Friday, January 28, 2011

A very short history of the Communist Party


By Robert Laurie

The Communist Party 1920-2010: 90 Years of struggle for the working class & humanity: Robert Griffiths & Ben Stevenson , London: Communist Party of Britain History Group, 2010 pp. 44. £3.00 from left bookshops or £4.00 including postage and packing from the CPB, Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon, London CR0 1BD.

Robert Griffiths and Ben Stevenson, General Secretaries of the Communist Party of Britain and its associated Young Communist League have produced this pamphlet to provide an outline history of the Communist Party in Britain. In the introduction the authors wisely disavow any ambition to produce a full official history as “There are already four substantial volumes on the Party’s history from 1920 to 1951”. In fact there have been another two volumes in this series published by Lawrence & Wishart: John Callaghan’s Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: the CPGB 1951-68 (2003) and Geoff Andrews’s End Games – New Times: the final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (2004). As these are precisely the sort of “bourgeois, liquidationist and anti-communist accounts” mentioned it is regrettable that some space was not spent explicitly refuting them to show how misleading they are.
The structure of the pamphlet is strictly chronological with twelve chapters taking the reader from the foundation in 1920 to the present day. It is a pity that the first chapter did not devote even a little more space to the pre-history of the party and how a number of diverse groups were able to successfully come together and forge a new party. The chronological approach has advantages and disadvantages. While it gives a sense of how the party progressed and suffered setbacks over the decades it does make it hard to follow recurring themes over time. Relations with the Labour Party, both with its leadership and the left wing membership have fluctuated over time. These are mentioned at the appropriate points in the text, but it is difficult to keep track of when attitudes changed, and why. To give another example membership figures for every few years are mentioned in each chapter, but would be more useful if presented in a single table.
Generally speaking the pamphlet is at its best describing the work of communists in various fields and campaigns. One such is the 1926 General Strike when communists, despite many of the leaders being jailed, played a far more important role than their numbers would imply. The party’s role in the struggle against fascism in Spain when party members made up about half the British volunteers who fought against Franco is something all communists ought to be proud of despite smears from the bourgeois and ultra left. It is easy to forget that Communist opposition to imperialism (especially when British troops were involved) required far more courage than going on a present day demonstration. Less creditable episodes such as the ballot rigging in the Electrical Trade Union in 1961 are sensibly not ignored. As a whole the pamphlet is rather weaker in describing general policies and placing them in context. For instance the 1935 For Soviet Britain is usefully outlined but it is unclear how this differed other left wing views at the time.
There are many examples of anti-communism in this pamphlet, such as the vicious campaign attacking Jimmy Reid, leader of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work in, during the 1974 General Election. It is noticeable that many of them, as in this case, came from the Labour Party. Reid himself was to contribute to this genre a few years later.
There is one aspect of this pamphlet with which we have to register some dissent. Given the constraints of space it gives a useful outline account of the general history of the Communist Party of Great Britain but the account of the demise of the party leaves something to be desired. To this reviewer it is impossible to see how an organisation founded in 1988 as was the Communist Party of Britain can claim to be “re-established” when the Communist Party of Great Britain continued to exist, transforming itself into the “Democratic Left” at its final congress in 1991. This organisation later became the “New Politics Network” and if one looks hard enough lingers on as “Unlock Democracy” which merely wants to introduce some form of proportional voting. It is based at the same premises as the former CPGB and openly boasts of funding the campaign from renting former CPGB properties.
This is not a book for those with poor eyesight. Economy is all very well but a larger typeface ought to have been used even if that meant increasing the number of pages.