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The first General Secretary of the small 1977 breakaway from the Communist Party, Sid French was born in 1920, to Ernie French, himself an active Communist, and Ethel Wilkinson, who came from a family with left-wing views. Sid’s sister, Doris, joined the Communist Party in 1942 but had been politically active with Communists in the 1930s. Sid had joined the YCL at the age of 14. He worked first in an accountant’s office and later as a reporter for the South London Press; service in the RAF followed from September 1941 in Gibraltar, Africa and Italy in which he rose to become a sergeant. In 1946, he was appointed to be what was then the full-time post of Treasurer of the London District of the Party and, from then on, worked as a full-time revolutionary for the rest of his life.
From 1953, he was married to Dr Ruth Harris, a Jewish working class woman who rose to be a consultant paediatrician, and who predeceased her husband in 1980. They had two children, Jean and John.
Despite the later characterisation of him by detractors as being an unflinching Stalinist, French was actually long known to be critical of personality cults – especially those involving himself! For example, he opposed the sending of a special message and gift to Stalin on his 70th birthday long before both the man and the practice of such obsequiousness would be discredited. On the other hand, he did see himself as a very disciplined Communist; for example, despite the fact that he privately had serious doubts about the election strategy of the Party he stood as a candidate in the Mitcham constituency five times, the last in 1974. Allied to this policy concern, he had also been a long-standing critic of the downgrading of the Communist Party’s policy of affiliation to the Labour Party. Interestingly and extraordinarily, he was a member of the Political Purposes Committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society for many years and, for a while, even the Vice-Chair, a unique position to be in for a Labour Party affiliated mass organisation.
French’s critical eye had begun early on in his full-time career and appeared to be a feature throughout his time as a Party worker. Although many shared his concerns, including the Party’s own later leadership, he had been an early and vocal critic, within the confines of internal discussion, of the Party’s immediate post-war shift away from organising workplace branches. Whilst twenty years later, he was one of those firmly opposed to changing the name of the Daily Worker to the Morning Star in 1966.
Left: Sid French during the Second World War; Right: Dr Ruth Harris, Sid French's wife.
It might be thought that French and the Communist Party had moved a considerable way from each other over those two decades. Yet, although it is possible to discern a cumulative build-up of views held by French that significantly distanced him from the mainstream within the Communist Party from at least around 1962, it would take another 15 years for this to formally take the form of an organisation breach. It might be thought that his role as the lead political worker in his own district of the Party clearly enabled him to maintain a semi-detached position within it. Yet, in many ways, he had seemed at odds with the Party’s strategic plan, the British Road to Socialism, ever since it had been first adopted in 1950.
From the 1968, Sid French clearly saw the New Communist Party project in the same light as the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split within the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (leaving aside the vexed question of majorities and minorities!). His Surrey District began to operate as a factional entity within the Young Communist League, which was much more destabilised by differences over the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The intensity of conflict within the YCL was much fuelled by the flagrantly hostile attitudes of the bulk of its national leadership. The fact that much of this leadership mischievously delighted in anti-Soviet rhetoric contrasted so starkly with French and those around him who were especially associated with a relatively uncritical stance regarding the Soviet Union.
Although most thought that the Communist Party had formally slid only part of the way towards a full-out revisionist perspective by the end of the 1970s, French’s Surrey district won supporters in a few parts of the country to its view that the game was up. During the inner-party discussion on the 1977 draft of the British Road to Socialism, French has been especially sharply critical of the new text. This dropped the term `dictatorship of the proletariat’, accepted a seemingly gradualist approach to the achievement of socialism and gave a commitment to always honour the verdict of the electorate, event o the extent of a socialist government standing down if it failed to achieve a renewed mandate.
The Surrey District took the adoption of the programme as a signal for a breakaway, which had been mooted to have the sympathy of several thousand Party members, although only several hundred in actuality joined the “New Communist Party”, or NCP, when it was founded from July 15th 1977. It was clearly a personal achievement of sorts for French, though others would point to the manner in which Marxist thinkers in the Party and YCL now began to be targeted heavily by Euro-Communists. Within a mere three to four years a virtually open war had begun inside British Communism, in which the particular stance of the NCP appeared not so relevant as the Communist Party imploded.
Sid French died in 1988.
Source: “Sid French – Reminiscences” published by the NCP (1st May 1988)