Communist Party of Britain

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

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Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.

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.

Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

This is something that I’ve been playing with while trying to write the intro to our second volume on the British far left’s history, titled Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 vol. II and to be published through Manchester University Press in 2017. Parts of it may or may not end up in the final version, but I thought I’d post this while the topic is still being debated…

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While putting together our second edited volume dedicated to the history of the British far left, we have witnessed a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party. This has, in turn, brought a renewed interest in the far left’s history.

Corbyn’s victory in July 2015 had been on the back on a wave of enthusiasm amongst different sections of the Labour Party membership – trade unionists, young people, those who flirted with the Greens and other minor parties, working class members, and, of course, refugees from the British far left. Many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour.

The election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed to many to overturn the assumed position of the far left since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s. From Militant Labour (later the Socialist Party of England and Wales) to the Revolutionary Communist Party, it was presumed that the Labour Party was unsalvageable, a bourgeois party that had abandoned the working class. Entrism was left to the rump of Militant and the other groups began a long line of alternative electoral vehicles to Labour – Socialist Alliance, Respect, No2EU, TUSC, the Left List (for example). Admittedly, some groups, such as the Communist Party of Britain, still called a Labour vote at general elections, but asked people to metaphorically hold their nose while doing so. But the initial period after Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Unite Against Fascism, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

However as the last year has proved, trying to reform the outlook and membership base of Labour Party (which has been the intention of many of those supporting Corbyn) while trying to maintain the emphasis on electoralism (which has been the focus of the Party since 1945 at least) has brought the Party to near schism. Looking at the long history of the relationship between the British far left and the Labour Party, it seems that the lessons of the 1960s (when the IMG and IS became entities in their own right) or the 1990s (when Militant Labour had its ‘open turn’) might have to be learnt all over again. Entrism has its limits and it is possibly far better for the far left to be social forces outside the Labour Party putting pressure from without than to be marginalised while attempting to apply pressure from within. Since the Labour Party refused to affiliate with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s, the far left has had to negotiate how much to work with (or within) Labour and how much to differentiate and present an alternative.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had sought affiliation with the Labour Party several times during the inter-war period, but after its last attempt failed in 1945-46, the CPGB devised another way to influence the Labour Party and bring forward the future possibility of a Labour-Communist alliance. This influence would come through the structures of the trade union bureaucracy. Most other groups on the far left looked to seek influence in the trade unions at rank-and-file level, but wrote off the higher echelons of the trade unions as reformist and too conservative. However this strategy of working through the trade unions formed the basis for the CPGB’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism. As John Callaghan has noted, almost all the elements of the CPGB’s plan to gain influence inside the Labour Party through the trade unions came together in the period between 1973 and 1983 (between the defeat of the Heath Government and Labour’s ‘radical’ 1983 manifesto),[1] but as we now know, there were little tangible gains from this strategy. The victory of the trade unions over Edward Heath only resulted in a crisis-ridden Labour Government beholden to the International Monetary Fund and Labour were roundly defeated in the 1983 election by Margaret Thatcher, after the Party’s leftwards shift caused a section of the right to break away to form the Social Democratic Party.

The loss of the 1983 election is routinely blamed upon the far left entrists in the Labour Party who pushed the party to the left, resulting in a manifesto that alienated the political centre. Roy Hattersley is attributed as saying the Party’s ‘Trotskyists, one-subject campaigners, Marxists who had never read Marx, Maoists, pathological dissidents … played a major part in keeping the Conservatives in power for almost twenty years.’[2] Although the actual reasons for Labour’s disastrous showing at this election are far more complex, the shadow of 1983 has loomed large over the party since Corbyn’s leadership victory.[3] Since becoming Labour leader, many have predicted that Corbyn will repeat the mistakes of Labour under Michael Foot – giving too much leeway to the far left and thus encouraging a split with the centre-right. The far left is portrayed by many commentators as a nebulous force set to derail Labour’s ability to present a credible opposition to the Conservatives and one of the main reasons that Labour will lose the 2020 general election (if not called sooner). While the spectre of various Trotskyists and Communists inside the Labour Party has been raised, it also vastly overestimates the influence that the far left has within the Labour Party nowadays.

In his recent book on the Corbyn ‘revolution’, Richard Seymour has suggested that the Labour Party ‘may simply be untenable in its current form’.[4] The gap between the electoral desires of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots call for reforms by a large section of the Party’s membership, not to mention to shifting voting base for the Labour Party, seems unsurmountable – and a resolution to suit all involved is unrealistic. Journalist and economist Paul Mason has recently suggested that the Labour Party should become a social movement, rather than simply an electoral political party. However the post-war history of the British far left highlights the difficulties in creating a social movement around an organised political party, rather than a single issue organisation. As Phil Burton-Cartledge showed in our last volume, Against the Grain, the success of the far left has come when it has spearheaded a broad-based social movement,[5] such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War movement, rather than when it has tried to consolidate and centralise its membership into a particular party. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that when different parties have attempted to transform momentum from a broad social movement into concrete party membership, this has not been easily translated. An understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework (essentially where the Labour Party finds itself in 2016). It is hoped that our forthcoming book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding.

 

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Plan to Capture the British Labour Party and its Paradoxical Results, 1947-91’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40/4 (2005) p. 707.

[2] Cited in, Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour (London: Scribner, 2001) p. 116.

[3] For example, see: Peter Dorey & Andrew Denham, ‘“The Longest Suicide Vote in History”: The Labour Party Leadership Election of 2015’, British Politics (2016) doi:10.1057/s41293-016-0001-0

[4] Richard Seymour, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (London: Verso, 2016) p. 12.

[5] Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945-2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) pp. 80-97.

How the Morning Star reported the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989

By late December 1989, the revolution sweeping across the Eastern Bloc had reached Romania and in the days before Christmas, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu attempted to shore up his regime by launching a military offensive against those protesting against the dictatorship. On December 21, Ceausescu attempted to give a speech in Bucharest which descended into open revolt and a massively violent crackdown by sections of the army and police loyal to Ceausescu.

The Ceausescus fled the capital, but were captured by sections of the military who supported the revolution. On Christmas Day 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were quickly tried and executed on national television.

The Morning Star, formerly the daily newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain but by then connected to the breakaway Communist Party of Britain, had reported on the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, but, as I have shown here, had reported the events from a very sympathetic to the Soviet Union perspective.

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However the reporting of the final days of the Ceausescu regime revealed a much more celebratory tone. For example, on December 23 1989 – two days after Ceausescu’s ill-fated last speech – 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.

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However inside the newspaper, it was qualified that Ceausescu became a ruthless dictator after 24 years in power, reminding readers that he had opposed in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

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In a further editorial on December 27, the Morning Star stated that the ‘unbridled exercise of personal power’ used by Ceaucescu had ‘nothing to do with the ideas of Socialism’ and further celebrated the ‘heroism of the Romanian people in the face of terrorism of the so-called security forces’.

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Finally on December 28, the paper published excerpts from the trial of the Ceausescus and reported that life was returning to normal in Bucharest after the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.

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As I wrote in this book chapter, the newspaper’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.

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.’ 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.’ When Mikhail Gorbachev eventually 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.’

What was Straight Left? An introduction by Lawrence Parker

Last week it was announced that Guardian journalist Seamus Milne was to become Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s new Director of Communications. A number of media reports remarked that Milne was once attached to the Communist Party factional journal Straight Left. However few, particularly in the mainstream media, know much about the Straight Left faction or its role in the final years of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I asked Lawrence Parker, an expert on the hardline oppositional and anti-revisionist groups that emerged from the CPGB, to write a little introduction to those unfamiliar with the history of the Straight Left faction.

Lenin-Leninist small_art_full

Origins

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme. This stance was clouded in ambiguity in many sections of the CPGB’s left, with the default position usually being expressed in a preference for the 1951 version of the BRS overseen by Stalin, as opposed to later versions modified by a ‘revisionist’ CPGB leadership.[i] This opposition suffered a major split in the run-up to the CPGB’s 1977 congress, with Sid French taking away 700 or so supporters to form the New Communist Party (after French realised that the CPGB’s leadership was intent on a reorganisation of his Surrey district, which would have deprived him of his organisational bridgehead). The rump left opposition in the CPGB coalesced around Fergus Nicholson (other key figures were John Foster, Brian Filling, Nick Wright, Susan Michie, Pat Turnbull and Andrew Murray) who had been the CPGB’s student organiser until 1974. The Straight Left newspaper was launched in 1979, with a theoretical magazine, Communist, also appearing. Membership figures are impossible to guess. However, judging from the Communist, the faction did have a wide national infrastructure beyond London through the 1980s and was certainly on a par with, if not in some places more deeper rooted than, the other oppositional stream around the Morning Star (see below).

Factions and fictions

The Straight Left group provoked a lot of enmity from its factional rivals in the CPGB. Thus, Mike Hicks, who was involved in the Communist Campaign Group (CCG), set up after the rebellion of Morning Star supporters against the CPGB leadership in the mid-1980s, and later the first general secretary of the 1988 Communist Party of Britain split (both criticised and opposed by the Straight Left faction), said in the late 1990s: “Straight Left was neither straight nor left.”[ii] Similarly, a CCG document complained: “The individuals grouped around Straight Left have their own newspaper, their own organisation, and their own objectives.”[iii] I have been told anecdotally by CPGB activists of the time that Straight Left was thought to have three circles: an inner ‘Leninist’ core; a broader circle of sympathisers in the CPGB; and the ‘softer’ Labourite and trade unionists grouped around the Straight Left newspaper (non-CPGB trade unionists such as Alan Sapper and Labour MPs such as Joan Maynard were on its advisory board). Certainly, the majority of the content of the newspaper was hewn from the same, dry ‘labour movement’ template used by the Morning Star, with little indication that it was the work of communists, apart from its commentary on the Soviet Union and other international matters. (The Communist journal, obviously aimed at CPGB sympathisers, was much more orthodox and harder Marxist-Leninist in tone, with a lot of very interesting commentary on inner-party CPGB matters.) So, Straight Left was a faction and did indulge in political camouflage but in this it was merely of its time. For example, the CCG’s disavowal of Straight Left’s factionalism was merely an attempt to throw people off the scent from the CCG’s own factionalism (the CCG unconvincingly complained it wasn’t a faction at all; just a group that wanted to follow the CPGB’s rules — which fooled nobody). The CPGB was riddled with factions in the 1980s (and throughout the post-war period), not least those grouped around Marxism Today and the party machine. Similarly, on Straight Left’s broad left camouflage in its newspaper and other forums, this was the modus operandi of nearly the whole far left, from the Morning Star to various Trotskyist groups i.e. communists clothing their politics in everything from trade unionism to feminism and concealing their true aims in the pursuit of mass influence. Again, in hindsight, Straight Left doesn’t strike one as very exceptional in this regard. In retrospect, the enmity aimed at it on these counts stands revealed as the product of mere factional rivalry.

However, another area of criticism aimed at Straight Left may have more mileage in terms of a lasting judgement. The group was deemed by its CPGB factional rivals (both in the CCG and the small group around The Leninist) to have a ‘heads down’ approach to CPGB work. In the words of the CCG such an approach “counsels caution and compliance with the authority of the [CPGB’s] Executive Committee. It says that if there is disagreement and dissatisfaction with the Eurocommunists [the faction then dominating the party’s leadership], then opposition must be expressed and conducted via the normal party channels. That is to say, we must try at successive congresses to defeat and remove the Eurocommunists.”[iv] This led to notorious moves such as Straight Leftists walking out with the CPGB leader Gordon McLennan when he closed down a London District Congress in November 1984 that threatened to become a point of opposition to the party leadership. Mike Hicks, in the chair of this meeting, later contemptuously observed that Straight Left “ended up selling Marxism Today [CPGB theoretical journal much despised by the party’s left in the 1980s for its Eurocommunist proclivities] instead of the Morning Star because the executive told them to”.[v] However, what this Straight Left strategy of avoiding open conflict eventually led to, in the context of a CPGB that was being set on a liquidationist course, was it being left somewhat high and dry. Straight Left had built a considerable base in London by the end of the 1980s “by showing a willingness to take on responsibilities at a time when few candidates were to be found”.[vi] This was to be a very hollow victory indeed given that the CPGB was soon to pass into oblivion and the succession of congresses to win was coming to an end.

Labour pains

In terms of the Labour Party, Straight Left took the BRS injunction of developing an alliance with Labour to effect radical changes to its logical conclusion by arguing that the CPGB should affiliate to the Labour Party and, more controversially for both the left and right of the CPGB, that the party should end its independent electoral work. Thus a typical article in Communist argued: “… it is difficult to see there being much movement against the exclusion of communist trades unionists from the Labour Party until our electoral strategy is based on non-sectarian principles and imbued with a thoroughly consistent and positive attitude to the Labour Party.”[vii] Thus Straight Left picked up clearly on the attitude of the pro-Soviet CPGB opposition of the 1960s, which consistently drew attention to the political impact of declining electoral votes on the avowed Labour-Communist strategy of the party. However, this opened up Straight Left to jibes of ‘liquidationism’ from both left and right in the CPGB[viii] and, in retrospect, isolated the group further.

Men of steel
The Straight Left group, again showing its origins in the CPGB’s pro-Soviet left of the 1960s, took an extremely uncritical view of the Soviet Union and other ‘socialist’ nations, and viewed the actions of the CPGB as a ‘national’ sin against the ‘internationalist’ probity of the Soviet Union’s camp. Straight Left publications were filled with reprints from Soviet agencies such as Novosti and other press agencies from the Eastern Bloc. Thus, an article in Communist argued:

Democracy for the working class has at all times been infinitely greater in the Soviet Union than in Britain. Political power in the Soviet Union is exercised for the working class and not against it. Concretely the Soviet citizen has human rights we are denied. He works for himself, collectively; and he is not unemployed.

Neither did this stance seemingly allow criticism of even the most crisis-stricken and sickly military dictatorships of countries such as Poland in the early 1980s. Straight Leftist Charlie Woods, complaining bitterly of CPGB criticisms of the Polish regime in 1983, said: “After all, how would our [CPGB] leadership take it if the over two-million-strong Polish United Workers Party took time off from trying to solve the problems of socialism to remonstrate with our 16,000-member party’s failure to achieve it at all.”[ix] The implication of this little homily being, of course, that those British communists really shouldn’t venture to criticise their Polish brethren at all. Fergus Nicholson used the pseudonym ‘Harry Steel’ when writing in Straight Left (Harry after Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s most-revered general secretary; and Steel after Joseph Stalin the so-called ‘man of steel’). The attitude that the faction took to the Soviet Union shows that this was no idle affectation.

The Straight Left journal existed until the early 1990s, but many of its followers ended up joining the Communist Party of Britain, which was set up from the CCG in 1988. Unlike The Leninist faction, which became the new CPGB in the late 1990s, the Straight Left faction faded into obscurity after the breakup of the original Communist Party of Great Britain.

Lawrence Parker is the author of the book, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. He has also contributed a chapter on anti-revisionism inside the CPGB in the 1950s and 1960s for our edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956.

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[i] It was difficult for a generally Stalin-supporting left in the CPGB to discard the legacy of the 1951 version of the BRS, particularly after John Gollan had helpfully pointed out that Stalin oversaw its incarnation. See John Gollan ‘Which road?’ Marxism Today July 1964. For a clear example of this ambiguity being shown to the BRS, see the contribution of Fergus Nicholson to the CPGB’s 1977 pre-congress debate in Comment 1 October 1977.

[ii] Francis Beckett Enemy within: the rise and fall of the British Communist Party London, 1998 p234. The accession of a group of ex-Straight Leftists (including Andrew Murray and Nick Wright, who had split from Straight Left to form Communist Liaison in the early 1990s) into the ranks of the Communist Party of Britain, contributed to a bitter faction fight in the organisation, in which Hicks was eventually deposed as general secretary and a strike by Morning Star staff.

[iii] Communist Campaign Group The crisis in the Communist Party and the way forward (no date but circa 1985)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Beckett op cit

[vi] Willie Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London, 1992 p205

[vii] ‘40th congress of the Communist Party’ Communist September 1987

[viii] For the right wing of the CPGB, see Dave Cook in the pre-congress discussion of 1981; and for the left, Alan Stevens in the same context. Both in Comment 17 October 1981.

[ix] Charlie Woods The crisis in our Communist Party: cause, effect and cure 1983. Woods was a miner and party veteran from County Durham who was expelled for writing this pamphlet although he was very much viewed as a ‘fall guy’, with Fergus Nicholson or Brian Topping thought of as the more likely authors.

How the Morning Star reported the fall of the Berlin Wall

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 (all pics from microfilm copies of the paper so text is probably unreadable)

Two days before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Morning Star (the paper nominally tied to the newly established Communist Party of Britain) had a two page spread celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. Interviewing Yuri Kasin of the Soviet Union’s Social Sciences Institute, the article praised the reforms in the USSR under the banner of perestroika and quoted Kasin about the growth of socialism:

What we are seeing now is not the crisis of Socialism, but the crisis of the outdated model of Socialism. Perestroika is outlining the contours of the new model to which the future belongs.

Those who are ready to bury Socialism, because of the difficulties we are going through will be disappointed. The cause of the Great October Revolution is immortal.

On the night of 9 November, the Berlin Wall began to collapse. The Morning Star first reported it on 11 November under the headline ‘GDR UNVEILS REFORMS PACKAGE’. Roger Trask quoted the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) who were putting their spin on the rapidly unfolding events (announcing 18 new crossing points):

The German Democratic Republic is awakening… A revolutionary people’s movement has set in motion a process of serious upheaval… The aim is dynamically to give Socialism more democracy.

Trask further reported:

The party announced plans for the total reform of the electoral process onto a multi-party basis and for the establishment of the rights of assembly and press freedom. New underground and railway border crossings are also to be investigated, said the GDR Interior Minister Friedrich Dickel.

Amid scenes of wild jubilation thousands of GDR citizens visited West Berlin for the first time in their lives – with most of them enjoying the stay but returning back later.

The newspaper attempted to portray what was happening as part of a wider reform package by the SED and the Soviet Union:

In Moscow leaders gave the changes a warm welcome but warned that they could not lead to a re-drawing of the boundaries of Europe. Soviet government spokesman General Gerasimov called Berlin’s action ‘a wise decision because it destroys all the stereotypes about the Iron Curtain.’

But he added, ‘East Germany has introduced a new regime on its border but the border remains.’

On page 2 of the same edition of the newspaper, the Morning Star ran an editorial titled ‘For peace and stability’. The editorial read:

THE EVENTS taking place in the German Democratic Republic and the decisions being taken by the Socialist Unity Party are part of the process to bring about changes in Socialism in line with the demands and needs of the people in the modern age. Despite the propaganda being pumped out daily in the West, Socialism is not the issue in question. Any interference in the internal affairs of the Socialist countries by the Western powers in an attempt to turn in any difficulties to their advantage can only threaten peace and stability…

There should be no illusions. Strong forces in the West still harbour the hope that they can exploit the current situation in the Socialist countries to the advantage of capitalism. The labour and progressive movement in Britain needs to be aware of this and not allow the more extreme forms of anti-Communist propaganda in the Western media confuse the issue. It is vital that the demand is made that the countries of Eastern Europe be allowed to resolve their problems in their own way without interference. 

The principal [sic] of respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of another nation has got to become the bedrock of all states in the whole of Europe if Europe is to play a role in advancing the cause of peace and make a positive contribution to global problems… Elements within the West who continue to attempt to push arguments about the reunification of Germany are only complicating the situation. The question of the relationship between West Germany and the German Democratic Republic is for those two countries to decide on the basis of the principle of peaceful co-existence.

MS on 13 Nov, 1989

MS on 13 Nov, 1989

As the Eastern Bloc started to unravel over the next year, the Morning Star (on paper at least) welcomed some of the reforms within Eastern Europe (such as the overthrow of the Ceausescus in Romania), but followed the SED and Soviet line until the end in December 1991. I have written more about the reaction of the British left to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc here and about the line taken by the Morning Star at the time, I said:

As would be expected, the language used in the Morning Star in its reporting of 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 [p. 160].

25 years on, I wonder how the paper will report on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the current climate.

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

 

Far Left book has arrived!

I am back at work after two weeks with dreadful sickness and was happy to have received a package from MUP.

far left book

The book can be pre-ordered from Manchester University Press now. I know that 75 quid is a tad on the pricey side, but if enough institutional libraries (and the like) buy copies now, a much more affordable paperback edition should be out next year.