Death of a Party

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Review of 'Endgames and New Times', Geoff Andrews, Lawrence & Wishart £15.99

This is the final book in Lawrence & Wishart's six-volume history of the Communist Party. It has been a long time coming. The first volume, commissioned in the aftermath of the 1956 events, appeared in 1968. Written by James Klugmann, it was a work of considerable dishonesty, aiming at preserving the party's honour against all comers. Now the party is long dead, so Andrews can write much more freely. Sadly he has not done the job very well.

While he has clearly worked a full stint in the archives, he utterly fails to place the party's decline in its historical context. In the opening chapter on the 1960s there is a good deal about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - but nothing about Vietnam. Yet Vietnam was the key issue which allowed the revolutionary left to begin to marginalise the CP. In order to maintain its friendship with left, and not so left MPs, the CP insisted on campaigning for a negotiated peace. It refused to proclaim solidarity with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, even though it was led by Communists. No wonder that the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (never named by Andrews) attracted the most radical students and young workers.

Andrews also plays down the importance of Eastern Bloc Communism in the disputes that produced the party's death agony. He does point out that the party was receiving money from Moscow until 1979 - though this was mainly 'pensions' for veteran loyalists like Palme Dutt. What he cannot quite face up to is that the dwindling ranks of the CP meant nothing to Moscow, which cared little if it lived or died.

For Andrews the main story is that of the long and increasingly bitter conflict between what he calls 'militant labourism' and 'Gramscism'. Militant labourism refers to the wing of the CP that put the main emphasis on trade union struggle - always the core of the party's strength. Drawing heavily on the work of one of the CP's most vigorous anti-Stalinist critics, John McIlroy, Andrews points to some of the main weaknesses of a labourism which got less and less militant.

The CP was increasingly dependent on left union bureaucrats outside the party, and ever less capable of disciplining its own members. However, he could have said much more on the specific policies of the CP.

In my own union (ATTI/Natfhe), the CP had many members on senior grades, including principals. Hence the CP opposed wage policies designed to lessen differentials and was ambivalent in disputes between management grades and ordinary staff. Hence the International Socialists/SWP took the initiative in rank and file organisation.

Andrews' sympathies lie mainly with the so-called Gramscians (actually these had little in common with Antonio Gramsci, an authentic revolutionary and gifted thinker jailed by Mussolini). The Gramscians had noticed some important changes in the pattern of class struggle in Britain, but instead of developing new strategies, they abandoned class-centred politics altogether. Instead they advocated 'culture'. Andrews cites as a great success the People's Jubilee (alternative to the Silver Jubilee of 1977), which attracted 11,000 people, got wide press coverage and made a profit. Yet it led nowhere, mobilised nothing. Contrast this with the Anti Nazi League (grudgingly mentioned by Andrews in one footnote). The two great ANL carnivals were indeed cultural events in their own right; but they were also a focus and inspiration for thousands of local activities, and succeeded in setting back the fascist cause for ten years.

He also commends the Communist University of London (CUL), a week of lectures and discussions launched in 1969. The idea was shamelessly ripped off by the SWP, which launched Marxism in 1977. But unlike the CUL, Marxism was not afraid of debate and dissident ideas, and it was always linked to campaigning and party-building. The CUL collapsed in 1981.

There are many lessons, both positive and negative, to be learned from the history of the CP. But those who want to learn them would do better to ignore Andrews and instead get hold of a copy of The Communist Party of Great Britain Since 1920 by James Eaden and David Renton.