Friday, July 20, 2007

30 Fighting Years of the New Communist Party of Britain

30 Fighting Years!

THE NEW Communist Party was founded in July 1977 by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, under the leadership of Sid French. They opposed the revisionist line of the CPGB as expressed in its programme, The British Road to Socialism. They had fought within the party for many years against this departure from Marxist-Leninist ideology through the CPGB’s internal democratic centralist structure.
But that structure was not functioning as it should. Instead of high level debate about the correct ideology and the way forward in Britain, the old CPGB leadership gagged proper debate and engineered congress voting so that it would never be possible to hold it to account to its members through its internal structures. At the same time a lack of Marxist-Leninist education ensured that a large part of the membership did not understand why the revisionist parliamentary road to socialism could never work.
The driving force behind the formation of the New Communist Party in 1977 was Sid French who had been the CPGB’s Surrey District secretary for many years. Sid came from a working class, and class conscious family. He was born in 1920 and joined the Young Communist League when he was 14 in 1934. In 1941, during the Second World War, he was called up and served in the RAF. Promoted to Sergeant in 1942 Sid was posted to Gibraltar and later to North Africa and Italy.
While on active service Sid wrote an article for Labour Monthly about the problems facing the Gibraltarians under war conditions. He also met Henri Alleg in Algiers, the French communist journalist who later joined the Algerian resistance against French colonialism, for which he spent five years in prison.
After demobilisation when the war ended Sid’s commitment to the communist movement led to his appointment as Secretary of the newly formed Surrey District Committee of the CPGB in 1950. He remained in that position until he resigned, together with other supporters to establish the New Communist Party on 15th July 1977.
Sid French was a member of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (GMWU) and an active co-operator. He was elected to the Political Purposes Committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS) in 1967 and elected to the RACS Members’ Council in 1968.
The CPGB leadership embraced Krushchov’s denunciation of Stalin’s “cult of the personality at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 and further distanced itself from Marxism-Leninism.
The dangerous levels of ignorance of basic Marxism-Leninism and revisionism that gripped the CPGB became dramatically manifest in 1968 when the Young Communist League magazine, Challenge, published a strong attack on the Warsaw Pact intervention against counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia.
The CPGB was becoming more and more a social democratic party in its ideology and structure but since there was already a mass social democratic party – the Labour Party – the reason for the CPGB’s existence was diminishing. The party’s declining membership and influence were inevitable.
The growing crisis in the party also affected the credibility of its leadership, as formerly senior and influential members left its ranks. In 1976, four of the party’s top engineering cadres resigned. Bernard Panter, Cyril Morton, Jimmy Reid and John Tocher, who had all been members of the Political Committee, jumped a sinking ship. At the base of the party the crisis in organisation was even clearer.
Thousands of members were no longer organised and many did not even pay their nominal 25p monthly dues. Warring camps emerged within the party. The Gollan leadership sought to prop itself up by aligning itself with the “Eurocommunist” forces further to their right.
But the crisis came to a head the following year in the run-up to the Congress in November. The leadership of the CPGB had redrawn the British Road to Socialism aimed at adopting a left social democratic platform that sought the respectability and acceptance of academic and intellectual circles. It was the party’s entrance fee into the reformist and social democratic traditions of the official labour movement. The publication of the draft and the beginning of the pre-Congress discussion period led to furious arguments within the party.
Sid French was an outspoken critic of the British Road and the new draft. And it became clear that the party leadership intended to expel Sid French and a number of others in the Surrey district before the Congress met. The formation of a new party became inevitable.
On the 15th July 1977 the New Communist Party was established at a meeting in London called by French and other members of the Surrey district committee.
Sid French became the first General Secretary of the NCP and Surrey became its strongest area. The first national chairman was Joe Parker, a full-time official in the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers and Coppersmiths (NUSMWC) until he retired in 1982. Joe Parker stepped down as Party chair soon after but remained an active NCP member until his death in 2004. Sid French died in 1979 and was succeeded by Eric Trevett, a close comrade who had worked as a CPGB full-timer with Sid for many years.
Within weeks the NCP’s weekly paper, the New Worker, was up and running, and the first pamphlets printed.
Initially the NCP operated from the old Surrey District office but the Party soon moved to a small office in south London. In 1979 much bigger premises were purchased near Clapham Junction station, together with a press which has continued to print the New Worker to this day.
The Party’s line developed rapidly by the Second Congress in 1979. The Party called for the end to partition in Ireland and full support was given to the Irish national liberation movement while the NCP’s electoral strategy of not standing in elections but supporting Labour based on working class unity was clarified.
The election of a Tory Government in 1979 brought Margaret Thatcher to power at the vanguard of a global shift in capitalist policies – away from Keynesian solutions to economic problems and a return to the liberal, free market policies of the late Victorian era. This involved a direct assault on trade unions – the organised working class – followed by drastic cuts in the social wage, denationalisation of the public sector and the privatisation of state-owned assets.
The NCP and its paper, the New Worker, were in the forefront of the resistance against this attack on the working class. The 1984-85 miners’ strike was perhaps the most important element of this struggle and the NCP gave full support to the miners from the very beginning.
Our members played a full and active role in collecting money and goods to support the miners’ struggle in their local communities, through the miners’ support groups that grew up in every locality in the country.
This set the tone for the NCP’s approach to broad movement work throughout our history. We support existing trade union and broad working class community campaigns and oppose divisive ultra-left efforts to set up separate organisations. We play an honest and hard-working role in building such campaigns without trying to take them over or dominate them. At the same time, in discussion with other members of these campaigns, we try to inject class-consciousness and a Marxist-Leninist understanding of the struggle, using the New Worker along with party leaflets and pamphlets. We seek to win respect for communism within the broad movement for our honesty, hard work and political analysis.
Throughout the miners’ strike we organised support meetings and for over a year every issue of the New Worker carried a banner headline and front-page lead story supporting the strike.
The miners came very close but did not win and that was a major set back for the whole labour movement in Britain. But many working people throughout Britain had a shocking lesson in the ruthlessness and brutality of the state machine, especially the police, in suppressing working class militancy.
It was followed in 1986 by the Wapping dispute where printers and journalists went on strike in protest at Rupert Murdoch’s removal of the production of his newspapers – The Sun, The Times – from Fleet Street to “Fortress Wapping” in London’s East End. In the process Murdoch made hundreds redundant and derecognised the unions. Once again the NCP and the New Worker gave full support to the workers in struggle.
Throughout the NCP’s existence we have given full support to and our members have played an active role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, when it existed, the British Peace Council. The party has always recognised that peace and socialism come together as a package and that modern war is a product of capitalist and imperialist rivalries, in which the great powers use the working class as canon fodder to increase their wealth and power.
But we are not pacifists; we recognise the right of workers in struggle against oppression or in defence of working class gains to take to arms if necessary. We give support and solidarity to workers fighting for national liberation and against imperialist occupation – deeming that those on the front line of such struggles are the best judges of what combination of political and/or armed struggle is necessary.
We have always supported the peoples of Palestine and Ireland against illegal imperialist occupation and forged friendship with their fighting organisations. The Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was, in fact, the first movement to establish relations with the NCP, six weeks after our foundation. And we have also forged close ties with the peoples of Korea, Cuba and other places fighting to defend their socialist revolutions.
The NCP gave full support to the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa and to the ANC. When the South African secret police bombed the ANC’s London printing press we allowed them to use our printing facilities.
In the 1980s the NCP established fraternal relations with the ruling communist and workers parties in Afghanistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, Vietnam and south Yemen and a number of anti-revisionist parties in western Europe and the Middle East.
At home the NCP has always played a full and active role in combating fascism and racism. We have always encouraged our members and supporters to become active in whatever anti-fascist or anti-racist broad movement group is active in their locality and to support broad unity on this issue. And we have forged a lasting friendship with the Searchlight organisation and have shared photographers with Searchlight.
Margaret Thatcher’s proposals in 1987 for a universal poll tax to replace the rates system hit the working class like a bombshell, when they realised what the costs would be. The change in local government taxation systems covered up a huge cut in central government funding to local authorities and put the burden of making up the difference on the shoulders of all local residents, regardless of their ability to pay. The tax was set to be imposed even on people who had absolutely no income of their own, like housewives and members of religious orders. The Tory government later backtracked a little and dropped the imposition of the tax on people in religious orders – which led to a sudden growth in new religious orders.
NCP members threw themselves into the fight on this issue, often taking a leading role in setting up local anti-poll tax groups. We recognised that this tax would provoke a great deal of working class anger and that it depended on mass compliance to work.
The tax required first of all for everyone in the country to fill in a registration form. And the broad anti-poll tax movement that grew up rapidly recognised that if thousands or even millions of people dragged their heels or made difficulties over this, it would be impossible to administer. Newsletters, some produced with New Worker expertise, were sent around the country, swapping tactics from one locality to another.
When it came to paying the tax we recognised that masses of people delaying or being awkward a bit would have more impact than just one or two martyrs going to prison for refusing – but that all forms and degrees of opposition were needed and valid. The point of the campaign was to give the masses confidence to disrupt the administration of the tax.
Campaigners produced pamphlets giving legal advice about what would happen at various stages as people held out refusing to pay, so they would know exactly what they were letting themselves in for. At the same time mass anti-poll tax protests were erupting on the streets of London and the other major cities.
The mass actions and protests succeeded. The poll tax was defeated and not long after her own Cabinet members forced Thatcher from office. This was the first major victory for the working class in Britain for many years.
Around the same time on the world stage the working class was suffering a huge setback as the treacherous policies of Gorbachov led to the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of eastern Europe. It was a fall that shook communist parties around the world; many communists had at first welcomed Gorbachov’s policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika”. It was a testing time and communist parties survived or went under according to how badly they were infected with revisionism. Those whose communism was based mainly on support and sympathy for the Soviet Union were vulnerable but those who had a firm basis in Marxist-Leninist ideology and an understanding of dialectics and the class struggle survived and became stronger.
The rot stopped when the Workers’ Party of Korea, led by Comrade Kim Il Sung, took the initiative and organised an international conference of communist and workers’ parties in Pyongyang. NCP delegates attended that conference and our Party was one of the first signatories of the Pyongyang Declaration that came from that conference.
In 1990 the genuine communist forces began to rally throughout the world. The NCP sent delegations led by Eric Trevett and International Secretary Andy Brooks to Cuba, south Yemen and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Fraternal relations were established with virtually every genuine communist and workers party in the world.
In the early 1990s fraternal relations were established with the Communist Party of China and the New Worker established a close relationship with the Xinhua news agency.
Major delegations have frequently gone to Democratic Korea, People’s China and Cuba and the Party plays a full part in the world communist and workers parties conferences organised by the Communist Party of Greece.
We can now say that the process that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union cleared away a lot of parties that had been masquerading as communist but had long since ceased to be communist.
The NCP survived and was ideologically strengthened, though there were calculated attempts to sabotage us at a time when the confidence of our membership could have been undermined if had we not been so strong ideologically. Many predicted we would not last longer than a year or two after the fall of the Soviet Union – one pessimist said we were “merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. But we have not only survived but we are now thriving.
The NCP began internally to criticise the Soviet Gorbachov leadership in 1988 and following the collapse of the Soviet Union the party established relations with communist and workers’ parties throughout the world.
In the 1990s party congresses adopted resolutions repudiating and denouncing Krushchov’s anti-Stalin 20th Congress speech. The NCP defined its ideology around the “great revolutionary teachers of humanity, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin” and the “great revolutionary leaders of the struggling masses, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh”.
The year 1991 also saw the first Gulf War, when the imperialist powers led by the United States and Britain attacked Iraq when it refused to evacuate oil-rich Kuwait, an imperialist puppet feudal Arab state that had been annexed by Iraq in 1990. The Baathist government in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein had previously been a compliant tool of imperialist America when it launched attack on Iran in the 1980s. It had a poor human rights record and many groups on the left were confused and ended up supporting the imperialist war – just as in 1914.
But the NCP, following an analysis of the situation by our international secretary Andy Brooks – now our general secretary – took a correct position of opposition to the war. Subsequent events have borne out the correctness of our line.
Throughout the 1990s the NCP opposed the imperialist interventions that dismembered and destroyed Yugoslavia, opening up the region to the full blast of capitalist exploitation.
At home we continued to fight the policy of privatisation and the introduction of market forces within the National Health Service. Comrades have taken an active part in local broad movement groups to defend the NHS and fought hospital cuts and closures.
And in 1995 we supported the Liverpool dock strike and noted that it led to the first ever global solidarity action, as the new internet technology allowed dock workers around the world to coordinate solidarity strikes and the boycotting of ships loaded by scab labour.
Also in 1995 Eric Trevett retired from full-time Pary work and resigned as general secretary and was elected honorary president of the party. Andy Brooks, a founder member of the Party, was elected to the general secretaryship.
In 1997 we saw the election of the first Labour government for 18 years. The NCP had taken a correct stance of supporting Labour in the election – not under any illusion that Blair was a socialist or would make any dramatic change in ruling class attacks on the working class. We supported Labour because its victory raised the expectations and the morale of the working class and because the organisational link between the trade unions and the Labour government can be an instrument of working class pressure exerted directly on the Government. It all depends on the strength of the trade union leaderships – who are elected and accountable to the workers.
But supporting the Labour Party in elections is not the same thing as giving the Labour leadership carte blanche when it carries on with the same old ruling class policies.
Like the rest of the British communist movement the NCP from the beginning had to deal with ultra-leftist and right-wing deviation. All were defeated at Congresses over the years and many were expelled for factionalism. In 1977 a right-wing social-democratic tendency was expelled. An extreme pro-Soviet revisionist faction went the same way in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s another small revisionist group was expelled. All were guilty of factionalism.
The NCP has never stood candidates in general or local elections and calls for support for Labour candidates. This policy was amended in 2000 to permit support for independent Labour candidates with mass support and the NCP backed Ken Livingstone’s successful bid for the London Mayorship.
The NCP soon found itself with a right-wing faction active inside the Party opposed to the Livingstone candidature, with supporters on the Central Committee that refused to accept democratic centralist decisions and campaigned against them through anonymous circulars and other factional material.
They too were defeated and expelled at Congress but in the process we took a long, hard look at our rule book. In 1977 it had been based very much on the rule book of the old party and contained many flaws. We also looked at the rule book first adopted by the old party when it was formed in 1921 – as a Leninist party of a new type. The early rules were much more stringent and demanded that members should be active within a party organisation.
The central committee undertook the arduous task of drafting us a new rule book much more in line with the original Bolshevik principles, and based on the guidelines of the Communist International.
The proposed rule changes were thoroughly debated at every level in the party and some amendments made before they were presented to the NCP’s 13th congress in 2003 and adopted.
The changes now apply Bolshevik democratic centralism throughout the NCP with the aim of building a monolith Party of the working class. The new rules allow us three years between congresses instead of the previous two. We have found this has allowed us much more time for debate and the serious examination in depth of all our policies on a wide spectrum of issues. We had anyway long since stopped taking for granted what is deemed the broad consensus view of the left on various issues.
When the NCP takes a political position on any issue, comrades want to know why and what are the full implications at all levels.
We have also set up New Worker Supporters’ Groups that allow an informal but structured involvement for readers and friends who are in other progressive parties or no party at all and for a variety of reasons, do not want to commit themselves to applying for full party membership These groups are working well and have allowed up to expand the paper’s influence in many places where we have few members.
Now, in the “post 9/11” world we are exposing the “war on terror” as an attack on civil rights and a licence the imperialist powers have granted themselves to maraud around the globe attacking less powerful nations at will.
At home we are fighting advancing fascism in the form of draconian new laws, including the right to detention without charge or trial for long periods and the attempted imposition of expensive biometric identity cards backed by a database containing detailed information on every person in the country.
But abroad the heroic resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the imperialist war machine to a halt; the courageous peoples of the north of Korea, of Cuba and of Iran defy the imperialist powers with impunity and many of the nations of South America are making a strong stand against imperialism. In Africa China is offering trade and economic support that provides a real alternative to the one-sided “partnerships” and exploitative trade with strings that the imperialists try to impose.
The Soviet Union may have gone but Russia is now no longer a milch cow for US imperialism. The country has taken back control of its own oilfields and is once again offering trade deals that will allow potential targets of imperialism to defend themselves.
We live in a rapidly changing world, where the power of the working class is rising while the power of imperialism is waning. The future is unlikely to be smooth and simple, especially in the imperialist home countries like Britain.
But so far adversity and challenge have done nothing but strengthen the New Communist Party of Britain.