Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Communist Party in British Isles 1942 to 1948

Democracy and Class Struggle says this period from 1942 to 1948 saw a further shift in British Communist Party policy towards British Labourism and this became exposed by the critical writings of Arthur Evans  inside Britain and outside Britain by the Australian Communist Party which reported on the British Communists revisionism to the newly founded Cominform.

The roots of the revisionism of British Communists can be found in British Communists misapplication of the line of the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935 and its return to the Labour Party seeking application for Labour Party affiliation after the Second World war once again.

If our failures are more instructive than victories - it is time we learned the sources of previous failures - instead of building on errors which the Communist Party did in the 1950's and 1960's which ultimately led to its liquidation a few decades later -we should have rectified our errors and built a revolutionary party.


Britain: Labour and the Communist Party
by Phillip Deery and Neil Redfern

In 1941/1945 the CPGB had vigorously supported the allied war effort. Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam convinced it that the war time international united front between liberal democracy and communism could be continued into the peace.

It developed its own,more nuanced version of ‘Browderism’, the openly class collaborationist policies followed by the CPUSA in the wake of the Teheran Conference.

Assuming a lasting peace and progressive post war reconstruction, it supported Britain’s reconquest of its Empire.

The election of a Labour Government in 1945 was hailed as a giant step on the road to peace, prosperity and socialism.  

Though Labour’s foreign policy was a grievous disappointment, its domestic programme of nationalisation, national reconstruction and welfarism was critically supported.

In a ‘productionist’ industrial policy, the working class was enjoined to work hard and to eschew strikes.

As late as the Spring and Summer of 1947 the CPGB was still promoting the politics of Teheran.

Two examples will suffice. In early 1947 the leadership instructed the membership to urge the working class during the ‘fuel crisis’ to ‘rally in solidarity with the Government and against the Tories to solve the present crisis…the whole of the people and particularly the organised labour movement must work to help the Government to solve the crisis.’

As it had since Teheran, the CPGB believed that the great powers, not revolutionary movements, should end colonialism.

A declaration adopted by a March conference of Empire communist parties  stated that they would oppose Anglo American foreign policy and fight for the ‘restoration of the Three Great Powers’ and for ‘full support for the United Nations [and]…acceptance of the principles of democratic self?determination [and] international economic co- operation.’

Prior to the conference, Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s leader had – while seeking approval from the Colonial Secretary for delegates from Singapore to attend – obligingly provided the authorities with a full list of the names of these delegates.

Though such policies were independently developed by the CPGB, they were externally conditioned by Soviet foreign policy – aimed at building a peaceful international environment  and were essentially a rationalisation of it.

Smart footwork was required by the left turn in Soviet foreign policy in 1947/8, particularly with the formation of the Cominform.

But the Cominform made no fundamental change to the CPGB’s outlook, which remained thoroughly reformist. 

If the new line was a revival of anything, it was a revival of the Popular Front of 1935/1939

Though Atlee was right in his belief that the aim of Soviet foreign policy was to ‘establish communism’, it did so in a national form. The Soviet Union used the Red Army to advance the cause of socialism.

As is well known, Stalin told Milovan Djilas that ‘whoever occupies a territory, also imposes his social system…It cannot be otherwise.’For the non Soviet parties, just as in the Popular Front, the fundamental issue addressed was nation, not class.

The Cominform was established as but one element of the Soviet Union’s attempts to build an international united front against the United States.

Zhdanov, the Soviet delegate, had made this quite clear at the founding Congress of the Cominform. US imperialism, he argued, was threatening the national independence of the other capitalist countries and therefore  ‘a special task’fell to the Communist Parties of France, Italy, Britain and other countries.

They must ‘take up the banner of defence of the national independence and sovereignty of their countries.

Just as the CPGB had once had the task of enrolling Britain in a front against Nazi Germany it now had the task enrolling Britain in a front against the USA.

But Attlee and Bevin were now held to be reprising the roles once played by Chamberlain and Halifax.

Obviously, this necessitated a sharp adjustment to the CPGB’s hitherto supportive and reformist attitude to the Labour Government. But the Party seems to have been unsure how to respond to the formation of the Cominform.

It was not invited to the initial Congress and seems to have had no forewarning of the meeting.

Though the French Party was charged with briefing the British Party,a Party member was sent to Belgrade to find out what it was all about’, according to the communist renegade Douglas Hyde, On his return he gave to the Daily Worker editorial team ‘a confidential report to the effect that, although the Cominform line was not yet known in full detail…it would mean the gradual reversal of the Party’s previous line in industry’.

Hyde’s claim is consistent with the CPGB’s shift from generally supporting to generally opposing the Labour Government, notably on the industrial front.

The CPGB’s first public response to the formation of the Cominform was extremely terse.

Circumspectly, it commented that ‘the steps initiated by the nine Communist Parties are of great international significance and will of course, receive the close attention of the militant workers of Britain.

Though we can sure that urgent, probably frantic, discussions took place at the highest levels of the Party, there is no record of a discussion on the Party’s leading bodies and no significant comment in the Party press until June 1948.

Presumably, the inner leadership were struggling to formulate a united response. The stern criticisms by the Yugoslav delegate Kardelj of the French, Italian and ‘other’ parties  that they had slipped ‘down into the positions of Social Democratism and bourgeois nationalism were clearly applicable to the CPGB.

Procrastination may also have been involved. The new line would have been extremely disagreeable to most of the CPGB’s leaders; certainly to the Party’s Secretary, Harry Pollitt, who more than anyone was associated with the post 1941 policy.

They would have been only too aware of the certain consequences of the new policy – a return to the wilderness inhabited until 1941.

A desire not to provide ammunition to the Party’s small but militant left might also have been involved. These people, notably Eric Heffer, later to become a prominent leftwing Labour MP, were already criticising Party policy.

During the Party’s pre19th Congress debate (held in February 47) they had argued that the EC’s Congress resolution could ‘only be described as Left SocialDemocratic, i.e.,opportunist.

The congruity of this criticism with Kardelj’s strictures was striking.

Later in 1947, shortly before the formation of the Cominform, a small number of CPGB members was expelled for ‘infantile leftism’.

In 1948 Edward Upward and Michael Shapiro, prominent members of the London Party, invoked Kardelj’s critique in a dispute with the EC regarding its  handling of a row with Australian Party(the latter party had sent to the CPGB a Yugoslav style critique of their post war policy).

Clearly, the CPGB’s leaders had reason to be wary of a wide discussion of the significance of the formation of the Cominform.

But they were saved by the Cominform’s denunciation of the Yugoslav Party for ‘Titoism’, for ‘deviations from Marxism Leninism , in June 1948.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the disgrace of the Yugoslavs more or less coincided with the first major discussion in the CPGB’s press of the Cominform thereafter, Party leftists could be denounced as ‘Titoites’.

Reluctantly or not, the CPGB gradually adopted the new line. The crass reformism manifested since 1941 disappeared, but the CPGB’s fundamental outlook remained thoroughly reformist. It continued to develop the strategy that culminated in the adoption of the British Road to Socialism in 1951.

There was to be no return to ‘class against class’.The British Government’s post Cominform attacks on the CPGB were due much more to its perceived role as an agent of a foreign power than to any essential change in its policy.

The first major public statement based on the new orientation came in December, when the influence of the Cominform (which was referred to only in passing) was clearly detectable in Pollitt’s report to that month’s EC, where he claimed, in accordance with Zhdanov’s speech to the Cominform, that ‘the world is divided into an imperialist and an anti imperialist camp, with a Labour Government an active partner in the imperialist camp’.

Practical manifestation of the new policy quickly followed. Whereas in September Arthur Horner, the Party’s influential member in the National Union of Mineworkers, had accused miners at Grimethorpe Colliery on strike in opposition to a new pay and productivity deal of holding the rest
of the NUM (who supported the deal) ‘to ransom’ , miners on strike in the Scottish coalfields in November were not criticised.

Over next few months ‘productionism’ was discreetly abandoned.

But a close reading of CPGB statements in this period strongly suggests that the underlying rationale of the CPGB’s left turn was not a renewed commitment to class struggle but opposition to the government’s alliance with the USA.

At the CPGB’s 20th Congress in February 1948 Pollitt argued in his report, entitled For Britain Free and Independent, that ‘The British ruling class, and its spokesman the Labour Government…are selling out to Wall St. the national independence of their country in order to preserve their own class position and privileges.’

He pledged ‘full support to all those Trade Unions which have already tabled their claims for wage advances.’

 Shortly afterwards J. R. Campbell claimed that ‘without a decisive change in government policy no solution of the crisis is possible, however hard the workers strive.’

But however militant the CPGB’s industrial policy over the succeeding period, its strategy remained thoroughly reformist and resembled ‘class against class’ not at all.

Again, two examples will suffice. In a report to an extended CC meeting in February 1949 Pollitt severely criticised the ‘class collaboration’ of social democracy, yet could advance only the
most reformist programme (‘fight to improve living standards…cut prices, limit profits’) in opposition to Labour.

Similarly, in 1950, in opposition to Labour’s colonial war in Malaya, the CPGB could only tamely call for support for ‘a massive peace petition, launched by the [Party’s front organisation] British Peace Committee’.

How did Labour (Party and Government) respond to these developments? The dominant right expected nothing else. Morgan Phillips, Labour’s fiercely anti communist General Secretary argued in June 1947, in the wake of the expulsion of communists from the French and Italian governments, that ‘in Britain, the Communist Party is more a conspiracy than a Party’.

Unsurprisingly then, Labour’s response to the formation of the Cominform was robust and signalled that relations with the CPGB could only get even more frosty.

In an editorial clearly inspired by Phillips, the Daily Herald, voice of the right wing dominated TUC, thundered:

The communist parties of Europe are to concentrate their energies upon a war against the socialist parties – except in those countries where the socialists are willing to obey Communist leadership…

All pretence of desire for co-operation between working class parties is dropped. The socialist parties of western Europe and the British Labour Party are to be regarded as enemies…In the British Labour Party the warning is only for those who have believed in the past few years in the fair words of communists and in the possibility of their honest co -operation with our Party. The mask is off. It is as well.

In December, Morgan Phillips fulminated against Pollitt’s report to his Central Committee:

The British Communist Party has come to heel. After some weeks of indecision, it has now pledged full support for the Cominform’s “cold” war against democratic socialism. We can therefore expect that a campaign of sabotage against the Labour Government and all it stands for will be carried out by the Communists and their fellow travellers during the coming months…Now is the time for all Labour people to go out on a great campaign against Communist intrigue and infiltration inside the Labour Movement.

CPGB/LP relations were soon to sharply deteriorate.

The conclusion of the CPGB’s 20th Congress more orless coincided with the Communist ‘coup’ in Czechoslovakia. Attlee cited the ‘coup’ as a justification for a of purge of communists from the civil service started in March 48, though this almost certainly a pretext for an already decided policy.

Later, in a ploy reminiscent of Churchill’s ‘Gestapo’ smear against Labour during the 1945 General Election, he claimed that communists were ‘like those other totalitarian fanatics, the Hitlerites…This great fight is on and we are all enlisted in it.’

Herbert Morrison argued that the events in Czechoslovakia showed that communists were ‘Fifth Columnists’, ‘men who owe loyalty not to their country but to a foreign power’.

Not an enormous but a significant number of civil servants, government scientists and Trade Unionists and Labour MPs were purged over the next two years or so.

Though Pollitt claimed with some justification that the civil service purge (most were transferred to non sensitive work, not dismissed) was ‘a political measure carried out for political ends, to win the approval of the Tory Press and Wall Street,’ the Government did have more to deal with than the CPGB’s open opposition.

Though the CPGB seems to have ceased its spying activities after the apparent expulsion for
spying of Dave Springhall in 1943, it had by then, according to MI5, infiltrated members and sympathisers into various arms of the state, including people with access to information on the Anglo US atomic project.

These were still largely in situ in 1948.

The CPGB’s continued relaxed attitude to such people is evidenced by Springhall’s correspondence with the CPGB from China in 1950.

Presumably he was no longer paying dues, but he was demonstrably a member in good standing.

The purges were also part of a process of creating anti Communist public opinion. A year or so after Phillips’s circular, the TUC issued two anti communist circulars. It was claimed that the CPGB ‘in servile obedience to…the Cominform’ was ‘attempting to wreck economic recovery in the interests of a foreign power’.

 In 1948, during continuing troubles on the London docks, George Isaacs, the Minister of Labour, alleged in correspondence with Attlee that communists were responsible.

Such arguments were, for instance, enough to convince a substantial majority of the delegates at the annual conference of the TGWU in July 1949, who voted by 426 to 208 to back the call of their General Secretary, Arthur Deakin, to ban communists from office. Following this decision  full time officials were dismissed.

No doubt delegates were also motivated by the Berlin blockade that had started the previous

Finally, three Labour MPs  L. Hutchinson, J. Platts Mills and L.J. Solley – were expelled from the Labour Party in 1948 49.

These were alleged to be ‘crypto communist’ (communists trading as labour) MPs.

The evidence that these were ‘cryptos’ is persuasive, but not conclusive.

They were the only Labour MPs to vote with the two Communist MPs Gallacher and Piratin and D.N. Pritt (a Labour MP expelled in 194095) against the acceptance of  Marshall Aid.

They and Pritt took the CPGB line on the Soviet?Yugoslav breach and stood as ‘Independent Labour’
candidates in the General Election of 1950, issuing a common manifesto that ‘did not
differ observably’ from the CPGB’s manifesto.

But what was the attitude of the Labour left to the deteriorating international situation? Space does not permit a full discussion: here we will consider mainly those left?wing MPs loosely grouped around Tribune. Between 1945 and 1949 these were nearly all corralled into the Anglo?American cold?war pen. But in 1945 they had been more in the Soviet than the American camp. In 1945 Tribune declared ‘friendship with the Soviet Union is the keystone of world peace.’

It was ‘appalled’ that Bevin was relying ‘for advice on the same Foreign Office experts who used to advise Eden and Halifax’.

American capitalism’, it declared on hearing of the loan secured by the government from the US after the cessation of lend?lease, ‘is arrogant, self?confident,merciless and convinced of its capacity to dictate the destinies of the world’

What changed between 1945 and 1949?

It is hard to plumb motives, but the evidence suggests that for these democratic socialists western liberal democracy and capitalism weighed more in the balance than Soviet socialism: as Henry Pelling argued, they found Truman’s policy compatible with ‘the principles of Democratic Socialism’

It is hard to disagree. Tribune hailed Truman’s presidential election victory of 1948 as ‘a great victory for common people all over the world.’

The key figures in Tribune were Foot and Anuerin Bevan, the Minister of Health. Foot still had one foot in the liberalism that had nurtured him.

In 1946 he became one of the first of the left to denounce Soviet activities in eastern Europe: in
Poland, for instance, the Communists had ‘successfully blackmailed the Socialists into agreeing to joint electoral lists’ while in East Germany they had ‘by a mixture of intimidation, terror, censored propaganda and despicable tricks…achieved control of all life in the Russian zone.’

Bevan of course was bound by Cabinet collective responsibility, but as we have seen, he supported government policy towards the Soviet Union.

The Marshall Plan played a major role in Tribune’s increasing hostility to the Soviet Union. Tribune naively hoped for Soviet acceptance of Marshall Aid: it would ‘provide greater security for the Soviet Union than all the present crude political construction of Hungary, Poland and Rumania; more than all the ‘friendship and fellow?traveller societies in Britain and America.’104 But Marshall Aid was rejected by the Soviet Union because it was conditional on opening up the economies of Eastern
Europe to US capital and goods.

 Foot used the Herald for a disingenuous criticism of Soviet rejection: it implied ‘a centrally  organised plan in which the claims of national sovereignty would be abated.

That is what socialists have long prayed and worked for.

Does a Soviet veto and the rigid Soviet insistence on the rights of national sovereignty
transform this ideal into an imperialist plot?’

The formation of the Cominform served to convince the Tribunites that they had been wise to embrace George Marshall.

In a piece perceptively entitled ‘The Exhumation of the Comintern’, Paul Sering was quite clear that the Cominform did not signal a return to Leninism – it was ‘Belgrade 1947 rather than Moscow 1917’ – but ‘Communist intransigence’ would nevertheless ‘compel socialists to confine their work
more and more to the ‘Marshall sphere’, to act as a progressive force within the Western World’.

A few months later Tribune hailed George Marshall for saving Europe: had it not been for Marshall Aid ‘western Europe would face despair and civil war and widespread starvation. Since the inroads of Communism would be more far reaching, the prospect of war between the Soviet Union and the United States would be much closer.’

Foot saw in the Prague coup d’état only communist conspiracies: ‘For socialists the final proof is provided: that cooperation with the Communists leads only to one end. They are ready to intrigue, to negotiate, but their aim is total victory and the total subservience of their allies.’

 According to Tribune the ‘coup’ was ‘one of the great Rubicons of history’ which clearly had implications for Britain ‘all that applies in Czechoslovakia applies equally to Britain.

 If force and dictatorship are necessary for socialist construction in Czechoslovakia they are equally necessary in Britain.’

Consequentially, the Tribunites supported the purge of the civil service – the communists owed ‘allegiance to another state…they do no accept the premises of democracy…to ask that Ministers should be prepared to trust Communist Party members with security secrets seems absurd.

The Tribunites were now firmly enrolled among the cold war warriors. But some elements on the Labour left swam against the tide.

Ian Mikardo, for instance, resigned from the editorial board of Tribune in 1949 in protest at its anti Soviet line, whilst Konni Zilliacus opposed both western imperialism and, when he thought it
wrong, the Soviet Union

Forty three Labour MPs tabled a motion opposing the purge of the civil service in March 1948. There were more such people among constituency activists. J. Schneer’s investigation of Morgan Phillips’s constituency files led him to conclude that pro Soviet sentiments among constituency activists gradually declined, which, if true, is hardly surprising.

But he presents some evidence that such sentiments persisted. In Finsbury, twenty seven Labour councillors protested against Platts Mills’ expulsion in a letter to the local press while in Coventry East members ‘maintained friendly relations with the British Soviet Society, whilst members of the
Coventry Trades Council – some of whom were undoubtedly communists and fellow travellers invited Phillips to speak at a peace conference.

Between 1945 and 1947 the CPGB had sought with increasing difficulty to maintain its wartime policy but by 1948 the wartime alliance had been irreparably fractured. A casualty of Anglo?American determination to assert capitalist power and the left turn in Soviet foreign policy, the CPGB struggled to find a new course.

Despite fierce denunciations of the ‘imperialist’ Labour Government and an accompanying
industrial militancy, nothing fundamental in communist strategy changed.

The CPGB remained committed to a peaceful road to socialism. It still, as it had since 1935,
regarded itself as the best defender of the British national interest, now deemed to be
in peril from US imperialism rather than Nazi Germany.

Its return to the wilderness was the result not of revolutionary objectives but of being perceived by the British ruling class as the agent of a foreign hostile power, the Soviet Union.



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