Fragile unity under threat

On the weekend of January 10-11, a deep and festering division surfaced in the new executive committee of the Communist Party of Britain

Against stiff opposition, by 17 votes to 13, Robert Griffiths replaced sitting general secretary Mike Hicks, a change recommended by the retiring political committee. The recommendation was moved by Morning Star editor John Haylett, a stand which may well cost him his editorship, at the hands of the Hicks-Rosser clique which controls the Morning Star.

The palace coup in the leadership of the so-called Communist Party of Britain - which rivals the CPGB Provisional Central Committee’s claim to represent the communist tradition in this country - puts a question mark over the future of both the ‘party’ and the daily paper it supports, the Morning Star. The ousting of the conservative and lethargic incumbent general secretary, print union bureaucrat Mike Hicks, by the younger and more dynamic South Wales lecturer in labour studies, Robert Griffiths, ostensibly as the candidate best able to unify the organisation, paradoxically threatens to disturb its fragile opportunist unity.

In the first place, removing Hicks as general secretary means challenging the control of the Hicks-Rosser clique over the Morning Star. This also raises the question of the subordination of the ‘party’ to the paper. Yet the CPB owes its very existence to the Star, support for which was the reason for the CPB’s birth. Without CPB support, the Morning Star would be seriously weakened. Without the Morning Star, the CPB would have no reason to exist. CPB members would do well to reconsider the wisdom of placing their faith in a ‘party’ which is led by a paper.

The Daily Worker, from its first issue on January 1 1930, was the political voice of the CPGB, notwithstanding the change, after World War II, from nominal individual ownership by a series of trusted comrades - taking their turn as fall guys in the event of legal actions against the paper - to cooperative ownership by the Peoples Press Printing Society. Although legal control of the Daily Worker, and, after the 1967 name change, the Morning Star, rested with the PPPS, nevertheless editorial policy remained with the Communist Party. The paper’s editors, from Bill Rust in 1930 through George Matthews to Tony Chater in the early 1980s, were members of the Party’s political committee, and took instructions from it - until editor Tony Chater unilaterally declared independence. He described the CPGB as an “outside body” which he would no longer follow.

The roles of the CPB and Star, however, are reversed. The CPB was formed as an organisation of Morning Star supporters, rallying in defence of the paper’s declaration of independence from the Communist Party in the mid-1980s. Although this rebellion was against a rightward moving Eurocommunist CPGB leadership which eventually liquidated the Party, the removal of the paper from Party control was itself a major step in the process of liquidation. Having successfully freed itself from more than 50 years of political control by the official CPGB, the Morning Star will now find it much easier to maintain the paper’s independence from the CPB, a ‘party’ which is its own creation. It would indeed be a miracle if any kind of party control were re-established over the Morning Star. The survival of the CPB on any other basis than support for the Morning Star, however, is as likely as Tony Blair voting communist.

In the second place, any dynamism on the part of the new general secretary, Robert Griffiths, satisfying though this might be for the more energetic cadres of the organisation, itself threatens the sleepy unity of the conservative and inactive CPB membership. Those who doze peacefully together in blissful ignorance of each other’s politics may suffer a rude awakening if stirred into activity or thought, and may find it impossible to stomach each other in the cold light of day. The absurd postage stamp debates on the letters page of the Morning Star about whether or not Stalin’s purges took place testify to the depth of unreality characteristic of Star readers and CPB members.

Surprisingly however, the CPB has recently experienced a modest growth in membership - up from below 1,000 to approximately 1,200. Precisely because of its lack of political initiative or activity under Hicks, combined with its programmatic loyalty to New Labour, no matter how Blairite, the CPB’s various industrial advisory committees - the only parts of the organisation which half-function - have been able to provide a career network for the lower echelons of the trade union bureaucracy. This is the field in which the organisation has been able to recruit. Ironically, it is among this layer of trade union activists with at least some life in them, incubated precisely under the safe cover of Hicks’ conservatism, that frustration with the CPB’s stagnation is greatest. Stirring the comatose body of ‘official communism’ into action would inevitably reveal the divergent strands of opportunist decay to each other, threatening an end to their fragile unity.

As Weekly Worker readers will be aware, the disciplined unity in action of CPGB members and supporters is won through the open clash of ideas in this paper, striving to make known and understood all trends in the organisation and the differing positions of leading comrades. Such revolutionary unity is strong because it is based on openness of ideas. The CPB and the Morning Star, on the other hand, churn out official pap until real differences burst forth unexpectedly. No sign of the anti-Hicks struggle could be detected in the Morning Star reports of the CPB’s November 1997 congress. And it is not only the rank and file who are caught unawares and unprepared.

Talking to various CPB executive members over the last few days, I could find nothing but complacency. None accepted that political differences underlie the division between Hicks and Griffiths. As with the SWP after the collapse of the USSR, ‘nothing has happened’. There had been “personality clashes” with Hicks, who, it was argued by his opponents at the executive committee meeting, had been “paranoid about the influence of outside organisations” on the ‘party’, and this had been “divisive”. The replacement of Hicks was “a great opportunity to stop the stagnation” in the CPB, whose “policies and ideas are excellent, but their implementation has been held back by stagnation and personality clashes”. “Both sides support the alternative economic strategy and the British Road to Socialism, although there may be differences in interpretation.” The change in personnel represents “absolutely no change” in the policies and direction of the CPB. So I was told.

Obviously, none of this can explain the tenacious resistance to removal offered by Hicks over a period of more than two years. It was not the newly elected political committee which recommended Hicks’ removal, but the retiring one. Furthermore, when, after the previous congress in the autumn of 1996, Hicks survived by a single vote a challenge from chairman Richard Maybin, this challenge was also recommended by the retiring political committee. For the past two years, Hicks’ position as general secretary has been maintained by a tiny majority on the 30-strong executive, against the wishes of eight out of ten members of the political committee.

It would be naive to believe that Hicks will meekly accept his downgrading with comradely humility. Perhaps he and his partner, PPPS chief executive Mary Rosser, will retaliate from their entrenched position of strength by removing John Haylett as editor. Rumour has it that the 100-strong Socialist Action group, which has long since been sucking up to Hicks and Rosser, will attempt to get an in on the Star at the forthcoming PPPS annual general meeting. This, of course, would be difficult without the connivance of those who hold the levers of power in the PPPS, which is well protected by so-called “checks and balances”, as one comrade put it, against takeover by a sudden mobilisation of shareholders from any organised group.

In truth the differences now reflected in the opposing camps on the CPB executive go back beyond the birth of the CPB through the Communist Campaign Group in the 1980s.

On the one hand, Morning Star editor Tony Chater’s UDI from Party control represented a bureaucratic split in the rightward moving ‘official’ CPGB. Chater’s section of the Party machine rebelled against the Eurocommunist threat to his control over his paper.

On the other hand, the bulk of the more militant Party cadres, unhappy with the Party’s ‘revolutionary’ reformist BRS programme, instead of joining the open, principled struggle launched by The Leninist in November 1981 to reforge the CPGB on revolutionary lines, fell in behind Chater’s section of the opportunist Party bureaucracy. This effectively sealed their fate as prisoners of opportunism, stunting the development of their revolutionary leanings by outlawing open debate as divisive. The CCG, which organised comrades, expelled or otherwise, behind Chater and the Morning Star, imposed a conservative, legalistic regime of loyalty. The Party was to be re-established on the basis of its existing BRS programme and the AES, neither of which could be challenged or even examined until after re-establishment. Thus, the very reformism which was the root cause of the Party’s decline and liquidation was reinstated as the basis of the CPB, setting in motion a repeat performance, only in miniature: a rightward moving leadership followed, reluctantly, by a rightward moving opposition.

In this short sketch of the CPB’s evolution, the roles of Mike Hicks and Robert Griffiths contrast somewhat. Hicks, as a member of the CPGB’s national executive, and a leading figure on the London District Committee, was a British Roader through and through, and had played his full part in the bureaucratic persecution of leftwingers. Nevertheless, he boasts a proud record of industrial militancy, leading printworkers out of their Fleet Street workplaces within an hour of the jailing of the Pentonville Five dockers in 1972, and playing a key role as chief steward in the 1986 Wapping dispute against Rupert Murdoch. When tried and jailed for his Wapping activities, however, his reformism poisoned his militancy. Instead of defiance in the face of anti-working class laws, he proclaimed not only his innocence, but also his respect for the legislation. While this failed to keep him out of the bosses’ jail, it destroyed his cover as a ‘revolutionary’.

His general secretaryship of the CPB has been characterised by lack of initiative and complete incapacity for original thought, sticking mindlessly to what he already knows. When the USSR collapsed, he famously announced in a TV interview that this was irrelevant to the CPB, as “we have our own programme for socialism in Britain”. Under his unimaginative leadership, the recruitment of MSF leader Ken Gill to the CPB was given contemptuous quarter-inch treatment in the Morning Star, before disappearing from view. Likewise the surrender of comrades Andrew Murray, Nick Wright and Susan Michie of the Communist Liaison Group, who were permitted to join the organisation with more scorn than welcome.

Robert Griffiths comes from a Welsh nationalist background, and was a critic of BRS reformism. Once a Plaid Cymru research officer, he published, with Gareth Miles, Sosialaeth i’r Cymry (Socialism for the Welsh People) in July 1979, and the following January founded the Welsh Socialist Republican Movement. In May 1982, the WSRM was active in support of Bobby Sands and the other Irish political prisoners on hunger strike when Robert Griffiths was among those arrested and tried on bomb-related charges. Griffiths served time on remand but, unlike some others, was found not guilty.

During the Morning Star rebellion in the CPGB, Griffiths joined the CCG, and became known to readers of The Leninist when we reproduced the South Wales discussion papers which Griffiths had published. This was a collection of writings by a number of comrades highly critical of the BRS from the left. Under the healthy conditions of open debate practised by The Leninist and its offspring, the Weekly Worker, these views critical of the utopian, gradualist, parliamentary road to socialism could have been fully expressed, rounded out and developed into a coherent revolutionary approach. Instead, the South Wales discussions were choked at birth by loyalty to an opportunist bureaucracy.

Robert Griffiths and those who followed him into the CPB quickly became loyal to the BRS and have subsequently moved steadily to the right. Only by breaking from the liquidationist logic of the BRS can CPB comrades prevent themselves being wasted as communists.

Ian Farrell