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Review: 'Britain’s Communists: The Untold Story'

Britain’s Communists: The Untold Story
By John Green (with contributions from Andy Croft and Graham Stevenson)
Artery Publications 2014, 335 pages.

Review by Alex Miller

November 10, 2014 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was founded in 1920, as one of the parties of the Third International promoted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks as an alternative to the Second (Socialist) International, whose member parties had discredited themselves by supporting their national governments in World War I.

As the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the CPGB dissolved itself, although its successor – the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) – is still active and closely associated with the left-wing daily newspaper, the Morning Star. Author John Green is himself a frequent contributor to the Morning Star and among other things the author of an excellent biography of Friedrich Engels (see http://links.org.au/node/502). Like Engels: A Revolutionary Life, Britain’s Communists is a stimulating and very well written volume, and is dedicated to Green’s parents, “who lived as communists should”.

Although much ink has been spilt on the nature of the Communist parties in western Europe and their role in the political history of the 20th century, and although Green sometimes ventures into this, the book is not primarily intended to be a contribution to that theoretical debate. Rather, Green’s main aim is to redress the fact that the contributions of individual communists to the political and cultural life of Britain have largely been ignored or airbrushed out of “mainstream” British history and journalism:

what I am attempting to do here is to demonstrate that communists do belong in the mainstream of British society, despite the Party’s small size and lack of electoral support”. In doing so, the book attempts to achieve what the historian E.P. Thompson thought of as “an act of reparation, rescuing the defeated from the enormous condescension of history.

The chapter on communist writers is co-authored with Andy Croft, who sees the Communist Party’s contribution to British literary culture as one of its most enduring achievements. As he notes, “No British political party ever contained within its ranks so many distinguished writers as the CPGB”, and even a truncated list of some of the writers who were party members at one time or another is breath-taking: Kingsley Amis, Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Graham Greene, Hamish Henderson, Cecil Day Lewis, Jack Lindsay, Hugh MacDiarmid, Iris Murdoch, and Stephen Spender are just a few of the many.

Perhaps even more impressive was the party’s contribution to the development of literacy and encouragement of reading among ordinary workers. As Green points out:

No other political party in Britain has come near to the publishing output of the CPGB – many hundreds of books, pamphlets and leaflets in runs of from one thousand to hundreds of thousands. Every Party branch used to have its own “Literature Secretary” responsible for taking orders, promoting and selling literature. Many semi-literate workers began reading through these publications.

Green explains how his own father, who could barely read and write at leaving school at 14, learned to read as a result of his membership of the party and his exposure to writers such as Bernard Shaw and Jack London, as well as to the classic works of Marx and Engels. Remarkably, by 1945 the party had no less than 32 bookshops throughout the UK.

Communist contributions to historical writing are equally impressive. Among one-time party members who made names for themselves were Christopher Hill (famed for his work on the English Civil War), E.P. Thompson (author of the magisterial The Making of the English Working Class), Eric Hobsbawm (author of a classic four-volume history of Europe since 1789) and John Prebble (author of many important works on Scottish history, such as Culloden and Glencoe).

Work in the trade unions

The main focus of the party’s work, though, was in the trade unions, and the chapter on this aspect of its activity provides a reminder of communist involvement in the struggles marking the high-water mark of trade unionism in Britain in the 20th century.

The celebrated work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow in 1971-72 was led by members of the CPGB: Jimmy Reid, Sammy Barr and Jimmy Airlie. Arthur Scargill was at one time an activist in the youth wing of the Communist Party, the Young Communist League, and led another of the iconic victories of 1970s trade unionism. Together with Frank Watters, the party’s district secretary, Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were able to turn the miners’ picket at Saltley into a mass demonstration of working-class strength. This was a key battle in winning the 1972 miners’ strike. Scargill was leader of the NUM during the heroic miners’ strike of 1984-5 and his deputy, Mick McGahey, was another CPGB member.

In addition to these high-profile struggles, the chapter on the party’s influence in the trade unions contains many stories of the contributions of less well-known communists to daily struggles in workplaces, as well as sections on the National Unemployed Workers Movement in the 1920s and 1930s and Bert Ramelson’s 1965-77 tenure as the party’s industrial organiser.

Ordinary communists

Throughout the book, Green highlights the contributions made to the progressive movement in Britain by ordinary communists, often at great personal expense. To pick out just a few examples: Peter Blackman, one of the early pioneers of black British poetry; Jack Dash, Bernie Steer and Vic Turner, communist shop stewards in the London docks resisting the tide of racism sweeping through the wharves as a result of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech; Eileen Daffern, a communist anti-war activist in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND); Betty Tebbs, another peace activist, who as an 89 year old lay down in the road as part of a blockade of the Faslane nuclear base; and Sally Groves, a militant trade unionist and anti-poll-tax campaigner. The stories of these and countless other “ordinary” communists have their stories told in Green’s narrative.

The book also contains chapters on: the party’s newspapers, the Daily Worker and the Morning Star; on internationalism; on the party’s role during World War II; on the Young Communist League; on communist involvement in the peace and women’s movements; on the relationship between the CPGB and the UK Labour Party; and a chapter (by Graham Stevenson) outlining the sometimes incredible lengths the British security services went to in order to keep tabs on Communist Party members and party activities.

Overall, the book certainly succeeds in its aim “to show that the majority of communists were, and are, not a group of militant fanatics or subversive agents out to impose a totalitarian regime on the country, but made a significant and often valuable contribution to Britain’s cultural, political and social life”.

Communist Party’s political trajectory?

The book is perhaps less successful when it comes to explaining and assessing the Communist Party’s political trajectory from 1920 through to the present day (if we count the CPB as the true successor of the CPGB). How did a party established in the 1920s in the wake of the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War in Russia and dedicated the cause of international revolution end up functioning as (in Green’s own words) “an active pressure group” on the left of (what used to be) social democracy? Green notes the “collapse” of the Stalinist Communist international (Comintern) in 1943 and the acceptance, in the party’s British Road to Socialism program of 1951, “of a parliamentary road to socialism”, but fails to make any connection between the two. Moreover, the parliamentary road is deemed to be possible “given the country’s strong democratic traditions”.

But the talk of Britain’s “strong democratic traditions” is overblown, to say the least. As Alan McCombes and Roz Paterson point out in their recent book Restless Land: A Radical Journey Through Scotland’s History (Calton Books, 2014):

By the time universal suffrage finally made it through the House of Commons [in 1928], Britain had been left trailing behind a multitude of other countries, including Finland, Poland, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, South Australia, Argentina, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Uruguay, Austria, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, the Republic of Ireland, Burma, Ecuador and Mongolia. Even the Isle of Man was decades ahead of Britain in extending the vote to women.

Politicisation

In the final chapter, Green concludes on a somewhat plaintive note and speaks of “the widespread depoliticisation of people throughout the world, but perhaps particularly in the developed West” and points out that “people no longer feel that politics and engagement with politics are able to bring about meaningful change”. However, even if we put South America to one side and focus only on the UK, this seems to be an overstatement. With the recent referendum on Scottish independence there has been an unprecedented period of politicisation, with tens of thousands of people joining pro-independence parties (the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, in addition to the Scottish National Party).

Unfortunately, the CPB is unlikely to benefit from this itself. Just as in 2010, when it opposed replacing Britain’s archaic and undemocratic “first past the post” electoral system with a form of proportional representation, in 2014 it sided with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour and UK Independence Party (UKIP) in advocating a “no” vote in the referendum on Scottish independence. Ironically, one argument given by Communist Party members was that a “no” vote was necessary to put “class before nation” – seemingly oblivious to the fact that in doing so they were sharing a platform with the political representatives of the British ruling class to retain the imperialist construct of the “British nation”.

However, that the book fails to pick up on the (small ‘c’) conservatism of the Communist Party in Britain shouldn’t be allowed to blind us to its very significant merits. Many thousands of very fine people have contributed to the progressive movement in Britain through involvement in the CPGB (and now the CPB), and this book is a fitting tribute to them. Britain’s Communists can be read with profit by anyone with an interest in British labour history.

[Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]

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