Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Lost World of British Communism (Review)



The book presents a series of articles, published during a period spanning the 1980s, in the midst of the Miners Strike and a crippling division in the Communist Party of Great Britain. These essays have been collected to mark the 10th anniversary of Samuel's death on December 9th 1996 at the age of 62 and at 'the height of his powers'. The text seeks to view the party of the 1940s through the prism of the same party in the 1980s.

When Samuels was writing these articles a fierce battle was being waged, within a number of European countries most notably Italy, between the traditional 'old guard' often aligned to the party line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the "innovating" Euro-Communists, rejecting Marxist economic theory, and seeking to appeal to new constituency, creating a new form of popular front policy in the claims of the 'specially oppressed'.

Within the UK the Euro-communists established themselves in positions of leadership within the CPGB, leading eventually to break away factions of hard-liners into separate organisations. The Eurocommunist dominated leadership of the CPGB eventually disbanded the organisation in 1991,before establishing a political thinktank called Democratic Left. The detritus of which then found its expression in Charter 88, an organisation dedicated to 'constitutional and electoral reform'.

Raphael Samuels writes as a long standing member, deeply involved within the tumultuous history of the CPGB. Born into a 'Communist family' during a time in which he suggest membership of the party provided a 'a way of life', he describes a 'complete social identity at odds with the rump of an organisation the CPGB would become in the years before his death in 1996. He markedly contrasts the declining influence of the party to that which he knew as a boy, born in 1934 to a jewish family in London, selling Daily Worker at the school gates. He provides a glimpse of a closed world where, in the words of his partner's preface to the text, "his reading, friendship and social life were all dominated by politics".

Relevance Today


He identifies many characteristic traits that would continue to characterise the left long after the party was over and the struggle between the 'euro-communist' and hard line 'Straight left' but a distant memory to all of the participants.

The organisation portrayed is one in the death throes of its final struggle, as the Executive "expels whole branches, expel honoured veterans and 'screen' new recruits with hardly a murmur" (26). Samuel suggests this merely reflects the 'democratic centralism' of the organisation, with little suggestion of the abuse suffered by the term by these bureaucratic maneuvers since its adoption in the Social Democratic parties of Russia and Germany in the early 20th century.

Samuels gives a glimpse into the interpretation of 'Democratic Centralism' provided by the party in the post Second World War communism, citing 'The Role of the Communist Party' (1957) on 'factions'. The 'training manual' Samuels cites notes that "members ... have not the right to combine with other members in other Party organisations who think like them to conduct an organised struggle for their point of view" (83).

That Trotskyists groupings were to also mimic this distortion of the organisation method suggests that the term for Samuels, as for the far left, serves as a catch-all cover for expedient political manuevering in any given Socialist-tinted organisation. A simplification understandable in the context of a journalistic reading of the movements history or the jockeying for power within a political sect, but not perhaps of someone so deeply engrained within its history seeking to provide a credible appraisal of its history.

Popular Front


Samuels touches upon another defining feature of his involvement in the CPGB, in 1935 the Soviet Union adopted a new position on its relationship with Social Democrats, previously described as 'social fascists' posing an immediate danger to the working class. It now argued for 'Popular Fronts'.

Noting that "previous formulations (had) suffered from a tendency to overate the degree of maturity of the revolutionary crisis" (125 history of CPGB 1927-1941) the comintern leadership now argued for 'popular fronts' that were in fact "only a new name for that old policy, the gist of which lies in class collaboration in a coalition between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie" (192 Trotsky on Britain 3rd Vol). Communists involved within these fronts subordinating their political independence to bourgeoise forces within which they were in coalition.

Samuels family had experienced first hand a Communist Party that had by that time entered its 'Popular Front' period. In the mid 1930s the communist parties of the Popular Front had won over-whelming electoral victories in France while in Britain the popular front found initially muted reception in the election of Willie Gallacher as MP in 1935. However it was not until the mid 1940s that the strength of Popular Frontism in the United Kingdom would truly be felt, with the CPGB garnering 103,000 votes in the 1945 general election, electing two Communists alongside a peak member in 1943 of 60,000. Samuels notes the organisations all-time membership peak not in 1943-44 when the Red Army was "sweeping back the Nazi invaders" or in 44-45 when the "Communist led resistance was on the threshold of power in France and Italy" but instead in the "black months" of 1942 when the "Russians at Stalingrad - like the British at Dunkirk were fighting with their backs to the wall" (57).

The political legacy of the popular front would linger on long after its initial adoption. Within the party of the mid 1980s the 'popular front' remained the party's guiding light for both wings, at least in theory. Used by the Euros as justification for a 'Broad Democracy Alliance' (or BDA for short), a debate about which would rage in the pages of Marxism Today in the late 1970s. The popular front was cited as the party's most 'effective strategy' by venerable MT theoreticians such as Eric Hobsbawn, alluding presumably to the height of the party's popularity in the 1940s (38).

Samuels does not diverge greatly from this conception of the Popular Front as reflecting the CPGB at its best. His reproach of the Euro-Communists is the extent that they have strayed from its initial intentions. Samuels notes that the adoption of the popular front were justified, at least formally, on the understanding of the underlying division of social classes, at least formally in the 'theory' provided to justify coalitions with bourgeois forces, a fact that cannot be said of the modern day Euro adherents of the popular front. Samuels also chastises the Euros because the emphasis of an 'alliance' is counter-posed to that of 'Unity'. The comparisons do not withstand the strength of historical analogy, Samuels suggests, comparing the valiant fight of the International Brigades to that of the Euros 'mobilizing the support of the house of lords for the labour government'. Today, a somewhat muted expression of this understanding of the period of the popular front as "British Communism's Finest Hour" is readily apparent in the political discourse of the Communist Party of Britain [1].

That the action of the 1930s Comintern's triumphant rallying cry of the 'Popular Front' had disastrous implications for Spain is clear. Deliberately sabotaging those who had raised the issue of a revolutionary workers' government, this belies the underlining role played by advocates of the popular front during these halcyon days in the party's history. The popular front in fact served to contain social struggle, when the issue of a serious revolutionary explosion presented itself, the reformist leaders seek to limit the actions undertaken, less they alienate bourgeois allies, and break up the established coalition.

Correctness


Samuels characterises both wings of the 21st century CPGB as broadly adhering to a suggested age-old belief in 'correctness', as articulated in the appropriately formulated 'political line' inevitably providing a 'clear lead' if followed and adhered to (23). A role attributed to the snooze-enducing British Road to Socialism, despite the evident lack of interest Samues notes from anyone outside of the limited remit of the party cadre.

In terms of the self-belief of the membership of the party in this role, he does note a sea change in the sense of urgency among the broad membership of the Communist Party of the 1940s, in which each new event highlighted the 'terrible dangers that lie ahead' (35) to a situation in which much of the suggested dynamism had faded away. As illustrative of this relative decline Samuels cites the comparable role he suggests had been played by the party during the 1985 miners strike, during which he suggests the party conspired to lose leading members, and that of its involvement in the 1926 General Strike, following which party membership "doubled as a result of its activity" (34).

Samuels does not touch upon the many failings of the party's leadership during this period of growth. That a potential revolutionary explosion had been smuggled by the political direction of the soviet led Anglo-Soviet Council's over-reliance upon the existing trade union bureaucracy is largely over-looked. Suggesting that while the party had undoubtedly had great influence during this time its use of this comparative strength had often served to limit the "revolutionary possibilities" glimpsed at within these periods of heightened class struggle.

Trotsky would argue in 1928, in opposition to Stalin and Bukharin's tactical prescriptions, that the policy of the Anglo-Soviet Council had crippled British communism with devastatingly fatal results. The extent to which the failings of British Communism can be attributed directly to the role played by the party during this period remains a subject of debate. Trotsky biographer Isaac Deutscher remains critical of the view that the policy of the Anglo-Soviet Council had been the "basic cause of the prolonged impotence of British communism" which remained "vegetated" on the fringes of British politics 30 years later (186 Unarmed Prophet). That 1926 reflected the closest Britain had moved to the brink of revolutionary during the inception of the party remains clear, that had a 'correct' line followed the party would have been in a stronger position to give a lead to the most advanced sections of the working class is also not in doubt.

Conclusion


Samuels work is of continued importance to Marxists alive today precisely because the lessons we can draw from the experiences of the CPGB during its height have still not been learnt. If there is a central point we can draw from Samuels text it is that the political independence of the working class must still be stressed in opposition to sections of the bourgeoisie and labour bureaucracy.

Modern Trotskyism, as manifested in its many myriad expressions is itself an expression of the failure to learn these lessons. The experiences Samuels documents have instead been replicated on a ridiculous micro-scale by the Trotskyist left of the 21st century. We find this within the political bankrupt Respect project of the Socialist Workers Party, and the ease with which basic demands of republican democracy have been downplayed by the existing Trotskyist left as "abstractions" within both the Socialist Alliance and more recently the NO2EU campaign.

Again this point is made not to draw crude historical analogies with the CPGB at its height. It would be wrong to suggesting the failures of the CPGB may be directly compared with those of the existing left. However the clear need for political independence of the class from the bourgeoisie has been repeatedly demonstrated by the defeats that have resulted from such class-collaborationist out-fits.

Meanwhile the abstentionism of another section of the 'orthodox' wing of British Trotskyism flies in the face of the advice of Trotsky to his supporters in the 1930s. Trotsky suggested, during the so called 'French Turn', to join the socialist parties that were participating in the people's front in to work with leftists in them. In doing so Trotsky utilised support for candidates standing against the Radical Party to oppose the coalition policy and reassert the importance of the political independence of the class in this support.

While the tactics adopted must remain reflexive and able to adapt to concrete situations, It is this guiding principle underlining our tactics that must continue to direct our politics as Marxists. These are lessons we must not only draw from the history of the CPGB but must now more than ever seek to apply to the engagement of Marxists not within short-cuts attempts to building left-tinted populist organisations and fronts but a unified Communist party, able to effective assert these principles. What is called for now is the unity of Marxists as Marxists.

55 comments:

SimonJW said...

"Samuels touches upon another defining feature of his involvement in the CPGB, in 1935 the Soviet Union adopted a new position on its relationship with Social Democrats, previously described as 'social fascists' posing an immediate danger to the working class. It now argued for 'Popular Fronts' with Social Democrats."

This is a United Front strategy, an alliance between revolutionary and non-revolutionary working class political entities. A popular front includes the bourgeoisie. The attempt to build a popular front in GB included the Liberals and Churchill's dissident tories.

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J.B said...

thank you SimonJW that was a poorly worded sentence, you are right. There was a shift to a popular front strategy, with included involvement from sections of the bourgeoisie.

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