The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the Legacy of the Soviet Union

With the recent controversy surrounding the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Britain’s Russophilia, I thought people might be interested in this, which I wrote a few years ago on how the CPB reacted to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. It is an extract from this book chapter that also looked at how the CPGB and the SWP reacted to the events of 1989.

For those interested in reading further on this, Lawrence Parker is contributing a chapter on the CPB to the forthcoming edited volume for Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, vol. II. Keep an eye out for this in the new year!

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

The Communist Party of Britain was, and remains, probably the most significant party that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism. The CPB had emerged from the discontent inside the CPGB during the mid-1980s as the Party tried to grapple with the ‘victorious’ Thatcher Government, who had defeated the Argentineans in the Falklands War, had defeated Labour in the 1983 election and looked to defeat the trade unions in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The fierce debate over the role of the industrial unionism had rumbled on within the CPGB since Tony Lane criticised the role of the trade unions inside the pages of Marxism Today in late 1982.[1] The Morning Star, under the editorship of the traditionalist Tony Chater, became increasingly critical of the reformers (or ‘Euros’) in the Party and a beacon for those dissatisfied with the way the CPGB seemed to be going. Between 1983 and 1988, a series of expulsions, resignations and heated arguments led to several factions being formed around various discontented Party and ex-Party members,[2] including the Straight Left and The Leninist factions, but most importantly for the CPB was the Communist Campaign Group, which eventually formed the Communist Party of Britain in 1988. Many believed that the CPB would sink into oblivion like the New Communist Party and the various Maoist outfits which left in the 1960s and 1970s, but the saving grace of the CPB was its links to the Morning Star. Although it was nominally under the control of the People’s Press Printing Society since 1946, Kevin Morgan has stated that ‘[t]he paper nevertheless remained the acknowledged voice of the CP[GB] until the factional disputes of more recent years’.[3] ‘Control’ of the Morning Star by the CPB meant that the fledgling group had a widely read and well-established organ to reach into the British labour movement and until the mid-1990s, provided the CPB with a significant income.

Even though the CPB was sympathetic to Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism, the Party was not in favour of the Leninist method of armed insurrection or the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the CPB opting to maintain The British Road to Socialism as their programme. The Party’s favourable opinion of the Soviet Union was an almost historical hangover, based on nostalgia and popular memory, rather than seeing the Eastern Bloc as a blueprint for a socialist revolution in Britain. But even this view of the Soviet Union acknowledged the severe shortcomings of the Soviet experiment. As would be expected, the language used in the Morning Star in its reporting on the events from 1989 to 1991 was much more moderate than what was expressed in Marxism Today or the Socialist Worker, but there were many positive stories about the people’s uprisings in Eastern Europe and the moral and political bankruptcy of the collapsing regimes. When the Ceaucescu regime was toppled in Romania in December 1989, the Morning Star editorial team published on the front page:

The Morning Star salutes the heroism of the Romanian people and sends it condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the struggle.

Despite the enormous difficulties still to be overcome, Romania is set to join the movement for democracy and Socialism sweeping Eastern Europe. We wish them every success.[4]

In a further editorial a few days later, the Morning Star stated that the ‘unbridled exercise of personal power’ used by Eastern European dictators like Ceaucescu had ‘nothing to do with the ideas of Socialism’.[5]

Within the pages of the Morning Star, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were celebrated as important reforms that allowed the people to achieve ‘democracy’ in the former People’s Democracies. A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paper reported that the ‘winds of perestroika have reached the GDR’, but this ‘[did] not mean a crisis of Socialism,… because the majority of the GDR population is not going to abandon human Socialism.’[6] Discussing the revolution in Romania, the editors of the paper claimed that it was ‘the essence of perestroika’ that was ‘at the heart of the complex changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe.’[7] When the August Coup failed in the summer of 1991, the front page headline for the paper declared ‘GREAT DAY FOR PERESTROIKA!’,[8] and when Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved, the editorial team celebrated Gorbachev as ‘[h]e tried to rescue the Socialist ideal from the authoritarian straitjacket that was suffocating it to death.’[9]

This ‘authoritarian straitjacket’ that was ‘suffocating’ the Soviet Union was a theme returned to repeatedly in the Morning Star’s reporting on the final days of the Soviet Bloc. While the paper and the CPB commended the Soviet Union for transforming Russia ‘from its state of backwardness in 1917’ into ‘a highly industrialised state with enormous potential’ and defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, it criticised the ‘inertia of the bureaucratic-command system that it created’ and argued that during the Cold War, this centralised command economy ‘ultimately stultified social development and limited the democratic participation of the people.’[10] Tony Chater argued that it was ‘this bureaucratic command model of Socialism which [had] failed, not the Socialism ideals of the revolution’ and that from the 1920s onwards, ‘Soviet society became ossified’.[11] In the days after the August coup, the paper argued that the ‘events we have witnessed were the death throes of an authoritarian, bureaucratic way of organising Socialist society’.[12] In November 1992, the CPB published their resolution on the Soviet Union (republished in 1998), which stated a very similar argument, stating:

[t]he root cause of the collapse lay in the particular forms of economic and political structure which developed in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the great mass of working people came to be progressively excluded from any direct control over their economic and social destiny. This erosion of the very essence of socialism increasingly affected all aspects of Soviet society.[13]

As Robert Griffiths, the General Secretary of the CPB in 1998, wrote, ‘With the working class excluded from a genuine mass role in the administration of industry and the state… and the party exercising state power as a bureaucratic-centralist organisation, Marxism-Leninism was distorted into a dogma and adopted as a state religion’.[14]

But the CPB and the Morning Star was still sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union and were not completely dismissive of its ‘achievements’. In his article, Chater claimed that criticisms of the Soviet Union ‘cannot alter the overwhelmingly positive contribution made… toward the elaboration of a new system of international relations based on peace and co-operation’, and ‘[h]ad it not been for the Soviet Union, fascism would not have been crushed’.[15] The CPB’s 1992 resolution expanded on this:

This is not to deny what was achieved in the Soviet Union. Large-scale industry was developed. There were massive advances in education, and a cultural revolution which changed the face of what had been a very backward country. The development of the Soviet Union’s scientific potential is beyond question. In health, housing and social services big steps forward were recorded.

The Soviet Union made a tremendous impact on the movement for national liberation against imperialism in the world. Its role supporting the anti-colonial movement and in the fight for peace is beyond dispute.[16]

But the Party concluded, ‘the fact remains that the defects in the Soviet system sapped socialism of its strength within the Soviet Union’.[17] However in the end, the CPB remained (and remains) sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union, with Robert Griffiths stating, ‘[w]ere we to draw up a balance sheet, the positive features of the socialist experience would far outweigh the negative ones.’[18]

The CPB acknowledged that ‘[i]t is understandable that there is disappointment, even despair, at the collapse of the Socialist system in the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries’, but claimed ‘the struggle isn’t over.’[19] The first General Secretary of the CPB, Mike Hicks, was quoted in the Morning Star, declaring in 1991, ‘we do not believe that Socialism is dead… Nor do we believe that millions of Communists around the world have stopped dreaming of and aspiring to a better future.’[20] For the CPB, The British Road to Socialism programme and the name ‘Communist Party’ remained important as they represented ‘a living expression of the application of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions of Britain in the world today’, with Hicks stating that the Party would not consider ‘abandoning the title Communist, nor the Leninist structure of our party.’[21] Hicks added:

We are proud of the name Communist. We are proud to reach out over the years to those great pioneers of our party – Pollitt, Gallacher and Dutt, to name but three.[22]

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989 (all pics from microfilm copies of the paper so text is probably unreadable)

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989

[1] See: Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today, September 1982, pp. 6-13.

[2] For discussions of these disputes within the CPGB, see: F. Beckett, Enemy Within, pp. 190-228; Edmund & Ruth Frow, The Liquidation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, E. & R. Frow, Salford, 1996; G. Andrews, Endgames and New Times, pp. 201-223; K. Laybourn, Marxism in Britain, pp. 114-147; Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991, Rotten Elements, n.d., pp. 54-71.

[3] Kevin Morgan, ‘The Communist Party and the Daily Worker 1930-56’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 142.

[4] ‘We Say’, Morning Star, 23 December, 1989, p. 1.

[5] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1989, p. 2.

[6] Nokolai Portgugalov & Vladimir Markov, ‘Perestroika Wind in GDR’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 4.

[7] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, p. 2.

[8] John Haylett, ‘Great Day for Perestroika!’, Morning Star, 23 August, 1991, p.1.

[9] ‘A Tragic Farewell for Gorbachov’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1991, p. 4.

[10] ’72 years of Socialism; Perestroika – A New Stage’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1989, p.2.

[11] Tony Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1991, p. 5.

[12] ‘Socialism, What Now?’, Morning Star, 27 August, 1991, p. 2.

[13] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’, Resolution of the Reconvened 41st Congress of the Communist Party of Britain, November 1992, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22&limitstart=1, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[14] Robert Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’, September 1998, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[15] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, pp. 4-5.

[16] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[17] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[18] R. Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’.

[19] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, p. 5.

[20] Cited in, Isolda McNeill, ‘Vital Role for the CPB’, Morning Star, 11 November, 1991, p. 3.

[21] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 3.

[22] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, p. 3.

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