WeeklyWorker

31.01.2013
Harry Pollitt faced opposition, but was it an avalanche?

Kick Inside: Confined within the framework of Stalinism

Paul Flewers reviews: Lawrence Parker The kick inside: revolutionary opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991, November Publications, 2012, pp118, £6

The Communist Party of Great Britain enjoyed for many decades the reputation for being a relatively stable organisation in the otherwise fractious world of leftwing politics. During the time when most other communist parties were throwing up oppositional currents led by senior cadres (and out) on a regular basis, not one member of the CPGB’s central committee departed to join a Trotskyist or other critical Marxist group.

The fraught year of 1956 apart, there was little evidence to the casual observer of much dissension within the CPGB until it started to tear itself apart very publicly from the late 1970s. Nonetheless, there were several occasions when opportunist policies pursued by the party leadership provoked sharp criticism from within the membership. This book, an expanded second edition,1 investigates the manifestations of radical opposition to the CPGB’s leadership that arose during the decades following World War II, trends which the author considers have been either overlooked or poorly dealt with in most of the historical studies of the party.

The CPGB’s abject class-collaborationist approach during World War II after Hitler turned on the Soviet Union in June 1941 required its members to support Churchill’s national government, break strikes, encourage maximum output and otherwise ignore class divisions in British society. This caused not a few problems for party members, not least when their workmates defied the wartime all-class consensus and took strike action. When the party leadership continued with these policies after the war had ended, following the logic of the perspective that the wartime ‘big three’ Anglo-US-Soviet alliance would continue into peacetime, there was an angry response that was demonstrated in a succession of letters to the party’s press and which manifested itself quite boldly at the party’s 18th Congress in November 1945. The leadership was criticised for having called for a peacetime coalition government; for having failed to “give clear and correct political leadership to the party on the serious political errors that led temporarily to the liquidation of the American Communist Party” - that is, Browderism; for having dissolved the party’s factory branches;2 for having a “lack of clarity as to the role of the party in the period ahead, particularly in relation to the Labour government”; for failing to expose Labour’s weaknesses, especially in respect of its reactionary foreign policy; for failing to give any real leadership to the working class; and for minimising the differences between communism and social democracy (pp20-26).

Defending at the congress his political report that justified these policies, the party’s general secretary, Harry Pollitt, conceded that a mistake had been made in respect of calling for a peacetime coalition government, rather fudged the question of Browderism, but held fast on all the other issues. His speech plumbed the depths of cynicism when he blithely dismissed the problems faced by party members as they implemented its policies - “If some of our comrades were in difficulties on the docksides, well, communists are always in difficulties and we have to be prepared to face them and to stand up against them” (p21) - deliberately overlooking the fact that communists were usually unpopular with the press and employers for supporting strikes, not with their fellow-workers for strike-breaking. It is a pity that Parker does not quote more of Pollitt’s blustering response, as his words, redolent of the worst rightwing Labour hack, reveal the party leadership’s anger at being challenged from below on matters of no little importance:

I am going to face you with the direct issue and I do not propose you shall get away with anything. You are either in favour of the line of the report, or of the line that has been expounded here of mass strikes as the only way to realise the workers’ demands. If the latter, I warn you, you are playing with fire that can help to lose the peace and reduce this country to ashes. Nothing is easier in the present situation than strikes, and our comrades should be much more guarded … You can get a strike in the coalfields tomorrow, if you want it. Will it advance the working class movement of this country, or the perspective of our nation being a first-rate nation in the family of united nations?3

Although the strength of feeling of the dissident members was evident, it is nonetheless difficult to gauge accurately the extent of this outburst of criticism. The way in which Parker’s depiction on p15 of a “broad-based opposition” and of a “large section” of the party’s rank and file being “in revolt” drops off to just “a section” of the membership in the next paragraph and on the next page, and then revives to an “avalanche” on p32, rather suggests that our author is not sure of its actual dimension.

The CPGB’s leadership claimed to have “decisively defeated” its critics at the congress (p26), but opposition to its continued rightwing policies flared up again within the party and, somewhat bizarrely, from the other side of the world, when the Communist Party of Australia, for reasons that remain obscure, sent its British comrades a sharply critical letter.4 Parker states that the opposition that emerged in 1947 was considerably smaller than that in 1945, and was to an extent confined to Hertford and Welwyn Garden City. He shows how the new critics upbraided the party leadership for having “virtually abandoned Marxism” or for making use of only those bits of it which were “acceptable to the petty bourgeoisie” (p32), but unfortunately we do not have repeated here the full extent of Eric Heffer’s leftism when the future left Labour MP implored that “we must never forget that social democracy is not the opposite of fascism, but its twin”.5 This lurch into a pure ‘third period’ diatribe must have made the leadership’s successful counterattack all the easier, although Parker is certainly right when he suggests that it was the fact of the CPGB’s leadership being “reluctantly yanked to the left” as a result of the radicalisation of the international communist movement after the inauguration of the Cominform in late 1947 that defused this round of criticism (p33). Nevertheless, this was not the last spark of leftism, because in late 1950 Pollitt was warning that the party had to “root out … the last remnants of sectarianism”, and he condemned members who had opposed voting for the Labour Party in a recent by-election in Leicester.6

Antagonism

It is clear from the examples so far given that, although these instances of discontent did not cohere into an organised challenge to the party leadership, the grounds nonetheless existed for a potential antagonism between those members who took seriously their party’s ostensible commitment to Leninism and the leadership when the latter promoted a reformist approach that distorted it in theory and contradicted it in practice. These tensions were largely latent during the 1950s, despite the overtly reformist nature of the party’s programme, The British road to socialism,7 but they came into the open in the early 1960s when the discord between Beijing and Moscow was given an ideological colouring with the Chinese leadership’s defence of Stalin’s record against Khrushchev’s criticisms of him and its condemnation of the Soviet leaders’ “revisionism” - that is to say, revising Leninism in a reformist direction - gave critics in western communist parties the ideal opportunity to hurl the same accusations at their party leaders, who combined their own formal adherence to Leninism with programmes that bore a distinctly reformist air about them.

The first organised anti-revisionist group in Britain was the somewhat clumsily named Committee to Defeat Revisionism For Communist Unity. Its leading figure, Michael McCreery, had for a couple of years been elaborating a critique of the CPGB’s reformism, and the group emerged publicly in late 1963 with a manifesto that urged CPGB members to oust the current party leadership for its support for Khrushchev and for betraying the working class. It suffered from the perennial problem facing oppositionists - whether or not to break openly from the parent body. It was also pretty much bankrolled by the well-heeled McCreery, who died of cancer in 1965,8 and it did not long survive his early death and the inevitable ideological and organisational problems that it encountered.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s, and especially after the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, Maoism was a growing trend within the CPGB, particularly within the Young Communist League. It even reached the CPGB’s executive committee, where Reg Birch, a leading leftwinger in the Amalgamated Engineering Union, came into conflict with his colleagues because of his developing Maoist views. In late 1966, Birch joined the editorial board of a Maoist journal, The Marxist, which was rapidly denounced by the CPGB’s London District Committee. He then stood for AEU president, although the party leadership was backing former member Hugh Scanlon, and was heavily defeated. Birch found himself suspended from party membership in January 1967 for three months, and in the autumn of that year he publicly set about forming a new organisation, which was launched in 1968 as the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).

Accounts of Birch’s career differ widely: according to one, he became a Maoist in a fit of pique as a result of the AEU debacle; according to another, he had been a longstanding oppositionist. Parker shows that the AEU affair was just one episode in his political odyssey, and that the actual record is somewhat less clear-cut. The CPB(M-L) loyally backed China, but shifted its allegiance to Enver Hoxha’s Albania after Mao’s death in 1976.

Next to be discussed is almost certainly the biggest current of opposition to have emerged within the CPGB: those members who by the early 1970s were concluding that the increasingly parliamentarian and openly reformist course of the CPGB was intimately connected with its veering away from the necessary commitment to the Soviet Union. The CPGB’s EC condemned the Soviet overthrow of Alexander Dub?ek’s reforming regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and this led to grumbles amongst party members who still held Moscow in high esteem and who considered that it really desired a more militant approach on the part of overseas communist parties. Eddie Jackson, the main force behind the shadowy Appeal Group, had long opposed the parliamentary orientation of the British road to socialism, whilst the rival tendency that formed the New Communist Party broke from the CPGB in 1977 over the overtly reformist approach that was subsequently sanctified in the 1978 version of the party’s programme.

‘Out of step’?

Parker points out that, just like Eric Heffer and his co-thinkers in the late 1940s, these pro-Moscow oppositionists held to the “naive standpoint” that the CPGB leadership’s opportunism was “somehow out of step” with the Soviet party, an illusion that “hobbled pro-Soviet oppositionists down the years” (p27). The Appeal Group was especially upset when it learnt that Moscow was in favour of the CPGB’s general line. It should not have been such a nasty surprise, as in 1964 general secretary John Gollan had publicly stated that his predecessor, Pollitt, had actually discussed with Stalin the draft of the first edition of the BRS, and that the finished work had been published in Pravda. One could not have had clearer proof of head office approval than that. Even in Stalin’s day Moscow wanted the CPGB to have a reformist programme: these oppositionists were merely fooling themselves.9

One can add that those drawn to Maoism demonstrated the same sort of worship of a supposedly revolutionary state, and a clue to the attraction of Maoism can be found in official Chinese appeals to Stalinist orthodoxy against Khrushchev’s “revisionism”.10 If one had subscribed to the revolutionary image projected by Stalin’s Soviet Union, and if one felt that it had been betrayed by his successors, then it was not difficult to transfer one’s allegiance from the Soviet Union to another state that continued to promote that image. This state worship merely served to store up problems, as the policies of the Chinese bureaucracy proved as blatantly opportunist as those of Moscow. The further policy shifts after Mao’s death led many Maoists to repeat the whole sorry experience at a higher level of absurdity by abandoning their now dashed hopes in China and transferring their allegiance to Stalin’s memory to Enver Hoxha’s Albania.

Parker does not look at the subsequent evolution of the NCP, but it is interesting to do so in the light of what he writes of other anti-revisionist trends. The NCP did eventually break from its Brezhnevite orientation after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, and has effectively adopted the Maoist analysis that sees the rot in the Soviet Union setting in after the death of Stalin. With no places left in the former Soviet bloc worthy of the name ‘socialist’, it was obliged to look further afield for a sponsor, and, after an abortive flirtation with the now-defunct People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, settled upon North Korea as the country in which socialism is being built, and it has duly obtained Pyongyang’s official franchise for Britain.11 However, a senior member of the NCP informed me that there is a feeling afoot within the party that the rot started during the popular front period; this is surely a bit risky, as backdating it any further puts the group at risk of aligning itself theoretically with Trotskyism, and, as we shall see, the NCP has already had some bother in this respect.

The last group discussed in this book is the one which emerged within the NCP, and which now operates as the Communist Party of Great Britain, the original CPGB having been wound up in 1991. This group is unique amongst post-1945 oppositions within the CPGB in that, under the influence of the Turkish oppositional communist Riza Yürüko?lu, it started along a course that resulted in its elaborating a critical analysis of the entire history of the movement. Turfed out of the NCP in 1980-81, it published The Leninist magazine and soon evolved positions somewhat reminiscent of the Trotskyist movement, and was - not without justification - duly accused of such a sin by those still adhering to the Stalinist traditions. Of course, this cannot solve all the political problems facing a Marxist group, and whether today’s CPGB has escaped the customary pitfalls of leftwing groups remains to be seen (those of us who experienced the CPGB’s conduct in respect of the Campaign for a Marxist Party will have our own opinions on that), but its development of a critical attitude towards Stalinism demonstrated an unusual open-mindedness on its part. So far as I can tell, this is the first example of a grouping (as opposed to individuals) in Britain doing this since the Balham Group declared itself for Trotskyism eight decades ago.

In his introduction, Mark Fischer complains that Trotskyist groups customarily wrote off the CPGB as irredeemably counterrevolutionary, which led them to ignore the many working class militants in the party and thereby left them under the spell of Stalinism. Although there is some truth to this, the problem was not merely on one side of the divide. Parker shows how hostile Moscow loyalists were towards Trotskyism (p76). Trotskyists did at times cooperate with CPGB members in unions and broad campaigns, but the latter’s protective attitude towards the Stalinist states was a constant stumbling block; those in the CPGB most likely to criticise the Soviet regime were the Eurocommunists, but, as they recoiled from anything that smacked of ‘ultra-leftism’, they were as hostile to Trotskyists as their party rivals.

Stifling culture

Entry work in the CPGB was very difficult, as, apart from the long-ingrained antipathy to ‘Trots’, it was against party regulations to organise discussions between one branch and another, let alone to set up a faction, and in any case the whole culture of the party militated against critical thought and far-reaching discussion. This book shows how the party leadership would use every trick in the book to deal with the mildest opposition. Even in the later days when the supposedly liberal Eurocommunists were in charge, their much-vaunted democratic credentials were proven to be bogus when they carved up their party rivals in pure Stalinist style.12 Any Trotskyists attempting entry work in the CPGB would have received short shrift.

There is also the awkward fact that entry work by Trotskyists in communist parties in the 1950s had led to their adapting to the very politics from which they hoped to wean party members, or otherwise becoming lost to Trotskyism. The example of Michèle Mestre in France was not at all positive, as she rapidly became a Stalinist hack, zealously rooting out any signs of oppositional activity within the party’s ranks. John Lawrence joined the CPGB, and, whilst acting heroically during the St Pancras rent strike, ended up as an anarchist. Later on, when the Revolutionary Communist Group started to sniff around the newly formed NCP on the basis that it represented some sort of ready-made vanguard of the working class, it rapidly adapted to Stalinism, and has ended up effectively beached in Havana, cheerleading the Cuban regime.

Taking these obstacles into consideration, and noting the small size of today’s CPGB, one suspects that even with a more adept tactical approach to the old party’s militants, there was very little chance of drawing to revolutionary Marxism many more than the relatively small number of them who were won to Trotskyism over the decades.

To return to the main subject of this book, Parker recognises that a thoroughgoing critique of opportunism in the CPGB necessitated a far deeper investigation of the Soviet Union and the ‘official’ communist movement than those embarked upon by the bulk of oppositionists within the party. They were reacting to the rightwing politics that were the consequences of Stalinism and, when confronted by a left turn on the part of the CPGB, as in 1947 with the establishment of the Cominform, or with the promotion of a more radical approach by Beijing after China broke from the Soviet Union, then they either returned to the fold or became the local franchise of another Stalinist state.

A full-scale critique of opportunism would necessarily have investigated the relationship between these politics and the diplomatic requirements of the Soviet regime, and - so long as the critics kept an open mind - this would inevitably have hit upon the adoption in 1924 of Stalin’s dogma of ‘socialism in one country’. And this would have opened the door to critical Marxist analyses, whether of the Trotskyist, left communist or other varieties. It would mean recognising that under Stalin the Soviet Union degenerated into a society ruled by an anti-communist elite, and that the People’s Republic of China was ruled by such an elite from the very start.

This book makes the important point that with the exception of the faction behind The Leninist, the post-war oppositions were all fatally limited by their confinement within the framework of Stalinism, and for that reason they were unable to make the theoretical progress that was necessary for them to reach an authentic form of Marxism.

Notes

1. The first edition, The kick inside: revolutionary opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991, was published by Rotten Elements.

2. This was a common complaint of radical critics in the CPGB. Space forbids a discussion of this, but Parker is correct when he points out that this change in the party’s structure was not a cause of opportunism within the party, and adds that the existence of factory branches had actually helped to reinforce the long-running division in the party between trade union and political work, which assisted the rise of opportunism in the first place.

3. W Gallagher and H Pollitt Communist policy for Britain London 1945, p34.

4. The Communist Party of Australia was one of the very few CPs that had enjoyed a reasonably positive experience during the ‘third period’ of 1928-34, and it has been suggested that this explains the habit of the party’s leadership that came to prominence at that time to display decidedly left standpoints in later years (T O’Lincoln Into the mainstream: the decline of Australian communism Westgate 1985, p38).

5. World News and Views February 1 1947.

6. H Pollitt Peace depends on the people London 1950, pp17-18.

7. The first edition of The British road to socialism appeared in 1951, the second in 1958.

8. A delightful irony is that, at the time of his death, McCreery combined his activities as the leader of ‘anti-revisionism’ in Britain with giving lectures on economics at evening classes at the University of London for employees of the ministry of labour.

9. In the first edition of this book, Parker stated that “by pretending that the Soviet Union was somehow in tune with anti-BRS sentiments, such comrades had a political comfort blanket” (p47). I suspect that this has been modified because their belief in Moscow was not a pretence, but was actually firmly held. Nevertheless, the end result was the same: reality cruelly stripped away their “comfort blanket”.

10. For example: “One after the other, all the revisionists and opportunists who challenged revolutionary Marxism-Leninism have collapsed in the face of the truth and have been spurned by the people. Bernstein was a failure and so were Kautsky, Plekhanov, Trotsky, Bukharin, Chen Tu-hsiu, Browder and all the others. Those who are launching the new attacks on revolutionary Marxism-Leninism today are just as overbearing and arrogant; yet, if they continue to turn a deaf ear to all advice and persist in their wrong course, it can be said for certain that their end will be no better than that of the old revisionists and opportunists” (Foreign Language Press More on the differences between comrade Togliatti and us: some important problems of Leninism in the contemporary world Beijing 1963, pp192-93).

11. Oddly enough, this is where another formerly Maoist then pro-Tirana organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), has ended up, its illusions in Albania shattered after the death of Hoxha. In a surprisingly ecumenical spirit, this notoriously sectarian group now holds joint meetings with the NCP on the wonders of North Korea.

12. This writer witnessed a telling example of this when seated on the press bench at the CPGB’s 40th Congress in 1987. The Eurocommunist-dominated executive committee was clearing out many of the party’s long-standing union activists, and was rejecting their appeals to congress and either suspending their membership or expelling them altogether. A smiling Euro in a pink boiler-suit pronounced the sentences with considerable glee, and announced to howls of laughter from her fellow factionalists that, although the EC had not received an appeal from Liverpool Nalgo official Judy Cotter, it was nonetheless rejecting it.