A name that spells trouble
The YCL's very public pro-Stalin chanting at the recent TUC demo was clearly a provocation aimed directly at Robert Griffiths and his timid leadership of the CPB, writes Lawrence Parker
Last Saturday’s humdrum TUC cost of living demonstration was enlivened by two interesting contingents. First, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain had a largish and reasonably well-organised contingent, reflecting its growth since the denouement of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party in 2020. Behind the ‘adult’ CPB was an impressive militant formation of the Young Communist League, its youth organisation. As is now de rigueur for the comrades, they dressed in black with red bandanas and carried red flags.
The YCL got plenty of social-media coverage for its bloc, with attention being focused on a particular slogan they were chanting: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Che Guevara! Stalin!”1 Attentive readers will remember that the ‘broad-left’ CPB parents of the YCL thoroughly disapprove of such scandalous behaviour, having issued protocols in August 2021 warning CPB/YCL members against “adulation of Stalin and support for the substantial abuses of state power which occurred under his leadership”. Such endeavours were deemed to be “not compatible with our party’s judgment of these matters”.2 Chanting support of Stalin on this very public occasion, right behind the CPB’s own bloc, was clearly a provocation aimed at the ‘adult’ party. The annoyance caused by these profoundly stupid protocols has clearly not abated.
It is also possible that the YCL marchers partly did this to wind up Trotskyists on the TUC march and, if this was an intention, it was certainly successful. Social media was lit up (I use that term in its loosest sense) by outraged Trotskyists complaining of being subjected to ‘cosplay’ and LARP (live-action role-play) antics, the implication being that the YCL contingent was somehow alien to the British labour movement (criticism that is stupid, parochial and historically illiterate). Didn’t these masked YCL fiends know this was a demo about the cost of living? You see, our Trotskyist friends have a much cleverer trick: complete disappearance. Better to pretend to be a trade unionist for the day and make some brief, half-hearted attempts to sell an unreadable journal with all the vigour of a sweaty Bernard Manning in a Turkish sauna. That way everyone can forget you were even at the march, and all the attention gets focused on the young Stalinists. Clever, eh?
Leaving such limited imaginations aside, as background, one must appreciate the history of Stalin support in the world communist movement/s after his death in 1953. Following Nikita Khrushchev’s speech of 1956 and the Soviet leadership of the ‘official’ movement admitting some of Stalin’s crimes, the latter was dropped as a revolutionary icon in parties such as the old CPGB (although Stalin’s faction was deemed to have been generally correct in struggles against Bukharin and Trotsky in the 1920s).
In a process mirrored in other countries, as the CPGB stopped celebrating Stalin in the 1960s, Maoist factions from the party’s left upheld Stalin’s revolutionary virtue, allying this with a critique of the CPGB’s thoroughly reformist politics. This ideology spread itself more unevenly through the CPGB’s pro-Soviet revolutionary left in the 1970s (ie, they were anti-Maoist and looked to the continued guidance of the Soviet leadership); some of them liked Stalin, others were less fussed. This was always a confused and incoherent ideology. As is well known, Stalin, the arch-revisionist, oversaw the introduction of the CPGB’s reformist British road to socialism programme with Harry Pollitt in the 1950s.3
It is the same subjective revolutionary ideology that motivates the modern-day YCL and that is why it should be treated as a rebellion from the left in the context of the history of the CPGB and the 1988 CPB split. For example, James Meechan of Glasgow YCL recently wrote in the Morning Star that “we should consider that the slogan ‘no war but the class war’ is not a shibboleth of an ineffectual left, but watchwords for the workers’ movement at times like these”.4 Not only is this excellent slogan, revived from the 1920s, in contradiction to the flabby, pro-UN pacifism of the CPB: it is also in contrast to the politics of ‘world peace’ that Stalin oversaw in the 1930s to deal with the Soviet Union’s diplomatic isolation.
The CPB’s early leaders - although they dragged some individuals from the old CPGB’s pro-Soviet revolutionary left behind them in the 1980s - had no such history on the left. Rather, Tony Chater, editor of the Morning Star and revered patron saint of paper clips, and printers’ leader Mike Hicks, had unremarkable histories in the CPGB as members of its cautious and sclerotic bureaucracy. Chater controversially deprived the CPGB of its daily paper on a technicality that had been established in 1945 to ensure party control: namely that People’s Press Printing Society shareholders ‘owned’ the paper. Similarly, the Communist Campaign Group (forerunner of the 1988 CPB split) was dedicated to upholding the rules of the CPGB and its reformist BRS, and denied it was any kind of faction. The alternative to a political struggle against the CPGB’s long-standing reformism was this type of bureaucratic/technical manoeuvre. Chater and Hicks had no history on the CPGB’s revolutionary left and were not supporters of Stalin: rather the ideology was following the pronouncements of the ‘latest’ Soviet general secretary, which is why Gorbachev was hailed in the 1980s as a contemporary ‘Lenin’ and other such nonsense. Celebrating Stalin and combining this with revolutionary slogans instantly puts YCL members beyond the dreary, conservative modus operandi of the CPB.
This happening at the TUC demo is the latest in a line of recent provocations against the CPB leadership and its dumb social-media prohibitions. On December 18 2021, the Instagram account of the YCL’s Challenge magazine posted to celebrate JV Stalin’s birthday.5 Perhaps less judicious, considering the YCL’s recent relations with the CPB, was the quote that then followed, from a July 1928 speech by Stalin. Included is this passage:
It never has been and never will be the case that a dying class surrenders its positions voluntarily without attempting to organise resistance. It never has been and never will be the case that the working class could advance towards socialism in a class society without struggle or commotion. On the contrary, the advance towards socialism cannot but cause the exploiting elements to resist the advance, and the resistance of the exploiters cannot but lead to the inevitable sharpening of the class struggle.
This is obviously a partially coded two fingers towards certain CPB ‘adults’, given that the YCL is reproducing one of Stalin’s ideological justifications for terrorising his enemies, which in CPB bureaucratic parlance is the now prohibited “support for the substantial abuses of state power” that occurred under Stalin’s rule.
A more recent post on the Challenge website by Ben Ughetti pulls even fewer punches. Explosively, for the CPB at least, Ughetti argues:
Khrushchev after Stalin started a process of what he saw as the ‘deStalinisation’ of the Soviet Union. What this actually meant was erasing the revolutionary history of the Soviet Union. When discussing the fall of the Soviet Union it is clear to understand that it starts with Khrushchev. Under Khrushchev is a clear ideological distancing from Marxism-Leninism in an opportunistic attempt to establish deStalinisation. After Khrushchev, being a party member wasn’t about holding the ideological values of Marxism-Leninism: it suddenly became about advantages of being a party member. Revisionism had taken over in place of Marxism-Leninism.6
This is in direct contradiction to the CPB’s past writings on the Soviet Union, where Khrushchev’s critique of Stalin was largely adopted and Khrushchev himself was pictured somewhat neutrally as a reformer of the Soviet Union.7
So Ughetti’s argument is not apparently influenced by the CPB. Rather, it is a recycling of the old Maoist line of ‘Khrushchevite revisionism’ being the downfall of the Soviet Union. It is unsurprising, given that the YCL is keen on Stalin’s legacy, that some of its members would start expounding a theory that enshrines the idea of ‘Stalin, the anti-revisionist’ - an old Maoist battle-cry and, in Britain, propounded more recently by the likes of Harpal Brar’s CPGB Marxist-Leninist. The Connolly Youth Movement, which recently split from the Communist Party of Ireland, links to some more recent sources (by the likes of Grover Furr and Ludo Martens) upholding the idea of ‘Khrushchevite revisionism’ in its educational material.8
Despite these squabbles, there has not up until now been much appetite among the CPB or the YCL to replicate the Irish split in Britain. Johnnie Hunter, general secretary of the YCL, has been working hard to contain divisions, picturing them, predictably, as the work of external saboteurs. He told the CPB’s November 2021 congress: “We’ve seen the devastating consequences in a number of European countries just this year, where the link between the party and the youth is broken. We say: never here.”9 Similarly, CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths (a colourful character with a much more rebellious history than the likes of Chater, Hicks and other CPB nonentities10), naturally thinks that a vibrant, growing YCL is a considerable asset for his organisation’s future.
However, there is also the factor of CPB/YCL bureaucratic centralism in the mix. Whatever the subjectively good intentions not to split (and even though the CPB is relatively more open than the SWP, for example), this centralist mode of governance, where factions are banned and dissent tends to be treated as conspiracy, is notoriously prone to producing pointless splits. And any pre-emptive split of the YCL, when its rebellion is still confused and inchoate, would be a complete disaster for the comrades.
Unfortunately, there are some siren voices whispering in Griffiths’ ear. A proportion of the CPB’s latest intake of members is unfortunately contaminated by non-class identity politics and they have found ready supporters among some older members. Despite the clear presence of female comrades on YCL actions, there have been complaints made to CPB leaders about contingents being overly ‘masculine’, ‘macho’ and even ‘sexist’. This has unfortunate echoes of the CPGB’s pathetic Eurocommunist faction, which in the 1980s refused to support the miners’ Great Strike because of ‘male violence’ on picket lines.
The CPB has always claimed to be foursquare against such nonsense, but internal voices are being joined by those outside. Thus, sometime Alliance for Workers’ Liberty hanger-on Michael Chessum, after approaching the YCL contingent on Saturday - in the full knowledge, I would assume, of exactly what negative response he would get - is among those tickling the CPB’s soft underbelly:
… I also wonder what older @CPBritain comrades - many of whom are perfectly nice and unsectarian - think about all this (even if I’m sure we disagree on lots of stuff). Building a broad left, which they want to do, is quite hard if your most visible people [ie, the YCL] act like this.11
Given that we can safely judge that Chessum has zero interest in communist politics and, as he is a left-remainer on the matter of the European Union, very marginal interest in the avowedly pro-leave CPB, we can well guess the dubious motives at play. But Chessum is correct in noting the cuddly face the CPB has recently put on. In some ways, this makes it more politically vulnerable than its youth wing.
I would never have cast Rob Griffiths as a reluctant, latter-day Beatrix Campbell (Eurocommunist feminist of yore) … but stranger things have happened.
The marchers can be watched here: twitter.com/MrAndyNgo/status/1538292653405741056.↩︎
For more on this, see: communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2022/05/25/no-war-but-the-class-war.↩︎
See, for example: issuu.com/southdevoncommunists/docs/assessing_the_collapse_of_the_soviet_union.↩︎
For a resume of Griffiths’s career, see: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/233/welsh-road-to-british-road.↩︎