'Third period' pains
Lawrence Parker, writer on the revolutionary oppositions within the post-war Communist Party, debunks one of the more absurd myths about today's CPGB
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty-Communist Party of Britain-New Communist Party bloc voting against the affiliation of the Labour Representation Committee to Hands Off the People of Iran at the November 15 annual conference looks, at first glance, to be an odd one.
However, the more one looks at this formation, the more obvious it seems; in fact, you begin to wonder why they did not link up earlier. All of these organisations (in common with most of what passes for the British revolutionary left) have come to the conclusion that principled Marxist politics are practically inoperative except for the purposes of Sunday speeches. The new social democratic mass party of labour - to be formed by the trade union bureaucracy - that Rob Griffiths of the CPB argues for is echoed by the AWL’s call for a new reformist workers’ party. The method is essentially the same.
Even on international issues, one can look at the CPB and NCP leaderships prostituting their organisations before regimes such as China, the United Nations and various ‘official’ communist parties, and then consider the AWL’s general prostration before imperialism and the apologetics voiced by Sean Matgamna on behalf of the state of Israel. Any differences are of tone or orientation, not method; this being where you end up when you draw the conclusion that principled Marxist politics mean nothing in the here and now.
So it is relatively easy to work out why the Stalinists of the CPB/NCP should be on the same side as the Trotskyists of the AWL over a principled issue such as solidarity with the people of Iran. The similarities do not end there. One can also see the jolly little CPB-AWL alliance working together in an attempt to cobble a polemical case against the CPGB politics more generally. The CPB-AWL ‘theory’ is that the CPGB can be dismissed as an organisation with ‘third period’ politics.
Thus, Kenny Coyle of the CPB writes: “During the 1930s, the communist movement catastrophically labelled social democrats ‘social-fascists’ and Trotskyists ‘Hitler’s agents’. While [Jack] Conrad wishes to distance himself selectively from the history of ‘official communism’, he faithfully retains the method, language and sectarian idiocies of the third period.”1 Actually, despite its faults, Coyle’s judgement here represents an advance of sorts for the CPB. In 2005, his faction wrote of the CPGB in an international bulletin: “There is also a tiny sect of no more than 30 members, of Trotskyite origin and orientation, which has recently hijacked the name of the ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’. It issues a newsheet [sic] called the Weekly Worker.”2 It is good that the CPB has dropped these lies and is at least locating the trajectory of the CPGB’s politics inside the ‘official communist’ movement, even if it is still in error.
Paul Hampton of the AWL uses the same rhetorical device as Coyle. With his usual charm and simplicity Hampton says: “The CPGB are in fact the historical continuers of the third period Stalinists, complete with the same kind of idiot anti-imperialism, the same kind of sectarianism towards the existing labour movement and the same attitude towards the genuine [sic], third camp left.”3 Again, although bizarre, Hampton’s claims represent an advance of sorts.
Last year, his leader, Matgamna, penned another of his dozy ‘critiques’ in which the CPGB was meant to answer for ‘third period’ ultra-leftism alongside other historical muck of the ‘official communist’ movement (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Hungarian uprising; the Stalin-Hitler pact; the betrayal of the Spanish revolution; the parliamentary illusions of the opportunist trends of the ‘official’ CPGB and so on).4 Hampton’s similarly dozy effort is an admission that loading the contemporary CPGB with the general label of ‘Stalinist’ has not really held up (although he does repeat Matgamna’s bilge about Afghanistan). Hence the much more specific label of ‘third period Stalinist’. Of course, there is nothing new in such smears. This has often been the favoured retreat of Trotskyists who find it impossible to give the CPGB-PCC a general label of ‘Stalinist’ and make it fit the facts.
Neither The Leninist faction of the ‘official’ CPGB nor the CPGB-PCC have argued in favour of copying the ‘third period’ phase of communist politics, or even commented favourably on it. In 1983, an article in The Leninist stated: “The German debacle of 1923, the defeat of the 1926 General Strike in Britain and the massacre of Chinese communists by the Kuomintang in 1927 all shifted the focus away from the prospect of world revolution and onto the one remaining hope of socialism - the Soviet Union … Later on, Comintern’s complete disorientation during the hopelessly sectarian ‘third period’ of 1928-34, when the bloody and tragic victory of fascism in Germany and Austria sent shock waves through the movement, only acted to further weaken and discredit the aim and struggle for world revolution.”5
A later article expanded this in relation to the CPGB’s programmes during the ‘third period’. In relation to the Class against class general election manifesto of 1929, it said: “This is always thought of as being wildly leftist. In reality the CPGB was uncritically adapting to the centrist drift in the [CPSU]. Sure, there were plenty of leftist phrases; sure, a sectarian attitude towards rank-and-file members of the Labour Party resulted, but we must see the wood for the trees. The essence of Class against class was the refashioning of the CPGB into an arm of the Soviet state’s diplomacy.”6 In a similar vein, the CPGB’s programme of 1935, For Soviet Britain, is referred to as “reading like a run-of-the-mill centrist congress resolution” due to its inability to integrate an “army of facts” into any kind of strategic revolutionary impulse.7
The Leninist faction was thus never seduced by the charms of the ‘third period’, seeing in it the disastrous subordination of the world revolution to ‘socialism in one country’. Elements of the ‘official’ CPGB’s revolutionary oppositions down the years did try to use ‘third period’ politics as a counterweight to the party’s opportunism, but The Leninist was clearly not among them, seeing this ‘leftism’ as having a similar rotten core. Far from reading as ‘third period’ Stalinism, such analyses read as fairly orthodox Trotskyist accounts.
Also, when one gets down to the specific policies applied by the CPGB from 1928-34, one can clearly see that very little of this legacy has been followed by the CPGB-PCC. For example, the ‘third period’ CPGB argued that the Labour Party was a capitalist party or, more brutally, composed of ‘social fascists’. The Leninist and the CPGB-PCC have never argued this line, rather seeing the Labour Party as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ (heavily weighted toward the bourgeois pole in recent times). The CPGB-PCC has not generally supported the withholding of the political levy or the unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party (as was done by the CPGB in the ‘third period’), arguing that without a clear and worthwhile political alternative, such a move risks depoliticising trade unions even further. Similarly, breaking the unity of the trade union movement and toying with and supporting ‘red’ unions, as the ‘third period’ CPGB did on a number of occasions, has found no echo in The Leninist or the Weekly Worker from CPGB-PCC supporters.
Of course, none of these particular tactics are timeless principles. Who knows, one day the Labour Party might earn the epithet ‘social fascist’, the trade union movement may need to be split and so on. Nothing is forever. But if this scenario were to come around, it would have to be based on more than the artificial edifice that the CPGB constructed around such policies in the ‘third period’ (the only ‘reality’ being marked was that of the Soviet Union).
It is clear then the ‘third period’ label stuck on the CPGB-PCC by Coyle and Oafmeister Hampton is utterly useless in terms of explaining the organisation’s evolution and politics. So what exactly is being objected to? What is the real target that the likes of the CPB and AWL have in mind, given that the CPGB-PCC is emphatically not inspired by the history of ‘third period’?
Jack Conrad put his finger on this long ago when he talked of opportunists (around Straight Left and the Morning Star) who used “the centrist sectarianism of Class against class to dismiss the revolutionary positions it advanced; above all any criticism of the Labour Party as a whole is dismissed as wholly wrong and wholly sectarian”.8 This point is worth taking further. The manner in which the ‘third period’ is used by the remnants of the ‘official communist’ movement and various debased Trotskyists has often been to police the expression and practice of principled Marxist politics in favour of opportunism. Historically, as argued by Conrad, tagging those who wanted to criticise and stand against the Labour Party as ‘third period’ ultra-lefts (ie, lunatics) was meant to secure the opportunists’ own auto-Labourism.
Such auto-Labourism mostly crumbled into dust from 1997 onwards, but the label ‘third period’ (or ‘sectarians’, ‘ultra-lefts’, etc) is still in use to steer activists away from being tempted by those who express, for example, principled internationalist politics on issues such as Iraq and Iran, or have an aggressive approach to building Marxist (as opposed to social democratic) organisation or who express their politics in a combative manner.
The likes of Hampton and other Matgamna sycophants in the AWL obviously hate being called ‘social imperialists’ and are pretty desperate for it to stop. Hampton whines: “Will [the CPGB] dub the AWL as ‘social-fascists’, or ‘Trotskyite wreckers’? Their coverage is nothing other than a threat, an attempt to intimidate, an attempt to silence us.”9 This hypocrisy goes somewhat beyond a laughable attempt to paint the Weekly Worker as ‘third period’ continuers. More seriously, the ghosts of the past are being dredged up in order that people can avoid being called things (‘social imperialist’) that accurately describe their politics - a form of censorship.
To anyone tempted by Hampton’s crying ‘foul’ I would argue that just because the CPGB of 1929 presented its criticisms of the then labour movement in a ridiculously shrill and foam-flecked manner, this should not be used as a political injunction against presenting one’s own line in an aggressive and combative way. Actually, the only silencer on show here is Hampton himself.
1. ‘Third period idiocies’ Weekly Worker November 20.
2. ‘Communist movement in Britain’ Solidarity! International Bulletin of the Communist Party of Britain summer 2005.
4. ‘An open letter to a confused anti-imperialist’ Solidarity August 9 2007.
5. ‘Open the fight against liquidationism on all fronts’ The Leninist No5, August 1983.
6. ‘Which road? A critique of the British road to socialism part five’ The Leninist supplement, November 23 1989.