarters was far more authoritarian, the dealings with the affiliated parties more dictatorial, while heresy-hunting began to be practised, instead of arriving at policy by the free exchange of views” (p30). One might add that this was reflected within the parties of the Comintern, and not least within the CPGB.

The popular front

The third period proved a disaster for the CPGB: its membership dwindled to a low of 2,555 in late 1930, and did not reach the 1926 level over the next five years. The far greater disaster caused by the same period in Germany, with Hitler’s victory in 1933 and the realisation of its enormity in both Moscow and various communist parties, led to a new orientation within the Comintern: the popular front.

The late 1930s were seen, and continue to be seen, by those faithful to Stalinist mythology as the golden years of their movement. Branson states that the decisions of the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1935 “were based on the realities of the situation, and opened up possibilities for advance of a sort not seen before” (p128). It is certainly true that the CPGB’s prospects brightened: its membership rose from 5,800 in December 1934 to 17,756 in July 1939. Its influence grew within intellectual circles and in trade unions in the engineering, aviation, building and textile industries, on the railways and in the mines. Rank-and-file communists were engaged in activities which involved considerable courage and tenacity, such as fighting in Spain, leading street fights against the fascists, organising rent strikes and industrial battles. The party had an MP elected in the general election in 1935.

Yet this growth took place within a political framework that was moving in an increasingly rightward direction, as a result of the demands of Soviet foreign policy. Branson skates over the intimate connection between Comintern policies and the requirements of the Soviet bureaucracy. She views the “social-fascist” verbiage of the third period merely as another example of the ultra-leftism against which Lenin had polemicised in his ‘Leftwing’ communism (p30), and avoids commenting upon whether the third period reflected the situation within the Soviet Union: that Stalin’s faction used the ultra-leftism both to outflank the oppositions around Trotsky and Bukharin, and to act as an ideological cover for the breakneck industrialisation and forced collectivisation under the first five-year plan.

She alludes to the impact of the third period in Germany, but fails to address the question of whether the violent hostility towards the German Social Democratic Party was primarily because Moscow wanted to reduce this powerful party’s influence on account of its pro-western stance.6 Similarly, Branson does not connect Comintern’s increasingly moderate popular front policies with the requirements of Soviet diplomacy in the light of the growing belligerence of Nazi Germany, even though Georgi Dimitrov, a leading spokesman for the Comintern, was very clear in November 1937 that the chief task of any communist party was to mobilise pressure upon its ruling class for this purpose:

The touchstone in checking the sincerity and honesty of every individual active in the working class movement, of every working class party and organisation of the working people, and of every democrat in the capitalist countries, is their attitude toward the great land of socialism … You cannot carry on a serious struggle against the fascist instigators of a new world bloodbath, if you do not render undivided support to the USSR, a most important factor in the maintenance of international peace … The historical dividing line between the forces of fascism, war and capitalism, on the one hand, and the forces of peace, democracy and socialism, on the other hand, is in fact becoming the attitude toward the Soviet Union, and not the formal attitude toward soviet power and socialism in general, but the attitude to the Soviet Union …7

The appeal to “every democrat” and the shift of the “historical dividing line” away from the concept of soviet power and socialism (that is, workers’ revolution) to the “attitude toward the Soviet Union” (that is, Stalin’s foreign policy) confirmed that the Soviet bureaucracy was aiming to use the parties of the Comintern, in the countries where they had any presence, to bring together anyone from any class who, for whatever reason, favoured an alliance between the democratic capitalist powers and the Soviet Union, in order to forestall any aggression from Nazi Germany, which the Soviet Union considered at this juncture as the main source of danger. Class struggle was not ruled out if it could serve as a means of pressurising western bourgeoisies into concluding alliances with the Soviet Union. What was not tolerated by the Soviet bureaucracy, and what was not conducted by the parties of the Comintern, was class struggle which opened the way towards a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.

Sensitive to the criticisms of the popular front made at the time and in retrospect, Branson insists that Stalinist support for the Franco-Soviet military pact of 1935 “did not imply any illusions concerning the imperialist nature of the French government”, nor did it “damp down the class struggle, as the Trotskyists alleged” (p243). If that were the case, it is worth asking why the French Communist Party thought it necessary to sabotage a major strike wave in 1936, to give the Marseillaise and the Tricolore pride of place at party gatherings, and to refuse to back Algerian nationalists against a state ban under the Popular Front government.

But it was not merely a matter of what Moscow directly required. This moderation also had its roots in Stalin’s dogma of ‘socialism in one country’ that was first revealed in the mid-1920s. In 1928, Trotsky drew out its consequences: “If socialism can be realised within the national boundaries of backward Russia, then there is all the more reason to believe that it can be realised in advanced Germany.” He added that each national communist party would start to propound this theory, and this would mark “the beginning of the disintegration of the Comintern along the lines of social-patriotism”.8

Although this prediction seemed rather outlandish when first mooted at the point at which the Comintern was entering the ultra-left madness of the third period and rapidly adopting an uncritical attitude towards the Soviet leadership, it was borne out by the facts. A decade later, Trotsky noted that the communist parties were not merely sections of the Comintern, living “on the subsidies of the Kremlin” and submitting to its commands. They were also national parties, and their recent growth, “their infiltration into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie, their installation in the state machinery, the trade unions, parliaments, municipalities, etc”, had “strengthened in the extreme their dependence on national imperialism at the expense of their traditional dependence on the Kremlin”.9

In Britain this tendency clearly emerged in the party’s orientation towards the Labour Party. Branson refers to a letter from the CPGB to the Labour Party in November 1935, in which it combined its appeal for affiliation to Labour with a pledge to “work loyally” within the party on “all current electoral and other campaigns”, while maintaining its “revolutionary standpoint” (p151). But she overlooks this rather more telling passage in the party’s resolution on Labour Party affiliation at its 1938 congress:

The Communist Party pledges itself to do everything in its power to mobilise the people behind every campaign of the Labour Party in order to secure its maximum success. The party will help to strengthen the Labour Party throughout the country … The Communist Party declares that it fully accepts the constitution of the Labour Party, asks for no special privileges and will abide by all decisions of Labour Party conferences, accepting at all times the same obligations and enjoying the same rights as all other affiliated organisations.10

Whilst there is always the danger that even in the best of circumstances united front work between revolutionaries and reformists can lead to the former accommodating to the latter, here the various pressures upon the CPGB were leading it to become a mere wing of British reformism.

What prevented the CPGB’s dissolution into the Labour Party was its special relationship with Moscow. Whilst there was appreciation even on the Labour right for some of the achievements of the Soviet five-year plans, the CPGB’s uncritical hailing of the Moscow trials and Soviet diplomatic gyrations inevitably made even the most generous Labour Party member somewhat wary of associating with it. Without the Moscow connection, by the late 1930s the CPGB would have become another reformist group; only its association with Moscow - necessary to give it a definite identity - prevented this tendency from fully working itself out.

Branson does admit that not everything during the popular front era was perfect. With Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ and several subsequent decades tucked carefully in her bag, she regrets that the CPGB’s unquestioning allegiance to Moscow during the 1930s resulted in its defending some of the less edifying aspects of the period - not only the Moscow trials, but the purges and the repression of the left in Spain.11 She is at pains to explain why the party endorsed the purges and show trials and believed their outrageous accusations, overlooking the fact that there was much evidence available at the time that undermined Moscow’s versions of events.12

Moscow cracks the whip

Branson is evasive when she considers the key role that Dutt played, as he came to the fore during those difficult moments, whenever Moscow’s interests required the parties of the Comintern to exchange their tactics, policies and even theoretical analyses for something less popular. Although Dutt was, apparently for reasons of health, out of Britain when the third period was announced, he did much to steer the party leadership around to accepting its ultra-leftism. The subsequent shift into the opportunism of the popular front did not require his careful supervision, but the abrupt volte-face as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939 required an especial effort on his part to convince his comrades to accept Moscow’s new line.

The British ‘appeasement’ of Hitler’s Germany allowed the CPGB to promote itself as both pro-Soviet and patriotically British, and it called for an Anglo-Franco-Soviet bloc to contain Nazi Germany. Pollitt condemned Chamberlain’s National government for “betraying the interests of the British people, surrendering strategic positions to the fascist states, and lowering Britain’s prestige in the eyes of the peoples of the world”.13 The Stalinists promoted the removal of this government as a patriotic, all-class crusade, appealing to “every Englishman … who loves his country … without any distinction of party or creed”.14 Johnny Campbell, the Daily Worker editor, declared that leftwingers who saw the coming war as an imperialist conflict were carrying out “a whitewashing of fascism useful only to Hitler and his hypocritical accomplices in this country”.15

However, the signing in August 1939 of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany put this fortunate coincidence of Soviet and domestic patriotism in jeopardy. The CPGB incongruously praised the pact as a blow for peace, whilst nonetheless supporting Britain in the war when it was declared in September 1939. When Moscow recognised the contradiction between its pact with Berlin and the fact that the communist parties were backing the war against Germany, it realised that a new line was necessary, and the CPGB was duly advised that the war was now imperialist in nature and thus no longer to be supported.

The domestic patriotism that Trotsky had detected now came to the fore, and Dutt required all his powers of persuasion and his uncanny ability to promote precisely what Moscow required before his comrades accepted the new orientation. Even so, Pollitt and Campbell refused to endorse the anti-war stance. Stripped of their official positions, they wrote (or signed) grovelling and disingenuous self-confessions, accepting the new line publicly, if not privately.16 That this episode had occurred, and that two senior officials could have voted against a directive of the Communist International, shows how deeply social-patriotic sentiments had developed within the CPGB’s leadership.

Towards reformism

The first book under review finishes with the German assault on the Soviet Union on June 22 1941 and the party’s adoption (with a lot less pain than the previous policy switch) of a pro-war line, which enabled the CPGB once more to promote a combination of Soviet and domestic patriotism. The party’s experiences during the war, and especially the idea that the capitalist state could be a force for social progress,17 led to a major rethinking in its theory and practice, drawing it away from any remaining vestiges of Leninist politics: “The object must be to transform and democratise the state machine, and to change the parliamentary system, not to ‘replace’ it. So began work on a different concept: that of a British road to socialism” (p108). The CPGB welcomed the dissolution of the Comintern in May 1943, which, as Branson puts it with an evident sense of relief, formally relieved it of Soviet control and allowed it “finally to emerge as an independent political party, responsible to itself alone for its decisions, its policies, its strategies and tactics in the battles that lay ahead” (p336). This, as we shall see, is not true.

It is a paradox of history that, although the CPGB was formed for the explicit purpose of overthrowing capitalism and instituting socialism, it considered that its finest hour, after the popular front of the late 1930s, was during World War II, or, to be precise, the period after the Soviet Union joined the fighting in June 1941. This latter period, covered by the second book under review, was when the party, with Pollitt back as general secretary, stood closest to the ruling class, firmly opposing working class militancy, and supporting a coalition government led by the arch-Tory, Winston Churchill. It was a time when Stalin became a national hero in Britain; the party basked in his reflected glory, with its membership peaking at 56,000 in December 1942, and still standing at a respectable 45,435 in April 1945.

This book also covers the origins of the cold war, when the CPGB was obliged to operate in the shadow of the west’s malignant image of Stalin; a gloomy period enlightened only by the promise of The British road to socialism, the first edition of which appeared in 1951.

Branson presents a sanitised account of the party during these years. The CPGB’s vindictiveness towards leftwingers who refused to obey the strictures of the wartime union sacrée is glossed over; there is no reference to that infamous pamphlet Clear out Hitler’s agents!18or other such slanderous writings. Branson rather sheepishly admits that the Daily Worker “went so far as to suggest” that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima “would expedite Japanese surrender and thus save ‘valuable lives’” (pp99-100). The actual words were: “The employment of the new weapon on a substantial scale should expedite the surrender of Japan.”19 Not one or two, but their “substantial” use: not much would have remained of Japan if the Allied leaders had followed the CPGB’s advice.

There is nothing to indicate from this account that the CPGB maintained its hostility to working class militancy for two whole years after World War II finished. Confronting a few contrary delegates, Pollitt warned the party’s 1945 congress:

You are either in favour or not of the line that has been expounded here of mass strikes as the only way to realise the workers’ demands, and if you are, I warn you you are playing with fire that can help to lose the peace and reduce this country to ashes … You can get a strike in the coalfields tomorrow if you want it. Will it advance the working class movement of this country, or the perspective of our nation being a first-rate nation in the family of united nations?20

True to their leader’s proclamation, the Stalinists who headed the Scottish region of the miners’ union made no protest when the minister of fuel and power shut down Fauldhouse pit in April 1946 after an unofficial strike, putting 370 miners on the dole. A strike in Grimethorpe led to the whole of Yorkshire coming out in the summer of 1947; Arthur Horner, a leading CPGB member and the National Union of Mineworkers general secretary, said that the strikers were “holding the country to ransom”.21 Shortly before, on May 7, the Daily Worker delicately referred to “substitute winders” being used during a winders’ strike in Durham and Lancashire. Such was the spirit of cooperation of the Stalinists in the miners’ union leadership that they continued to work closely with the National Coal Board and the government after the CPGB belatedly turned to support workers’ militancy when Moscow called for a harder line in late 1947.

Space forbids more than the briefest mention of other matters that an honest account of the CPGB would be obliged to cover. Branson writes about the party’s anti-racist work, but we do not see the national chauvinism which the party projected, such as when it held the entire German population responsible for the Nazis;22 or when Horner fulminated against his members’ unofficial action over pay and conditions, whilst threatening the government with a strike over the employment of foreigners in the mines, saying that it “might get Poles or displaced persons, but not coal”.23

Branson takes many of the party’s contemporary rationalisations at face value. Are we really to assume that Pollitt did not recognise the reactionary aspects of Clement Attlee’s government until 1948 (p157), or was it Moscow’s harder stance in late 1947 that made him think again? And, following the CPGB at the time, Branson makes much of the voting figures at the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conferences, as if these block votes wielded by union bureaucrats were anything but the vaguest reflections of working class sentiments. She mentions the “hundreds of millions” of people who signed the Stalinists’ international peace appeal during 1950, forgetting to add that every adult in the Soviet bloc was a signatory, thus showing, as Fernando Claudín neatly put it, “the same impressive efficiency and unanimity with which they voted for the single lists at elections”.24

Still following Moscow

The second book under review follows the first in stating that the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 allowed the CPGB to be “a party solely responsible for its own actions” (p25). Yet Branson shows that the party loyally followed the Kremlin’s line after that date on a whole number of issues, such as its defence of Lysenko’s quack genetic theories, despite the fact that some party scientists, including the biologist, JBS Haldane, were extremely sceptical about them. (Branson does not mention that Haldane found himself heaved off the Daily Worker board and marginalised within the party, finally leaving it in 1950.) Moscow’s vicious campaign against Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia was eagerly endorsed, and James Klugmann, who had worked with the Yugoslav partisans during the war, penned the appalling From Trotsky to Tito, which was recommended in the party’s theoretical magazine as “a classic”.25 The party welcomed the series of show trials that occurred in eastern Europe during the late 1940s as enthusiastically as it did the Moscow trials a decade previously.

Echoing what she wrote in her first volume, Branson states that the events of 1956 “forced” party members to “rethink their attitudes” towards injustice and repression in the Soviet bloc (p199), but this is not quite the whole picture, as the party leadership endorsed the Soviet invasion of Hungary that year, and it took a further decade for it openly to condemn Moscow on a major issue: in this case the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, one cannot help noting that in both books Branson refrains from probing the paradox that a more critical attitude on the part of Britain’s Stalinists towards Stalin was prompted by the Soviet leadership, and not by some independent venture within the CPGB.26

Summing up, the following key points can be observed. The third period’s ultra-leftism is condemned. The popular front itself is seen as the acme of communist politics both strategically and tactically, laying the basis for any fundamental move towards socialism. Comintern’s stand during the Spanish Civil War is seen as absolutely correct, although the repression of the Poum was unjustified. The anti-war period is awkward: it is not actually condemned, but Pollitt and Campbell’s demurral from it is quietly admired.27 The party’s support for a union sacrée after June 22 1941 is also seen as admirable, although the more objectionable of its consequences are ignored or explained away. Altogether, the Soviet Union is regarded throughout the period covered by these volumes as a socialist society with much to recommend it, although such features of Stalin’s rule as the Moscow Trials and the purges constituted severe blemishes. As with the third period and the repression in Spain, the rationale behind these negative aspects is not probed at all deeply.

Branson’s two books were originally written as a history for party loyalists: those people who were loyal to the ‘official’ communist movement during the period under review and who accepted the revised assessment of that period initiated by Moscow in the post-Stalin era. They would not have suited the old-fashioned ‘tankies’, who maintained a wholly romantic view of the Soviet Union and their party in Stalin’s time; nor would they have suited those in the CPGB who were rejecting their party’s entire experience in their drift into outright liberalism.

Today, they are useful in representing what the CPGB’s mainstream felt about their own history. People who desire a more accurate and less evasive history of the CPGB must look elsewhere.

Paul Flewers


1. J Callaghan Cold war, conflict and crisis: the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1951-68 London 2003; G Andrews End games and new times: the final years of British communism 1964-1991 London 2004. The first six years of the party’s history were officially covered by James Klugmann in his History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: formation and early years 1919-1924 (London 1968), and History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: the General Strike 1925-1926 (London 1969).

2. K Morgan Harry Pollitt Manchester 1993; J Callaghan Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism London 1993.

3. For example, W Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London 1992; K Laybourn and D Murphy Under the red flag: the history of communism in Britain, c1849-1991 Stroud 1999; J Eaden and D Renton The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920 Basingstoke 2002.

4. For example, M Worley Class against class: the Communist Party in Britain between the wars London 2002; A Thorpe The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920-43 Manchester 2000; N Fishman The British Communist Party and the trade unions Aldershot 1995; J McIlroy, K Morgan and A Campbell (eds) Party people, communist lives: explorations in biography London 2001.

5. These, too numerous to mention here, are largely concerned with the degree to which Moscow determined the policies of the CPGB, and range from those who consider that the CPGB was to a large extent autonomous from Moscow to those who consider that any manifestations of independence on its part concerned merely secondary or trivial matters.

6. See R Black Fascism in Germany Vol 2, London 1975, pp735-86.

7. G Dimitrov, ‘The Soviet Union and the working classes of the capitalist countries’ Selected articles and speeches London 1951, pp184-85.

8. L Trotsky The Third International after Lenin London 1974, p 55.

9. L Trotsky, ‘A fresh lesson’ Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39 New York 1974, pp70-71.

10. For peace and plenty: report of the Fifteenth Congress of the CPGB London 1938, pp148-49.

11. Trotsky is no longer a ‘wrecker’ in the pay of the Gestapo, but merely an incurable ultra-leftist, rightly critical of the Third Period, but also carrying on with its essence in his critique of the popular front (p240).

12. See my The new civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1929-1941 London 2008, pp145-54.

13. For peace and plenty: report of the Fifteenth Congress of the CPGB London 1938, p37.

14. International Press Correspondence April 2 1938.

15. For peace and plenty: report of the Fifteenth Congress of the CPGB London 1938, p95.

16. Branson states that both Pollitt and Campbell later admitted that they never agreed with the anti-war line (p274). Branson, who worked as a Comintern courier during the 1930s, informed Ron Heisler that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact led to her and her husband wondering whether to leave the CPGB; they finally decided after some three months of pondering to remain members (conversation with Ron Heisler, October 18 2014).

17. This is made very clear by Pollitt in his pamphlet How to win the peace (London 1945).

18. W Wainwright Clear out Hitler’s agents! An exposure of Trotskyist disruption being organised in Britain London 1942.

19. Daily Worker August 7 1945.

20. World News and Views December 8 1945.

21. The Times September 9 1947.

22. Daily Worker August 3 1945.

23. The Times February 24 1947. On September 12 1949, the Daily Worker lamented that “Britain and the empire” was to be “sold piecemeal to the American money-lenders”.

24. F Claudín The communist movement: from Comintern to Cominform Vol 2, New York 1975, p578.

25. J Klugmann From Trotsky to Tito London 1951; Communist Review December 1951.

26. This was noted at the time: “We also need to see whether members of western communist parties will have the courage of their common sense, and themselves initiate such criticisms without waiting for leads from Moscow” (New Statesman March 31 1956).

27. Branson does not follow fellow party historian Monty Johnstone in his contention that the CPGB should have followed Pollitt in opposing the anti-war orientation in 1939 (see J Attfield and S Williams [eds] 1939: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the war London 1984, p 42) - almost certainly because she instinctively recognises that any significant dissension from the Comintern’s line would have immediately resulted in Moscow revoking the party’s franchise.