No word on Uncle Joe
Everyone knows that The British road to socialism, the programme of 'official communism' in Britain, was inspired by Stalin. But, as Lawrence Parker shows, some people cannot bring themselves to admit it
Back in March 2008, we wondered aloud precisely how Harpal Brar, the dear beloved leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and the Stalin Society, was going to explain away clear evidence that had come to light regarding Stalin’s supportive role around the original version of the CPGB’s reformist (“revisionist” in the specific terminology of Brar and his ilk) British road to socialism.1
This directly contradicted comrade Brar’s most holy of teachings: that Stalin had been a principled ‘anti-revisionist’ revolutionary communist. In fact, the evidence (minutes of meetings and letters between Harry Pollitt and Stalin) presented by the Indian journal Revolutionary Democracy merely confirmed what was already known: Stalin played an instrumental role in bolstering the native reformist path taken by the likes of Harry Pollitt; in other words, Stalin was a “revisionist”.
The latest edition of one of Brar’s publications, Lalkar, has an article that deals with the various guises of the BRS.2 Imagine how keen I was to find out how Brar and company would argue their way out of a very tight ideological corner that threatens to do immense damage to the very fibres of their world view. Sad to say, then, that the Lalkar piece suffers from what henceforth shall be known as a ‘Matgamna moment’ - it chooses to duck the issue. Stalin’s involvement in the BRS is not mentioned. Strange, given that this has been a lively issue in ‘Marxist-Leninist’3 circles this year. Stupidly, alongside this article is a piece on ‘Stalin and the defence of science’, which makes reference to a work by Ethan Pollock that uses the Soviet archives. This, of course, will no doubt prove to be an unintended memory jogger for some - ‘Oh yes, archives. Now what about those other findings in the archives, comrades?’
Younger readers (and some older ones) may not know much about Harpal Brar, so it might to useful to briefly sketch his career. Much of this history is hazy, but Brar seems to have first become involved in the revolutionary movement as a student in the late 1960s. At this point, the British left had a relatively burgeoning Maoist or Marxist-Leninist scene (although not as big as that of France or the US). This came about through the intersection of three broad trends: student Maoist organisations; local groups that had been expelled from the CPGB’s Young Communist League, working through the Joint Committee of Communists; and older groupings that had been expelled/departed from the CPGB throughout the period of the Sino-Soviet split.
In and around the JCC was a student group called the Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist League, of which Brar was a member. Brar split away from this group in 1969 to form the Association of Communist Workers. Down the years, Brar also became a leading figure in the Indian Workers Association (GB) and the Association of Indian Communists.
He came to relative prominence inside the Socialist Labour Party in 1997, opportunistically reversing his earlier critique of Scargill’s social democratic proclivities. His ascension to the SLP national executive and the rise of his ACW supporters to the status of trusted courtiers of king Arthur coincided with the removal or departure of all other factions except those of Scargill himself. Predictably, Scargill fell out with Brar’s faction in 2001-02 (partly over Scargill’s refusal to support the 9/11 suicide bombers and to back the North Korean regime in a ‘proper’ sycophantic ‘Marxist-Leninist’ manner) and Brar’s supporters pointed - with justification - to Scargill’s undemocratic and underhand methods. Scargill once again reverted to the status of an ‘old Labour’ bogeyman in the Brarite runes.
The next chapter in this rather depressing tale is the formation of the CPGB-ML in 2004, which has grouped together Brar’s faction from the ACW days with other comrades from the ‘anti-revisionist’ tradition. In ideological terms, the CPGB-ML combines a surface leftism toward the BRS, and the ingrained Labourism of organisations such as the Communist Party of Britain and the New Communist Party, with an attitude of cult-like reverence for various totems of ‘official’ communism: China, Joseph Stalin, North Korea and Kim Jong II, and, even more controversially, the exemplary ‘anti-imperialism’ of “comrade” Robert Mugabe of Zanu-PF.
Even among the ideologically tortured ranks of the various ‘Marxist-Leninist’ and Maoist groupings that have existed down the years, Brar’s various organisations stand out by ‘virtue’ of their extreme cult wackiness and unwillingness to have any of their Stalinist sycophancy questioned, let alone scientifically tested.
For example, even other British anti-revisionists of the post-war period such as Bill Bland were forced to widen the net of “revisionist” villains to include Mao Zedong and Dimitrov - the latter deemed responsible for disastrous Comintern adventures in the era of popular frontism - in order to take account of the wholesale disaster of ‘official’ communism in the 20th century (although Bland stopped short of holding Stalin to account, somewhat notoriously claiming that he was sure old Joe had made some errors; only he couldn’t find any). In orthodox Brarite scripture, the role of pantomime villain is largely reserved for Nikita Khrushchev (boo, hiss, he’s behind you, etc).
Back to the Lalkar article. The unnamed author is rightly disdainful of the utopia in the 1951 version of the BRS that socialism could be achieved through a parliamentary majority. The author mocks that programme’s “treacherous opportunism” with the following: “This un-Marxist idea of taking power by wishing it to be so was not only championed by the CPGB in 1951, but they were quite upset that anyone should think that they would try to achieve power in any other way!
“The 1951 British road to socialism says: ‘The enemies of communism accuse the Communist Party of aiming to introduce soviet power in Britain and abolish parliament. This is a slanderous misrepresentation of our policy … the British communists declare that the people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into real people’s democracy, transforming parliament, the product of Britain’s historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the vast majority of her people. The path forward for the British people will be to establish a people’s government on the basis of a parliament truly representative of the people.’”
But hang on just a minute, comrades: this reformist nonsense represents the CPGB more or less parroting the words Stalin spoke to Harry Pollitt in a meeting of May 31 1950: “English [sic] communists are accused in England [sic] that they have put before themselves the aim of establishing soviet power in England. The English communists must respond to this in their programme that they do not want to weaken the parliament, that England shall reach socialism through its own path and not through the path traversed by soviet power, but through a democratic republic that shall be guided not by capitalists, but by representatives of people’s power: ie, a coalition of workers, working intelligentsia, lower classes of the cities, as well as farmers. Communists must declare that this power shall act through parliament.”4 This passage from the beloved captain of the Soviet ship sounds awfully similar to the one you happily lampoon in the BRS, comrades.
Let us get this clear: the Lalkar article should be considered as nothing less than an attack on the CPGB leadership circa 1951 and the “treacherous opportunism” of ‘comrade’ Stalin. It is just a shame that the Brarites cannot admit it. Of course, an article in Lalkar at the beginning of the year had rather lamely dismissed Stalin’s role in approving the BRS as “fiction”, pointing to Stalin’s apparent differences with the CPGB on the inevitability of further wars and the question of peace.5 As I wrote previously, “This proves nothing. From the documents presented by Revolutionary Democracy we can see that Stalin did indeed have various differences with the CPGB and criticised it from the left and right. However, all this obscures the fact that Stalin completely approved the CPGB’s line on using parliament (which Lalkar calls ‘non-violent revolution clap-trap’).”6
Rather laughably, the Lalkar piece appears to be something of a polemic aimed at the CPB. It ends with: “We further call on communists in the CPB to throw away their membership cards and come to the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), Britain’s real communist party.”7 Now, even though one does not often think of the CPB as the most rigorous of polemical opponents, one can imagine that if a member of the CPGB-ML were to approach a CPB supporter with this mealy-mouthed pile of parrot droppings, the words ‘Stalin’, ‘supported’ and ‘BRS’ would figure at some point in the conversation. Presumably, at that point our imaginary CPGB-ML member would go all bashful.
Of course, on the face of it, accepting Stalin’s role in the BRS poses fewer problems for the CPB. As it accepts the reformist BRS, there is less of an obvious issue. General secretary Robert Griffiths says Stalin’s programmatic role is simply “not an embarrassment” for his group.8 But the association is still problematic for the CPB, not least because the Griffiths clique is busy trying to relate to others from a Trotskyist (or at least Trotskyist-influenced) background in lash-ups such as Respect.9
In the first flush of his life as a modernising general secretary in 1998, Griffiths, in introducing a 1992 CPB congress resolution, said: “However, the opening up of CPSU, Comintern and Soviet state archives provides an incontestable mass of evidence that enormous and brutal crimes were indeed committed by the party and state leadership in the 1930s and 1940s; that Stalin bore a heavy and direct personal responsibility for many of them; and that many thousands - hundreds of thousands, if not millions - of the victims were loyal communists and Soviet citizens. Those crimes were a shameful blot on the proud history of the communist movement, and they must not be denied or covered up with the excuse that great economic and cultural advances were also made during the Stalin period.
“Attempts in some quarters to revive the Stalin cult will not raise our movement’s credibility in the eyes of people who are committed to democratic and human rights and who believe in honesty and truth.”10
So maybe enough here to placate the likes of Socialist Resistance, but practically upholding this critical line now risks branding the BRS with the stamp of a criminal. Such critiques also proved very unpopular among the CPB rank and file, even though few would publicly go to the eulogistic lengths of Harpal Brar. And one thing Griffiths has learnt during his tenure as general secretary is that it does not do to take too many bold steps away from the lumbering ‘traditions’ of the CPB.
1. ‘In the middle of the “Road”’Weekly Worker March 6.
2. ‘The British road to revisionism’ Lalkar November-December 2008.
3. The term generally used by such organisations - many of whom are or were Maoist in orientation - to delineate themselves from the “reformist” ‘official’ communist factions formerly aligned to the Soviet Union.
4. ‘Meeting between comrades Stalin and H Pollitt, 31 May 1950’ in Revolutionary Democracy September 2007, p182.
5. ‘The revolutionary programmes of British communism’ Lalkar January-February 2008.
6. ‘In the middle of the “Road”’ Weekly Worker March 6.
7. ‘The British road to revisionism’ Lalkar November-December 2008.
8. See ‘Dead Russians and a Welshman’ Weekly Worker November 13.
10. Introduction to Assessing the collapse of the Soviet Union September 1998: communist-party.org.uk/dex.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Assessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=23%3Acommunist-party-pamphlets&Itemid=22&showall=1. Griffiths’s text has limitations. Pose the question away from the “crimes” and ask a CPBer (or Griffiths for that matter) which faction they would have supported in the 1920s inner-party struggle and the answer will come back (if they can be forced to admit it): that of Stalin.