Diminished horizons, modern-day echoes

Lawrence Parker reviews John Callaghan: Cold War, crisis and conflict: the CPGB 1951-68 (Lawrence and Wishart, 2003, pp256, £15.99)

This is not a book that instantly provokes the reader into thought by the exposition of a radical thesis. However, lurking in its well-researched pages are a number of narratives that have the effect of prodding the reader into engagement. Callaghan's book is thus a useful foil for further exploration.

It is impossible to do justice to its full range in a relatively short article. This review will, then, consider one of the CPGB's top priorities in this period: the trade unions. Indeed, this was the raison d'être for the party in the eyes of many of its militants. Such ideas became even more compelling with the collapse of the CPGB as any kind of electoral force in the post-war period (pp184-194).

Such a prioritisation was intensely problematic for the party. The CPGB used to talk about its 'rotten elements', those poor souls unwise enough to counter or doubt 'the line'. But the real rot was trade union economism. Embedded in the party's development were the ideas that trade union work was good in itself and that a primary loyalty to your trade union (a bourgeois institution) was a prerequisite for communists (a trail blazed by Harry Pollitt in the 1930s, as he dodged the practical implementation of third period politics).

The CPGB thus became blind to the limitations of trade unionism, which is essentially a bargain over the terms of slavery. This culture lives on in the likes of the Morning Star and Solidarity (as an aside, no-one is suggesting that work in the trade union movement is not necessary, or that the CPGB were not correct in according it a high priority during this period).

Party members were "builders of unions, assiduous agents on behalf of unions - collecting the subs, distributing information, holding meetings, recruiting members, opposing apathy, cynicism and splitters" (p35). All very admirable, but in this particular context, such work tended to merely structure a reformist culture. This was given a further boost by the adoption of a thoroughly reformist programme - the British road to socialism - in 1951. Thus it was that the seeming permanence of bourgeois institutions and the need to utilise external crutches (the Labour Party, trade unions) loomed ever larger in the CPGB mindset.

The manner in which the party approached trade unions actually meant the dissipation of its influence as a party. In this vein, Callaghan talks of the leadership's "uphill struggle" to maintain factory branches in the 1950s and 1960s (pp32-33). He later states: "It was a convenient simplification to depict communist trade unionists as politically motivated robots under the central direction of King Street. The party itself worried that some of its industrial militants were interested in nothing other than trade unionism" (p232).

This notion of CPGB trade unionists is a familiar image: "Griff Jones, the lodge chairman and uncrowned king of a big colliery up the valley, was an old party member and lived in Porthneinon, but, though he was always friendly enough and would ask you in for a cup of tea, you could never get him either to come to a meeting or to sign up any more of his mates in the lodge. Richard soon realised that the real influence of the party lay elsewhere, that it was widely looked to give a lead in the union, and for that a handful like Griff felt themselves to be enough" (M Heinemann The adventurers London 1962, p206).

This fictional account rings true when the likes of JR Campbell remarked in the mid-1960s that, of the CPGB's 25,000 trade union activists, perhaps only one in 10 attended an industrial party meeting each year (p251). Another member stated bluntly that "there are two Communist Parties - members of one work in ward branches and members of the other work in industry" (p249).

Of course, the party's industrial department did have responsibility for overseeing the work of the industrial advisories that brought together CPGB members to coordinate their union work. Callaghan says that they "acted as transmission belts for the formulation and dissemination of party policy" (p39). This sounds fine in theory, but what actual control (in the sense of accountability rather than 'giving orders') did it give the party leadership over its union militants?

From Campbell's above remark, it would seem that a number of union activists would not bother to attend such gatherings. In the context of a reformist culture that venerated trade unionism one does suspect that the transmission belt fed from the union to the political centre and only rarely the other way.

In the 1961 court case that dealt with allegations of ballot-rigging by CPGB activists in the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Mr Justice Winn, in his summing up, thought that the prosecution overstated the power of CPGB advisories and doubted whether the ETU leaders received "orders from anybody" (p244). One gets the impression from reading Callaghan's concise narrative that the CPGB leadership are essentially reactive and marginal to these events (even though it seems likely that some had a sniff of the scandal about to emerge). In the context of the party's culture at that time, the leadership was politically incapable of doing anything else.

It is important to recognise that activists involved in this or that specialised sphere are always going to need a measure of independence. However, relations with the political centre would need to be organised around a realistic tension, unlike in the CPGB of this period, where everything was weighted against the centre in favour of the more parochial world of the union militants.

By 1960, ETU was apparently a triumph for the CPGB. Nine of the 14 members of its executive were seemingly members of the party. President Frank Foulkes, general secretary Frank Haxell and assistant general secretary Bob McLennan were all CPGB. The party was also dominant in the London area, the biggest in the country. The leading communists in ETU ran into trouble during the December 1959 election for general secretary (in the context of a concerted moral panic about CPGB domination of ETU and other unions) and Haxell, standing for re-election, was declared the winner in February 1960 after a close contest. However, 109 branches had their votes disqualified and the case was taken to court in April 1961. In July 1961, Winn declared that Haxell's opponent, John Byrne, had been validly elected as general secretary. This disaster for the CPGB was compounded during subsequent executive elections when the party lost its majority.

More interesting perhaps is the subsequent discussion the CPGB had over industrial work in 1964-65, where the ETU events received a limited airing (although the time lapse suggests the difficulty the party had in confronting these issues). It becomes clear from Callaghan's interesting presentation (pp246-254) that, although the ETU leadership's rigging of elections may have been exceptional (in terms of the CPGB's overall trade union record), the cultural context in which those decisions where taken was not.

For example, Len Dawson, who had been involved with leading ETU, said: "In the two years that I have sat on this [advisory] committee, although we paid a certain amount of lip service to the need to discuss and shape industrial policy in the union, little or nothing was done in this direction - mainly because we were so wrapped up in discussions on the election of union officers that it would have needed a weekend on every occasion that we met rather than an evening" (p246).

We see here how the CPGB militants are completely absorbed in the world of ETU; trade union primacy is represented by the idea that they must maintain their position, at any cost. The party, even in the limited sense of union members formulating industrial policy, has ceased to exist as a pole of attraction.

This sense of displacement is also represented by Reg Beech's contribution: "I have had the argument put to me - urging me as a then branch secretary - to agree to fiddling a ballot on the alleged Marxist argument that the [trade union] environment must be changed in order to create socialist union thinking - then the techniques of ballot fiddling would no longer be necessary" (p248). What glorious vistas open up before us: "socialist union thinking" and freedom from rigged ballots. No quote could better reflect how the horizons of the ETU's leadership had diminished.

Another ETU activist, FW Griffiths, said: "We can now firstly estimate whether controlling [trade unions] without mass support is worthwhile. We can institute broad, open party political work inside the union, where the principle should be to recruit and build our party (not the ETU)" (original emphasis, p248). Of course, the CPGB itself was conspirational and undemocratic, so it was no surprise that manipulative practices infected its union militants. Callaghan remarks of this quote: "It seems that running the ETU, in the perception of some communists, had been incompatible with proselytising for the CP. The party was too interested in 'taking office under cover' to risk jeopardising its electoral chances by openly fighting for communist politics" (ibid).

This is misplaced and too narrow. The reality is that being a member of the CPGB was often no barrier to winning union elections. Indeed, by voting for a communist, you knew at least that you would probably get a tireless union worker (Mr Justice Winn recognised in the court case that the ETU's CPGB cohorts were undoubtedly committed to the interests of union members - p244). Also, the shop-floor grapevine would tell workers who was a 'red'. The reason why fighting openly for party politics and maintaining a specific factory branch were usually non-starters was because of the poisonous reformism that had seeped through the CPGB.

The idolisation of trade unions as trade unions and the perceived future reliance on a 'special' type of Labour government to enact socialism screamed 'ginger group', despite the protestations of the CPGB leadership to the contrary. In those circumstances, there simply is not much utility in shouting about your politics (if you have any left that can be distinguished from Labourism). Communism thus becomes an individual point of identity that is fairly meaningless in practice. Probably one of the only things marking out a CPGB member on the shop floor in the 1950s and 1960s would have been tireless activism and a rather peculiar set of ideas about the Soviet Union.

Not that the Trotskyist left has learnt much from such episodes. Chris Bambery of the Socialist Workers Party once wrote an embarrassing eulogy to the CPGB's building of its trade union base in the 1930s, presumably with an eye on a yet-to-emerge repeat performance from his own organisation (http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr187/bambery.htm).

Impressive though the CPGB's work in the 1930s was, these were key years in the codification of a reformist culture; the manner in which trade union tasks were approached clearly reflected this (Pollitt said in 1933 that he would rather stand against the London Busmen's Rank and File Committee than risk getting expelled from the TGWU, while Palme Dutt claimed that CPGB work around the busmen had reduced its activists to the state of clerical-technical assistants. Premonitions of the future.)

SWP members Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon are much more sophisticated. In the context of working class militancy in 1972 they write: "Politically the CP promoted illusions in leftwing union leaders, thus disarming workers at critical moments, while some of its members in practice often formed an effective and militant opposition to the rightwing leaders" (R Darlington and D Lyddon Glorious summer: class struggle in Britain in 1972 London 2001, p30). This is correct as far as it goes, but the problem of relying on leftwing union leaders was embedded in the whole reformist method of trade union loyalty. It is a typical response of a ginger group that cannot work through existing institutions, but instead relies on those institutions as animators of change. This ultimately meant that the CPGB was bereft of revolutionary political (as opposed to union-political) ideas as to how to resolve 1972 in favour of the working class. Darlington and Lyddon thus end up with a surface critique that fails to locate the root of the CPGB's errors.

One suspects that the reason why Trotskyists have found it difficult to do more than scratch the surface of the CPGB's trade union work is that if they did they might find themselves looking in the mirror. After all, economism and worship of workplace struggle is the ABC of most Trotskyists, and trade union work is all too often seen as an act of salvation - or an acid test of Bolshevism, as one Alliance for Workers' Liberty member bizarrely put it to me. An echo of the CPGB's old practice can be seen in the recent reluctance of the SWP to discipline members on the Commercial and Public Service Union's executive who had been consistently arguing against the SWP's line over a period of years. It was only when Martin John and Sue Bond voted for a shabby pensions deal that the SWP leadership felt prodded into action (see 'Turmoil over pensions' Weekly Worker November 3 2005).

In other words, the tail still wags the dog. The history of the CPGB is replete with lessons for those who perform union work unconsciously.