The CPGB’s 1957 Special Congress

I had resolved not to post on the SWP’s current crisis as I feel that I am not privy to what is occurring to make much more than a cursory opinion of what is going on (although that hasn’t stopped many others from doing so). But the talk of a ‘special conference’ to debate the notion of ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘party democracy’ reminded me of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s ‘Special Congress’ in 1957, which was called in response to the dissent within the Party after the crises of 1956. The following post is based on notes from my Honours thesis, so it is a bit incomplete (and references to more recent literature is absent), but I am posting this from the airport in Dubai, so access to a lot of my stuff on the CPGB is not at hand. Whether there are more than just superficial similarities between the events of 1956-57 and now is something that will only become more obvious in hindsight and I am loathe to make predictions about the future of the British left at this stage. So here goes…


The ‘Special’ Twenty Fifth Congress of the CPGB was held from April 19-22, 1957 at Hammersmith Town Hall. The Executive Committee had elevated the status of the Congress from National Conference in December after it became apparent that many members at the local level were ‘worried at the unthinking support the Party leaders had given to the Soviet action’ in Hungary in October/November 1956(Laybourn & Murphy, 1999: 151). It was elevated in status because constitutionally, a National Conference had no power to decide policy, but a Party Congress, usually held every two years, was legally the highest policy-determining body in the Party (Grainger, 1957).

The preceding Twenty Fourth CPGB Congress, held in April 1956, had glossed over Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’, which was only starting to become public knowledge in Britain at the time of the Congress. Word spread within the Party about the content of the ‘secret speech’ and questions were raised by rank and file members about how much the Party leadership knew during the Stalinist period and what this would mean for the future of the CPGB as a credible influence within the British labour movement.  The leadership had admitted in the CPGB weekly World News (17 March, 1956) that ‘weakness and mistakes exist’, but added that these were ‘minor in comparison with the mighty successes of socialism’.

On May 19, the Executive Committee published the statement in the World News that acknowledged the  ‘abuses and grave injustices’ of the Stalin era, but offered no further probing into the experience of the Soviet Union or the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe (MacEwen, 1976: 27). The EC conceded the need for further investigation into the Party’s internal democracy and announced the creation of two Commissions – the Commission on ‘The British Road to Socialism’ and the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy. However instead of promoting discussion, E.P. Thompson (1956) argued that the resolution was to be regarded as ‘definitive’ and the local District Committees were encouraged to ‘endorse’ it. The statement also said that Harry Pollitt was resigning from the position of General Secretary due to ill health and that he was to be succeeded by John Gollan.

The Twenty Fourth Party Congress adjourned without any satisfactory analysis of the Party’s unquestioning conformity to the Soviet Union during the Stalin era and in May, the debate between the members and the Party leadership that would eventually consume the Party in the coming months, erupted, although it was not entirely hostile at this stage. However, Dutt’s statements in the May edition of Labour Monthly were inflammatory and although he denied that he tried to stem discussion, his evasive remarks on Stalin tend to contradict him:

That there should be spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper… To imagine that a great revolution can develop without a million cross-currents, hardships, injustices and excesses would be delusion fit only for ivory-tower dwellers in fairyland who have still to learn that the thorny oath of human advance moves forward, not only through unexampled heroism, but also with accompanying baseness, with tears and blood.

One of the developments of the statement by the EC in the World News on May 19 was the announcement of a Commission on Inner-Party Democracy, which would examine the methods and working of our Party Congress, its committees, methods of discussion and elections, criticism and self-criticism, and the improvement of inner-Party democracy’. The Commission on Inner-Party Democracy consisted of fifteen members, ten of whom were full-time salaried Party officials and five of them members of the Executive Committee. Four of the other five members were known to be critical of the Party leadership, which included Historians’ Group member, Christopher Hill. The others were Malcolm MacEwen, the Features Editor of the Daily Worker Kevin Halpin, a vehicle inspector and Briggs Factory Branch Secretary, and Peter Cadogan and Joe Cheek, who were both teachers.  Control of the Commission was shared between the chairman, John Mahon, an ‘inflexible Party functionary with limited imagination’, and Betty Reid from the Central Organisation Department as the Commission’s secretary, who organised the Commission’s programme (MacEwen, 1976: 29).

The Commission on Inner-Party Democracy first met on September 11, 1956. In an article published in the World News on September 1, John Mahon had forestalled the examination of the issues the Commission was to discuss. An editorial note stated that Mahon’s article was intended to ‘stimulate’ discussion, but it is more likely that the purpose of the article was to reinforce the dominating view of the Party leadership upon the Commission. In the article, Mahon wrote, ‘Experience shows that the method of organisation known as democratic centralism is the only one through which this struggle can be effectively carried through’. The Party leadership, MacEwen (1991: 196) asserted, did not want an ‘investigation of the way in which the Party leaders manipulated information and controlled debate either in Britain or in the Soviet bloc’ and instead held a series of academic debates on papers drafted by its members, and overseen by Reid. The method of debate through draft papers widened the gap between the rank and file members and the Party officials, consolidating themselves into the minority and the majority. The minority pushed for the investigation of actual cases of how the principles of democratic centralism operated within the CPGB and how they contributed to the Stalinist nature of the Soviet bloc Parties, but the Commission was confined mainly to an abstract debate (MacEwen, 1976: 34).

The majority argued, as the Party leadership had since the details of the Twentieth Congress became known, that the ‘mistakes’ of the Stalin era had arisen because of an abuse of the principles of democratic centralism. Stalin had appropriated dictatorial powers from the collective leadership of the CPSU Politburo and the safeguards of democratic centralism against individual dictatorship, such as periodical meetings, Congresses and elections, had been abandoned. The minority argued that the crimes of the Stalin era were directly attributed to the ‘iron discipline’ inherent in democratic centralism, stating ‘it must be presumed that the enormous power concentrated in the hands of a very small leadership by the rules of democratic centralism facilitated the assumption of dictatorial power’ (MacEwen, 1976: 35).

The issue of democratic centralism and whether or not it could continue to be useful within the CPGB marked the disparity between the Party officials and the rank and file and crystallized the gap between the majority and the minority. The Party officials still believed that democratic centralism was a principle to be adhered to and stated in a draft on democratic centralism that it was the individual member’s duty ‘to accept the majority decision [of the Party organisation] and carry out to the full the policy of the Party’ (Cited in, MacEwen, 1976: 33). Once ‘the line’ had been decided by the Party leadership, discussion among members must have stopped, although Party policy was in many cases not to be discussed, with ‘the line’ already determined by the Political or Executive Committees (MacEwen, 1991: 197). MacEwen’s suggestion to the Commission that members who disagree with the majority decisions should be allowed to ‘retain all their rights of discussion and criticism under the Party rules’, and that these rights did not interfere with the ‘spirit of class solidarity and party loyalty’, was rejected by the majority (MacEwen, 1976: 33). The minority wanted the analysis of historical facts regarding democratic centralism, while the majority upheld the Stalinist concept of the monolithic party, conceding only the slogan that the Party had ‘too much centralism and too little democracy’ (World News, May 18, 1957).

The Minority Report of the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy, along with the Majority Report, had been handed to the Executive Committee in December before debate and resolution at the Party Congress. Hill acted as spokesman for the Minority Report at the Congress and Hobsbawm (2002: 206) described him as ‘the virtual leader of the opposition’. The Majority Report perpetuated the official line that the Stalinist ‘cult of the individual’ was not the result of democratic centralism, but a ‘violation of the practices of democratic centralism’ (Pelling, 1975: 177). The serious error of ‘too general an emphasis on centralism and an insufficient emphasis on democracy’ had resulted in ‘not enough being done to bring the membership into the discussion of Party problems’ and the failure to ‘take sufficient practical measures to build strong Party branches’ (Cited in, Laybourn & Murphy, 1999: 152). The Majority Report’s recommendations to further the growth of Party democracy were minimal, essentially recommending that members be consulted ‘wherever possible’ by the Executive Committee before deciding new policy, along with for the right of members to express contending views in Party branches and press and the right to challenge the ‘recommended list’ of the electoral system on the floor of Party Congress. Most importantly, the Majority conceded that more discussion should be given in the Party press and a theoretical journal (which later became Marxism Today) should be published (MacEwen, 1976: 39). Although this right to discussion, as Pelling (1975: 178) wrote, did not mean the ‘freedom to advocate ideas hostile to the interests of the working class and contrary to the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism’. The Majority Report, presented by John Mahon (1957: 45), argued that democratic centralism ensured that the Party adhered to the ideals of Marxism-Leninism and offered unity in the class struggle because it did not ‘tolerate alien ideology in its ranks.’

The Majority Report, Hill argued in the World News (May 18, 1957), perpetuated the ‘cosy world of illusion’ that suggested that the principles of democratic centralism could be adhered to with a ‘little tinkering’. He criticised the Majority Report for failing to critically analyse the problems of democratic centralism, including the lack of serious enquiry into criticisms from the branches and individuals, how the control of the Party press was exercised and the ‘self-perpetuating leadership’ that dominated the election of the Executive Committee. The Majority Report was ‘slogan-shouting’ and not a serious historical analysis of the facts, with Hill announcing in the World News, ‘We shall get nowhere in the long run if we base our policy on what we should like the facts to be, and not on what they are’.

The Majority Report criticised the Minority Report’s stance on democratic centralism, stating:

The minority report gives some lip service to democratic centralism, and then assembles a number of proposals into a sort of platform from which to wreck democratic centralism (Mahon, 1957: 55).

The Minority Report did not dismiss democratic centralism out of hand, and argued that in a practical sense, just as in the trade unions, some degree of democratic centralism was needed, but proposed that while accepting the ‘broad principles of democracy and of centralism as the basis of Party organisation’, there had to be a ‘proper balance between the two’ (MacEwen, 1976: 40). The Minority Report made several proposals, among the most significant were:

the right of Party members to meet with others before Congress to discuss political questions or prepare political statements, provided notice was given to the district committees

recognition of the rights of individuals or groups to publish matter independently and to circulate it to branches;..

the recommended list to be abolished; (Cited in, MacEwen, 1976: 40).

These proposals were seen as advocating ‘factionalism’, strictly prohibited under the CPGB’s version of democratic centralism.  As John Mahon’s report on inner-party democracy (1957: 45) stated, ‘factional activity of any kind is not permitted because it destroys the unity of the Party.’

Hill warned that it would be a ‘grave disservice to the working class movement’ if the Majority Report got a ‘blind vote of confidence without Marxist analysis of the Party crisis’ (World News, 18 May, 1957).  However, Mahon as chairman of the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy barely addressed the issues raised by the Minority Report at the Congress and the Majority Report was ratified by 472 votes, with 23 votes for the Minority Report and 15 abstentions (Pelling, 1975: 180). The Party had not learnt from the 7,000 ‘good Comrades’ who, Hyman Levy and Christopher Hill stated in the World News (18 May, 1957), had resigned before the Party Congress. Those who had hoped that the Party Congress would bring the reforms so desperately needed, realised that reform from within the Party was unattainable and many more in the opposition resigned, including Hill.

Those who left the Party were called ‘revisionists’ or ‘anti-Marxists’. Those who had left the Party were described by Andrew Rothstein as ‘groups of backboneless and spineless intellectuals who have turned in upon their own emotions and frustrations’ (Cited in, Beckett, 1995: 137). The ‘revisionists’ were seen by the Party leadership to have created a non-Marxist and non-class based assessment that owed more to bourgeois liberalism, while affiliating themselves with Marxism. In Marxism Today in February 1958, James Klugmann still declared that ‘revisionism’ was ‘the main danger in the international Communist movement’. Klugmann wrote that the Twentieth Congress had revealed ‘profound mistakes’, but some ‘confused the mistakes with the principles’ of Marxism-Leninism and ‘in a moment of half-panic began to throw out the principles’. Those who had left the Party had ‘lost their socialist integrity’ and produced an ‘emasculated Marxism’ reduced to a form of ‘reformism and liberalism’.

John Saville (1994: 30) stated that the Twenty Fifth Party Congress demonstrated two things – that the Party leadership was not prepared to confront the problems that had arisen from Khrushchev’s speech and that the leadership could ‘count upon a majority of its membership to follow its lead’. On February 13, 1957, the CPGB’s Central Organisation Department announced the membership of the Party as 25,570, down from 33,095 in February 1956 (World News, 23 February, 1957). Hyman Levy and Christopher Hill reminded the Party Congress of the loss of over 7,000 members, which the Executive Committee member Mick Bennett had described as a ‘handful’ (World News, 18 May, 1957). Hill replied, ‘If three or four more handfuls like that went there would be no Party left… It is criminally frivolous to be treating this flippantly’. The Party leadership tried to portray the mass exodus of members as ‘a revolt of the intellectuals’ and the ‘revisionists’, influenced by the attacks by ‘the powers of reaction’ (Daly, 1976: 86). This anti-intellectualist view that ‘revisionism’ was responsible for the mass resignations had been continued in the Party for many years after 1956. In 1960, John Gollan wrote an article in the World News (4 June, 1960), stating that ‘the intellectuals formed the spearhead of the revisionist tendencies’ that could have potentially destroyed the Communist Parties as ‘effective revolutionary organisations’. The result of this, Gollan wrote, was an ‘understandable tendency’ by those in the Party to feel that ‘the intellectuals aren’t much worth bothering about’.

In Raphael Samuel’s (1987) valuable articles on ‘The Lost World Of British Communism’, he stated:

Certainly “the intellectuals” were largely blamed for the exodus of members in 1956, and though this was not literally true (the party lost numbers of industrial cadres), it is the case that the infrastructure of the Party’s trade union work, as also of its shopfloor influence, remained substantially intact.

The conviction of the Party leadership was that the CPGB was the paramount political vehicle of the working class and central to the class struggle.  The events of 1956 and 1957 did not shake the Party’s faith in Marxism-Leninism and democratic centralism (at least until the late 1960s). ‘Even if the party membership were to be reduced to nought,’ Hyman Levy wrote in The New Statesman (27 April, 1957), the leadership ‘would still remain The Party’. The accurate occupational composition of the over 8,000 members that left between February 1956 and February 1958 is not known, although there is enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that a large number of industrial workers left the Party as well as the intellectuals. In 1960, John Gollan wrote that the loss among middle-class members (which included teachers and academics) was ‘proportionately far more than in the Party as a whole’, which Kenneth Newton (1969: 64) in The Sociology of British Communism stated was ‘confirmed by three District officials’. However, Lawrence Daly (176: 86) claimed that ‘the bulk of dissenters were industrial workers, though their dissent was more articulately expressed by those intellectuals’, citing the drop of membership by 25 per cent in industrial West Fife as an example.

By 1964, the Communist Party had managed to recruit enough members to make up the losses of 1956, but the Party’s problems did not go away. John Callaghan (2003: 32-33) seems to support Daly’s claims, arguing that after the exodus of 1956, the Party’s numerical presence, particularly in the factories, diminished rapidly and ‘it proved an uphill struggle to maintain the Party’s factory branches throughout the 1950s and 1960s in all parts of Britain’. By the late 1960s, the Party leadership’s adherence to ‘democratic centralism’ and uncritical support of the Soviet Union seemed to be slipping, especially following the criticism of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But many have argued that by this time, the fissures in the CPGB were already present and the seeds for the slow decline that accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s seems, from the place of hindsight, were sown in the post-1956 period.



Beckett, F (1995) Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (Merlin Press, London)

Callaghan, J (2003) Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68 (Lawrence & Wishart, London)

Daly, L (1976) ‘The Fife Socialist League’, in Widgery, D (1976) The Left in Britain: 1956-1968 (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Grainger, G (1957) ‘The Crisis in the British CP’, Problems of Communism (Mar/Apr)

Hobsbawm, E (2002) Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (Penguin Books, London)

Laybourn, K & Murphy, D (1999) Under The Red Flag: A History of Communism in Britain c.1849 – 1991 (Sutton Publishing, Stroud)

MacEwen, M (1976) ‘The Day the Party Had to Stop’, The Socialist Register

MacEwen, M (1991) The Greening of a Red (Pluto Press, London)

Mahon, J (1957) ‘Report on Inner-Party Democracy’, in CPGB, 25th Congress Report (CPGB, London)

Newton, K (1969) The Sociology of British Communism (Penguin Press, London)

Pelling, H (1975) The British Communist Party: A Historical Profile (A & C Black Ltd, London)

Samuel, R (1987) ‘Class Politics: The Lost World of British Communism, Part Three’, New Left Review 165 (Sep/Oct)

Saville, J (1994) ‘Edward Thompson, The Communist Party and 1956’, The Socialist Register

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