Past, present and future
The struggle to equip the working class with a Communist Party has been long, arduous but absolutely necessary. The theme of a talk given by John Bridge at Communist University 2007
We have often been accused by comrades from other traditions of having a sentimental attachment to the Communist Party of Great Britain, as founded in 1920. Such comrades ask: what use has the working class got for the tiny CPGB of 1920; or the CPGB of 1926 that mishandled the general strike; or the CPGB of the early 1930s that thought that social democrats were social fascists; or the CPGB of 1939 that claimed to see no difference between Nazi Germany and France and Britain; or the CPGB of 1945 that advised the Labour Party to go for a coalition government with Winston Churchill?
Do we want to fight to recreate any of this? Of course not. But we do understand that the history of the CPGB - good and bad - is the history of the vanguard of the working class in Britain. Anyone who writes about the history of the trade union movement or the Labour left in the 20th century without recognising the central role of the CPGB understands absolutely nothing.
The formation of the CPGB was a historic event and has a particular significance in relation to where we are at the present time. Up to 1920, the left in Britain was fragmented, organised in mutually hostile groups that found it extraordinarily difficult to cooperate with each other in furthering the class struggle. These groups were small, uncoordinated and amateurish. There was no way that they could seriously imagine leading the working class to the conquest of state power.
The Communist Party of Great Britain was founded at a conference in London over the weekend of July 31-August 1 1920. What was significant about the Unity Convention was not so much the forces that it initially brought together. The British Socialist Party was an affiliate of the Labour Party, and had come from the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain. The BSP had already split with the founder of the SDF, Henry Hyndman, who took a social chauvinist position during World War I. While his paper, Justice, the official organ of the BSP, backed the British state in its war against Germany, the paper of the internationalist left, The Call, led and coordinated the successful anti-Hyndman revolt. The Call went on to lead and coordinate those in Britain who wanted to emulate the Bolsheviks in Russia. Alongside the BSP came the minority of the Socialist Labour Party, an organisation which had a syndicalistic orientation and a rather wooden approach to Marxism.
So the significance of the Unity Convention lay, first and foremost, in the fact that it produced a whole which was much more than the sum of its parts. The CPGB was not formed on the basis of some diplomatic compromise, but on the basis of accepting the lead and wanting to take on board the lessons of Russian communism - the Bolsheviks, as concretised by the Communist International. Communism in Britain thereby went from being essentially a backward, fragmentary and peripheral element of the Second International to a qualitatively higher plane.
What is the relevance of this for today? Look at Respect, the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, the old Socialist Alliance and the answer is obvious. What is today's left attempting to unite around? Not its own, albeit inadequate, programme, but a programme that is far to the right of what it claims to believe in. A lowest common denominator programme. Even in the Campaign for a Marxist Party, there are those who think a Marxist party is a bit advanced for today's circumstances and say the CMP should be campaigning for something that is a step towards it: in other words a halfway house.
No, comrades, what we want and what we need is a party that tells the truth. We need a party that can organise the working class to conquer political power and not repeat the farce and the nonsense that we have seen with the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect.
Strength and weakness
The biggest strength of the CPGB was its unity around the Russian Revolution. But that strength became its opposite. Russia went from where the working class was ruling in 1917 to a bloody civil war which broke the alliance with the peasantry and from there to international isolation and the Communist Party substituting for the working class.
Under these circumstances there was bound to be a degeneration in the Russian Communist Party itself. We know how desperate Lenin was in the early 1920s. Anyone reading his Collected works from that period can see a man clutching at straws and slowly realising that besides external enemies there was the enemy within the Communist Party itself. Not least general secretary Joseph Stalin. If you want to learn about this, then read Moshe Lewin's excellent book, Lenin's last struggle.
Lenin said in the early 1920s that the class nature of the regime hung on the fate of the country's 6,000 leading communists. Lenin no longer trusted the party as a whole, and was forced to rely on the vanguard of the vanguard. But what happened to that vanguard? Lenin died in 1924. There is short transition period during which Stalin famously publishes The foundations of Leninism. Basically, he and other leading communists were fighting for the heritage of Lenin. Leninism, like so many 'isms' went from being an insult used by opponents to being a badge of honour.
Stalin then makes his move to become the pope of a reinvented Leninism. He produces a second edition of The foundations of Leninism which contains a significant change. In the first edition, the impossibility of building socialism in one country is unequivocally stated. It is obvious: there has to be a world revolution. In the second edition, however, readers are informed that every serious Marxist accepts socialism in one country and anyone who does not is a Trotskyist.
Stalin's secretaries had combed through Lenin's works, including his unpublished manuscripts and letters, and came up with two quotes, in which Lenin appears to be agreeing with the project of building 'socialism' in an isolated and woefully backward Russia. However, the bulk of Lenin's work - and his practice, of course - makes it quite clear that he fully understood that socialism can only be a global system.
Yet Stalin's socialism in one country becomes official doctrine. It goes from being what was initially thought of as an ignorant blunder to the common sense of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. With great foresight (although he was not the first to criticise Stalin's new doctrine), Trotsky predicted that this will not only lead the CPSU towards nationalism. It would encourage other communist parties to adopt their own national socialisms too: a French socialism, an American socialism, a British socialism. And that is exactly what happened. Hence what gave the CPGB strength - its attachment to those who led the Russian Revolution - turned into its opposite.
Good and bad, there has been a deal of exaggeration about the role of the CPGB in the 1920s, specifically with regard to 1926. I do not blame Stalin for all the mistakes of the CPGB. I actually blame the CPGB for the vast bulk of those mistakes. Nor do I think Trotsky come out of 1926 without his share of the blame. But the sad fact is that the CPGB starts to degenerate from the mid-1920s onwards and this degeneration in turn affects the Labour left and the trade unions.
Nevertheless, to dismiss the CPGB either in the 1920s or the 1930s or, for that matter, in subsequent history as irrelevant, as something not worth bothering with, is a mistake of the first order. The CPGB undoubtedly went through numerous and thoroughly opportunist twists and turns. Nevertheless every achievement of the working class, however limited, would have been either greatly diminished or made impossible without the CPGB.
My own experience as an active, organised communist bears this out. In 1972 the Pentonville Five were famously jailed. Prime minister Edward Heath was trying to implement what was essentially a Thatcherite programme. He was Selsdon man, he was going to unleash the bracing winds of market reform, he was going to show the working class who ruled Britain. Where the Labour Party had tried but failed to introduce anti-trade union legislation, he succeeded. The Industrial Relations Act was designed to make all effective trade union action illegal. The London dockers deliberately flouted the law and were duly banged up in Pentonville prison.
I as a young lad went down to the local industrial estate with other comrades, armed with the Morning Star. We spoke to the factory convenors, many of whom happened to be in the Communist Party. We asked them whether they would come out in support of the dockers. The same on the building sites. Yes, they said, the dockers mustn't stand alone. In effect, it was the beginnings of a general strike - the TUC actually threatened to call one (albeit only for 24 hours) because of the pressure from below. The forerunners of today's Socialist Workers Party, the International Socialists, were arguing against a general strike, by the way.
My point is that the only really effective mobilising instrument that the working class had at that time was in the form of the CPGB. Not the TUC. Nor the Labour Party.
As for the other left groups, they made the CPGB look like a giant organisation. The CPGB had around 30,000 members. It was, however, of a qualitatively different nature too compared with its left critics. It was, after all, deeply implanted in the working class. Yes, there were Trotskyist groups which had some influence dotted here or there, but nothing across the whole of the country. Nothing that could coordinate car, building, dock, engineering and other workers into one movement.
In other words, with all of its many faults, the Communist Party was definitely something that had to be engaged with. If you did not engage with the CPGB, you effectively declared yourself part of the hopelessly sectarian fringe and therefore not in contention for organising the working class into a party.
When I joined the Young Communist League, I became more or less instantly an oppositionist. This was in 1969 - the August 'events' in France, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, Vietnam and the Tet offensive, the Chinese cultural revolution, Che Guevara, women's rights, black power were shaping the world. There was an extraordinarily exhilarating wave of radicalisation. Everything was changing. Many young people like myself literally expected revolution in the near future. That period produced serious people - if you think the last battle is imminent, you do tend to become serious.
What did I find in the CPGB? Yes, there were many industrial militants, but there was also an overriding social democratic attitude. And how many members were active? In my immediate area, there were five local and industrial branches, of which the biggest had a membership of well over 100. But the active comrades spent a good deal of time servicing what was an inert mass. Enthusiastic new recruits, wanting to build for revolution, were, however, not an asset, but a problem for the party's leadership. The CPGB bureaucracy - for that is what it had become - wanted piecemeal change and a quiet life.
To be honest, if you want a one-word description of my politics, they were Stalinist. Of course, you can say that the whole CPGB was Stalinist, so it is necessary to differentiate. Maybe 'left Stalinist' or 'revolutionary Stalinist' would be more accurate in my case. Subjectively myself and those close to me were revolutionaries. The theory we had was dreadful, but what was burning in us was revolutionary enthusiasm.
To cut a long story short, I, to my eternal shame, ended up in a split called the New Communist Party. Anyone who looks at the NCP now might ask, 'How could anyone get involved in that nonsense?' But it was not quite as bad then as it is now.
When the NCP was formed it was not a nothing. Membership stood at around the 750 mark. Then came 'promotion'. The NCP general secretary suddenly died and I must admit that I was shocked to received a phone call from his number two, Eric Trevett, asking me to become the new national organiser. Up till then I had viewed myself as a good local organiser who had gathered around him some 30 comrades. Nothing more.
My first job as NCP national organiser was to sort out Yorkshire district. There was a district committee of 40 comrades from 20 branches, but virtually no branch meetings. I did what I was asked to do. But I did step on some toes and general secretary Trevett did not like that. Like the old CPGB bureaucracy he too wanted a quiet life.
The NCP was in contact with the Communist Party of Turkey as organised in Britain. Unfortunately, since the 1950s there has been a general pattern that communists coming to this country as migrants have formed national communist groupings. They did not join the CPGB. As a result one generation after another of leftwing migrants have kept apart only for themselves or their children to become politically integrated into establishment Britain. What happens to our communist movement under those circumstances? Separatism becomes natural, internationalism is reduced to a phrase, parochialism grows and eventually British nationalism triumphs all round.
The British branch of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) was its third largest. The TKP had been illegal more or less since its foundation. But in the early 1970s the biggest May Day demonstrations in the western world were held in Istanbul. A million people took to the streets. Their slogans were not for peace and higher wages alone. They were for political and social revolution. Society was being split and radicalised. A pre-revolutionary situation. There was even a revolutionary policemen's association. At the time Turkish communists could organise meetings of 2,000 in London.
I and a few close comrades were painfully aware that, compared to the TKP, the NCP was pathetic on every level. I certainly knew that I had no politics, no political answers. Two of us decided to take a step back from active politics and learn Marxist theory from scratch. The plan was to write a book. My TKP comrades persuaded me to do otherwise. Quite rightly. I had led 30 to 40 comrades into the NCP and I had a duty to them and others. I agreed to organise a factional struggle in the NCP " with the sole proviso that it was kept short. A couple of dozen were expelled from the NCP, including myself. Of course, as in most splits many want an honourable way out. Few were willing to follow me in joining the TKP. In fact, only six did. Not to my surprise.
There was a coup carried out by the Turkish military in September 1980 and I went from dreaming about joining in marches in Istanbul to fronting the TKP's solidarity organisation to defend political prisoners. Other ex-NCP comrades were assigned to illegal work - we smuggled a printing press into Turkey, for example.
However, we wanted to pursue our theoretical work in order to forge a communist organisation in Britain worthy of the name, and it was this that led us to part company with the TKP. Four of us were determined to produce a journal, which we decided would be called The Leninist.
Our starting premise. Firstly, we said that joining the NCP had been a big mistake. What was necessary was an orientation to the biggest concentration of organised working class militants: namely the CPGB. We knew it was rotten to the core - we had been members, after all. So the task we set ourselves was to reforge the CPGB, as a necessary prelude to building it into a mass party.
It took us two years of hard study before we produced the first issue of The Leninist - two years of meeting formally twice a week to discuss and prepare draft documents and position papers. We knew that we had to give birth to something that would survive the test of time - although we were prepared for the possibility that we might end up being deeply embarrassed by some of it.
When it finally came, our founding statement in The Leninist No1 contained a description of the Communist Party, together with all its important local and national factions. We alone openly declared ourselves a faction. Whereas the Eurocommunist, revisionist and centrist factions organised in secret, out of view, through cabals and intrigues, we publicly announced our existence.
All sorts of rumours were spread about where the money to produce The Leninist came from. The most bizarre I heard was East Germany. This was at the time when half of the circulation of the Morning Star was sold to the USSR. These people could not think in any other way. They could not imagine financing anything for themselves. But we did and could. We organised and committed ourselves to doing what was necessary. That meant working in ways we had seen in the TKP.
How does all this relate to the present? What sort of party are we aiming for? Not a party of the past. What is necessary is the organisation of the working class, and I do not mean by that simply those employed in the factories and offices. I mean students, househusbands, the unemployed, the sick, pensioners. In short it is our class that needs to be organised into a party. This is the only way we can overcome the contradictions of capitalism, the only way we can go towards socialism.
The working class cannot liberate itself through a sect, even a big one, or some sort of general strike coup. The working class cannot liberate itself unless it acts consciously. With the collapse of 'official communism' and social democracy, with the decline, or export, of heavy industry, with financialisation and waves of mass migration, with anti-trade union laws and much lower levels of trade union concentration, our class has become less and less coherent, organised and self-aware. The only viable answer is a party.
A party that not only coordinates day to day struggles, but organises systematic education - we are living in incredibly complex times, in an epoch of freak forms, false starts, hybrids and general uncertainty. Unless we understand all of this - and fully - we cannot hope to free ourselves. So a Communist Party is not just about demonstrations, industrial disputes and bread and butter agitation: it is also about educating ourselves and educating the working class to the highest level.
Two examples spring to mind. Firstly the Bolshevik Party, of course. Many think of it only as Lenin's militarised party that won the civil war, or the small group operating underground and in exile. But in 1917 this party became an organisation of hundreds of thousands. When the size of the Russian working class is taken into account, this not only makes it a huge party. Effectively the working class was the Bolshevik Party and the Bolshevik Party was the working class. Victor Serge, a loyal critic, remarked that "everything that is fine, decent and worthwhile" in the working class was in the Bolshevik Party.
Secondly, there is the party that existed in Germany in the period before World War I, the Social Democratic Party. Doubtless, some will hold up their hands in horror, but Lenin and the Bolsheviks modelled themselves on the SPD. It was the kind of party they fought to achieve in Russia. Here was a party that was a million-strong, with a large Reichstag faction, hundreds of newspapers and a sophisticated political culture.
We all know what went wrong. But the point is that in every town, every district, every workplace, in the beer halls, in the cycling, boating or chess clubs, in the youth groups, women's organisations, in the co-ops, in the universities, in the army, the party was there.
It took Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia to destroy what had been built. A whole generation of militants had been educated, steeped in Marxism. That cannot be wiped out by getting rid of a few leaders and it is why the anti-Marxist terror had to go so deep.
Stalin ended up killing not just the Trotskyists and Zinovievites, but his own loyal comrades and millions more. In Germany too, Hitler had to destroy not only the Communist Party but Social Democracy. And what are we left with now? In Germany, Die Linke. In Russia next to nothing. Eliminating Marxism as a mass force was of genocidal proportions.
So, we are not aiming to reforge the party of 1920. We need mass communist parties in ever country united into one international. What we have done so far is to recapture the name 'Communist Party'. However, what we must now do is to fill that name with real class content.