CPGB members 1936: marching to a popular front tune

No sense of tradition

Attempts to use the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain to back up Robert Griffiths’ stance on the Labour Party are farcical, writes Lawrence Parker

Three months ago, the Weekly Worker commented on the fact that Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, was adopting a scab approach to the civil war in the Labour Party. He wrote to his Labour counterpart, Iain McNicol, to offer him his earnest support in the potential witch-hunting and removal of any CPB members or supporters who had dared to take out a Labour Party membership card.1 This was in the context of the CPB ordering its members not to join Labour so as not to ‘embarrass’ the Corbyn leadership.

This stance has recently been amplified by Griffiths in the pages of the Morning Star:

The [CPB] rejects the cynical, dishonest strategy and tactics of ‘entryism’. All our party members were explicitly directed not to participate in the leadership ballot, even when invited to do so by Labour and trade union activists. We understood that even a single case of such participation, if exposed, would provide ammunition to those claiming that Corbyn was being aided and manipulated by sinister and ‘extreme’ forces. Some leftist sects, desperate for a flicker of public recognition, rushed to the media to proclaim their own entryist tactics. This, of course, was a gift gratefully received and utilised by Corbyn’s enemies.2

Given that the Weekly Worker was, to the best of my knowledge, the only journal (on the left or in the bourgeois media) to provide any commentary on the CPB’s public stance on the Labour Party, we can presume that the jibe about “leftist sects” was aimed at the CPGB/PCC. In that case we might tartly reply that it is better to have a “flicker” of public recognition than none at all. The problem with an organisation of around 150 poorly educated, inefficient activists (we use that word loosely) with little or no social or labour movement weight (ie, the CPB) cheering on comrade Corbyn from over the hill and far away is precisely a recipe for invisibility. So we can quite imagine comrade Griffiths getting incredibly touchy when the issue of Labour Party Marxists or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is brought up. Particularly when certain grumbles reach us from CPB mouths about a lack of new readers for the Morning Star and that most of its periphery (along with that of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party) has decamped into the Labour Party at a fairly rapid pace over the last year.

However, we can leave such angst to one side for the moment, in order to concentrate on an attempt by Griffiths to seriously mislead his CPB followers on the real history of the old ‘official’ CPGB in relation to the Labour Party. We say ‘mislead’ deliberately, because we know comrade Griffiths to be a well-read and well-informed individual on the history of the CPGB.

First of all, on the issue of “entryism”: to the best of my knowledge, no-one in the CPGB/PCC has ever advocated this tactic, in the sense of a secretive project to remain inside broader formations at all costs or to hide away your own politics and pretend to be something else (an obvious example would be the work of the Militant Tendency inside the Labour Party). We can agree with Griffiths that such tactics can be cynical and dishonest, although it is hardly the crime of the century, considering how the right wing of the labour movement has behaved down the years. To put it another way, revolutionaries can enter broader formations and do principled or unprincipled things; the mere fact of their entering in the first place should not pose any ethical problems. However, Griffiths clearly has a problem with ‘entering’ the Labour Party, period, given that he has forbidden any of his supporters to get involved - even as members of an affiliated union in a leadership ballot.

This has huge implications for Griffiths’ ability to seriously claim the heritage of the CPGB as support for his current stance. He says: “Indeed, those periods when the [CPGB] has been at its most influential, in the late 1930s, early 1940s and early 1970s, have also seen the left in the Labour Party make its biggest advances.”3 It is very interesting that comrade Griffiths leaves out the 1920s and the National Left Wing Movement from his little summary; presumably this is far too ‘left’ for the reformist CPB, given that the NLWM was an attempt to arm the Labour left with revolutionary communist politics. However, I want to answer a question as to why the CPGB was influential in the Labour Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s in particular - the short answer being that it practised a form of ‘entryism’ on a very large scale. It was influential because it broke the Labour Party’s rules and kept CPGB members inside in numbers. Heaven only knows why Griffiths wants to claim this history; it has zero compatibility with the CPB’s contemporary thinking. (Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea, the CPGB of the 1930s-40s is not an organisation that I would lionise without a lot of qualification; the point being that the CPB does see the politics of this period as worthy of emulation.)

CPGB ‘entryism’

Douglas Hyde moved to Surrey in 1938, joined the Labour Party and quickly started recruiting to the CPGB, each new recruit thinking they were the only communist along with Hyde. He wrote:

When the constituency party’s annual general meeting came round, we decided in advance whom to support and whom to fight. The result was a triumph for the left. We had formed a ‘ginger group’, which by now was well sprinkled with Communist Party members. The group captured a majority of the positions in both the local and divisional party and was soon doing most of the work of the Labour Party throughout the entire district.4

Hyde added:

Then, one night, I got [the hidden communists] together. I did not tell them the purpose of the gathering, but left them to assume that it was just an extended ‘ginger group’ meeting. When all had arrived, I revealed that everyone present was already a Communist Party member and suddenly they realised what had happened and just what strength the party already had in the local labour movement. Then we got down to business.5

Neither was Hyde acting in an isolated manner. Ted Bramley, the CPGB’s London district organiser, recalled of this period that the party was organised in “almost every divisional Labour Party in London”.6 Almost a fifth of the CPGB’s national membership was thought to have held a Labour Party membership card by 1938, the tactic having only been in operation since 1937.7 Bramley added that it was often less a case of members being sent in to the Labour Party than of new recruits being asked to remain inside to pursue CPGB politics, so this operation was probably not quite as cynical as it seems at first glance.8 By July 1939, the CPGB began to yank its members out of the Labour Party and encouraged them to publicly declare their revulsion against Labour’s official policies, and, according to Kevin Morgan, this trickle of organised resignations was kept up throughout the early period of World War II.9

The Labour League of Youth (LLY), the Labour Party’s youth organisation, offers another case study of this type of work from the same period (1936-39), where a communist fraction under the leadership of Ted Willis (later Lord Willis, of Dixon of Dock Green fame), effectively led the organisation against a series of prohibitions placed upon it by the national Labour bureaucracy. Willis and other communists worked closely in tandem with John Gollan, then general secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL).

There was a positive side to this work (as with the ‘adult’ CPGB), in the sense of a willingness to simply break the rules of the Labour bureaucracy and not be overly concerned with respectability. However, from a close reading of Advance, the journal of the LLY, which was effectively under the control of its dominant communist fraction, one can see more negative factors coming into play. There is an impression that the fraction curtailed its political demands to remain inside the orbit of Labourism (this was in line with the Popular Front approach, where communist identity was increasingly sacrificed to ‘broadness’).10 However, there was not much of an attempt to hide CPGB and YCL sympathies by Willis and company - hence the introduction of an unpleasant Stalinist rhetoric imported from the Moscow trials against Trotskyist groupings then active in the LLY11 and proposals to merge with the YCL.12 As with the Labour Party proper, Willis and other leading YCL members were instructed to leave the LLY in 1939, and encourage others to join the YCL, with a number of branches defecting en masse.

There is a big question as to what eventual gains the CPGB made from this work and the mode of its members’ departure, even with the more open style used in the LLY. Willis remarks that, despite the strength of the YCL’s operation inside the LLY, after the 1939 departure,

… the extraordinary thing is that the YCL did not show any appreciable growth. It was a mystery, rather like Pharaoh’s dream of the seven thin cows who ate the seven fat cows and grew no fatter.13

Similarly, it is not clear that the CPGB recruited large numbers from the Labour Party when it started to withdraw its members, although this issue is clouded by wartime dislocation and the CPGB’s changing political line on World War II.14

Opposite tactics

Whatever the historical rights and wrongs, we can now fill in the gaps in comrade Griffiths’ musings. Yes, the CPGB was influential in the Labour Party in the late 1930s, and this did advance the work of the left in some senses (although the balance sheet is less inspiring than the one for the - also problematic - NLWM in the 1920s); but only by using precisely the opposite tactics advocated by Griffiths for 2016 and by being prepared to break rules, put or keep its members in the Labour Party and thus be generally disreputable.

A clue for the inspiration behind the never-ending pursuit of respectability on the part of the CPB can be found in Noreen Branson’s dreadful history of the CPGB between 1927 and 1941. She talks of the practice of allowing members to remain inside Labour and then dragging them out into the open in 1939:

Though no public statement was made on the matter, it was evidently concluded that to continue with such a practice would be a mistake. It laid the party open to charges of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘subversion’… There was also the danger that it would undermine the campaign for the affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party …15

I mean, just imagine, dear reader, communists being laid open to charges of subversion! Who would have thought it? One might also ask exactly what kind of ‘affiliation’ would be agreed to by those unable to even countenance CPGB members in their ranks, regardless of what route they had used to enter the Labour Party. In other words, you can either fight for affiliation or dream of it.

Mirth aside, there was an element in the CPGB in these years that craved respectability and that would certainly also be key in the mind of someone such as Branson, charged with writing deadpan ‘official’ history by a right-opportunist/Eurocommunist bureaucracy busily trying to forget the CPGB had ever been a militant party of class struggle. And it is this desire to be thought of as legitimate, respectable, mature and eminently reasonable by class enemies that animates Rob Griffiths, and means his attempt to utilise the history of the ‘official’ CPGB is a house built on sand.


1. ‘Which side are you on? Weekly Worker July 21.

2. ‘Communists can win left’s battle of ideas’ Morning Star October 15.

3. Ibid.

4. D Hyde I believed: the autobiography of a former British communist London 1951, p65.

5. Ibid.

6. K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics, 1935-41 Manchester 1989, p36.

7. K Morgan, G Cohen and A Flinn Communists and British society 1920-1991 London 2007, p131.

8. K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics, 1935-41 Manchester 1989, p36.

9. Ibid p198.

10. See ‘Historic move by national committee: a new charter for the league’ Advance August 1936.

11. See T Willis, ‘We have our wreckers too!’ Advance March 1937.

12. See J Gollan, ‘Why the Young Communist League proposes the merger’ Advance August 1936.

13. T Willis Whatever happened to Tom Mix? London 1970, p186.

14. For more on this complicated issue, see K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics, 1935-41 Manchester 1989, pp311-18.

15. N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 London 1985, p157.