Up the garden path again: Robert Griffiths is clearly unable to learn from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union

Mr Griffiths goes to Beijing

Showered with all manner of treats, the CPB’s gensec is a credulous fanboy of China’s ‘socialist modernisation’, writes Paul Demarty

Readers of the Morning Star have been regaled, of late, with a series of articles by Robert Griffiths on his tour of China.

When it comes to the Star’s China coverage, we are long past expecting much in the way of critical distance. Even by those low standards, however, comrade Griffiths - the general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, which effectively publishes the paper - has delivered a performance of exceptional guilelessness, which must inevitably raise questions about the exact nature of the CPB’s relationship to the Chinese state.

After all, this was no mere holiday, but a 10-day tour of Chinese ‘modernisation’, hosted by the ruling Communist Party’s international department. Griffiths had the “honour of leading” a delegation from “11 communist parties and a friendship society from Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the US, Canada and Australia”.1 The star-struck visitors were shuttled around the country, visiting factories in Guangzhou, community organisers in Guizhou, and party bigwigs in Beijing.

“Our hosts’ intention was to explain China’s path of ‘socialist modernisation’,” he writes, “and demonstrate the achievements of their country’s system of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.” The hosts seemed extremely intent on this - after all, they flew dozens of people from all over the world to China and then all over China, showered them with all manner of treats (Griffiths mentions “An evening visit to the Guiyang Grand Theatre” for “a lavish feast of Guizhou culture”,2 among other cheerful outings). Perhaps it worked: after all, the “honoured” leader of the delegation proceeded not only to regurgitate exactly what is expected of him (much of his first article simply consists of bullet points that might have been in a CPC press release), but to plumb depths of servility usually reserved for royal funeral coverage in the Daily Mail.


It would be cruel to inflict too many quotations of this garbage on readers, but a few nuggets will get the picture over. Griffiths is dazzled by the dynamism of the Chinese economy, the progress made in electric car manufacture (quite real, of course). Visiting an EV factory in Guangzhou, he eagerly notes that “its operations in China illustrate how industry is pursuing the course of socialist modernisation set by president Xi Jinping and the CPC, based on consumer-driven, high-quality and eco-friendly development”. Sounds great! He visits a residential community in Guizhou, and falls head over heels for its “community director”, Yuan Qin, who “spends her days and evenings solving residents’ problems … and organising classes for everything from computers to dancing. Recently a delegate to the CPC’s 20th congress, her enthusiasm was infectious” (evidently!).

Later, his delegation is invited to meet several officials from the CPC’s international department to discuss politics in the west. “They were keen to learn more about how people in developed western countries live,” he notes. “How are our communist parties doing, what are their prospects and those for the advance to socialism?” Unfortunately, “none could deny the reality of growing anti-China feeling in the west and the onset of a cold war”. For his part, Griffiths congratulated the CPC for its “readiness to admit and address China’s problems, weaknesses and mistakes”3 - at least it saves comrade Griffiths the effort of making any criticisms of his own.

This sort of thing is hardly new to Griffiths, of course, and still less to the CPB. Before China, there was, of course, the Soviet Union, and the people who would eventually found the CPB - pro-Soviet opportunists like former Morning Star editor Tony Chater - cheerfully followed every zig and zag of Soviet policy. This proceeded right to the bitter end, even as Mikhail Gorbachev began taking the whole edifice apart. As the endgame approached, this reached the point of absurdity, with the Star hailing the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Evan Smith wrote a few years ago,

… the paper reported that the “winds of perestroika have reached the GDR”, but this “[did] not mean a crisis of socialism, … because the majority of the GDR population is not going to abandon human socialism”.4

There was always some reason for cheer and optimism; some reason that criticism of perestroika, whether on Brezhnevite, anti-revisionist or Trotskyist grounds, was unforgivable impertinence. Until, alas, there was no longer a Soviet Union.

In stages, the CPB transferred its allegiance to China. This must have been difficult to swallow for the real old-timers, who remembered the Sino-Soviet split and subsequent Sino-American rapprochement. Yet it seems people committed to this type of politics find the habit incredibly hard to break. After all, you can’t have tankies without tanks. A great-power sponsor allows us to picture ourselves as involved in grand strategy and global politics, even if we are in fact merely a group of a few thousand leftwingers in a country drifting to the right.

There is a story of the Weekly Worker’s own predecessor, The Leninist: a member of that faction of the old CPGB was talking to a member of the Socialist Workers Party, who complained that we still called the SWP a sect when they had 10,000 members (or whatever). “How nice for you,” our comrade replied: “we have 300 million.” The Leninist was not shy of criticising the leaders of the ‘socialist countries’, least of all Gorbachev. Yet even in its case, as for all members of the ‘official’ international communist movement, the idea that detachments of the movement had really seized power was a paramount motivating force.

The attraction of the Chinese People’s Republic is thus, despite the fraught history of the 1960s-80s, quite clear. It is the appeal of a party of hundreds of millions, running a state that is an economic and military powerhouse (one way or another, clearly in better nick than the USSR under Brezhnev or Gorbachev). It claims to be a socialist society - albeit, as Griffiths obediently reminds us, “with Chinese characteristics”. Yet in some ways it is a harder sell. Those “Chinese characteristics”, after all, are a huge and vastly profitable private sector, which has largely been built in service to western capital.


The new cold war brewing between China and the US - perhaps, indeed, not as cold as one would like - has pushed both powers towards economic decoupling, which will lessen the cognitive dissonance for faraway fanboys like Griffiths.

But he still has some work to do, and the result is a disregard for elementary Marxist principles so blithe that one rather suspects he is quite unaware of it. He quotes, without comment, an official on the role of the trade unions: “The role of the trade unions is to protect workers’ rights. The interests of the working class cannot come before the interests of all; our common aim is to build a socialist society through governance.”

Marx and Engels denounced this kind of thinking in the utopians, gradualists and 1848-nationalists of their own day; Lenin denounced it in the economists and ‘legal Marxists’; and so on. But it all seems perfectly sensible to Griffiths, who elsewhere trumpets the importance of “Marxist-Leninist education” for the young (possibly a sideswipe at the more rebarbatively Stalinist members of the CPB’s Young Communist League). Indeed, but for the word “socialist” in the sentence above, one could well imagine it coming from the mouth of Sir Keir Starmer, and we can readily suggest what the Star would make of any suggestion on his part that workers ought to have their claims limited in the name of the “interests of all” and good “governance”!

Likewise, Griffiths reports (again without comment) the notion that China’s Belt and Road initiative is a matter of “assist[ing] poorer countries”. Marxists disagree as to whether it and other, similar initiatives amount to export of capital sufficient to characterise China as imperialist stricto sensu, but it is one thing to debate the question and another to simply assume it does not exist. Griffiths makes a point of noting that one of the officials of the Communist Youth League was a “member of China’s growing Uighur community”, without lingering for a single moment on why that fact might be notable. One does not have to buy into hysterical charges of genocide to note that the situation in Xinjiang hardly reflects well on “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

The question must arise as to whether Griffiths and the CPB are literally corrupted by their relations with the CPC. This arises, in fact, even if we assume - as we must - that no further material support is forthcoming - nothing like the old days of “Moscow gold” subsidising the ‘official’ CPGB through bulk paper sales and so on. If a CPB member had been flown around Israel and Palestine on the dime of the Israeli government, and had come back effusive with praise for the settler state, one would readily smell a rat (and the Israeli government certainly conducts such activities). Why should it be different for China?

Alternatively, we might assume that Griffiths can make the same kind of defence as Francis Bacon, who - among his other achievements - was lord chancellor until 1621. He was stripped of his post for taking bribes, but insisted that the bribes had made no impact on his judgments (because he made a point of taking money from both sides!). Variants of this defence have a long and dishonourable history, popping up most recently among supporters of American Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, whose lavish treatment by eccentric billionaire Harlan Crow has badly damaged his reputation; but nobody seriously believes that his legal opinions would be any the less comically tilted towards capital, had Crow been less generous.

Thus, Robert Griffiths - sure, he was whisked from power lunch to theatre performance to solemn ceremony by the Chinese state; and sure, he returned to Britain excitedly regurgitating the self-presentation of that state to his readers. But in the counterfactual case where he was rudely snubbed, can we imagine any greater political distance? The answer is, sadly, no. The highly imperfect internationalism that pro-Sovietism represented in the cold war era has further degenerated; now the CPB holds desperately onto the coattails of an at least semi-capitalist great power.

This is, in the end, a political error rather than a matter of direct corruption. Either way, the whole thing stinks.

  1. ‘On the path of China’s modernisation’ Morning Star August 5.↩︎

  2. ‘How technology-led governance works in modern China’ Morning Star August 9.↩︎

  3. ‘China: meeting trade unionists and party members, young and old’ Morning Star August 11.↩︎

  4. hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/the-communist-party-of-britain-the-morning-star-and-the-legacy-of-the-soviet-union - Smith’s article contains many other poorly-aged prognostications from the Star in this period.↩︎