More To It Than Cambridge Spies

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Review of ’Cold War, Crisis and Conflict‘ by John Callaghan, Lawrence & Wishart £14.99

Cold War, Crisis and Conflict covers the era of the long economic boom, the struggles for colonial freedom, Suez, and the Hungarian Revolution, all viewed through the eyes of the British Communist Party (CP). The party opened this era with a new manifesto, The British Road to Socialism (1951). This explicitly abandoned the party‘s claim to be a revolutionary organisation.

At the time, the party had over 30,000 members, many of whom were industrial militants in engineering, the pits and transport. In conditions of full employment and frequent government attempts at wage restraint, a rank and file militancy developed over pay that the Communists encouraged. The party was able to secure official, even leading, positions in a number of unions. But for all its industrial implantation, and despite the respect that workmates had for Communist Party shop stewards, a generation gap emerged where the party was unable to recruit young workers.

This book helps to explain this failure. Partly this was because of the CP‘s isolation during the Cold War, but John Callaghan believes the inconsistencies in the party‘s politics were crucial. During the ’golden age‘ of capitalist growth, the party predicted capitalism‘s imminent demise and the Soviet Union surging ahead. The CP also denied the crimes of Stalin and the dictatorships of Eastern Europe. As a result its policies were riddled with contradictions that frustrated much of the hard work of its members. It campaigned for peace as Russia armed itself with the H-Bomb; it worked against racism but ignored anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union; it opposed US and British imperialism in Korea, Greece, Malaya, Egypt and Vietnam but supported Soviet tanks crushing a popular uprising in Budapest.

These inconsistencies came to the fore in 1956, a year of crisis for the party. A year when, with Stalin dead some three years previously, Khrushchev admitted Stalin‘s crimes at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As the secret speech leaked out it caused shock waves among the Communist parties across the world. That year also witnessed a workers‘ revolution in Hungary that was brutally suppressed by Soviet invasion (even the Daily Worker‘s correspondent in Budapest recognised as much).

The party lost a third of its members with some high-profile resignations, including trade union leaders and intellectuals, notably talented members of the Historians Group. John Callaghan thankfully avoids the current vogue for rehabilitating the ’totalitarian‘ explanation of Stalinism used by the right during the Cold War to justify nearly anything in the name of anti-Communism. He also steers away from a romantic view of the CP. There are passages of real insights into the internal struggle and doubts of members, into reactions inside the party to 1956, and into the Cold War climate of anti-Communism. His discussion of the witch-hunt of Communists in the Sheffield engineering industry and ballot-rigging in the electricians‘ union are particularly engaging.

But the book is marred by two problems. First, its casual and dismissive attitude to the left alternative to the CP. This was given tremendous impetus by the events of 1956 and 1968 and the CP remained a serious obstacle to its growth. Second, he sloppily blurs Lenin and Stalin on questions such as democracy, party organisation, and imperialism where they stood poles apart. That said, if your appetite was whetted by Cambridge Spies and you want to read about the Communist Party during this period this is a good place to start.