THE BURIAL OF THE CPGB
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The burial of the CPGB
A question of traditions
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In November 1991 the Communist Party of Great Britain formally ceased to exist. After a period of shambolic discussions about the future, the organisation which was the CPGB voted to end itself and be transformed into the Democratic Left. In so doing it abandoned its history, traditions and its entire political outlook. Its Secretary, Nina Temple, admitted during a Television interview that the party no longer believed in marxism-leninism, dictatorship of the proletariat, class struggle, etc., and was now firmly within the democratic framework, to the delight of the bourgeoisie media. After the collapsing facade, called communism, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, this was the icing on the cake. And a happy time was had by all!
As the Communist Left (denounced as sectarian and unrealistic) have stubbornly defended marxism against all the various forms of revision, nobody should begrudge us a moment of satisfaction. The long slander by these people against marxism, begun we maintain during the days of Hyndman, has at long last come to an end. They twisted and distorted the proletarian critique and perspective into a conservative tendency at the end of the last century grafted it on to national defence, later to the defence of another country - the Mother Russia of Stalin - allowing a real united front with virtually all of the British bourgeoisie during the Second World War. These were the halcyon days for the former stalinists, when they could mix well with the followers of Churchill and the priests of various denominations, urging ever onwards the production for war and destruction. The long decline of stalinism has left its residue hopelessly isolated, defending a heritage which is little better than a joke. From marketing the shining workers paradise of Russia, they were reduced to pushing Third World tee-shirts and Russian socks (all in the most modern, trendy style of course). And so they finally reached the end of the line. As any financial consultant would have informed them, if your market is shrinking and you can't revitalise the product so it can sell sufficiently, then move into a different market. This is what the Democratic Left have done. Their once famous trade union base having died a death of boredom, a youth movement virtually without youth, a shrinking membership, all this called for a drastic overhaul. If in trouble, dump your politics and move in somewhere else. This they have accomplished ... eventually.
The theoretical house magazine of the CPGB, Marxism Today, waited only a short time and then ceased publication. As far as ideas were concerned it had reached the end of the road, so it «threw in the towel». For years the glossy trend-setter amongst some left-wing groups, it marketed its own ideas with the passion of door-to-door salesmen. Here were the latest ideas, post-fordism, the challenge of Thatcherism, the market ethos needing to be challenged, green issues, and so forth, a sort of mirror image of how the main capitalist parties go about their business. They were fascinated by the way that ideas developed within bourgeois institutions, especially think-tanks and then came to dominate the state and political parties. The eventual dominance of the «free market» approach showed a way they would have liked to emulate. If only the left could develop ideas in the same way and move in to conquer society in all its aspects, now that would be something they thought. And so they prepared a variation on the «march through the institutions», a spear-head for ecological and oh-so-trendy issues. As Thatcherism and Reagonomics, along with its supporters and advocates, are being eased out of the bourgeoisie's strategy for the recession, so its mirror image also goes into mortal crisis. At the wake organised to end Marxism Today the demise of all the ideas stemming from the end of the 70s was lamented. The think-tanks of that period, the stimulation of ideas, the drive for new perspectives, all of which would not be seen for another century or so. And for Jacques and co, the working class have nothing to look forward to for at least another dozen decades of continuing exploitation, war and destruction. Thanks very much. Thanks, but no thanks.
As its parting shot, no doubt to show it has genuinely changed and as a final confession, an account of subsidies from the Russian party was published. The lurid details of large bundles of money, sometimes hidden in attics, for the maintenance of the British party or destined for other «fraternal» parties was described. Of course every single penny was accounted for, checked several times! During all the ballyhoo over this (it probably only surprised members of the CPGB), the editor of Changes, a fortnightly publication of the rapidly demising CPGB, said in a letter to the Guardian: Trotskyists may wish to defend the beginnings of the CPGB before it was stalinised - if so they are welcome to it. Obviously he was off somewhere else.
It is the issue of the traditions of the marxist movement which we attach a great deal of importance. As a part of this the formation of the CPGB looms large in importance in Britain. The fierceness with which certain issues were fought out need to be examined, the linked question of parliamentarism and affiliation to the Labour Party, especially so. The inheritors of the Labour Party affiliation position have now done a bunk. Unfortunately many Trotskyists, as part of their defence of the first four Congresses of the Comintern, those which Trotsky himself was associated, rush to defend the «tactic» of affiliation to the Labour Party as some sort of magnificent manoeuvre of finding a way to the masses/exposing the labourites. It was not at all like that, being nothing short of a grievous error which resulted in a stalinist party in Britain almost before the rise of stalinism in the Soviet party. The victory of stalinism in the British party was accomplished in an almost bloodless way, with very few expulsions and liquidations (unlike so many of the other CPs, in particular the original Italian CP, to whose traditions we lay claim).
Backgrounds of the organisations involved in the formation of the CPGB
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Those histories which deal with the events which lead up to the formation of the CPGB usually have as an object the revindication of a particular these, i.e., the justification of this person or that organisation. Whilst not against this method in principal, we make the point precisely because no one person or organisation was sufficiently developed in order to play the central role in the formation of the Communist Party in Britain. However, there was plenty of potential and given time there should have been an active (though small) Communist Party formed. The events of the first World War, the Russian October Revolution and the post-war revolutionary events pushed various organisations and individuals towards forming a single revolutionary body. It was in this situation that political perspectives were put to the test, and if not adequate then often abandoned. In many cases some organisations were not the same at the end of the First World War as they were at the beginning!
The four bodies which were involved in the negotiations to form a Communist Party in Britain were: the British Socialist Party; the Socialist Labour Party; the Workers' Socialist Federation; and the South Wales Socialist Society.
In the official «History of the Communist Party of Great Britain», Vol. 1, by James Klugmann, we find the following:
«First, the oldest, largest and most important was the British Socialist Party (B.S.P.). The B.S.P. was the direct descendant of the Social-Democratic Federation (S.D.F.) founded in 1883 (or more strictly in 1881 as the Democratic Federation), renamed Social-Democratic Party (S.D.P) in 1908, and enlarged with some left members of the Independent Labour Party and some local socialist clubs and organisations to become, in 1911, the British Socialist Party...
Above all, in the almost 40 years of its existence it had educated, developed, and given to the working-class movement a succession of outstanding working-class leaders, and, though sometimes in a some-what narrow and doctrinaire form, kept alive the heritage of Marxist thought, challenging the pervading reformism.» (Klugmann, p. 16)
We have selected these passages because of the attempt to graft the Hyndman organisation on to a marxist tradition. The two are diametrically opposed, there having been a determined struggle between the two. But even more so the clear formulation that the B.S.P. was the central part (based on its own traditions?) which made it fit to form the basis of a Communist Party.
If Klugmann's history is taken at face value, then it would appear that the SDF was a marxist organisation with a fine tradition in the class struggle. This can hardly be further from the truth. We are dealing elsewhere with the relationship (or more correctly the lack of one) between Marx and Hyndman. More correctly it was a determined struggle between the two very different political outlooks. For instance, the supporters of marxism in the SDF fought it out with Hyndman and his clique in 1884 which led to a split and the creation of the Socialist League, with William Morris and others being leading forces. The publication of the letters of Marx's daughters is highly instructive on the events around this split.
«Into all the details I need not go. You and Paul have had your Brousse - and we simply had the same experience here that you have been, and are going through, with the Possibilists. Apart from the disgraceful vilification of everyone to whom he personally objected as not being a «follower» of himself, Hyndman forced things to such a condition that it was impossible to go on working with him... In the motion brought forward by Norris of confidence in Scheu (whom Hyndman has been maligning most shamefully), and of want of confidence in Hyndman, we had a majority... Our majority was too small to make it possible to get rid of the Jingo faction, and so, after due consultation with Engels, we decided to go out, and form the Socialist League. Bax is anxious that we should issue a weekly paper. But Engels is dead against this, so we will probably, for the present, content ourselves with a monthly journal. The General [a family nick-name for Engels] has promised, now that we are rid of the unclean elements in the Federation, to help us; many others who have till now stood aloof will come to us; also we shall of course (through Engels) have the Germans with us, and we also count on the Parti Ouvrier.» (Eleanor to Laura - «The Daughters of Karl Marx, Family Correspondence 1866-1898,» Penguin, p. 183)
With this letter we can see the important role Engels played in the struggle against the dominant politics of the SDF and in almost «engineering» a split. We can thereby characterise the Socialist League as, at least for a short period, Engels' preferred development, as a rallying core for any potential revolutionaries in Britain. But the optimism was short-lived and by 1890 the Socialist League was so infected by anarchism that the marxists who were left abandoned it to its own fate. Whatever the fate of the Socialist League does not detract from the fact that it played a part in the strategy of Engels, and Marx as well, for their work in Britain.
After the demise of the Socialist League Engels played great store in the Independent Labour Party during the 1890s, at that time an outgrowth of the class struggle. Engels optimism was not borne out by events but at least at that time the ILP was the product of the class struggle, coming up against nationalised and municipalised enterprises, especially in the Great Northern Gas Strike, where pitched battles were fought against local council controlled utilities. The importance of this experience lay in the fact that they were fighting enterprises which some, especially the Fabians, were busily declaring to be socialism on the march! The ILP was soon to be sucked into parliamentarism and reformism in general. The space left was to be filled after the turn of the century by the SLP, in direct opposition to that of the SDF.
The SLP in Britain can be regarded as originating at the Paris meeting of the Second International held on 27th September 1900. The entry of right-wing French socialists into a bourgeois cabinet which contained the butcher of the Paris Commune, General Gallifet, and after the French state had recently ordered troops to shoot strikers at Chalons, became a very emotive issue. The meeting was polarised, with Kautsky playing the role of the compromiser, and left was ranged against right. Alone amongst the British delegation, a young Scottish worker, George Yates, stood with the left. On his return to Britain he began a campaign against reformism and opportunism within the SDF. This ultimately led to the expulsion of those who gathered around him, mainly in Scotland at that stage. The leadership of the SDF had long experience in dealing with dissent within its ranks and through a series of internal manoeuvres and stratagems delayed the emergence of an opposition in London until those in Scotland had been dealt with. This London opposition, unable to link up at the time with the Scottish dissidents, later formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB however did not break from a Parliamentary perspective and so stayed outside the revolutionary tendencies. The formation of the SLP was a healthy reaction to all the opportunism spreading throughout the Second International. Yates was soon joined by James Connolly of Ireland, who was equally repelled by opportunism and reformism eminating from the SDF. A working alliance between revolutionaries of Scotland and Ireland was forged. Even though the SDF had nationally taken an anti-war stand on the Boer War, this was merely a smoke-screen for a desire for a British victory desired by Hyndman. An open letter to the new King, crowned in 1902, calling upon him to use his position to better the position of his subjects, merely rubbed salt into the wounds of the left. This briefly gives an insight into the range of differences between the left and the official SDF.
The differences between the SLP and the SDF were deep running and could not be reconciled. The hostility between the two organisations was maintained over the whole period certainly until the changes within the BSP from 1916 onwards. With the past of the BSP the reluctance of the SLP to readily accept at face value the apparent changes in the former organisation is understandable. The differences over the class struggle, the usual one of industrial as opposed to parliamentary actions, emerged time and again in the most violent language. The preoccupation with the class struggle by the SLP, issues to come to the fore during the big strikes of 1911 as well as other events, led the new BSP to characterise it as «that Scotch heresy» as if it were some sort of temporary aberration from the parliamentary strategy.
Given that the BSP was in the process of changing and taken up better positions during and after the First World War, also wishing to affiliate to the Third International, a more open and truthful attitude to its past would have been expected. Given the past conflicts, this was the least that could be expected. It did not appear to happen.
Other groups had arisen before, during and after the First World War. The most significant one was the Workers' Socialist Federation for some time confined to London. The most well known member was Sylvia Pankhurst, certainly a figure who can not be ignored. A member of the famous Suffragette family, Sylvia together with a small group of sympathisers became involved in the affairs of working class women. Because of the conditions of the working class in general meant widening of the struggle not only for universal suffrage (most working class men could not vote at that time either) but to more urgent social issues.
There may be criticisms of the WSF and its activities, but its ability to fight can not be in doubt, Klugmann in his «official» history of the CPGB characterises Sylvia Pankhurst, who came from the middle class, as a person difficult to get along with (like so many members of her class). As an aside, isn't it strange that the theoretical hatchet-men of stalinism came also from the middle class (and some of them were also difficult to get along with) - one rule for some and not for others. To begin with, we will confront the question of Sylvia Pankhurst being a particularly difficult person to get on with. We will call to her defence none other then Harry Pollitt for a long time General Secretary of the CPGB - surely his opinion can not be lightly dismissed. His autobiography, «Serving My Time» records that as a young militant worker, disillusioned with the BSP, and on moving to London, Pollitt joined the WSF. Writing about this period of his life Pollitt is enthusiatic about Pankhurst:
«My main sphere of activity at this time was with the Workers' Socialist Federation, doing propaganda for Russia. Sylvia Pankhurst was, of course, the leading spirit in the Federation, and she had a remarkable gift of extracting the last ounce of energy, as well as the last penny, from everyone with whom she came in contact, to help on the work and activities she directed from Old Ford Street. She was loved in Poplar and, though I often heard that Sylvia was very difficult to get on with, I never found it so. I covered the greater part of London with her group. We held meeting. on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, afternoons and evenings. The W.S.F. was made up of the most self-sacrificing and hard-working comrades it has been my fortune to come in contact with, and I felt for Mrs. Walker of Poplar [another W.S.F. stalwart], to whom I shall refer again, the same sort of affection as existed between me and my mother.» («Serving My Time», Harry Pollitt, p. 109-110)
So much about Sylvia being particularly difficult to work with - well Cabinet Ministers, employers, bureaucrats, police and prison warders found her difficult, to deal with because she was fighting them with all her energy. Sylvia was capable and willing to turn the East End of London upside down. During the First World War Pankhurst turned the struggle from that of working women's suffrage to a struggle over all aspects of the lives of the working class. Organising working women, fighting over working conditions for all workers, provisions for children, was the first stage, but this inevitably led to campaigns over pension payments, rights of men facing conscription, foreign nationals facing imprisonment, in fact any Issue that came to Sylvia's attention.
Pollitt also says in his memoirs that he was also active in the trade union movement, this at the same tine as being a member of the WSF. It also becomes clear in Pollitt's book that it was the activity of WSF members that led to dockers refusing to load the ship «Jolly George» with arms for Poland to fight Russia. It is part of the mythology of the CPGB that this was the culmination of the «Hands Off Russia» Campaign inspired by the BSP. There is in fact no mention of the BSP being involved in the agitation around the Jolly George or the docks for that matter it was the WSF which distributed masses of copies of Lenin's Appeal to the Toiling Masses throughout this campaign.
The other main organisation involved in the negotiations to form a Communist Party in Britain was the South Vales Socialist Society.
«The South Wales Socialist Society (S.W.S.S.) was the fourth continuous participant in the main unity negotiations. The mining valleys of South Wales had long traditions of extremely militant struggle. The S.W.S.S. was descended from the Miners' Reform Movement, a militant opposition to the right-wing trade union leaders that had grown up before the war.
Its trend was somewhat akin to syndicalism, mass revolutionary struggle through revolutionary trade unionism, suspicious of political parties and extremely suspicious of the official trade unions and their leaders.
South Wales had been the centre of great strikes and strong anti-war activity of a rather spontaneous nature in the course of the war. The S.W.S.S. was bitterly anti- parliamentarian. It was Marxist, but again, often in rigid doctrinaire form.» (Klugmann, p.21)
This organisation wasn't a political party in the normal sense of the term but rather more like a Federation of clubs and groupings. United in hostility to opportunism and betrayal by the official labour movement, it had not really developed its own ideas in a constructive manner. To characterise it as akin to syndicalism, as Klugmann does, is not adequate at all. The first steps had been taken but they had not proceeded further than that. A Communist Party formed on clear-cut genuinely revolutionary positions would have drawn organisations such as the SWSS into it without a doubt.
We have dealt with the four main bodies involved in the Unity negotiations for the formation of the Communist Party in Great Britain during 1920-1 and also gave an insight into the different outlook and orientation of these bodies. It becomes easily apparent that forming a Communist Party uniting them all meant a convergence of political positions. If this was not possible, and all the old issues come to the fore, then the stage would be set for all the old debates to be fought out once again. Largely this is what happened during the Unity negotiations. The BSP was certainly not the healthiest of the four bodies concerned politically speaking, especially because of its past. To have played a leading role in forming a large and growing Communist Party would have meant dumping its past, and repudiating it; but this it was unwilling and unable to do. Thereby the fate of the Communist Party formed in Great Britain during those days was sealed.
Source: «Communist Left», No.7, April-September 1993
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