Money for old rope

The elevation of Communist Party of Britain chair Anita Halpin into the media spotlight over the last couple of weeks has been one of the more unlikely stories of the political year. Lawrence Parker reports

Apparently unbeknown to her CPB colleagues, Halpin (also a member of the TUC general council and treasurer of the National Union of Journalists) inherited an important expressionist painting - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 'Berlin street scene' - under Nazi restitution laws as the sole surviving heir of a Jewish German shoe factory owner. The painting was then sold at Christie's in New York on November 9 for a cool £20.5 million. There is also the possibility that Halpin will pursue further artworks that her grandparents were forced to hand over to the Nazi regime.

Of course, the mainstream media has made a few cheap jibes at Halpin's and the CPB's expense. The Daily Mirror was fairly representative: "Some communists are more unequal than others now veteran agitator Anita Halpin has sold a painting for £20.5 million. The arch enemy of capitalism was coy about what she will do with her windfall. But nothing's too good for the workers, eh, comrade Halpin!" (November 11).

The 'point' behind these witticisms appears to be that it is somehow immoral for a communist to have this amount of money. Frankly, this is bollocks. Unfortunately, leftwing organisations do not inhabit a utopia of their own making, rather they have to function inside capitalist society. They need money, in other words. Of course, this can throw up contradictions and a communist organisation that pursues a financial balance sheet at the expense of its qualitative development is in serious trouble. However, if Anita Halpin has inherited this treasure chest and, as seems likely, chooses to boost the coffers of the CPB and the Morning Star (which is formally independent of the CPB and the main reason for the group's existence) in some fashion, bloody good luck to them.

But what do Halpin's newly acquired millions actually mean for the future of the CPB? This, after all, is not a particularly happy ship at the moment, riven as it is by a divide between a large 'innovators' minority (centred around Star editor John Haylett and, more uncertainly, general secretary Robert Griffiths), once keen to get into bed with Respect, and a 'traditionalist' majority that wants to stick with the CPB's past of automatically voting for and working to 'reclaim' the Labour Party. Although, the majority's main mouthpiece has been international secretary John Foster, this wing also includes women's organiser Emily Mann, bumbling industrial organiser Kevin Halpin and, last, but by no means least, Anita Halpin herself.

CPB members have told me that there is currently a brooding sense of expectation as the organisation waits to see what Halpin decides to do with her bounty. Which, in the case of the CPB, means working out exactly what this means for its various factions and fiefdoms.

Rob Griffiths began the day on which the news broke by disputing reports that comrade Halpin had sold the painting. According to The Guardian, Griffiths alleged "the misleading information had been circulated by 'former communists'" (November 10). This not only shows that Halpin had not kept Griffiths in the know over the sale, but also displays some unease on the part of the general secretary: he probably hoped that the news was not true. Similarly, Haylett was approached by The Sunday Times: "So what is Halpin like to work with? John Haylett "¦ was not effusive. 'Very efficient and effective,' he said. Did she have warmth? 'Absolutely.'" For those of us who follow such events, these low-key responses have a certain factional imprint.

Presumably Griffiths and Haylett fear that any future role that Halpin may have as the main financial benefactor of the Morning Star/CPB may end up being used as a factional bludgeon against them. Haylett himself has experience of such methods when he was sacked as Star editor in 1998 by the management committee of the People's Press Printing Society, then led by Mary Rosser. The idea of actually working through political differences through open ideological struggle is alien to this group. Rather such differences are left to fester under a public show of unanimity, while leading figures attempt to use positions and structures to shore up their particular faction. To that end, the fears of the 'innovators' are perhaps well founded.

It is possible to fashion more positive predictions. Perhaps Halpin's millions will open up the 'British' road to glory for the CPB. Certainly, a significant amount of finance would secure the future existence of the organisation and the Morning Star. On the other hand, becoming the beneficiary of this money may well make the CPB's organisational crisis more acute.

As we noted from CPB internal documents earlier this year, the leadership is worried that the group is literally fading away as it struggles with a dozy, inactive membership, while active members merely sustain structures that are unattractive to those outside a particular organisational loop ('Ever-decreasing circles', June 8).

Even the organisation's official Report of the 49th Congress (2006) notes: "We recognise that many comrades in the party are playing a vital role in the broader labour movement, peace, solidarity, pensioners' and anti-racist organisations, etc. Many therefore find it difficult to play a role directly in party activities. However, this means that, with a small party membership, our resources are overstretched most of the time. We have reached a critical point in our party's development and if the problem is left unresolved, then we may see a decline in our work."

The danger is that any significant financial largesse from Halpin could make CPB members even less inclined to be active and bolster the bureaucratic structures that people are not relating to. Why bother contributing to the annual 'appeal' with all that money swimming around HQ? Why bother rebuilding district structures from your own efforts? Can't party centre just fund some full-timers for us? Ironically, in its current parlous state, the CPB's 'activity' would probably benefit more from an acute financial crisis that got its members either off their arses or away from presiding over dull trade union meetings into specific party work.

However, this would mean reversing the whole modus operandi of the CPB: its reliance on a set of external crutches (the trade unions, the Labour Party, a dull labour movement paper such as the Morning Star) to open up the British road to socialism. It is this programmatic flaw in the CPB's make-up that consistently imperils any meaningful public activity. £20 billion in funds would not allow it to circumvent this brutal reality.