The Bishops and the Brickies

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Review of 'The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920', James Eaden and David Renton, Palgrave £40

Why should we be interested in the history of a party which dissolved itself 11 years ago, shrouded among accusations of reformism, spying for the USSR and trousering the infamous 'Moscow Gold'? The most obvious reason is that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) certainly 'punched far above its weight'. Never a mass party, unlike its European comrades, the CPGB in 1920-21 welded together a disparate collection of organisations that were either pessimistically sectarian or triumphalistically over-optimistic, to forge a party that was to be predominant on the left beyond the Labour Party for nearly 70 years.

James Eaden and David Renton present a thorough historical narrative of the evolution of the CPGB from its origins in 1920 through to the dissolution in 1991. Theirs is a fastidiously researched volume of accessible history that is a splendid example of succinct research and engaging analysis. Their footnotes are particularly enjoyable--I did not know, for example, that while Khrushchev was delivering the 'secret' speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin and the 'cult of the individual', the CPGB delegation were visiting a condom factory! Their textual references are also excellent. Here for example is Jimmy Reid of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and a Clydebank CPGB councillor:

'We are issuing this call today that in no circumstances will we implement this Tory Rent Act, whatever the consequences... We are answerable to no courts--only the courts of the working class on Clydebank. I would rather sup on porridge with my principles than dine on smoked salmon and caviar without them.'

Great stuff, Jimmy, only as Eaden and Renton note, 'The following month the three Communist Clydebank councillors voted with the Labour majority to implement the rent increases.'

For a reader new to the zigzags of socialist politics this volume is illuminating. That it is both short (200 pages) and well informed with first person anecdotes plus the party's archive makes it a very enjoyable introduction to the subject. Most of all it provides us with a first class analysis of how the CPGB operated as the force on the revolutionary left, while crucially examining the failures and lost opportunities of that hegemony.

The CPGB was until the late 1970s among the poorest of the European CPs in terms of membership and finance, yet it was still loyal to the USSR and the Stalinist legacy. Its influence in parliamentary terms was always negligible, yet its trade union influence was considerable. In unions such as the NUM, the old ETU, the AEUW, the FBU and in the London docks and on London buses, the CPGB attracted significant support. Likewise in campaigning organisations such as CND and the Anti-Apartheid Movement the party was prominent. How could such a party exercise such an influence? The main reason given by Eaden and Renton is its capacity to accommodate to 'mainstream reformism' while telling its members it was still a Marxist party. The final 20 years exemplify this dual ideology--moving to the right of the Labour Party (and heralding 'New' Labour) in its Eurocommunist identity, while posing as the socialist conscience of CND and AAM.

The CPGB vacillated between united and popular frontism, seeking to 'march together whilst striking separately' around unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s, and 'uniting the bishops and brickies' around the Second World War, anti-racism and peace. Popular frontism took over its approach in the 1980s in the struggles against unemployment and Thatcherism. 'People's Marches' once again united bishops and brickies--however there was a sectarian intolerance to united front work if that involved marching with the 'ultra-left'.

The continuing interest in the CP lies in political theory, strategy and tactics. From its inception in 1921 through to the mid-1980s, the CPGB was beholden to the USSR with all the schisms and line changes that involved. Furthermore, from Hungary in 1956, European CPs were exposed as willing agents of Soviet policy, and from the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as simply out of date cheerleaders for a discredited state and ideology. From 1968 the 'far left' which had advocated the genuine ideal of 'socialism from below' was able to begin the process of challenging and eclipsing the CPs, so that by 1978 the CPGB was forced to admit that its popular frontism against the threat of the National Front was a disastrous failure. In 1991 Nina Temple, the CPGB's last general secretary admitted, 'the Trots [SWP] were right on the question of Russia.'

Do we need another history of a dead party? The answer is a resounding 'yes' if it is as good as this one. In government we have the most right wing Labour Party since Ramsay MacDonald. The space once occupied by the CPGB can in future be occupied by socialists with a wholly different tradition.