Dead Russians and a Welshman

Sections of the left increasingly regard the Communist Party of Britain as a prospective alliance partner. Lawrence Parker wonders why there is a renewed infatuation with Stalinism

It is around 10 years since Robert Griffiths took over as general secretary of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Griffiths is - with some qualifications - a moderniser who is now much more popular with some parts of the broader left than he is with certain sections of his own organisation. He is not blighted by the same lack of affection that left his predecessor as general secretary, the forgettable Mike Hicks, without allies. However, some sections of the CPB cannot say Griffiths’ name without a sneer.

To that end, witness the low-level grousing inside the CPB about their leader’s involvement in the recent Convention of the Left and the Respect conferences. One veteran member told me he was annoyed at the coverage given to the convention by the Morning Star and that he “couldn’t see the point” of speaking at gatherings marked out by “Trotskyites and sectarians”, despite the attendance of some misguided “good people” also. The CPB had far “more important” work to do in winning the “real labour movement” to the British road to socialism. Another comrade, evidently of similar persuasion, told me that Griffiths and company were seen by many in the CPB as trying to “hijack” the organisation away from its traditional perceived constituencies in the trade unions and Labour Party, in much the same way as Tony Blair had hijacked the Labour Party.

One could over-inflate these grumbles, but they do relate to the factional make-up of the CPB and the ‘truce’ reached after this year’s congress, which agreed a twin-track strategy that has not written off ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party to carry out its CPB-anointed role of implementing socialism through parliament, alongside a commitment to a new “mass party of labour”.1 Griffiths and his allies think the Labour Party as presently constituted is basically finished and are busy chasing allies across the trade unions and ‘non-sectarian’ left in pursuit of a new one. The other major faction (which includes the likes of Anita Halpin and John Foster, and probably still speaks for a slim majority of active CPB members) thinks this ‘track’ is a diversion from ‘reclaiming’ the current Labour Party for ‘socialism’.

So it must actually be a relief for comrade Griffiths to get away from his own organisation and talk to other sections of the British soft left, where he has raised his profile and even started to become mildly popular. Thus we have Derek Wall of the Green Party introducing an article by Griffiths onto the pages of the Socialist Unity blog: “I am no fan of much of the history of the CPB when it was the CPGB. However, this article provokes thought and Rob was a real star at the Convention of the Left, open about the mistakes of the past and injected a note of humour …”2 I presume Rob didn’t tell Derek the one about the icepick or the one about Bukharin’s mother-in-law.

Liam Mac Uaid is even more gushing in his report of the recent Respect conference: “Rob Griffiths of the proper [sic] Communist Party was next up. I thought he gave a very good and constructive speech. He began by remarking that talk of the crisis of capitalism is now becoming commonplace among trade union militants. It’s no longer the preserve of the hyped-up far left who’ve been devaluing the phrase by endlessly using it when capitalism obviously was doing pretty well by its own lights.

“If this listener understood correctly, Rob has given up with Labour. There is no longer a mass working class party giving positive reforms for working people. ‘Speaking as a friend to friends’, he observed that the problem of the lack of working class representation is not going to be solved either by the Communist Party [of Britain] or Respect. I’m not sure what he was talking about when he added that neither would it be solved by what he called ‘the front organisation of a small leftwing sect’. Your guess is as good as mine there.”3

Actually, Liam, Rob could have been referring to Unity for Peace and Socialism, the CPB front that stood in the London assembly elections, amassing 0.26% of the vote. Although perhaps he did actually mean Respect under the Socialist Workers Party, as you seem to be hinting.

It is interesting to note that Griffiths has seemingly given exactly the opposite interpretation of the CPB’s political line to that offered by Ivan Beavis at a Socialist Resistance event in June 2008. Beavis preferred to reheat the CPB’s old BRS dogma of reclaiming the current Labour Party, much to the consternation of some of his audience.4 So, while everyone is still not taken in, Griffiths has gone down rather well among sections of the broader left. However, this has only been achieved with a careful spin on the past that the likes of comrade Wall and those from a Trotskyist background in and around the Convention of the Left and Respect are meant to find more palatable.

Following George Galloway’s lead at the recent Respect conference, Griffiths agreed that all talk of “dead Russians” such as Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin should be kept private.5 I guess it all depends on what you define as ‘private’. In the ‘private’ environs of various public bars in the Cathays area of Cardiff, comrade Griffiths used to be somewhat notorious among the Cardiff left for declaring his support for one dead Russian comrade in particular, notably that comrade’s inspiring work and foresight in introducing the joys of forced collectivisation and purges.

At the ‘private’ CPB congress in Croydon this year, this is how comrade Griffiths reacted to news of confirmation that Stalin (who I think is dead) was a major architect of the original BRS (as ‘privately’ reproduced on the CPB’s website): “In the post-war world, as the Labour government aligned Britain with US imperialism, Nato and the cold war, our party drew up its new programme The British road to socialism, endorsed at the 22nd congress in 1952. Today, we know much more about the role of Stalin in proposing some of its contents. This is not an embarrassment for us, although it might be for those ultra-revolutionaries [a reference to Harpal Brar’s various organisations and publications] who seek to revive a Stalin cult - and find that he broadly endorsed a programme they have been denouncing for years as reformist class treachery.”6

So, although the CPB is not looking to revive a “Stalin cult”, there is no shame at all in being associated with his legacy.

Griffiths’s congress speech was, of course, primarily aimed at CPB members and sympathisers, who would by and large frown on talk (which has been expressed at times by the likes of other CPB members, such as John Haylett and Andrew Murray) of being in any way agnostic on the Trotsky-Stalin question. At broader gatherings of the left, where Griffiths knows that the real views of his organisation on the history of the Soviet Union, for example, would provoke hostility and disgust from some, a softer focus comes into play.

This trend is also in evidence in his letter to The Daily Telegraph:

“According to [the Telegraph’s] obituary (October 28) for the former MI5 agent Julia Pirie, the Communist Party kept a list of secret members ‘so that they could be used by the KGB or Soviet military intelligence in operations in Britain’.

“Such a list was indeed kept, but for different reasons. It consisted of civil servants, lecturers, BBC employees and others who feared - accurately - that their membership of a legal, legitimate political organisation could expose them to victimisation. Judging by your obituary’s account of MI5’s operations against the Communist Party, it was Britain’s unaccountable and highly secretive state security service that engaged in criminal activities, bugging and burgling on an epic scale.

“Here’s a challenge: the Communist Party in Britain has nothing to fear from revelations about its past. Its archives are open to public scrutiny. Now let all the quarantined papers about the anti-communist activities of the ‘secret state’ in Britain be published, so it can be more accurately assessed who posed the greater threat to democratic freedom during Julia Pirie’s lifetime.”7

On one level this letter simply exposes the rank timidity of the CPB’s politics. What communist organisation worth its salt would want to boast of its status in bourgeois society as a “legal, legitimate political organisation”? (And there was of course a time when comrade Griffiths would have excoriated such ‘revisionism’.) But the agenda here is to distance the CPGB, and by that token the CPB, from involvement with the ‘foreign’ threat of Soviet intelligence agencies.

Griffiths is probably right about the status of this list of not-so-secret members. Certainly, if such a list of potential agents had been prepared, it would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do. But, as comrade Griffiths knows full well, large numbers of CPGB members spied for the Soviet Union around the period of World War II (Dave Springhall and Melita Norwood, to name but two). While I might have differences with those comrades’ misguided allegiance to the Soviet Union, I would certainly hail their flouting of ‘legality’. However, this is not deemed to be good coin, either for the CPB’s bourgeois respectability or for Griffiths’ attempt to widen the organisation’s appeal to the wider, partly Trot-influenced left.

Also hanging around in the mix is the CPB’s interpretation of China. Stubbornly fixated on a decrepit, bipolar view of the world emanating from the 1950s, China has replaced the Soviet Union in CPB mythology as being one of the bastions of peace and progress, as against the likes of the UK and the US. Thus, in the run-up to this year’s Olympic Games, the CPB, which boasts of its fraternal links with the Communist Party of China, thoroughly prostituted itself by forming itself as a propaganda agency for the Chinese regime’s ‘enlightened’ control of Tibet.

However, the CPC’s rampant embrace of commodity production and China’s status as an increasingly vital pillar of a world capitalist economy have meant that CPB tops are noticeably shy of a thorough investigation into the actual social relations of the country. Rather, publications such as China’s line of march (2006), a report from a CPB delegation that visited the country in the same year, is noticeably agnostic on the vexed question as to whether it is marching toward capitalism or socialism.

This in part reflects an undeveloped trend inside the CPB that has criticised the gullibility of those in the leadership who have shown faith in the so-called ‘escalator theory of socialism’: you use capitalism to develop the productive forces to get to the first floor and then you start the ascent to socialism on the second floor. Thus, capitalism merely becomes a benign instrument that can be wielded with no apparent historical consequences for the people wielding it or the society suffering beneath it. Also, many CPB veterans cannot quite forget the foul invective hurled by the Chinese at the Soviet Union (their first political love) down the years, particularly when China was practically allying itself with the US in the 1970s.

What all this ideological pain shows is that the CPB is still thoroughly marked by its status as an ‘official communist’ faction, or, in shorthand, its Stalinist heritage. Comrades from Trotskyist backgrounds thinking of giving the CPB a squeeze and a hug in the cause of ‘unity’ might want to think again. Of course, the harder ‘official communist’ attitude that the CPB shows to Stalin’s regime finds a softer reflection in the affinity leftists from a broader background feel towards the Cuban regime. Others no doubt think you can simply abstract the CPB’s stance on domestic British issues away from its ingrained Stalinism. Actually, you simply cannot do this. You can’t literally because the whole method of the BRS was partly the creation of Stalin himself.

Also, what led the founders of the Morning Star/CPB faction in the CPGB towards a slavish adherence to both the Soviet Union and the domestic non-revolutionary norms of the British labour movement was the practical conclusion that principled communist politics had become inoperative. Thus it was reduced to seeking positions of influence and power in society as it was.

A grim portent of what is happening to the SWP and others from the supposedly non-Stalinist left.


1. See ‘Flushing out the Labourites’ Weekly Worker May 29.

2. www.socialistunity.com/?s=robert+griffiths+cpb

3. liammacuaid.wordpres s.com/2008/10/25/respect-conference-a-report

4. See ‘Ivan the terrible’ Weekly Worker July 3.

5. ‘Life after the SWP’ Weekly Worker October 30.

6. www.communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=304&Itemid%20=30&limitstart=1

7. November 3.