The CPGB and the CND: A reply from Tom Sibley

I have received a short reply to the posts by myself and Nick Barnett on the relationship between the CPGB and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from Tom Sibley, one of the authors of the biography of Bert Ramelson (see here for a review). While I still don’t agree with some of the assertions made by Sibley and would like to see some references to some of the arguments made (such as Bruce Kent’s quote and the assertion made in point 2), I am posting it in the interest of furthering academic debate. The piece is slightly edited to remove some minor rhetorical flourishes, because y’know, my gaff, my rules, but it is essentially the original piece emailed to me. So below is the piece from Sibley…

 

After Evan’s latest admirable research efforts it is clear that many previous assessments of the CP’s position on nuclear disarmament and the Party’s relationship with CND are badly flawed (on this more later). I think it would be helpful to future academic  research and to those studying these questions if it was made it clear that the notion of a “people’s bomb” is totally alien to the CP’s position and approach during this period or at any time at all.  It is probably based on an anecdote from Jack Straw’s autobiography – a totally unreliable source.  It would also help to explore how the various commentators (as quoted by Evan) got it wrong. For example:

  1. Nigel Young’s statements that “Communists have played little part in sustaining the first anti-nuclear protests “and that the Daily Worker attacked CND are utterly wrong.  As was Willie Thompson when he stated that the CP originally opposed CND.  Similarly Thompson’s assessment that the Party had been “griping” about the CND is wide of the mark.
  2.  John Callaghan is also wrong to say that it was not until 1960 that the Party backed the Aldermaston march.  It was well represented at the very first march in 1958 and on every subsequent demonstration.
  3. Andrews’ history is wide of the mark when suggesting that the CP’s initial opposition to unilateralism was prompted by loyalty to the Soviet Union.  The CP, as did the majority of labour movement activists at the time believed that the only real protection against the Bomb was its total worldwide abolition and that this could only be achieved through international agreement.  There were high hopes that such agreement could be attained in the late 1950s but these were scuppered by the Pentagon in 1960.
  4. As for Widgery it is risible to suggest that the CP, in the late 1950s, controlled the majority of union block votes at the Labour Party Conference.  Remember CP members were not allowed to represent their unions at Labour Party Conferences and that less than a handful of mainly small unions could be said to be communist led in 1957/58.  And Widgery neglects to tell his readers that before 1959 not one union conference supported the unilateralist position.  And it is incorrect to claim that this was a left-right issue – the real division was between those who wanted to keep the bomb as a deterrent  and a symbol of British power (the right wing) and those who wanted to ban it a divided left consisting of both multilateralist and unilateralist.

By 1960 it was clear that international agreement on banning the Bomb was no longer a feasible short term objective and that the best protection for the British people was the development of a mass peace movement campaigning for a wide range of unilateralist and multilateralist initiatives, a position shared by both the CP and CND.  The relationship between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CPGB had no bearing on this.  Understandably the Soviets wanted Britain to use its influence in support of international agreement to ban the Bomb and felt that unilateralism weakened these prospects.  But the British Party’s first concern was the security of the British people and there is no documented or other reliable evidence to suggest that Moscow attempted to influence CPGB policy.

Nick Barnett rightly points out that several individuals and a few unnamed organisations (they came and went) campaigned on the issue during the 1950s prior to CND’s formation.  Although these efforts were important they do not bear comparison to consistent mass work undertaken by the British Peace Council and the Communist Party.

Bruce Kent, when General Secretary of CND, was very clear about the vital role played by the CP when publicly  thanking the Party for its work in sustaining the broad peace movement over several decades.  It was the CP-led British Peace Council which collected over 1 million signatures to a ‘Ban the Bomb’ petition in 1950 and which campaigned throughout the post war period (from 1945 onwards) for all nuclear weapons to be outlawed.  And it was Communist led unions such as the ETU and the FBU which during this period championed nuclear disarmament at TUC Congresses.

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3 comments

  1. Evan, you ask for a source for Bruce Kent’s view. This is only secondary, but it pins down the event in question:

    “While Defence minister Heseltine denounced Communist Party influence in CND, one of its leaders Bruce Kent hailed the CP as ‘partners in peace’ at the Party’s 38th congress in 1983. He also praised the Morning Star for its ‘steady, honest and generous coverage of the whole nuclear disarmament case’.” (from 90 Years of Struggle for the Working Class and Humanity: The Communist Party 1920-2010 by Robert Griffiths and Ben Stevenson, Communist Party History Group, 2010)

    I remember Kent’s speech at the CP congress well, and it received widespread publicity at the time. I’m sure that it can be found in the Morning Star archive!

  2. I also remember Bruce Kent having spoken as a guest at the 1983 CPGB congress – and yes, it got quite a lot of publicity at the time, not least because CND was in the ascendant then and the right-wing press was looking for anything they could use to suggest that CND were all dupes of the USSR. I’m pretty sure that Bruce’s speech was reported, possibly verbatim, in the issue of “Communist Focus” which constituted the official report of the congress. I’ve almost certainly got a copy of it somewhere; if I find it, I’ll give you the reference. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be too difficult to track down in LHA, MML or wherever.

  3. I got this further reply from Tom Sibley this morning, which addresses my request for sources. I’ve added it to the comments here, rather than starting a new post, for easier reference between the sources given and his first reply.

    “On the issue of references to points made (1-4) I thought Evan’s research findings very satisfactorily dealt with points 1 and 2. For example on the Callaghan quote Evan’s research reveals that the Party’s Political Committee in March 1958 (i.e. before the first Aldermaston March) adopted a report which “pledged its support to the efforts of all peace organisations, the meetings of the Nuclear Committee (by which is meant the inaugural meetings by which CND was formed…”).

    The Daily Worker throughout the rest of 1958 and the whole of 1959 gave 100% support to all CND activities. There can be no doubt that Callaghan has got this wrong.

    On point 3 Andrews produced no evidence to support his point and as I argue in my reply there is in fact none to back his assertion that loyalty to the Soviet Union stood in the way of the CPGB adopting a unilateralist stance. There is however an interesting editorial in the Daily Worker (7.10.57) in reply to Tribune and Tom Driberg which states the accusations made by Tribune and Driberg that the British Party changed its policy following Bevan’s discussion with Kruschev are “…tosh. We do not know what Kruchev said to Bevan. Policy is not changed for a Test Ban Treaty and for a unilateral stop to such tests by the next Labour Government”.

    Point 4 also partly reflects the above editorial re lack of union support for unilateralism pre 1959 while any activist from this period still around will affirm my assessment of the lack of CP leverage in unions at the height of the Cold War (see for example, my Ph.D. dissertation Anti-communism: studies of its impact on the UK labour movement in the early years (1945-1950) of the Cold War, Keele University available from jtsib@btinternet.com).

    Bruce Kent’s speech to the CPGB to the 38th Congress (November 1983) is well documented – see Daily Worker and Focus (the Party’s fortnightly journal for the period) Kent was generous in his estimation of the CP’s contribution stating that he was proud to have been “a partner in the cause of peace in the world with the CP” (Daily Worker 14.11.83.)

    The CP’s approach was straight forward enough – support all efforts which highlight the case for banning the Bomb and keep alive the British Peace Committee whose remit extended beyond the single issue of nuclear disarmament. As time progressed the CND did broaden its objectives and during the 1970s it was, as Kent acknowledged, the CP which did so much to keep it alive once the initial CND surge had subsided.”

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